Nikita Vitiugov: 'Since the war I haven't thought about the chessboard much'

The Russian champion, who has lived in Spain since the pandemic, is now training the chess player who aims to become the world No 1

REGINA SOTORRÍO MALAGA.

Some months ago he posted on Twitter: "I used to be a chess player a lifetime ago", accompanied by a photo of his recently born son in a baby carrier. But he wasn't referring to how drastically his life had changed with parenthood, or at least not just that. This was early in February and his world was about to turn upside down. His next tweet, a few days later, explained everything: "Russians and Ukrainians are brothers, not enemies. Stop the war," he said.

Nikita Vitiugov, the Russian chess champion of 2021, lives in Spain and he was one of the first to speak out against Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Since then he has remained neutral, but it's true that his life has changed.

"Since the war, I haven't been thinking much about the chessboard," he says. Now he focuses on his family and his work training Ian Nepomniachtchi, who is third in the world ranking, while also helping to promote chess, which he will be doing this evening, Friday 14 October, at La Térmica cultural centre in Malaga.

Vitiugov is one of the strongest players on the international chess scene. He holds 25th place on the International Chess Federation ranking. He will be talking to journalist and writer Manuel Azuaga, author of the book Cuentos, Jaques y Leyendas. After the talk, which begins at 6pm, he will be giving an exhibition of simultaneous chess. Entry is free as long as places are available.

Vitiugov sounds very pleasant when he answers the phone, making an effort to hold a conversation in the Spanish he has only just learned. And he makes himself understood.

Since 2021 he and his wife have been living on the Costa Blanca and that is where their son was born a year ago. "Spain will always be very special for us," he says.

It was the pandemic that led them to refocus their lives and move close to the Mediterranean. "Although this summer it has been too hot," he admits, having grown up in the north of Russia.

They had been to Spain on holiday, but the emotional connection that Vitiugov has with the country is stronger than that: he is a keen Atlético de Madrid fan and has been a member of the football club for the past six years. It is not unusual to see photos of him on social media in his red and white club shirt.

Options

He loves his country, but going back is not an option. He admits that when the conflict began it came as a shock. "I could never have imagined that. You realise that the country of your birth has started a war. It's unbearable," he says. Since then he has been experiencing a sadness that is not normal for him. "And I believe a lot of Russian people feel the same," he says.

His consolation is his family and his work as a trainer, because the pandemic also meant that many tournaments were cancelled and it's more difficult now to make a living from competing. That's why, when asked about the popularity the game has gained since series such as Queen's Gambit was shown and so many youtubers began to teach chess online, he replies, "Five years ago there were a lot more tournaments than there are in 2022. I don't think the situation has changed in favour of professional chess players. Maybe those who work with amateurs, at a basic level, are in a better situation now, but not in my case."

His success at the moment comes from the triumph of Ian Nepomniachtchi.

"All my own ambitions have had to be set aside so I can focus on this objective," he says. Vitiugov was part of the player's team of advisers with whom he won the last Candidates Tournament in Madrid.

Nepomniachtchi became the challenger to the present world champion Magnus Carlsen, but he decided not to defend his title and the Russian will now have to play against Chinese player Ding Liren to win the title. "I do enjoy this new side of it," Vitiugov says.

He never glorifies chess or adds to the legends around the sport. He denies the connection with drugs and alcohol as portrayed in the TV series. "I understand that they want to make it more spectacular, but it isn't like that," he says.

He is aware of the advantages of learning and training offered by the internet but is adamant that he doesn't approve: "I'm not a fan of online chess. For me this is a game to be played face to face," he says. And he says the belief that chess players never get Alzheimer's or have superior intelligence is "a myth".

But beyond that, this Russian grand master says it is a "very favourable and useful hobby at any age". Because, also, it doesn't demand much. "In football you have to have a pitch, to swim you need a pool, but to play chess all you need is a board and the pieces. You can play on the beach, on a train, anywhere," he explains. And at La Térmica cultural centre this Friday, as well.