Like all chess players, Anna Levina plays with a quiet intensity, head bowed over the board in the deepest thought. But somehow, Levina--a widely known and respected Woman FIDE (FÈdÈration Internationale des …checs) Master--seems even more serious. Every player earns the respect of her intense concentration.
Levina isn't too quick on the draw--as she, perhaps, would be the first to admit. She plays deliberately, eschewing the "speed chess" that has become popular in recent years. "It's just a contest to see who has the fastest hand," she says. It took her six hours to grind out a tie in the U.S. Chess Championship game last year in Las Vegas--with just eight seconds left on the clock. But for Levina, who spends hours poring over problems and classic games before big tournaments and has worked for years on perfecting her game, slow and steady wins the race. At the recent Ithaca Invitational Tournament, Levina entered as the lowest-ranked player but ended up winning all of her games.
Growing up in the U.S.S.R., Levina took part in a different world of chess, one where the game sat, roughly, on the pedestal the U.S. affords only to football. Things were quite different, she found, when she moved to Syracuse, New York, at age ten. The U.S. offered more tournaments, but hardly with the same attendant sense of glory. Levina trained with her father, also a competitive player; her mother approved of the chess only reluctantly at first, preferring that her daughter study ballet. But the temptations of the game eventually won out. "They were just like toy soldiers to me," Levina says of the beckoning chess pieces. "I saw my father play, and I started playing by myself."
Duke first seriously crossed Levina's radar screen two years ago, after she read an article in Chess Life detailing the chess team's surprising tie with the team from the University of Texas at Dallas, a perennial powerhouse. Levina was considering a career in medicine, and Duke's prowess in the sciences impressed her further.
In a sport historically dominated by men, Levina has struggled at times to gain the respect of her male competitors. The American Chess Federation took over administration of the U.S. Chess Championship in 2000 and combined the separate tournaments for men and women into a single contest. The move meant that women were directly competing with men for the first time. Levina stood tall among the pioneers, and, in her words, "I had incidents. They don't expect girls to win." One particularly devastating moment came two years ago when Levina was falsely accused, in the middle of a match, of cheating. "I was completely thrown off balance," she says. "I ended up losing the game."
Like any competitor, Levina has her superstitions. There's the little statuette of Merlin she used to tote along to matches and the lucky suit she wore for her first U.S. Championship in 2002. She refuses to change pens to score a game after a win and says that changing clothes between games can also bring bad luck. "What would chess be without superstition?" she asks, smiling.
The only woman on Duke's chess team, Levina excelled last December at the Pan American Intercollegiate Tournament in Miami. Playing at second board--Matt Hoekstra '07 and Konstantin Fastovets '07 played at the first and third boards, respectively--Levina helped lead Duke to an upset over rival Stanford, a first-place, and a team standing of tenth overall. She hopes now to attract more top players to Duke's team. "There was a recruiter who came to my [high] school, and that really affected me," she said. "I wish we could get more.... Chess is just such a great addition to the community."