We meet Julianna, who is called just Juli by everyone, at a boxing club. The venue seems strange but Juli explains why: "I am currently working with my coach to figure out what kind and intensity of training helps me the best to prepare for a game." Juli speaks from experience because she has been playing chess since age five.

Sisterly bond

Juli and her twin sister Zsuzsanna both began playing shortly before their fifth birthday: "Our older brother used to play a lot and we have copied him in many things, so in this one too." It quickly turned out that the sisters were talented. "In the beginning it was nothing more of course than us pushing the figures up and down on the board. But then our father and also our brother began to teach us systematically."

This is how the sisters, still at kindergarten, got their first exercises, which their father picked out of a chess book: "Our father was not a great chess player but he saw that we were interested in it and he wanted to support us. We were also lucky that there was a teacher living in our community who taught chess in addition to mathematics."

Learning paid off quickly and the sisters entered their first national tournament at age six. Only a year later Zsuzsanna won her first national competition.

From that point the board game played a prominent role in the girls’ lives. They trained every single day, even in the summer holidays they had to do so for eight hours before they could join their friends at play. However, neither Julianna nor Zsuzsanna seems to have minded because both remain active players today, and they are even training youngsters.

However, around the 7th grade their enthusiasm decreased somewhat: "We were in a difficult financial situation," says Juli. "The national championship was in a town nearby, so we could participate there, but anything that would have required us to travel further was not possible for us."

The sisters did not want to train for only one or two games in the year and spend the rest of the year waiting around. So their interest waned. However, when they started studying at an elite high school in Debrecen their love for the game revived and they both returned to the game fully.

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"Playing chess required so much time that we have been studying at home from the 10th grade onwards, and we only went to the school to take the tests," Juli says. However, this arrangement did not harm neither their academic nor their chess successes.

Although chess has always been present in their home, the sisters played against each other very rarely. "We have tried but it did not work out since we always got in a fight," she says. "In addition, playing whole games is not really the best training method." Training has always been and still is very hard for them. So if you are not playing full games to practise, then how do you?

Julianna explains: "There are trainers who concentrate on the end of the game. When there are only a few more figures left on the board, the game is easier to understand." And while she has been calm so far during our conversation, an obvious fire often lights up her eyes. Chess is indeed much more than learning various moves by heart.

The young woman explains the difference between "learning moves" and "understanding the game". "Of course, you have to learn a lot of step combinations by heart. However, you will only be able to use these sequences in a meaningful way if you really understand the game and, when looking at a position, you are able to tell which tactic is being played.

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"Every move results in a number of possible variations, every move is like a small colourful shard, and you will only be able to puzzle the big picture together from these little pieces if you really understand the game."

Additionally, you need to learn openings and tactics. "We are rehearsing famous or important games often too, in order to learn from them." They also play games from the end backwards, in reverse order, because the brain – just like every other muscle – needs to be trained in different ways so as to reach peak performance.

Julianna is an active contestant and professional chess player. Her sister, who is studying at university, trains less for competitions but is very active in assisting the younger generation. "In the meantime women are getting more support from the chess federation and the development of young talents is luckily also more active."

The support is especially important for Juli for participation at competitions. "I am travelling a lot; I have written my final exam between three competitions, for example." She planned it differently, intending to participate in only two national competitions but then qualifying for a third. She ended up spending 20 days at competitions last May and was finishing her final exams in the remaining time – which turned out to be remarkably successful, mind you.

Women are indeed intensively represented in Hungarian chess society – think about the famous Polgár sisters, for example. Juli has been able to achieve a remarkable career, reaching fifth place at the Chess Olympics in 2017 together with her team when she was only 20 years old, and nowadays she participates in many international competitions. Just recently she played in Monaco, for example.

The fact that three competitions may take three weeks is explained by the nature of the game. Although there are so-called blitz games where each player has only five or eight minutes, Julianna prefers the games at regular speed.

"It’s not unusual for a game to last for four hours but even more than six hours are possible." This is why a competition can take several days. In order to be able to handle this enormous mental challenge on a physical level too, she began working with a boxing trainer: "Even the old grandmasters are going for a walk of two or three hours before games. Other players nowadays are going for a run or they play tennis."

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She and her coach are looking for the optimal combination of light exercise and repetitive movements to maximise her mental performance. This is happening by way of experimentation: Julianna is following a plan compiled by her coach and she stops every few minutes to solve chess exercises on her phone. The more exercises she is able to complete within a specific time, the better her mental performance is.

Being physically fit also helps her to concentrate better and to relax after a mentally challenging day. When we say goodbye, Julianna is going back to her cardio training. Looks like chess playing in Hungary is not only a thing for old people in thermal spas.


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