What separates the exceptional from the mundane? The superlative from the good? The greats from the rest? The sport of chess is separated by those who are grandmasters and those who are not.
Ireland has only one chess grandmaster, and he was born 400km east of Moscow, in what was then the Soviet Union and is now Russia. His name is Alexander Baburin, and he lives in Dublin.
Baburin was introduced to the world of chess at the age of seven, when two life events coincided: his father bought him a set, and a woman came to his school to start a club for it. In his spare time he found himself studying chess books and playing the game. “My parents were working and I was an only child. There were maybe one or two programmes on television. So chess really was the game to play,” he says.
Some people thought of me as an invader, coming here and winning tournaments. The funny thing is that I would have had more opportunities elsewhere, but I chose to live here
As he grew so did his game, even during his two-year mandatory stint in the army, when he honed his craft, practising as much as possible. When the Soviet Union started opening up to the world, in the late 1980s, Baburin started travelling to chess tournaments in other countries.
His journey towards Ireland began by pure chance, when he was competing at a tournament in the north of France in 1993. "Over breakfast I met two Irish chess players at the hotel. One of them was Eamon Keogh" – the chairman of the Irish Chess Union at the time – "who had a dream to invite someone from the former Soviet Union to come to Dublin and work for a year. He asked me if I knew anyone who would be interested. I began to think of people who might be interested, but it wasn't until later that I found out he was actually meaning me. He wanted me, but I just wasn't aware of that phrase of speech," he says, laughing.
In the autumn of 1993, after a visit to Dublin earlier in the year, for a tournament over Easter, Baburin moved to Ireland with his family – initially for one year, but ultimately for very many more.
He just coached originally, which proved to be an uneasy way to make a living, forcing him to play internationally again and pursue the grand-master title, which he achieved in 1996. “In simple terms, to become a grandmaster you must have an international rating of over 2,500, and to have won two major tournaments which include other grandmasters, as winning once could just be a fluke.”
Initial reaction to Baburin’s presence in Ireland wasn’t completely positive. “Some people thought of me as an invader, coming here and winning tournaments. The funny thing is that I would have had more opportunities elsewhere, but I chose to live here – I wanted to live here. I believe I’ve contributed a lot to Irish chess since. It happened, but I look at it philosophically: it would have happened anywhere.
“Chess is all about confrontation. You quickly learn that you’ve got to toughen up. You’ll have to stand up to some pressure. Besides, for the one person who doesn’t like you because you’re different, you may have five people who do like you for the very same reason,” he says.
Chess teaches people how to deal with stress and cope with defeat. Children can often grow up quite sheltered and not face too many challenges, but if you lose in chess you have no one to blame but yourself
In 2008, after 15 years in Ireland, Baburin entered the Irish chess championship for the first time, and won. He hasn’t competed at the highest level for more than 10 years; nowadays he mainly focuses on teaching – not only the methods and styles of the game but also the variety of life lessons it offers.
“Chess teaches people how to deal with stress and cope with defeat. Children can often grow up quite sheltered and not face too many challenges, but if you lose in chess you have no one to blame but yourself – while also making you humble in success, as you know how the other side is feeling.”
Baburin had his Rocky Balboa moment last month, as he returned to the ring for one last bow, finishing with the bronze medal in the 100th Irish Championship.
The game's profile has risen a lot in the past year because of the hit Netflix series The Queen's Gambit, in which Anya Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, an orphan who rises inexorably to the heights of international chess after largely teaching herself to play the game, in part by using drugs to help her find winning strategies.
Baburin found the programme to be enjoyable and accurate, except for one part. “Substance abuse is far, far removed from the game of chess. In chess you learn to plan ahead and weigh the pros and cons. You are forced to think in a rational way.”
I could lock myself away with a violin, but I won't come out a virtuoso. I would need to hear other people and need them to hear me. The same goes for chess
Baburin was also unconvinced by the series’ notion that people can become extraordinary on their own. “I could lock myself away with a violin, but I won’t come out a virtuoso,” he says. “I would need to hear other people and need them to hear me. The same goes for chess.”
What advice would Baburin give a younger version of himself? “Hard work compensates for a lot in chess. My highest [international] ranking was 70, and I’m convinced I could have reached 20. That would not have been impossible. Now, whether that would have made me a happier person, I don’t know,” he says.
“It is difficult to make a living off chess, but very few players ever give it up. It’s a way of life. Let me put it this way: I’m very glad that lady came to my school. Chess was good to me.”