The New Face of Chess Is a Pretty One

The new face of chess is not a nerdy, nondescript, temperamental teen-age boy — but a smart, hip, sexy 17-year-old girl.

Dubbed the "Anna Kournikova of Chess," Alexandra Kosteniuk of Russia has wowed game gurus with her keen, aggressive approach to the sport: She placed second in the Woman's World Chess Championship in January.

But she has also snagged attention with her good looks, winding up on the covers of magazines, modeling a new chess uniform and circulating photos of herself on the Internet.

"It's one of the ways to get attention for chess, and that's OK," Kosteniuk said of her looks in a telephone interview from her home in Moscow. "If people will be interested in me, they will be interested in chess also."

Under her trainer-father's direction, Kosteniuk began playing at age 5 and rose to become the youngest woman's chess grandmaster when she was 14. In January, she placed second in the woman's world championship in Moscow, stunning spectators by beating player after player with higher ratings than hers.

"If you went by rankings, all her opponents were stronger than her but she kept knocking them out," said professional chess player John Fernandez, 23. "It's really helped her to get the notice."

So has her sex appeal. Her Web site is full of photos of Kosteniuk looking sultry and fun-loving, posing playfully with chess pieces in glamorous, skin-baring evening gowns and chic, clubby get-ups.

"Chess needs something new, something to get more people into chess," she said. "I’d like to show that chess players are normal people who lead normal lives."

When a clothing company asked her to model its new line of chess uniforms she jumped at the chance.

"I always wanted to be a model," she said. "I never thought of myself as a model."

Chess player Fernandez said that most would agree Kosteniuk is intelligent, though some might complain that she has to look cute to get noticed.

"OK, but that's what the media wants," he said. "Any publicity for chess is good. If someone like Kosteniuk is going to further her chess career and do modeling, all the power to her."

He said he could see women's chess going the way of women's tennis — surpassing the men's game in terms of public interest because of attractive female players like Kosteniuk and others.

"The men aren't getting noticed, as it is. She is getting noticed. I don't think that's a bad thing," said Fernandez. "Someone suggested we'll have women's tournaments where they're playing in bikinis. I hope we don't go down that route."

Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova helped women's tennis skyrocket in popularity with her beauty and vixen image. These days she's everywhere, even starring in a recent music video.

But though she's among the best players in the world, Kournikova has never made it to the final rounds of a championship, causing some to grumble that all the publicity she's gotten is based solely on sex.

Kosteniuk doesn’t mind being likened to Kournikova ("People have to compare me to somebody — it's OK"), but she's determined not to be saddled with the same stigma that she's only getting noticed because she's pretty.

"I hope that I am going to play chess better than she plays tennis," she said. "It's a shame to be the face of chess and to play chess badly."

Despite all the buzz about her, Kosteniuk is still surprisingly modest.

"My chess is not so good yet," she said. "I like to play against stronger opponents; it's more interesting. It shows how little I know in chess yet. There's a lot of space for improvement."

And winning — especially against more seasoned players with higher ratings — often requires a no-holds-barred approach. Chess is a sport with great potential for women, one of the few where male and female players can compete against each other.

"If I want to win, I have to play in an aggressive style," she said. "Women are making progress now. A woman can beat any man; it's difficult to imagine another kind of sport where a woman can beat a man. That's why I like chess."

Kosteniuk — who has written a book with her father called How I Became Grandmaster at Age 14 — said the vibrant, dynamic image she's tried to give chess is in line with how the game itself has evolved from a stagnant, sleepy sport to one with pep and movement. Matches are now generally four hours instead of seven, for instance.

"Chess is changing," she said. "I hope chess is getting more popular, more spectacular."