“Texas was a whole new experience”
Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, Vishy Anand, Levon Aronian, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Maxime Vachier Lagrave, Yu Yangyi — what is the common factor between all of them? Well, apart from each one being a world class player, they have all been World Junior Champions in the past! The World Junior Championships is one of the most intense events that the chess world witnesses each year. The champion of the tournament becomes a well-known personality in the chess world, gets a direct entry to the next World Cup and he becomes a natural candidate to be invited to some strong events. For example: Parham Maghsoodloo became the World Junior Champion in 2018 and in 2019 was invited to play at the Tata Steel Challengers, Sigeman & Co. and Biel GM.
The 2019 edition of the World Junior Championships 2019 was dominated by Evgeny Shtembuliak. Being a chess journalist for over four years now, I was surprised that this was the first time I saw Shtembuliak playing or had heard of his name. But the youngster from Ukraine, rated 2577 and who started as the seventh seed, thoroughly dominated the field and became the World Junior Champion with a score of 9.0/11, a rating performance of 2752 and as on 1st of November 2019 has a rating of 2600!
World Junior 2019 top three: Evgeny Shtembuliak (center), Shant Sargsyan (left), Aram Hakobyan (right) | Photo: Niklesh Jain
I had the pleasure of interacting and interviewing Evgeny after some of his excellent wins at the event. (You can find these video interviews of game analysis at the end of the article). I was thoroughly impressed by Evgeny’s positional understanding and how he could grasp the most important facets of a position with great clarity. In the last round when a draw would have been sufficient to be the champion, Shtembuliak played on, won his game and became the champion with a half point margin. It was clear to me that he was someone special who is going to reach the highest echelons in the chess world in the years to come. I wanted to know more about Evgeny and also wanted the chess world to know him better. That’s why after his final round win I went up to him and asked him for around 30-45 minutes of his time. “Shall we do it before the prize ceremony?”, he asked. “At 4 p.m.?” I agreed.
It was 3.59 p.m. and Evgeny was there in the media room waiting for me. Two things were clear to me – this youngster values time and stays true to his word. I was already impressed with his play on the board, his off the board qualities seemed equally impressive!
Interview with the 2019 World Junior Champion
Sagar Shah (SS): Where are you from originally?
Evgeny Shtembuliak (ES): I was born on the 12th of March 1999 and I am from Ukraine, from a small city called Chornomorsk. It is nearby Odessa, which is a pretty big city. We moved to Chornomorsk when I was four years old. It is a pretty nice city near the sea. The population is probably like 70,000, so it is small and placid.
SS: What profession are your parents in? Are you their only child or do you have siblings?
ES: Both my parents work in local government of the city of Chornomorsk. I have a brother who is three years younger than me. His name is Kostya and he just started University.
Evgeny’s father Oleg and his younger brother Kostya
SS: So how did the journey in chess begin for you? Did anyone in your family play chess?
ES: Yes, my mom played chess. She quit when she was 12 years old but she was a decent player and won a couple of championships back in the day. So she decided to introduce me to chess and I guess I started playing when I was five.
Evgeny’s mother Tatiana introduced her son to chess | Photo: Evgeny Shtembuliak archive
SS: Did you join any chess club? Who was your first coach?
ES: There is only one club in my city and it is just five minutes away from where I live, it is pretty close. My first coach was Vadim Beliy, we worked together for a couple of years and then when I was nine I started working with IM Roman Tisevich and I have been working with him for many years now. He is an International Master and overall a very talented chess player. He has worked with many strong players like Muzychuk sisters and even a couple of years ago he assisted Baadur Jobava to prepare for tournaments. So yeah, he has been very helpful. Basically, he is the person who taught me how to play chess.
Arm wrestling with Roman Tisevich | Photo: Evgeny Shtembuliak archives
While Tisevich helped Shtembuliak to get better at chess, there were certain things where he could beat him easily! Eg. Arm wrestling!
SS: What were your initial successes like? Did you win Ukrainian National Championships?
ES: Yes, I won the Ukrainian under-8 National Championship, then I played the European Championship and was placed second there; and after that over the years I won almost all Ukrainian championship. Also I was placed second three times in the European Championships in under-8, under-10, and under-12 categories.
SS: So at this point the people around you, your family and coaches, started to realize that you were talented in chess?
ES: Yeah. I was already one of the top players in Ukraine in my age group.
SS: Did you attend school like everybody does?
ES: Yes, I went to school like everybody else and it was nothing special that way. The problem was I didn’t have many tournaments to play in Ukraine. I used to play only two to three decent tournaments per year. Travelling abroad to play was also not an option as we didn’t have money for that. So I was playing two to three decent tournaments a year in Ukraine. The other tournaments apart from that were pretty bad and didn’t help much.
SS: Were you already thinking about making money out of chess? How did you sustain your chess career?
ES: No, I wasn’t able to earn anything. I guess all the online websites like chess.com, chess planet were really helpful because there I had the chance to play with many strong grandmasters and also practice from my home without travelling. I also had a very nice coach and also there were couple of other chess players of my age, we were basically from the same city and competing all the time. That really helped me improve.
Fighting it out against Alexander Areshchenko at the Ukrainian championships 2016 | Photo: Ukrainian chess
SS: When did you become an IM?
ES: It was 2016. I had just turned seventeen when I got my last norm but I also made my first GM norm along with my final IM norm from the same tournament. It was some GM tournament in Hungary in 2016.
SS: But for a talented chess player as yourself, becoming an IM at seventeen is already a little bit late, right?
ES: Yeah, honestly when I was fourteen, I was quite talented but I literally didn’t have the chance to play. It was like no tournaments and no money for tournaments. I couldn’t really play anywhere. So, the period between fourteen to sixteen was not well utilized.
SS: What were you studying in Ukraine after high school?
ES: After I graduated high school I went to Moscow. I was studying there for a year in a Russian University which had some kind of a chess programme. Well, it was more like a normal University, we had a chess coach but I only met him for like couple of times. I was studying physical culture. Later I got to know about US from Alexander Onischuk who advised me to come and study in Texas. I had to clear an English exam, either TOEFL or IELTS, and I prepared for that while in Moscow and passed it and went to Texas.
The beautiful Texas Tech University in the US | Photo: Texas Tech LinkedIn
SS: Were you already a GM when you moved to Texas?
ES: No I wasn’t a GM then. I believe I had only one GM norm at that time which I made in Hungary.
SS: An exciting new chapter in your life began!
ES: Yes, Texas was a whole new experience for me. Previously I had only been to Ukraine and Russia both of which had been Soviet countries but Texas was a very different experience starting from food, culture to the University. The change was interesting.
SS: What was your thinking when you went to Texas? Did you want to first complete you education or did you want to focus on chess?
ES: I have had some friends who came to Texas before me and basically I already knew what it was going to be before I reached there. If you have lived in Ukraine or Russia, it is quite good to move to US because life is so much better here. I mean, there is no reason to not move there if one gets the chance to.
Evgeny’s teammates and friends at Texas Tech – IM Luis Torres and GM Andriy Baryshpolets | Photo: Evgeny Shtembuliak archives
SS: So overall how has Texas been for you? What are you studying there?
ES: I am studying marketing. Compared to Universities I studied in before it is much different. The University itself is huge, you have everything you could ask for. The apartments are very nice. Overall the standard of life is much better. I am on a full scholarship that basically covers my education, apartment, and food.
SS: And you live there with your girlfriend? Tell us a bit about her.
ES: Yeah sure. She is also a chess player and is rated about 2035. Her name is Nadezhda Salah. You actually have a video with her from last year’s World Junior Championship in Turkey on ChessBase India! She is also from Ukraine and we started dating when we were sixteen. It has been more than four years already and we have been together all this time. She has basically decided to dedicate most of her time to education. Now she is doing a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. We live in the same apartment. She doesn’t have full scholarship and has to pay for the classes but we are basically paying for everything by ourselves.
Evgeny with his girlfriend Nadezhda Salah | Photo: Evgeny Shtembuliak archives
SS: Does she help you in chess? Do you work together on chess?
ES: Yes, we definitely do. She gave me some really good advice before the last game and also before some other critical games at the World Juniors, which was really helpful.
SS: What advice did she give you before the last game?
ES: Before the last game it was difficult for me to maintain my concentration. I had played really well throughout the event and now it was almost there. I just needed a draw with the white pieces to win the tournament. She really helped me to handle the situation.
When Shtembuliak and Salah both became the Ukrainian national u-16 champions in the same year! | Photo: Evgeny Shtembuliak archives
SS: How do you work on your chess in Texas tech? I know there are many strong players there.
ES: Yes, it is actually very good. We have a really strong team with many strong players. Even if you play blitz it is very helpful and you get to learn different things from different players. Also our coach Alexander Onischuk used to be 2700 which is very helpful. I have always worked on chess but never that hard. Only last year I started working with a good engine and started preparing really well. In our programme we have weekly meetings with the coach. Officially I personally work with him once every week for about four hours but other than that unofficially he is always available for us. If he is there in the chess office and not busy with paperwork then you can always come over and discuss chess with him.
The Texas Tech team of 2018 | Photo: Texas Tech chess Facebook page
SS: Who are your friends in Texas?
ES: I have a couple of very good friends in Texas who are actually also my roommates Pavel Vorontsov and Sergei Matsenko. There is also Andriy Baryshpolets who is my close friend.
Shtembuliak with his best friends from Texas Tech Sergei Matsenko, Pavel Vorontsov and Luis Torres | Photo: Luis Torres
SS: How did you come to choose Texas Tech as your University. There are some more universities as well in the US, right?
ES: Well, five years ago Texas Tech had one of the largest chess programmes and now we are doing really great.We have a strong team and we are competing in different tournaments for first prize. Overall, I also had many friends here so I just wanted to have a nice atmosphere around me.
SS: How did your friends react when they came to know about you winning the World Juniors?
ES: Actually they were following my games. The games started around 12 a.m in the US and they followed the entire last round without sleeping. I really appreciate their support and support of also some other friends and parents.
SS: Tell us about your mindset in the final game. You were a pawn up and could have offered a draw to your opponent anytime and he would have accepted it. But how did you decide to play on for the win?
A draw was sufficient for the title but Shtembuliak fought till the end beat the Russian talent Volodar Murzin | Photo: Niklesh Jain
ES: Yes, I thought for a moment that I can just offer a draw and get the first place but then I thought that it would be a tie for the first place. I wanted to be the sole champion! Also then I remembered Caruana, he was playing against Grischuk in the last round of the Candidates and had a pretty big advantage with the black pieces. He just needed a draw and could have gone for it anytime but he never offered it, played on and won. Also, my position was absolutely safe so I just kept going and tried to make it work.
SS: Who are the people who have helped you to win this title?
ES: First of all, I would like to thank my parents they have been very supportive. I have also met some good people here. My roommate Sven Tica, a 2400 player from Croatia, has been very supportive and helped me deal with all the mental problems before many of my games. In fact in the last round when I was trying to calculate the tiebreak score and what would happen if I drew my game, he told me to focus on my preparation and that he would work out the details and tell me! It was the first time I met him and I thank him for all the support. And of course my girlfriend who has played a crucial role. My coach and all my friends.
SS: How does winning the World Juniors affect you? Are you going to focus on your chess more from now on?
ES: Yes, now I will definitely start working on chess more seriously, that’s for sure. I don’t think I have ever had a period where I have worked really hard. May be I will also start playing more tournaments in Europe and other parts of the world. Also I have to think about what I am going to do with my bachelors degree. If I start playing more tournaments I will surely miss more school. May be I will take some online courses to compensate for that.
SS: Do you think your University will help you in that regard?
ES: Yeah, probably they will. We will see (smiles).
SS: So you went to Texas as an IM with one GM norm and 2470 Elo but now you are a 2600 rated GM. A paradigm shift, fantastic right?
Shtembuliak, Onischuk and Vorontsov after running a half-marathon | Photo: Evgeny Shtembuliak archives
ES: Yes, actually it all started a year ago. First I was 2470 and then at some point went upto 2520, but then played some bad tournament in Europe and then played some more bad tournaments and came back to same around 2470. But last year I made my final GM norm in St.Louis and gained probably around 20 Elo points. My second GM norm was made in Minnesota in a GM invitational tournament before that. After St.Louis and my final GM norm I basically started to win every tournament. I had three tournaments where I tied for second but other than that I was just winning every event. It was going pretty well for me. Literally in every tournament I would score around 6½/9. So my rating kept increasing gradually.
Shtembuliak’s rating chart — going in the right direction!
SS: You have many serious decision to make after this victory. What is your aim in chess?
ES: First of all I want to reach 2700. It was basically a childhood dream to get to 2700 at some point. I don’t think that I will have chances to fight for World Championship. I am not sure if I will be playing chess professionally all my life.We will see how it goes.
SS: Why do you think you can’t fight for the World Championship? I mean, usually people tend to be very optimistic about the future.
ES: For something like that you need to dedicate your whole life to chess. I don’t feel like I can get to the highest level as a player. I am optimistic that I will reach 2700 at some point but to go beyond that you have to truly dedicate your life to chess. You need to work on chess every day and everything should be about chess. I am not sure if I want that.
SS: Thanks Evgeny for your time and we wish you a successful chess career ahead!
You’re going to hear the name Shtembuliak often in years to come! | Photo: Amruta Mokal
How to win winning positions — an instructive video with Evgeny Shtembuliak
Final moments of Shtembuliak’s win against Hakobyan
Shtembuliak on his win against Hakobyan
Play like Shtembuliak and checkmate in style
Zurich 1953 and Gelfand’s Positional Decision Making helped GM Shtembuliak to get better at positional chess
Evgeny Shtembuliak is the World Junior Champion 2019