Coming to America: an interview with CEO Vladimir Belous

When we look at a game of chess, we analyze the choices a player makes and the consequences he has to face. While many of the choices we discuss remain 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 career in chess led him to a crossroads in Russia, where he became a coach at the chess school of former GM World Champion Anatoly Karpov. Barely noticed by the chess legend among his peers, Vladimir said “do svidaniya” to climb the ranks of the Russian chess world to find more opportunities in the United States in pursuit of his best friend and his dreams of chess.

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

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


Hennessy: Let’s start with your childhood. Did you leave your parents when you were 12?

Belous: Yes. I started playing chess at age 7 in a small town 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 as well. 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 mostly wealthy?

No, it was diverse. They only invited talented children and they mistakenly understood that I had talent.

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

It was pretty easy.

Who was your coach at the time?

GM Sergei Arkhipov. He is known. He was in the top 20.

Your profile also indicates that you started coaching in 2011 when you were accepted as a chess teacher at the Karpov 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 Andrei Stukopin, he is also the general manager. He moved to the United States and I thought, “Why stay in Russia if my best friend lives in the United States? Give it a shot.”

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

Like a real chess player

I took a second non-stop flight from Moscow to Houston, but from Houston I had to take a Greyhound bus to Brownsville. It was a journey… difficult. Also, I didn’t speak English.

But you speak very well now.

Because I’ve lived here for six years. But I came to this country with a backpack and $500 in my pocket.

This is how the American dream begins. How did you pay the rent?

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

What happened?

I went to this McDonald’s and ate my food. I was stressed because a lot of people were asking me questions and it was my first time to an American restaurant. Then this guy sat next to me uninvited and started talking and talking. I didn’t understand it and I was really frustrated.

Welcome to America, huh?

Yeah, do you know the band System of a Down?

Yeah.

They have a song that says “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.

General Manager 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 just get smarter.

So it wasn’t about getting a degree for a job? Did you just want to learn?

Yes. I also had to prove to the US government that I had extraordinary chess skills. It took a year. I have written articles for American Chess Magazine. I proved that I was a good coach. I am Grand Master. My degree is in accounting. I started my masters degree last year but the class was in line with the pandemic. Then they canceled classes, so I should study alone? What’s the point?

What was your college chess experience like?

Since I started, my university has won national championships three times in a row and I played just below GM Lê Quang Liêm in the Final Four. We were the only ones to score 3 of 3 on the first board, but he’s 2700 and I’m 2500.

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

At my university, I saw a children’s tournament with over 1,000 players. Chess is an intellectual game. Being intellectual right now is trending here. It’s cool to be smart. You said that Russia has a monopoly on chess but I think that’s not true because the United States has the level of children [tournaments and programs] with many interested people.

But there are disadvantages and advantages. For example, in Russia they pay your expenses, but here you pay for everything yourself.

I read in your Lichess profile that you teach students how to use ChessBase software to build an opening repertoire. What is your biggest advice for someone who has never used ChessBase to start?

(laughs) Hire me as a coach.

Your profile says that tower finals are your calling card. What do you mean?

I’m good in the endgames. My trainer gave me this database where you solve puzzles. Rook against 1 pawn, rook against 2 pawns, rook against rook and 1 pawn, and so on. It’s an incredible database. It was boring for me, but he said to me, “You make so much money with this.”

So, OK, I can show you. What’s the rating here? White to move.

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

I’m the guy asking questions here.

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

Yes. Black has options to secure a draw, but sometimes you have to suffer. Do not become a knight. Kb1 is immediate draw without suffering. If white is playing to win with Kb3, black is playing Ka1 and there is no way for white to do anything but take the pawn to the pat.

[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]

It’s above my salary.

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

Tomorrow you will face GM Jianchao Zhou, the highest rated player of this tournament.

If he wins.

He will win.

How do you know? Are you 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 am a prophet. I am a good friend to have. No seriously. You are the only two Grand Masters here. In 2009, Zhou was ranked in the world’s top 100. He beat Sam Shankland at the Millionaire Chess Tournament in 2016. He’s 2600. I know you think ranking isn’t everything, but it is a bit. Have you already started preparing?

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

Zhou told me that chess was his only passion in life. He does nothing but play chess, eat, sleep, and watch the news. The only thing on his mind right now is winning, and you’re hanging out here with me.

I have more fun talking with you. Plus, I’ll make more money than him if I win the blitz.

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

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