The first day of the 2016 European Youth Championship resulted in champion titles in blitz draughts for twelve young participants, including kids from Russia and Belarus. We spoke with each of them and attempted to compile a collective portrait of the winner and learn what is so appealing about the draughts world, what qualities one needs to maintain their bearings in the tense atmosphere of serious competition as well as how to properly apply all these skills.
The first champion in the Under 19 age group was 17-year-old Valeria Denisova from the Moscow Region city of Shchelkovo. The young girl disappeared from the media with the same lightning speed that she had won the game. It was only later that we managed to track down Valeria and speak with her in the relaxed atmosphere of the Okhtinskaya Hotel hall. As it turns out, Valeria has been playing draughts for nine years and her introduction to intellectual sports began with chess. But as fate would have it (which worked out well for the young girl as we can see now), there was no chess club where she grew up, only a draughts club. Who knows, perhaps chess lost out on a future champion? Valeria does not think draughts are easier than chess and believes this is a stereotype. After all, there are a lot more possible variations in draughts. Valeria is currently in her second year at a financial college and plans to continue studying to become a financial expert. The ability to think and count helps her in draughts and will continue to serve her in her future profession.
The next winners in blitz draughts were girls in the 8-10 age groups. Eight-year-old Viktoria Zakharova from Orsk appeared extremely confident and focused throughout the entire match and you could immediately see the temperament of a champion in her demeanour. She has been playing draughts since she was five years-old and was introduced to this hobby by her older brother with whom she started going to a local club. As usual, there were very few girls there. However, at today’s competitions there were some very worthy female opponents, Viktoria says.
Meanwhile, nine-year-old Sandaara Aprosimova from Yakutsk, on the contrary, said the competition was easy and that none of her opponents presented a challenge. She was very happy about her victory as well as the entire trip to Saint Petersburg. Before the tournament, she and her parents had a chance to see the fountains in Peterhof and she does not plan to waste any of her remaining time in the city.
Victory is nothing new to Nikita Volkov, a 13-year-old champion from Oryol, who already has first place finishes at the World and European Cups under his belt. The young man has a difficult time saying what exactly has helped him to be so successful – his seven years of experience with the game, his memory of combinations or his quick reaction during the tournament. But mathematical abilities certainly play a major role in this. Nikita also shared an unexpected secret to his training: he believes the best way to develop skills in draughts is to memorise and recite poems.
It seemed as if 14-year-old Daniil Leonidov from Cheboksary was no stranger to the winner’s podium considering how easily and confidently he gave us comments.
‘Today there were several decent players who played the game at a high level. Risks are always worth taking when you’re playing such a massive game. There are moves that can guarantee a draw, and there are moves that will either help you win or lose. I could stick with the safe play, but I really wanted to win, so I took a risk’, Daniil says sharing his strategy.
Along with eight-year-old Artyom Tikhonov, Daniil studies draughts with Coach Sukhovich and has already been playing for eight years. He likes to play adult opponents and is not afraid of losing to them because, after all, this is an invaluable experience. Daniil believes that the most important thing is to train as much as possible and not give up lessons since, as in any sport, you will no longer shine if you stop for a while and become rusty.
His training colleague Artyom Tikhonov also came out on top in his Under 8 age group. He started playing draughts back in kindergarten and proved to be the best there, which soon led him to the World Championship in Sochi. Artyom believes the key skill in his play is the ability to calculate moves and remember as many combinations as possible.
Ten-year-old Savva Zaika from Chelyabinsk was initially among the leaders and considered a major contender for gold. He had already managed to win bronze this year in blitz draughts as well as silver in rapid draughts at the Russian championship for youths under 16 as he beat out his older opponents. He studies once a week with his coach, Russian Draughts Federation Vice President Alexey Shonin, has also been training at home on his computer for five years and has no plans to give up his favourite pastime.
Eighteen-year-old Saint Petersburg resident Damir Rysayev defended the honour of his city as the world draughts capital by earning gold in his group. His father Rinat also plays draughts professionally and was the one who instilled in his son an interest in the game that remains just as strong a decade later. Damir believes his biggest victory was his first place finish at the main programme of the world championship when he was thirteen. He does not think it was a matter of luck or his own exceptionalism. The champion’s priorities are simple: the more you work, the greater the result.
Twelve-year-old winner Kristina Vatutina from Chebarkul is confirmation that a talented person is talented at everything. In addition to draughts, she skis, performs at local competitions and has also fulfilled her ‘Fit for Labour and Defence’ athletic requirements. She has also had numerous other interests at various times: art school, choreography and figure skating. But the one constant has been her passion for draughts which appeared after Kristina finished third at kindergarten competitions. That’s when her grandpa said to her, ‘Only first place will do!’ and his granddaughter obeyed.
Another contestant who was introduced to draughts by her family was 14-year-old Yelena Lapenkova from Koroleva, who had already won at world competitions prior to this tournament. Her mother is a candidate for master of sports in draughts and imparted her love for the game on Yelena when she was seven years-old. Despite his victories and experience, Yelena did not expect to win and was extremely anxious.
Belarus’s honour was defended by 19-year-old Alexey Kunitsa from Minsk. He says he did not have much time to prepare for the European championship as he was training for the Belarusian championship. He plays draughts at the National Olympic Training Centre and plans to become a coach. His love for the game began by pure chance: a store clerk didn’t have proper change and gave Alexey’s dad a set of draughts instead after which the young lad won the school championship as a first grader. The champion modestly assumes that he got lucky since he’s known his opponents for a long time from other competitions and says they are all quite good.
‘I only won two games. The rest were draws. For instance, the person who finished second won only one game and played to a draw in the rest. The fact that time ran out played a role’, Alexey says.
Twenty-year-old Vera Khvashchinskaya from Bobruisk is another champion from Belarus. She has been playing draughts for twelve years and is a multiple champion, but she still loves the thrill of victory. She’s also just as modest as her fellow countryman Alexey. Vera told us that to make things interesting they combined two age groups at the competitions and that she only took fourth place in the merged game. But winners don’t have to justify themselves. Vera was reluctant to share her secrets to success with us since sitting nearby were her fellow competitors who while friendly are nevertheless rivals.
We never managed to figure out exactly how people become champions. All the young participants are quite different, but we can say with certainty that they are all united by their strong work ethic. Almost each one of them said the most important thing is to train as much as possible. We wish all the kids continued victories!
Text: Ulyana Ryzhova
Photos: Sergey Nikolayev