Interview: WGM Alina L’Ami on Life as a Chess Gypsy

To start off 2014 on a fun note, I bring to you an interview with chess player, photographer, gypsy, correspondent, wife and more—Romanian WGM Alina L’Ami. Hope you enjoy her philosophical and whimsical sides as much as I did! 🙂

Alina L'Ami / Photo courtesy of http://en.chessbase.com/
Alina L’Ami / Photo courtesy of http://en.chessbase.com/

Like GM Nigel Short, who I have had the honour of interviewing before, you are known for being quite the intrepid traveller, criss-crossing the globe to participate in tournaments without giving it too much thought. (I guess it was no surprise then that both of you met in Dar es Salaam earlier this year for the Spicenet Open tournament.) What drives you more: the passion for chess or the passion for travel? How many countries have you visited so far on chess duty?

To properly answer this question I should first try to draw an overview (or a summary) of my entire life, views and personality – kind of a difficult task but I will start with the easiest part: how many countries…?

In fact, I am not keeping track any more, since in the virtual mode my mother is an even more avid traveller than I am 🙂 Although she never had the opportunity to physically go beyond the Romanian frontiers (except one time, to Norway), she and my father are always travelling with me, seeing everything with my eyes, enjoying a lot their daughter’s stories. (I miss them very much, by the way!) I think the number is well over 50; and if I start counting the countries I’ve visited this year alone, I will probably cross 20, with Iceland, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Suriname, San Marino, Tanzania, South Africa, being the more “exotic” ones, so to speak.

Alina in Hong Kong / Photo courtesy of Alina L'Ami
Alina in Hong Kong / Photo courtesy of Alina L’Ami

So yes, I love travelling, meeting new people, seeing new places, and I believe that, as chess players, we are blessed to be given such an opportunity, for which many would envy us. But to say I like it more than chess is a bit exaggerated; the same applies the other way around. It would not be accurate either, to claim that travelling is just a bonus while my (by far biggest) passion is chess.

The truth is somewhere in the middle, I am curious, ambitious, a perfectionist, and having only chess in my life would have been a bit…monotonous.

I like the game, I am so extremely happy when I am winning, but at the same time I realise that in life there are so many more things than trapping your opponent’s king on a bad square…

I like reading, writing, I love photography, I am quite a passionate person, which of course helped me a lot, with my continuous and insatiable search for knowledge, for new and newer interesting things. You might as well say that I am running after too many rabbits at the same time facing the risk of catching none… it may be true, I don’t know, but where I am now is a wonderful place. In translation: it feels good 🙂

Hand carved Tanzanian chess set / Photo by Alina L'Ami
Hand carved Tanzanian chess set / Photo by Alina L’Ami

It feels good to play chess in exotic places, where, even if you play badly, the surroundings will always cheer you up (that’s why I cannot separate travelling from chess, they come together, in the same box); but it is also good to play chess even in less fabulous places, since the game will always glue people together, leading to interesting conversations, opening lines etc. The cultures will melt together in the pot called chess, what more could I wish for?

Of course, it is not a land where honey and milk flaw endlessly. Every chess player knows very well the hardships of this kind of gypsy life, travelling from one place to another, from one hotel room to another, packing – unpacking etc., etc. But how great it is when you can meet not only great chess players that usually people only read about, but also personalities, presidents and, not least, wonderful ordinary people!

Let me take Tanzania as an example, since you mentioned it. Truth be told, travelling there came as a complete surprise!! I was playing in Sardinia (Italy), when I suddenly realised that my friend, Nigel Short, had his birthday! I have a poor memory for anniversaries, but he happens to be born on the 1st of June, the same as myself! So I dropped him a message, asking in a joking way if he is planning any nice trips; I was surprised to read that within four days he was going to Tanzania, but even more shocking it became when I realised I am… also on my way to Dar es Salaam!

It all happened so fast, so unexpectedly fast, that I have to thank a lot to the organiser for being so heavenly effective! Never in my entire career have I seen anyone so dedicated and willing to help. If I look back, I didn’t think much about this trip, I couldn’t in fact, since I had to focus on the tournament I was playing at that moment! But somehow my instinct told me it was a good decision. I was right and next year I am taking Erwin with me 🙂

And yet, generally speaking, I am thinking and over thinking when I have to take a decision…it’s more like a curse to be a perfectionist, it drags me down instead of pushing me forward, but that’s a different story. What I wanted to say is that I do my homework before accepting an invitation, I do check the flights, the safety, the city; the internet became such an endless source of information!

Here is an illustrative example. Just as I write these lines, I am about to depart to Kurdistan, which many consider a dangerous destination. It is placed within Iraqi territory, bordering Syria, having all these problems with the Turkish as well… Nevertheless I hope that my long thought decision will prove to be a fortunate one. Most of the people I was talking to, about my plan, look bewildered, but I checked all the details and found out it is safe area and I am going to play there!

Alina in Kurdistan / Photo courtesy of http://en.chessbase.com/
Alina in Kurdistan / Photo courtesy of http://en.chessbase.com/

Probably this is another side of my personality, that I like new challenges. But I never put my own head into the lion’s mouth, not without checking his teeth first anyway…

Whenever you participate in a tournament in a new country, it is usually followed by a pictorial report on ChessBase.com. How did you become a correspondent for what is quite possibly the most popular chess news website in the world? Has photography always been a passion of yours or did you get into it after you started travelling a lot for chess?

Like many other things in my life, it just happened.

I learned that one tiny small detail can make a big difference: a coincidence, someone you know, something you said or not said, so one should be always ready to see and take the opportunity that destiny is always (or at least sometimes) giving us.

Back then, before becoming a CB correspondent, I decided to make a personal blog and write down my thoughts, something like a half-diary thing. And I also liked to make pictures with my pocket camera a lot, so these worked out perfectly together. These combined hobbies gave me a boost while I was playing in Angola… it happened that I talked with the people in charge with the Chessbase.com site (via email and Skype) and soon I found myself making not only the photos but also the full article, with text as well. Couldn’t have been happier 🙂

In time, I discovered that my pocket camera was not satisfying my needs any more and bought a more professional one. Then I realised that the lenses I had were not making me so thrilled any more, so I invested in new ones…this is the normal route to progress, with small steps but, hopefully, forward.

When did you start playing chess and how were you introduced to the game?

Learning chess was part of a wide educational process designed by my father, who firmly followed the principle mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body). Under his gentle and patient guidance I also learned ice and roller skating, basketball, volleyball, badminton, tennis, table tennis, whichever sport comes to your mind – he taught me (except for cycling…:))!

Alina as a child / Photo courtesy of Alina L'Ami
Alina as a child / Photo courtesy of Alina L’Ami

I learned how to play chess at a very young age, so young that I played my first tournament at the age of five and two years later I became a national champion under 10.

My father used to say that if I managed to beat him in five consecutive games I would become a World Champion. It was not long before his joke became reality… In 1995 my parents made an important financial effort to cover the expenses of my first participation ever to a World Championship (Brazil, under 10). Before my departure, I asked him to play a few games with me, to get a draft picture of my chances. I won five times in a row and two weeks later I won the World Championship, too!

Alina wins in the Girls U10 category at the 1995 World Youth Chess Championship in Sau Lorenco, Brazil
Alina wins in the Girls U10 category at the 1995 World Youth Chess Championship in Sau Lorenco, Brazil

Apart from the Kawumas of Kampala, you and Erwin are the only other married chess couple I know of. How did this union of a Romanian WGM and a Dutch GM come about and what’s it like being married to a fellow chess player?

We are not unique in the chess World, there are really a lot of chess couples, which is rather normal since we are moving within the same circles: the chess ones 🙂 For example: Grischuk and Zhukova, Bellon and Cramling, Malakhatko and Zozulia, Fridman and Zatonskih, Atalik Suat and his wife Ekaterina, Al-Modiakhi and Zhu Chen, and many more.

The L'Amis chess-themed wedding cake / Photo courtesy of Alina L'Ami
The L’Amis chess-themed wedding cake / Photo courtesy of Alina L’Ami

As for us…it couldn’t have happened in a more appropriate moment. I had just graduated from the Iași University and wanted to dedicate some time to my field of expertise (psychology; just a small break to prove that I didn’t have only chess in my life, wanted to enlarge my horizons, so I went to study, volunteered etc); but then I met my husband… and since he was and still is a full time chess player, I soon realised that having a job in Romania might turn out to be not the most fortunate decision, since we would barely see each other. So I thought… hmm, why not give it one more shot?

It was not this kind of movie scene where one character has to take a difficult life decision: career or family. Not at all! Chess has always been around, maybe not my biggest love, since Erwin entered the picture, but certainly strong enough to determine me to come back to it. You know how it goes…you sometimes want to quit chess but chess won’t leave you alone 🙂

And it is great to be married with someone sharing the same passion, someone that would understand your nightmares, involving blunders or missed chances or whatever happened in your game that day…someone to be there, next to you, during a chess tournament, with whom you can share your opening lines, with whom you can speak the same language (ok…we do speak in English, since I am from Romania and he is from Holland, but I meant the chess language)

Erwin and Alina at the Corus Chess Tournament 2010 / Photo courtesy of Alina L'Ami
Erwin and Alina at the Corus Chess Tournament 2010 / Photo courtesy of Alina L’Ami

The only situation I would gladly do without is playing a rated game against each other. Terrible! 🙁 That’s really awful and it should be forbidden. I recently lost against Erwin in an Open event from Vlissingen (Holland) and I can tell you it was not good, at least for a while. I still have my ambitions, he also has his, we both support each other, so what to do? An arranged draw wouldn’t have been nice from the organisers perspective and would have not suited us either. The gap between our ratings is too big, besides: I wouldn’t like to feel like a stone, forcing Erwin’s legs to stumble on his way to the top. To win…well, I would feel excellent for myself and awful for my husband. To lose…I hate losing, I am too much result orientated and…well, eventually I managed to forgive my husband but I also gave a ultimatum: this is the last time or else…Or else what?! Probably we will continue as happy as we are now 🙂

As for how we met: playchess.com! To cut the long story short, I knew Erwin from before but never talked to him. Until one day, when he was in Moscow, I was studying for my exams in Romania and…he wrote me more than just a “HI” on the playchess server. From that day on, we both felt it was going to be good.

You played some crazy games at the 2013 European Team Chess Championship where you represented Romania in the Women’s section. How was the experience of playing in Warsaw? Did the Romanian teams train together before the event? How does preparation for a team event differ from that for an individual event?

I am very lucky to have wonderful team mates and a great captain, who sees that we hit our heads on the wall when we play badly, so he doesn’t have to continue this job any more 🙂 Usually, in women’s chess, where the players tend to be more emotionally involved and overly sensitive at times, a good, calm captain does miracles! Also the atmosphere within the team is very important and whoever might say that chess is not a team sport, is wrong. With the team we have, we managed to finish in 5th place last year, in Olympiad, so the cohesion is a vital element. We don’t mind if one has to play forever Black, or if someone has to go out because of a horrendous headache. We support each other and try to do our best, leaving our egos aside. True, it is not always seen in our results but from a personal point of view, it works for us.

Alina representing Romania at a past European Team Chess Championship / Photo courtesy of http://en.chessbase.com/
Alina representing Romania at a past European Team Chess Championship / Photo courtesy of http://en.chessbase.com/

Unfortunately our federation was not able to support us further with training camps, so everyone had to find her own rhythm, regarding the pre-tournament preparation. This is where having a GM as a husband comes in handy 🙂 Although, we rarely train together, since I wouldn’t like Erwin to take from his time and dedicate it to my preparation…he is of course helping me whenever he can, but his schedule is so over-crowded already that adding on top of it training sessions with myself would be too much 🙂

Besides, I would rather push him forward than drag him down, to my understanding. This is no altruistic gesture, it is just a normal wish from a wife towards her husband. After all, his success is also mine 🙂

Thank you so much for taking the time out to do this interview in spite of your crazy schedule. Any parting words of wisdom for readers of this blog and aspiring chess players in Africa?

Words of wisdom… Giving specific advice is a tricky business. I don’t feel experienced enough to do that, maybe in 20 years or so things will change. Receiving advice is not a simple matter, either. I remember how many times I answered with Yes, yes! To my parents, but then did things my own (and not always right) way… Or I followed the unfortunate advice of unknown persons.

I would limit myself to advice (or rather wish to) your young players to learn from their own experience and, above all, to enjoy their chess lives!

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