Grandmaster Games: Tkachenko pursues creativity on the chess board

The average chess tournament varies wildly depending on the competitors present. At the beginner level, it’s all noise; chess pieces clacking throughout each 20-minute game. But at the opposite end of the spectrum––Super Grandmaster tournaments––tension crackles in the air. Hands hover over knights and kings, chess clocks click and tick, and competitors frown over the board. The average game for junior Erik Tkachenko is somewhere in between––equal parts noise and eerie silence, with a whopping twenty five hours spent playing. However, what sets Tkachenko apart from the person sitting across the board is his unique approach to chess.

“What I like to do is not prepare at all for any of my games… A lot of people before games, they look up their opponents name and look at all their stats, like ‘oh this guy does this, this guy does this, I’m going to go like this’––and they have their whole game planned out. But I like to just go into each game super fresh… When you’re going into the game and you know what you’re going to do, what is even the point of playing?” Tkachenko said.

Unlike many competitors, Tkachenko refuses to stick to the typical chess player’s template of memorizing strategies over and over. There are two types of chess moves––strategies, or concrete memorization of techniques; and tactics, which are creative responses to moves in real-time. Rather than rely on strategies like others, Tkachenko takes joy in emphasizing tactics, drawing from his creativity rather than canned-and-memorized sequences. 

“Strategy is very concrete, like, ‘this is good and this is bad. But I like tactics. That’s where you’re creative, and you think: ‘What if this [piece] was there?’ Then you think about how you can make it happen. That’s when you start to see all these cool ideas come in, and I’m really good at finding those ideas,” Tkachenko said.

To Tkachenko, chess shouldn’t revolve around memorization, but creativity––though he isn’t quite sure how far his approach will take him.

“The best players in the world always draw [tie] all their games because they play the first twenty moves from memory, without even thinking… that kind of defeats the whole purpose of playing. It should be about who is more creative, but I’m going to need to memorize eventually if I want to be really strong,” Tkachenko said.

Sophomore Iris Zhou, fellow teammate, agrees with this sentiment. While Tkachenko’s approach is interesting, she isn’t quite sold on spontaneous creativity.

“It depends on what his [Erik’s] goal is. If his goal is to become a Grandmaster, this isn’t going to work… If you want to be good, the originality just goes away, like everything else in life. People aren’t creative because it’s more risky,” Zhou said. 

Tkachenko’s own goal certainly is lofty. By graduation, Tkachenko plans to become a National Master. This entails a player having a rating of 2200 points. As one ascends this rating scale, it becomes harder to earn points. Currently, Tkachenko is at 2000 points. 

“If I want to reach my goal of [being a] National Master, I would definitely need to play a lot more… But in 2020, I’m going to try to make a comeback,” Tkachenko said.

But even in his attempt to ascend to a high level of playing, it doesn’t seem like Tkachenko is giving up his characteristic, out-of-the-box style anytime soon, nor the spirit of fun he brings to every game. 

“I really hate to just memorize things. I think it defeats the fun. So, yeah, that’s different than most chess players, [but] I like to be on my toes. It’s a lot more fun. ” Tkachenko said.