A very common question I was asked countless times is what does it take to be a champion?
Over the years, thousands of people have asked me this same question. Just as in any other sport, the margin between winning and losing, between champion and runner-up, can be miniscule. Sometimes it can come down to one indecisive move in a moment of haste.
Different people play chess for different reasons, and everyone approaches chess in their own way. Some just play for fun and the results do not matter. Some are professionals and a difference of a half point can result in a five- or six-digit pay cut. Even though I have won at every level, I strongly and mainly advocate chess as a wonderful educational tool in the classroom and in life.
To be a champion one must put in the hard work and sacrifice, and have the fire, dedication, desire, determination, confidence, passion and nerves of steel. Sometimes a little luck does not hurt either. There are also intangible factors that can come into play.
My last Chess Olympiad in Spain in 2004 was no different. Playing in my first international competition in more than eight years and at the age of 35, I was not sure how I would fare against the younger and very hungry competition. I trained very hard but there was no guarantee that I would succeed. There were so many good teams and players, and the winners are often the team that prepared the most beforehand and wanted it the most during the event. Often, it will come down to the last round.
After 13 rounds of 14, China already secured the gold medal. Russia and USA had 25.5 points, Georgia had 25, France had 24.5, Hungary and Slovakia had 24 and India had 23.5. Each match can have a maximum swing of three points. That meant that seven teams were within striking distance for the team silver and bronze going into the final round.
I vividly remember my last round opponent from team Vietnam offering me a draw in a somewhat better position. I informed our captain (who is my husband, Paul Truong, currently the coach of the Webster University #1 ranked chess team) about the offer. Without hesitation, he gave a firm answer. Both teams heard it loud and clear. The answer was no draw on any board. We will fight on all boards until the very last piece.
That personally gave me such a big boost of confidence, knowing that the captain believed in us and that there would be no chickening out. He never once bothered with calculating the tie-breaks or even looked at the tie-breaks of any other team. He wanted our team to control our own destiny and not rely on the luck of the tie-breaks.
We ended up winning 2.5 – 0.5 and the rest is history. Our team came home with the silver medal, the first ever in U.S. women’s chess history. That was one difference between winning and losing.
Because of that win, I won an unprecedented four medals – two gold and two silver – the most ever in a single Olympiad, by any player, male or female, in Chess Olympiad history. A draw would have probably brought me nothing.
You have to be willing to take risks if you want the glory. Ukraine, Russia, Georgia and some other countries were just as good, if not better than us in 2004. But we wanted it more than they did. In team competitions, teamwork is everything. A strong support system is also vital. But the bottom line is one must be ready, willing and able to fight to be the best.