Interview: Alexandra Samaganova on Kyrgyz Chess Culture

For my last chess interview of 2014, I present to you a conversation with the beautiful, talented and multilingual Alexandra Samaganova, Kyrgyzstan’s second-highest rated (2022) female player and the reigning women’s national champion.

Alexandra Samaganova at the Tromsø Olympiad
Alexandra Samaganova at the Tromsø Olympiad

What I find most fascinating about her story is that she is able to play for her country alongside her mother, Irina Ostry, as a team-mate (they have played together in 4 Olympiads so far: Bled [2002], Turin [2006], Khanty-Mansiysk [2010] and Tromsø [2014]).

Read on to know about Alexandra’s interesting background, Kyrgyzstan’s chess culture, her love for travel and more.

How did you get interested in chess? Who taught you how to play?

I was born to a family of chess players. My mother is from Kiev (Ukraine) and my father is from Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). They played chess a lot in their young ages. So I started to play very early too. My mother still takes part in chess tournaments. She taught me how to play and has been my coach from the very beginning.

January 1992: Alexandra (right) playing with her grandfather Alexandr Ostry in Kiev, Ukraine
January 1992: Alexandra (right) playing with her grandfather Alexandr Ostry in Kiev, Ukraine

Do you remember your first ever tournament? Where did it happen? How old were you then?

I slightly remember one tournament that I played in childhood. I was 6 years old. It was a Girls Chess Championship of Bishkek. I had to play a very important decisive game against a girl who was stronger than me in those times. I was so anxious about this game that I couldn’t fall asleep at night. The next day I came to the playing hall and I won a game rather easily. Thus, I became a Girls Chess Champion of Bishkek. That was a big success for me as almost all players were older than me. Unfortunately, right now I can’t remember the details of that game.

Incidentally, that year I was also invited to play for a school chess team, although I started studying in this school only the next year. (I couldn’t remember that fact. It was my mother who told me about it).

What is the chess culture in Kyrgyzstan like? Is it popular in Bishkek where you live? How is the ratio of male to female players?

There are many people in Kyrgyzstan who really like to play chess. Way back in those times when Kyrgyzstan was one of the 15 Soviet Republics, there were many international tournaments held in our country. Our young boys and girls had good results in chess. Svetlana Matveeva, Boris Kantsler became the youth chess champions of USSR in those times. The name of Leonid Yurtaev had been known not only in USSR, but also abroad.

In our times the chess players haven’t had such significant results; however some of our players have become prize winners at Asian Youth Championships. At the Tromsø Olympiad this year our men’s team took the gold medal in the Category C of the Open tournament – that was also a big success for us.

The chess life in Kyrgyzstan is concentrated mainly in the capital – Bishkek, however nowadays our Kyrgyz Chess Federation is trying to pay attention to the remote parts of the country too and to develop actively the game there.

The percentage of male players is of course higher to female players in our country. Officially there are about 45 active players in Kyrgyzstan. Only 17 from them are female chess players.

What’s it like to be ‘Kyrgyzstan’s top female chess player’ (as your Twitter bio says)? How long have you held that distinction? Do you get noticed in the streets when out and about? 😉

I have had good results in chess on the local level from early ages. When I was 13 years old I took the bronze medal in the Girls Asian Championship under-16 in Namangan (Uzbekistan). When I was 16 years old I finished second (after my mum :)) in the National Championship of Kyrgyzstan and for the first time I represented our country at the World Olympiad in Bled (Slovenia) in 2002. Since that time I’ve been one of the top players of our country. In 2010 I became a women’s champion of Kyrgyzstan for the first time and this year I managed to repeat my success and became a Champion for the 2nd time.

Playing alongside her mother WIM Irina Ostry (right) at the Tromsø Olympiad
Playing alongside her mother WIM Irina Ostry (right) at the Tromsø Olympiad

No, I don’t get noticed in the streets :). But many people from the old generation recognize my surname thanks to my father who was an active player of the Kyrgyz Republic in Soviet times and mainly to my aunt Bakyt Samaganova who was a multiple time women’s champion of Kyrgyzstan and a Master of Sports of the USSR.

You were part of the Kyrgyz women’s team at the Tromsø Olympiad where you got to meet Garry Kasparov. What was that experience like? Have you played in an Olympiad before?

It was my fifth Olympiad. Previously I played in Bled (2002), Turin (2006), Khanty-Mansiysk (2010) and Istanbul (2012). In my opinion, Tromsø Olympiad was one of the best Olympiads, even though I heard many negative comments about it. I enjoyed everything there: the city, the food, the tournament itself. Everything was great. I was also happy to have an opportunity to meet many famous players there, including Garry Kasparov and to get a signed book from him. This is a little thing, but it inspires greatly!

GM Garry Kasparov signing a book for Alexandra
GM Garry Kasparov signing a book for Alexandra
Kyrgyzstan national team with Garry Kasparov at the Tromsø Olympiad
Kyrgyzstan national team with Garry Kasparov at the Tromsø Olympiad

You recently participated in a tournament in Yangon, Myanmar. How did you enjoy the tournament and the city? How many countries have you visited so far as a chess player? What has been your favourite destination?

The tournament in Yangon was held in the memory of Zaw Win Lay – the only Grandmaster of Myanmar who passed away this year. It was a rather strong tournament with 10 GMs participating in it. And although there were many unrated players, many of them had a very high level of play. Maung Maung Lwin, the organizer of the tournament, applied every effort in order to hold an event on a high level and I think he did it very well.

Alexandra wearing the traditional Burmese longyi in Yangon surrounded by staff from the local TV station
Alexandra wearing the traditional Burmese longyi in Yangon surrounded by staff from the local TV station

Even though the schedule of the tournament was rather hectic, I could explore Yangon city a little bit and learn some history and culture of this interesting country. Of course the most popular tourist destination in Yangon is Shwedagon Pagoda. This is a great Buddhist monument covered with gold which could be seen at a distance. Sule Pagoda is another place of interest that was located very close to the hotel where I stayed. One more place that I enjoyed visiting in my free time was Bogyoke Market which is known for its handicraft and jewellery shops, art galleries, and clothing stores.

Outside Sule Pagoda, Yangon
Outside Sule Pagoda, Yangon

I really enjoyed this tournament and I would be very glad to go back there again.

Being a chess player I have visited about 18 countries so far. I can’t name any particular country as my favourite destination. I think there was something special, unique in every country and every tournament. I keep some good memories from all places where I’ve been.

How do you balance work and chess and still stay on top of the women’s rankings in Kyrgyzstan? Does your company sponsor your chess trips or encourage participation in international tournaments?

It is not easy to combine both chess and work, as my work takes most of my time and energy. Unfortunately the Government doesn’t support chess in our country, so you can’t be a professional chess player. You need to have a job.

But I’m trying to find time to study chess and to have practice playing in local blitz and rapid tournaments. My problem is that I don’t do it regularly. And I understand that if I want to have better results in chess and to become a titled player I need to have my trainings regularly.

Unfortunately, my company cannot sponsor my trips, but, yes, they encourage participation in international tournaments. I’m allowed to take a leave from work when I need to travel abroad to play in a chess tournament. I don’t travel that much as in most cases I need to cover all expenses myself. But still, thanks to my job, I can afford a few trips in a year.

What are your interests outside of chess?

At University I studied linguistics and intercultural communication. So I like to learn foreign languages a lot. The languages that I learnt were English and German. I also like Spanish language. Due to the lack of practice I can’t speak German right now, but I’m trying to practice my English and Spanish.

I also like to listen to music, to watch good films, to spend time with my friends and to dance. I’ve taken lessons in Latin dances – salsa, bachata and merengue.

And of course I like travelling very much! When I travel I can explore new countries, learn new cultures and traditions, meet new people and make friends. Travelling is really one of the greatest things. I’m very happy that chess gives me this opportunity.

Burmese chess board Alexandra found at Yangon Airport
Burmese chess board Alexandra found at Yangon Airport

(Photo credits: Courtesy)

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