By Jena Ardell
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If anyone is in a position to answer the question, it is Bruce Pandolfini, who has taught some of the country's top young players, including Josh Waitzkin, the seven-year-old genius portrayed in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer. "When I first began playing and a woman would play at a tournament, the pressure was very intense," says Pandolfini. "It's become a lot more egalitarian now. Chess players respect chess players who play well, rather than thinking about whether or not someone's a man or a woman."
Krush credits her father, Boris, with encouraging her to overcome the gender divide. The laissez-faire American approach to training was never an option under his roof. Boris turned straight to the Soviet playbook, where state-sponsored "athletic training" regimes forced chess players to work up a sweat daily. An expert player who frequented Odessa's cutthroat chess clubs before emigrating to the States with his wife and child in 1989, he taught her to win.
Irina spoke no English when she was a shy little girl arriving in Brooklyn in the dead of winter and spent her first days here playing chess at her father's side. Five years later, when Boris brought her to Pandolfini, it was apparent she was a prodigy. "The way you can tell if a chess player is talented is by following her eyes. Irina's eyes were moving all over the place. Usually children tend to stare at the board," Pandolfini says. "I knew right then that she had the potential to go very far."
Krush still speaks with a subtle Slavic lilt and lives with her parents, who work as certified public accountants from their home near the Little Odessa section of Brooklyn. Although Boris was deeply involved in his daughter's training until she turned 12, he and his wife, Luba, exhibit little of the neurosis that so often plagues the parents of gifted children. "They really want her to have a normal life," says Weiss, "but her life is anything but normal."
Despite three-week solo tournament trips to England, Armenia, India, and elsewhere, Krush says she doesn't feel different from any other teen. She talks on the phone, shops at the mall, spends hours in chat rooms. But because she travels so much, she stopped attending school regularly in her freshman year, and as a result, most of her friendships are chess related. Her best friend, Olga, is Ukrainian grandmaster Igor Novikov's daughter.
Krush says she gave up on trying to fit in when it became clear she outstripped her peers intellectually. "I used to have this list of things not to do. It was like, 'I will not wear pink,' " says Krush. She was, predictably, a bookworm, self-conscious about her immigrant status. "I stopped trying to be cool when I was 12 and just decided that I could be myself."
Endlessly analytical, Krush studies chess six hours a day, memorizing dozens of variations like "the Ruy Lopez," "the Dragon," "the Slav Exchange," and "the Nimzo-Indian." Before tournaments, she meets daily with her new coach, Leonid Yudasin, a Russian grandmaster. For the most part, though, Krush plans her assaults alone within the confines of her pastel citadel. "It's a very solitary life. I think I make pretty decent choices about which variations I study. I prepare by myself for the games. It's actually pretty fun to zero in on your opponent and pick out his weaknesses."
Still, she is superstitious about winning. She puts her hair back with a lime green or bright orange scrunchy depending on which she wore at her last major win. When she was in St. Petersburg, Russia, playing in an international under-21 tournament, she ritualistically arrived at a nearby restaurant to order a reassuringly bland plate of meat and potatoes, two hours to the second before each game began.
To get in shape for upcoming winter tournaments in England and Bermuda, Krush is taking a year off between high school and college, although she worries that it might be a mistake. "There are people who play the game their whole lives and don't go to school," says Krush. "Then when they get older they're not so remarkable and they can't do anything well but play chess." But it is too early for Krush to have any such regrets. "You know how people are always saying they need to have some sort of rock for their lives? For me chess is that rock."