Inside the crumbling rooms of Moscow's Central House of Chess, dozens of top players and fans watch in rapt attention as a match unfolds at lightning speed. On one side of the board sits an elderly Russian man, sporting thick glasses and a concentrated grimace. On the other: Aleksandra Kosteniuk, a ravishing, dark-haired 18-year-old wearing a tight black blouse and sleek, flowing pants. Her ponytail swishes back and forth as she slams the timer every few seconds. Kosteniuk's typically aggressive opening gambit--in this case, the "Sicilian defense," where the black pawn tries to control the center of the board--pays off; after dozens of quick moves, she checkmates her opponent. Some of the old-timers in the audience are horrified by the rapid play. But Kosteniuk doesn't care. "A traditional chess match is just too long to watch. It's boring," she says. "I love speed."
Kosteniuk is lending the sport a racy new image--in every respect. A grandmaster at 14, the Russian bombshell--dubbed the "Anna Kournikova of chess," after the comely blond tennis star--is helping to revive the sport that brought the former Soviet Union world renown and respect. One of her specialties is "blitz chess"--games that usually last no more than 10 minutes--and she's been known to fidget when her opponent reacts too slowly. Once she even played a chess exhibition on roller skates, gliding back and forth among the 15 opponents she played simultaneously.
But her major contribution has been to infuse the game with sex appeal. Her Web site, kosteniuk.com, is filled with flirtatious photos of her posing with oversize rooks and bishops. The Swiss watch company Balmain employs her as one of its main models. And Kosteniuk has inspired lots of talk in Internet chess chat rooms--where she has been called a "chess goddess"--and received thousands of e-mails proposing everything from one-on-one matches to marriage. "[All this fanfare] makes chess look more exciting," she says. "History is cyclical and so is chess. We were down and now I think we're coming back up again."
Moscow has a lot of ground to reclaim. When communism collapsed in 1991, so did the esteemed Soviet chess program that produced phenoms like Boris Spassky and Anatoly Karpov. Throughout the 1990s, government support of the game dwindled. Then last fall 10 of Russia's top players--including Karpov and Garry Kasparov--lost to a team of leading players from around the world. Now Russian officials are eager to popularize the game again and win back their former chessboard glory. A key strategy: promoting speedier matches to capture the short attention span of a younger audience. In addition to blitz chess, "fast matches"--which typically last less than an hour--are increasingly common, in part because they are far more television-friendly than the traditional seven-hour bouts. Tournaments that once lasted a whole year are now being compressed into a few weeks.
That suits Kosteniuk just fine. "It's not like you play for hours and then make a mistake," she says. "Everything is decided quickly." Decisiveness appears to be a family trait; her father, Konstantin, quit his job as an Army officer to train young Aleksandra when she was just 5. By 10 she was already a European girls champion. In 2001 she was named the women's world vice champion; today she travels to tournaments all over the globe. Soon her book, "How I Became a Grandmaster at 14" will be published in English.
Yet her rise already seems quaint by today's standards; training in Russia has undergone a radical rethinking since Kosteniuk learned to play. Computerized chess programs are routinely used to supplement Soviet-style tutoring. And children are receiving instruction at ever-earlier ages. "Before, there was fear of overstressing the child," says Russian parliamentarian Andrey Selivanov, who is president of the Russian Chess Federation and vice president of the international chess body FIDE. "Now we've got classes beginning as early as kindergarten." In Selivanov's home region of Perm, around 5,000 children now take chess classes. Chess is a required subject for all children in Kalmykia, a Buddhist region whose authoritarian president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, also happens to be the president of FIDE. For years Ilyumzhinov has been trying to make chess more appealing to television audiences by expediting the matches and encouraging running commentary. He even pushed successfully for mandatory drug testing for chess players--part of an effort to make chess an Olympic sport.
If that happens, chess aficionados are hoping Moscow will restore Soviet-era levels of support to the game. Back then chess masters were precious cargo, as symbolic of Soviet might as cosmonauts and living proof of communism's intellectual superiority. The breakup of the Soviet Union left people with more pressing concerns--namely, economic survival. As it became easier for top chess players to travel, the government withdrew its sponsorship, and the sport took a serious dive. "The top prize for our 1993 tournament was a samovar [a traditional Russian tea kettle]," says Selivanov with a sneer.
Now the prize for that same tournament is a car. That's because Russian banks and businessmen are rushing to fill the gap the government left behind. "Chess is an intellectual aim, like banking. There is a very positive image connection," Alpha Bank's press rep Vadim Yurko says cheerfully. Alpha Bank is sponsoring the next potential champion, a 12-year-old prodigy from Bryansk named Jan Nepomyashi. Alpha Bank boss Mikhail Friedman, a chess aficionado himself, has given Nepomyashi a laptop computer and financed a trip to Spain, where the boy finished first in the European Youth Championships. Companies like aluminum giant Sual Holding, Gazprom and car manufacturer AvtoVaz, as well as oligarchs Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Vladimir Potanin, have all recently sponsored players or tournaments.
The big money still lies outside Russia, though. Kosteniuk is sponsored mainly by Balmain. "Most of the games in Moscow are about prestige, not cash," she says. "But once you've hit a certain level at chess--if you're good--you can start making real money." The government is beginning to catch on; last fall President Vladimir Putin created a committee to stage a championship tournament in the Kremlin. The presidential mansion on the shore of the Black Sea now hosts Russia's children's championships. "That way, when they go to the West and stay in four-star hotels, there won't be too much dissonance," says FIDE's Selivanov. For fresh faces like Kosteniuk, that kind of luxury could soon become refreshingly familiar.