KEY BISCAYNE — The best women's chess player in the world flipped a dirty diaper into the trash as she pondered her next move after a dominating year.
"I want to open a chess academy online, keep training, doing the podcast," South Floridian Alexandra Kosteniuk said during a recent stroll with her baby, Francesca. "But right now, my priority is being a mommy."
Kosteniuk, 24, won the Women's World Championship in her homeland of Russia in September. After several months of traveling the globe, Kosteniuk, her husband, Diego Garces, and their 20-month-old daughter are settled back at their home in Key Biscayne.
An aspiring model who uses her good looks to promote chess, Kosteniuk has been compared to Russian tennis knockout (and Miami Beach resident) Anna Kournikova. (Kosteniuk debunks the comparison by noting that she has won individual tournaments, a feat the other Russian cannot claim.)
But, like Kournikova, Kosteniuk has managed to broaden the appeal of chess by selling her combination of talent and beauty.
About 3,000 people subscribe to her podcast at chessiscool.com, and about 10,000 others log on each month to her Web site, where they can see photos of Kosteniuk in bikinis and buy her instructional DVDs.
"It's the most popular chess site out there," said her husband, 49, who is also her Web master and publicist.
They met at a chess demonstration that Kosteniuk hosted in Switzerland, Garces' home country. He is an attentive handler, lugging oversized chess pieces to photo shoots and making sure that certain shots are off-limits — nothing promiscuous and no photos of the hubby, please.
The pair decided to make South Florida their home because Kosteniuk prefers the weather to Moscow's, and Garces' parents live here. An added perk: They are close to the World Chess Hall of Fame, situated just off the turnpike in West Kendall, where there is an Alexandra the Great exhibit highlighting Kosteniuk's successes.
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The museum is not the only one trumpeting her talents. The chess news site ChessBase.com hails her "very analytical, incisive mind and an extremely determined spirit."
She learned to play from her father when she was 5 years old. The young prodigy advanced so quickly that she was soon playing games blindfolded and dominating European tournaments. She made it to the finals of the World Championship in 2001 when she was 17 but lost.
She continued her climb to the top, becoming the 10th woman to earn the rank of international grandmaster.
Jerry Hanken, president of Chess Journalists of America, says he hopes she will inspire more women and young people to play.
But after giving birth prematurely to Francesca in April 2007, Kosteniuk took time away from the game.
She trained with fellow grandmasters and got into a daily running regimen that led her to enter several South Florida 5K races. She returned to Russia this past fall to win the World Championship — good for a $60,000 prize and a jewel-encrusted tiara. (It's about as big a payday as professional chess players see; Kosteniuk's income comes in small doses from regional exhibitions and by selling merchandise from her Web site.)
The title hasn't brought Kosteniuk worldwide fame. She gets noticed sometimes in Moscow, but "in Miami, I'm just like anyone else."
And that, she said, is fine with her. "The modeling is just a hobby. What I really want is for people to enjoy chess the way I do."
When the time is right, the champion said, she "of course" will teach her daughter to play. In the meantime, she plans to keep playing, keep studying and keep up with diaper duty.
"Being a mommy is much harder than chess," she said. "But playing chess has taught me how to predict and analyze the next move. I'd say that's pretty useful in chess and in life."