Coming to America: An Interview with GM Vladimir Belous

When we pore over a game of a chess, we analyze the choices a player makes and the consequences they must face. Though many of the choices we discuss stay confined to the 64 squares of the board, there are a number of life-changing decisions that take place off the board.

For GM Vladimir Belous, his early chess career led him to a crossroads in Russia, where he became a coach at former world champion GM Anatoly Karpov’s chess school. Barely noticed by the chess legend among his peers, Vladimir said “do svidaniya” to clawing his way up the ranks of the Russian chess world in order to find more opportunity in the United States in pursuit of his best friend and his chess dreams.

Belous recently won the 2021 US Chess Grand Prix, securing first place with 227.18 tournament points

Sean Hennessy of the Riverside Chess Club met the 28-year-old Grandmaster at the 2021 Indianapolis Open and had the opportunity to interview him at his hotel.


Hennessy: Let’s start with your childhood. You moved away from your parents when you were 12?

Belous: Yes. I started to play chess at 7 in a small city in Russia. I won my first Russian championship, so I was invited to a government-funded boarding school in Moscow for all sports: boxing, tennis, and chess also. It was cool.

How did your parents feel when you left them?

You should ask them, but probably proud. They didn’t have to feed me.

Were the students primarily wealthy?

No, it was diverse. They invited only talented kids and they wrongly understood I’m talented.

But you are. You won the 2003 Russian chess tournament for kids under age 10. That’s not easy to do.

It was kind of easy.

Who was your coach at the time?

GM Sergey Arkhipov. He is famous. He was top 20.

Your profile also says you started coaching in 2011 when you got accepted as a chess instructor at Karpov’s school in Moscow. Have you met Karpov?

He walked past me.

Did he even say “Hi”?

No. He said nothing.

What motivated you to leave the greatest chess country in the world and come to our little one?

My best friend is Andrey Stukopin, he is also GM. He moved to the United States and I thought, “Why stay in Russia if my best friend lives in United States? Give it a shot.”

So I broke up with my girlfriend and moved in 2016. I overslept for my first flight.

Like a true chess player…

I caught a second flight from Moscow to Houston nonstop, but from Houston I had to take a Greyhound bus to Brownsville. It was a… difficult trip. Plus, I didn’t speak any English.

But you speak very well now.

Because I live here for six years. But I came to this country with a backpack and 500 bucks in my pocket.

That’s how the American dream starts. How did you pay rent?

I had a scholarship, and I had a friend. You don’t know how it feels for the first time to come to United States because you’re American. But I came to the greatest country in the world; I was super happy. But I didn’t enjoy the Greyhound, or the McDonald’s.

What happened?

I went to this McDonald’s and was eating my food. I was stressed because many people there asked me questions and it was my first time at an American restaurant. Then this guy sat by me without invitation and started talking and talking. I didn’t understand him and got really frustrated.

Welcome to America, huh?

Yeah, you know band System of a Down?

Yeah.

They have song that goes “leave me alone.” [ed. note: The song is “Baby” by System of a Down.] So I told him that. I said, “Leave me alone.” It was rude but I didn’t know.

 

Image
Vladimir Belous, 2021 Indy Open
GM Vladimir Belous considers his next move at the 2021 Indianapolis Open. Photo by Sean Hennessy.

 

You have two bachelor’s degrees: one from Russia and one from the United States. Isn’t that redundant?

Why? I’m just getting smarter.

So it wasn’t about getting a diploma for a job? You simply wanted to learn?

Yes. Also I had to prove to American government that I have extraordinary ability in chess. It took a year. I wrote articles for American Chess Magazine. I proved that I was good coach. I am a Grandmaster. My degree is in accounting. I started my master’s last year but class was online with the pandemic. Then they canceled classes, so I should study alone? What’s the point?

How has your chess experience been at the collegiate level?

Since I started, my university won nationals three times in a row and I performed just below GM Lê Quang Liêm in the Final Four. We were the only ones who scored 3 out of 3 in first board, but he’s 2700 and I’m 2500.

Thinking back to when you moved here in 2016, what were your expectations for what the United States could do for your career as opposed to Russia? What does the US have to offer for chess that Russia doesn’t?

In my university, I saw one kids tournament with over 1,000 players. Chess is intellectual game. Being intellectual right now is trend here. It’s cool to be smart. You said that Russia has a monopoly on chess but I think it’s not true because U.S. has kids level [tournaments and programs] with many people interested.

But there are minuses and pluses. For instance, in Russia they pay for your expenses, but here you pay everything yourself.

I read in your Lichess profile that you teach students how to use ChessBase software to build an opening repertoire. What’s your biggest piece of advice for someone who has never used ChessBase to get started?

(laughs) Hire me as your coach.

Your profile says rook endgames are your business card. What do you mean by that?

I’m good at rook endgames. My coach gave me this database where you solve puzzles. Rook vs. 1 pawn, rook vs. 2 pawns, rook vs. rook and 1 pawn, and so on. It’s amazing database. It was boring for me, but he told me, “You win so much money over this.”

So, OK, I can show you. What is the evaluation here? White to move.

[fen][8/8/8/8/2K2R2/8/1pk5/8 w - - 0 1][/fen]

(After examining the position…) It’s a draw… you’re just looking for a draw?

I’m the guy who’s asking questions here.

(After examining a little more…) I play Rf2+.

Yes. Black has options to secure the draw, but you have to suffer sometimes. Don’t promote to a knight. Kb1 is immediate draw with no suffering. If white plays for win with Kb3, black plays Ka1 and there is no way for white to do anything but take the pawn to stalemate.

[pgn][Event "Belous Endgame Position"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "8/8/8/8/2K2R2/8/1pk5/8 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "5"] [SourceVersionDate "2022.02.17"] {[#]} 1. Rf2+ Kb1 2. Kb3 Ka1 3. Rxb2 * [/pgn]
This is above my pay grade.

When you’re tired, your hand should think, not your brain.

Tomorrow, you’ll play GM Jianchao Zhou, the highest rated player in this tournament.

If he wins.

He will win.

How do you know? You are Vanga?

Who? Van Gogh?

Vanga. This lady who could predict the future. [ed. note: Belous is referring to Baba Vanga, a blind Bulgarian woman described as the “Nostradamus of the Balkans” for her supposed clairvoyance. She passed away in 1996 at age 85.]

Yes, I’m a prophet. I’m a good friend to have. No, seriously. You’re the only two grandmasters here. In 2009, Zhou was ranked in the top 100 globally. He defeated Sam Shankland in the Millionaire Chess Tournament in 2016. He’s 2600. I know you think rating isn’t everything, but it is a little bit. Have you started preparing yet?

No. My best skill is preparation. I’m very good at doing it quickly, especially here when we get pairings five minutes before game.

Zhou told me chess is his only passion in life. He doesn’t do anything but play chess, eat, sleep, and watch the news. The only thing on his mind right now is winning, and you’re here hanging out with me.

I’m having more fun talking with you. Besides, I’ll make more money than him if I win blitz.

 

Belous went undefeated in the blitz event later that night, winning all eight games to earn him the $120 prize fund for 1st place. He played against Zhou in Round 5 for a draw and scored 7½ out of 8 in the major section of the open, earning the 2nd place prize fund of $1,100, for a total of $1,220 for the event. Zhou earned $1,200 for 1st place in the major section. See the full crosstable.

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Plain Text Comments

Archives

Share Your Feedback

We recently completed a website update. If you notice a formatting error on this page, please click here.