Closest to Our Own “Queen's Gambit”

She learned chess from her parents when she was 5, after 3 years advanced to the up to 18-year old age group, and when she was 14, she shared third place in the World Chess Championship * The unusual story of Yulia Schweiger (26) who immigrated to Israel alone about 10 years ago, lived in an institutional setting and is now a member of the Israeli National Team and a chemical engineering student at the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering

Backgammon players, checker lovers and even Taki fans, it seems that everyone is talking about “The Queen’s Gambit”, the Netflix drama series describing the imaginary story of the chess wonderkid Elizabeth Harmon. We wanted to hear the impressions, or you might call it the expert opinion, of the game of kings international woman’s chess grandmaster, Yulia Schweiger.

“There is a scene in the series that I really liked, where you see how the heroine looks at the ceiling and moves the chess pieces as if it was a chess board. This is very similar to what we, professional players, learn to do – to imagine the moves in our mind and select our journey from among all the options we go through in our head. It is somewhat similar to mathematics”, demonstrates 26-year old Yulia for those of us who are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the game. “We all know by heart how to solve simple exercises. To solve other exercises, that are more complex, we have to use our imagination”.

Yulia, whose peak ranking was 30 in the world for women, is a 3rd year chemistry engineering student at the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering. She planned to watch the first episode of the series during a lunch break she took when studying for an exam. It ended with a binge. “I couldn’t stop watching. By the evening I had watched all 9 episodes. There were real-life descriptions and I was so curious to see how the story develops”.

“I couldn’t understand why other girls played with dolls"

“My parents, who were amateur players, taught me chess when I was 5”, Yulia recounts the start of her affair with the game, “I would follow them when they played, and tried to understand and plan moves on my own. At the age of 6 they already sent me to a class”. Here she finds another parallel with Elizabeth. “There is a scene in which she throws away a doll. As a child I also couldn’t understand why other girls played with dolls. I always preferred solving chess exercises, so this situation in the series was close to my heart”.

Yulia’s rise in the local chess club was meteoric. At the age of 8 she was transferred to a group for 12-18 year old’s and began to participate in national tournaments. She won first or second place in all the age groups and was named champion of the Ukraine. Her path to international tournaments was paved – she participated in European championships and world championships, and in many of them was ranked in 5th – 6th place. Her peak achievement was when she shared 3rd place in the world chess championship for players under 16 when she was 14.

Two years after that championship Yulia immigrated to Israel through the Na’ale project (youth immigrating before parents), and spent her first years at a boarding school. Her journey to Israel was preceded by her father’s thorough groundwork, choosing the city of destination for his daughter in Israel according to –needless to say – the level of the local chess club. He contacted all chess clubs in Israel and then finally decided on Be’er Sheva that is considered a world chess empire. Yulia is currently the only woman playing in the national men’s league, the highest level league in Israel, and represents the country in international championships as a league player.  

“Another thing I liked in “The Queen’s Gambit’, and unfortunately doesn’t happen in real life, is that the girl played with boys from the outset. In real life girls play against girls, and because of the few female players relative to men the level is significantly lower than that of the men. That is why the challenge for women is limited and the ability to improve is smaller”. Yulia thinks that the genders should be merged in clubs and tournaments in order to attract more girls to the sport.

“My dream in life? To be an international grandmaster in the men’s ranking”

Just like everyone else Yulia can’t wait to get back to her chess routine. “Before the pandemic broke out I would travel to matches as part of the German or French leagues on weekends, holidays or in-between exam periods. That is why I always made an effort to take an exam on the first exam date and to pass it successfully”, she says with a smile, “The professional tournaments abroad cover expenses and award monetary prizes to the winners. It was like a job”.

In the meantime she is focusing on her student job at Adama Makhteshim in Neot Hovav and on her studies which she really loves. “In the days before the corona I really enjoyed the atmosphere at SCE – it was really fun to meet friends and study with them in the library or in the laboratory of the chemical engineering department. We are lucky when it comes to our faculty – they are always available, via email, telephone and office hours. I really want to continue on to a Master’s degree”.

Yulia’s ambition, and as noted she holds an International woman's grandmaster title and an international men’s master title, is not limited of course to the academic field: “I want to return to my peak ranking from before two years ago, and my dream in life is to reach the rank of international grandmaster in the men’s ranking. This is the highest rank, and to reach it I have to participate in the highest-level tournaments, and in many of them to play against the highest ranked opponents and to defeat them”.

For the young people among us, and for the parents of young children, Yulia would like to end with a recommendation: “Visit a chess club, if only to see the positive and cultured atmosphere. It is such a great pleasure to watch children sitting and learning to play, and while doing so this gaining an education in listening and patience. They are educated to acknowledge the opponent before and after every game and to shake his or her hand – even if they lose. To respect and enjoy the learning and the journey. That’s worth everything”.