Chess is a fight won by foolproof strategy and instinctual foresight for Grandmaster Irina Krush. She began collecting titles at a young age, becoming the youngest player to win a U.S. Women’s Champion at just 14 years old. Astoundingly, she went on to win this same tournament six more times. During the years since her breakout victory in 1998, she contributed to the U.S. national team, earning bronze and silver medals in the Women’s Chess Olympiad.
In a sport that relies on the mental toughness of its competitors, Krush is both calculating and daring. But amidst the global pandemic, Krush had to face a new competitor. She tested positive for coronavirus in March of 2020. During her illness, the optimistic mindset which won her national tournaments was put under a new type of pressure. Chronicling her recovery through a series of Facebook posts in March, Krush shared that the virus hasn’t been an easy opponent, but she was hopeful that her condition would go back to normal.
“It’s not just a disease,” Krush said in an interview with the New York Times. “It’s a life trial. Chess players know what it’s like to be in a bad position, to suffer. I realized it was going to be a long game, with no easy victory.”
Easy, however, is not exactly the type of obstacle Krush enjoys. When she outpaced her contemporaries in childhood, Krush honed her skills playing chess against the men of Asser Levy Park. Later as a teenage competitor, she faced just as unlikely odds in the 2001 Mayor’s Cup. She entered the international tournament as the lowest-ranked player, only to walk away with the first-place title. Perhaps most impressive of all, she remains the only woman to earn the Grandmaster title while playing for the U.S. She is an icon of the chess community. While her career record is superlative, it’s her mental game that sets her apart from other competitors.
During Krush’s quarantine period, she continued competing online while she was in recovery. The tournament featured women and girls from six continents, and Krush’s matches were live streamed on Twitch. She ended the tournament with enough points for a joint second-place victory.
“I felt I should have gotten a prize just for figuring out how to stream. It was definitely my biggest creative achievement of the tournament, and maybe top ten of my life,” Krush shared with Chess Life Online.
Her insight shows that the expert strategist values competitive growth more highly than the endgame. Focusing on the possibility of success brings self-confidence and resilience to failure—two highly undervalued tools in the world of female athletics. Still, every athlete encounters a situation in which her courage falters.
“There are definitely moments when I was worried and panicked. Now I kind of get it…I’m in a game, yes the position is difficult and unpleasant and there are no more illusions that you can get through it without getting through these tough moments,” Krush wrote on her Facebook.
What an example of how an iron focus carries over outside the athletic arena. Despite the uncertainties brought on by her diagnosis, Krush continued to compete virtually throughout her quarantining period. Now, she returns to the competitive world of chess with an edge on how to defeat even the most unpredictable of opponents.
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