Nona Gaprindashvili is a living chess legend. The Grandmaster comes from Georgia, the country which produced numerous women masters and champions with Nona herself being the pioneer of the so called Georgian women chess school. She was born during the Second World War - May 3rd 1941 and is today already 77 years old. Nevertheless she is still as vital and full of energy, as she was throughout her whole career. And what a career it was! She is a five times Women World Champion, she was undefeated from 1962, when she dethroned Bykova Elisaveta, up until 1978, when her fellow Georgian, then 17 years old Maia Chiburdanidze forced her to proudly pass on her role of a leading champion. Nona is a proud winner of 11 gold Olympic medals, if we count only the team championships. She was the first women awarded by the title of a chess Grandmaster for her remarkable successes, which she achieved in the middle of the seventies. Today she still loves to play chess – mostly in exhibitions and senior championships. Few days ago she became a World senior women champion – for the fifth time, the same amount of titles she also holds in European championships. Her achievements go on for days. We were honored to talk to the legendary champion during the celebratory dinner, organized in her honor in famous Slovenian businessman Janez Skrabec’s villa, where Nona celebrated her new title.
How did you start to play chess? Where does your immense love for chess come from?
I was born in a small town of Zugdidi in western Georgia. When I was about 5 or 6 years old I had 4 older brothers and I followed them everywhere. All the children from the neighborhood gathered in our house. We were really connected and we did a lot of things together. We made an improvised table for table tennis, we loved to play billiards and football also and they placed me, a girl, to be a goalkeeper. We also really enjoyed playing chess.
There were 2 important moments that led to my later more serious pursuit of a chess career. My older brother was the best chess player in our town Zugdidi. He also took part in Georgian championship. I learned to play chess by watching him play. The second and very important moment was when I was about 11 or 12 years old and I travelled to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. At that time my older brother was chosen to play in the team championship but he had to cancel at the last moment. They heard that my brother has a younger sister who also plays chess and so they chose me to play as well, as they also needed a girl. While we were traveling to the competition by train I played some games against the other team members and in the end I won even against our first board. We finished fifth in the competition, which was a great achievement at the time for such a small town, as Zugdidi. I played really well and one of Georgia’s most important trainers and the father of the Georgian women chess school, Vakhtang Karseladze, noticed me. Not long after he called and asked my parents to let me come to Tbilisi, where I could get some proper trainings. My parents finally agreed and I started with trainings in 1954. In the following year I was already practically winning in all the tournaments and in 1956 I won the semi-final of women Soviet Union championship. At that time this was considered a tremendous achievement for a 14 year old girl. And this is how my long and successful chess path began.
Who are in your opinion the greatest and most important players in the history of chess, since you practically know all from the Second World War on?
It’s a very difficult question to answer. I would like to point out (not rank them) two important players. First is Fisher, as he practically defeated the Soviet Union and the second is Mikhail Tal, who in his games showed that chess is a sport, as he forced his opponent to truly fight during the game, the preparations didn’t do much with him. He showed some new approach to chess. I would also like to point out Morphy, as I consider him to be a great player as well, even though he never became a world champion. Anyhow I never like to evaluate the players in such a way, as it is very difficult to compare the players. It is very similar with writers for example. I might like all of their work and with others maybe I only love a book or two. Do you understand?
You have played many matches for the Women World Champion title. Can you share any interesting stories with us?
Usually the world champions have the unofficial right to choose the venue. For example before my first match with Bykova, she wanted the match to be played in Moscow. I agreed without questions, as in my opinion she had every right to do it as a World Champion. Though I have never asked for such “advantages” as a World Champion. For my first match against Kushnir I agreed that the best venue for the match would be in Riga. My opponent’s team did not agree with the suggestion, therefore the ministry decided that half of the match will be played in Moscow and another half in Tbilisi. Again her team, whose advisor was Botvinnik, did not agree and they requested Riga again. This time I didn’t agree with them. I won in this dispute and the match was played in two places. For the second match my opponent’s advisors Botvinnik and Kotov were better prepared. They showed a doctor’s confirmation where it was written that Kushnir was only able to play the match in Russian Federation. I ended up having a meeting with my opponent, where I told her that I find her suspicious medical certificate and also the fact that my opinion as a World Champion was not heard unfair. Botvinnik was at that time a close friend of the FIDE president Max Euwe and he managed to get the match postponed for 6 months. Next a meeting of the Soviet Chess Federation was organized, where Botvinnik accused the federation for the complications. At the time I was the only one, who publicly went against him and I accused him and Kotov for the complications. What followed was a dead silence in the room, as at that time no one dared to speak against Botvinnik. In the end the federation decided that the match against Kushnir will be played in Tbilisi. I must say that I later in life had great relations with Botvinnik. We many times travelled abroad together. We many times dinned together and he was very pleasant to speak to. At one occasion in Amsterdam I got very ill and had to stay in bed and all of a sudden Botvinnik entered the room with fresh tea and honey in his hands, he opened all the windows and said that the fresh air cures everything. He was really nice person.
I can mention a few more details about my match with Bykova. A month before my match I travelled to a small town near Moscow to a holiday home of the Academy of Science for preparations and acclimatization. When we settled I went to find a billiards table and a table tennis table. I was very good in both, especially in table tennis, which I played in a “Chinese way”. Finally I found a great room with billiards tables for beginners and advanced players. As I was small and skinny everyone kept sending me to the beginners table. By the advanced table all the academics had billiard stick with their names on them. It took me two days to beat them all and the academics offered me to use any stick I wanted during my time there. Every day, after I finished with my chess preparations, I played billiards, table tennis and volleyball. In the end of my preparations one of the leading Soviet economists Strumilin sent me some flowers and a note, in which he wished for me to win the match against Bykova.
My trainer in the match was a Georgian master Shishov and also a famous Grandmaster David Bronstein. Bronstein was able to train me only during the preparations. He was not able to train me during the match, due to the local pressures. Bronstein as well as Bykova came from Moscow and could not be seen with me in public. During the match he even went to play some simultaneous exhibitions to Siberia to be as further away from the match as possible. At that time this was a big problem in Soviet Union, as Grandmasters were not allowed to train women players.
At the beginning of the match I was practically unknown in Moscow. On my first free day I decided to visit a football match where Torpedo from Moscow played. At the time it was my second favorite club. As I was sitting at the western part of the stadium, someone from the crowd recognized me and started shooting “Nona win” and soon everyone in the crowd followed.
You many times took part in men tournaments. What do you consider your biggest achievement?
Without a doubt it was shared first place in Lone Pine in USA, after which I was, as a first woman in history, awarded with the Grandmaster title. At that time even a master title was extremely important. When I look back at the games that I played there I find them to be really special. I was not extremely well theoretically prepared but I managed to create very complicated positions during the games. I remember best my game against the American Grandmaster Tarjan in which I sacrificed a piece and won the game. After the game my opponent congratulated me and told me that my idea in the game was incredible and that he and Grandmaster Adorjan were not able to find this idea in their deep analyses before the game. A very important game was also the one against Peters, who chose to play Sveshnikov variation of Sicilian Defense, which was not well known at the time. I chose to play a variation that was very rare. Grandmaster Balashov, who accompanied me in the tournament and shared the first place with me, advised me to play it. I managed to create a very complicated position and eventually won the game and the Grandmaster title.
When I was 60 years old I published a book, which contains my best games. The book is divided into three parts: short games, games against men and games against women. The only game in the book that ended with a draw was the one against legendary Serbian Grandmaster Drasko Velimirovic. The game was even chosen for the most beautiful game of the year by the Chess Informator.
You are one of the greatest women chess players of all time. Can you let us know about your opinion about women chess nowadays?
Asia took over the control of women chess. Countries like China, India, Vietnam and others are progressing with lightning speed. Generally all the World Champions are greatly respected but in my opinion there is a difference between the ones that only got to hold the title once and the ones that were able to hold it for a long period of time. After me and Maia Chiburdanidze came a great champion Xie Jun and after 15 years Hou Yifan, who gave up, as did Fisher, her title out of principle. I was very surprised by the Chinese in the Olympiad, as they brought a young team and won. At the same time they have a new star Ju Wenjun. .
Nona, did you get the chance to follow the match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana?
Yes, of course I followed the match. I am a chess player at the end of the day! I was not surprised by the final outcome; in my opinion Carlsen was a favorite, even though it is clear that his theoretical preparation is a little weaker lately. Last year I got the chance to observe him during the World Cup in Tbilisi, where he was facing some problems and he did not resemble the former chess Mozart. 12 draws is too much, even though the games were full of fight. But it was clear that the Norwegian will defend his title in the tie breaks.
Nona, we all know by now that you love football. Probably Dinamo Tbilisi is the club that you support?
Which football games do you remember the most?
When I became a World Champion Georgia was flourishing in all fields: in science, medicine, culture and sport. I am very proud of this period. Those were some totally different times. When I played chess the playing venues were full of people. I felt like I was playing and winning for Georgia and not only for myself. Chess was extremely popular at the time, practically everyone knew how to play it, even football players.
When I played my match for the Women World Champion title against Bykova in Moscow in 1962, the football players of Dinamo Tbilisi came to support me in the last game. They did not witness the end of the game, as the game was adjourned and was supposed to finish the next morning. In the end Bykova resigned her hopeless position over the phone and I became the World Champion. The same day the football players of Dinamo played the match against Zenit in Leningrad. They lost 1:4. At that time Dinamo Tbilisi played badly. Nevertheless I visited all the matches, if only I was present in Tbilisi. In 1963 I was asked to be present at the opening match of the new season. By coincidence Dinamo Tbilisi played against the same opponent, as in the time of my match against Bykova. This time Dinamo won with 4:1 and it was a perfect revenge. That year Dinamo ended the season in the third place and in the following year they became the champions of the Soviet Union. The players jokingly pointed out my “lucky foot” at the celebration. In the seventies our team played well in European cups. This was a renewed team compared to the one during the years 1963 and 1965. Our players endured through all the pressure, even the ones from the referees.
We always had a lot of talented players in Georgia (Kakha Kaladze, a former AC Milan star, now a major of Tbilisi). This year our young players played extremely well in the European Nations Cup. Remember the name Chekvetadze, he is the future worldwide football star. Sadly young football players do not have good working conditions in Georgia and as a result only the ones that are noticed by western European clubs succeed.
Did you have good relations with the football players?
Yes, practically with all of them. For example the captain of Dinamo in the middle of the seventies, Manuchar Machaidze, was a chess player. He even had a first category and played in Tbilisi chess championships during the winter.
Which team is your favorite nowadays?
Naturally I still favor Dinamo Tbilisi, even though they play poorly. But in a worldwide sense I am a big Barcelona fan. I can let you know about an interesting anecdote. Two years ago I was invited to Barcelona by my former student, women grandmaster Ana Matnadze, who lived in Barcelona already for a couple of years. I did some sightseeing. But most of all I was looking forward to visit the Camp Nou football stadium. I practically checked all corners of the stadium. But imagine my surprise and immense joy when I met the whole team in hallway – Messi, Iniesta and other stars. We even took some photos together.
Nona, did you besides chess occupy any other important positions?
During the time of Soviet Union I was a member of the Georgian Parliament multiple times. A few years ago I was also an active participant of the protests against the former Georgian president Saakashvili, where 140 people ended up being killed, but the western media failed to report it. The world is poorly informed about his and his team’s criminal activities. I have grandchildren and I wish for them to live in a normal country. Sadly the positions in the government continue to be occupied by criminals, who enjoy the protection of selected western countries and international organizations. I was also a supporter of the revolution against the former president Shevarnadze in 2002, after which Saakashvili became the president. Sadly after that the development took a catastrophic turn.
My most important position was the function of the Olympic Committee’s president between the 1989 and 1996. Even though the economic position was poor at the time in Georgia, I have decided to run for president and ended up being elected. I am extremely proud of this period in my life. Despite the poor economic situation we were very successful in Olympic Games and World championships. Big thanks go to my then very important coworker general secretary, with whom we worked well together. As a former sportswoman I wanted for sport to be fair and clean. However I was faced with many irregularities. I am very thankful that chess was my sport of choice, as the arbiters there do not have much influence on the game itself. I admire other sportsmen and sportswomen, who are many times faced with corrupt decisions of the referees and are forced to accept them and still find the strength to continue on their path. The second major problem in sports is doping. I was told and explained about it by a former doctor of the Georgian Chess Federation, who previously worked in cycling. At the time of my presidency Georgian athletes did not use doping. USA, Russia and Germany were the only countries in the world where they were able to use it properly and professionally. I can tell you a story about my proposal at the international Olympic Committee about doping. I proposed to create a list of substances that are not harmful for the health. They all laughed at my proposal and later explained to me that the committee gets paid millions to put all kinds of substances in the forbidden list. This realization disappointed me and I resigned from my position.
Since you travelled a lot – can you educate us about food in different countries and its influence on the ability to play chess well?
Naturally, for my taste Georgian cuisine is the best. Even Anand (says Nona with a smile) became a World Champion with the help of Georgian food, as he was living and preparing for the match in Spain with Georgian Grandmaster Ubilava and his wife was preparing Georgian food every day. But I don’t mind other cuisines, though Chinese food causes me some problems. Maia Chiburdanidze loves Chinese food on the other hand. I love our traditional Georgian turkey dish that we prepare during the New Year holidays – “satsivi”. I usually eat only satsivi during this time of the year. When I was young I did not understand the importance of eating caviar and olives for the ability to play chess well. It was only when my brother started to work in Siberia after university that I learned about the effects of caviar on the brain functions, as my brother started to regularly bring home bottles of caviar. During the tournaments the great soviet players like Botvinnik, Korchnoi and Karpov also ate caviar – they understood why.
You visited many countries during your career. Did you have any problems with food?
No! Nowhere, not even in Russia, where the quality of food was usually lower. Many times players got food poisoning in Russia. When I was preparing for my match against Kushnir many people warned me about the possibility of food poisoning. Nevertheless I must emphasize that people in Russia always treated me well and I never had any problems. Usually I and other Georgian players always took with us some Georgian spices and sauces like “tkemali”. In order to improve our immune system we were drinking pomegranate juice, though I must say that I drank too much of this juice during my third match with Alla Kushnir and I probably won the match with only a minimal difference because of it. We had to postpone two games, as my throat got infected, due to too much pomegranate juice. Until the end of the match I was only eating soups, salad and yoghurts and as a result had very little energy for the games.
What do you do in your free time?
I love going to the theater, I especially love the dance shows. I follow all sports. Besides football I enjoy snooker. I love that it resembles chess; it requires a lot of strategic thinking. I like to read as well.
Nona, are you visiting Bled for the first time?
No, no, since your independence this is my third time here. Years ago I played in Bled Open (1997), in 2002 I visited Olympiad as a special guest and I handed out the trophy with my name (cup for the best result in men and women sections combined). So when I heard about the World Senior Championship being played in Bled, no one could stop me. Not even my problems with the hips.
Anyhow I played numerous times in former Yugoslavia; I even learned Serbo-Croatian language, as did other famous Grandmasters from the Soviet Union – Tigran Petrosian, Viktor Korchnoi, Tigran Petrosian or Mikhail Tal.
Will the World Senior Championship Bled stay in your memory?
Absolutely! Not only because of the cup here in front of me. I played in many senior championships, but I absolutely loved Bled. I might have wished for a bit higher prizes, but I loved the organization in general and especially some new ideas of the organizers like Sudoku tournament, chess quiz, additional rapid and blitz tournaments, special lectures by Adrian Mikhalchishin, literary evenings etc. I was also touched by a special attention that the organizers honored me with. And this dinner. Wonderful!