Ten Questions for a Female Chess Grandmaster

Is the world of chess really sexist? Why are the Russians so good?
Vincenzo Ligresti
Milan, IT
elena sedina playing chess
Elena Sedina. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

This article was originally published on VICE Italy.

Most people play chess for fun – which is fine! It’s a fun game! But it’s also a very serious sport, and one that has suddenly found millions of new fans, thanks to Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit

Elena Sedina is an Italian chess player, originally from Ukraine, with an impressive resume. She’s an International Master and Woman Grandmaster and in 2019 won the Italian women’s championship and the Swiss women’s championship.


We spoke about how the game of chess has changed over time and how, for professionals, starting to play at eight years old is considered late.

VICE: Do you need to start playing chess young to be really great?
Elena: When I was seven I started going to the chess club in Kiev, where I’m originally from, along with my sister, who was five. At the time it was my dad who encouraged us to get into it. He was in the top national category.

For a few years I did lessons alongside 40 other children three times a week, and matches on Sundays. Then, when I was nine, I started winning more tournaments and a coach took notice and directed me towards becoming a professional.

I don’t know any strong players who started playing at a later age. For example, Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, started when he was eight, but he thinks even that was quite late.

How often do you train?
When I was growing up, I studied a lot. I mean, really long working days. Chess is an individual sport and it requires a lot of training by yourself to memorise tactics and moves.

Nowadays, I have less time because I also teach chess, but I’m still in touch with some sparring partners who I study with and compete against online and in-person. I also practise with the Italian national team.

What do you think of film and TV portrayals of chess?
A lot of people have said good things about The Queen’s Gambit, but I still need to catch up on it. People think that people whose days and nights are filled with chess are weird, or even crazy. But mental health issues and chess don’t necessarily go hand in hand. In general, chess players are normal people with a lot of passion.


Even so, you often hear people talking about the “psychology of chess”. What does that mean, exactly?
Chess tournaments last a long time, between a week and ten days, so there’s a lot of tension that you need to know how to manage. 

Controlling your nerves isn’t easy. At the 2008 World Cup, in the knockout rounds, I had lost the first of two games to the best player in the world at the time. I was struggling, I had to make a comeback, but in the end I succeeded because of some advice my husband had given me: “Think like a sumo wrestler.” In chess, you have to think about your moves, not your emotions.

What is the timer with the two clocks for?
The clocks ensure that games don’t last for days. Today, in official tournaments, the Olympics and the European competitions, games last around four hours on average.

How do you know when to stick to textbook moves and when to throw a curveball?
Let’s take the opening moves – you can find all the information you need online, including full databases, and with a bit of practice, you can memorise them all. These moves are always good, but also recognisable. 

Today, in “standard” games – those which last 15 minutes or more – some of the best players, perhaps even more so than in the past, play “improvised” games. For example, on the third move, they move the pawn sideways, which is quite unusual. 

As far as the pieces are concerned, you only really need to defend the king, the rest can all be sacrificed. There are calculated sacrifices that you can make to create an unpredictable board state, take more of your opponent’s pieces or promote a pawn. Even the queen, the strongest piece, can be sacrificed, but never at the start of a game. 


Why are Russians so good at chess?
Firstly, because in Russia chess is still the third most popular sport, after football and ice hockey. I came from a Soviet school, where chess was a large part of the culture and chess players were highly regarded.

I remember around the time of those endless games between Karpov and Kasparov, I often heard people chatting about the games on public transport. Then there was the political aspect: we [the Soviets] had to be better than the Americans.

How much do chess players earn?
I recently read that Magnus Carlsen earned around €300,000 – not to mention millions in sponsorships – but these figures are for the small circle of the top 15 players. After that, the figures are lower, and it depends on the level.

As for the prizes of national championships, it depends on the country. Last year in Italy, the top prize for the Italian champion was €5,000, while for the women’s championship it was €1,500. To make a comparison, the US championships have just ended and the bottom-ranked there wins the same amount as the winner of the Italian championships.

Regardless of earnings, there is gender inequality in the US too: the first male champion wins €33,000, whilst the female champion wins €20,000.

So is the world of chess sexist?
Unfortunately, women are in the minority – we make up less than ten percent of all players. When I arrived in Italy, I was in the top five players, but I was never selected for the national team, [which is mixed], only for the women’s national team. It’s difficult to overcome the stereotypes.

You also have a PhD in chess training methods. What advice would you give to beginners who want to get serious?
You can register for courses and participate in online chess tournaments on websites like or, for example.