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Interview with Anna Tonkonogui

Date: December 23, 2002

NWC: How long have you been playing chess?

Anna: I've known how to play chess since I was four years old when my grandfather taught me. But I've really been playing competitively only since early high school - I think the 10th grade.

NWC: So you got involved through your school team. And what school was that?

Anna: Garfield High School. Actually, I got involved with my high school team through Elena Donaldson, my chess mentor and instructor for a couple of years.

NWC: Did you take to it right away or did you have to struggle like the rest of us?

Anna: I took to a lot of it right away. As I say, I've been playing off and on since I was a kid. I just completely by accident ran into Elena and it happened to be one of my interests and I started taking lessons with her and it just sort of fit smoothly and then I got into tournaments.

NWC: And how did you happen to meet Elena?

Anna: It was at a New Year's party one year. She came as a friend of a friend and we started talking and then I started taking lessons from her.

NWC: Did you enter regular tournaments or just the schools' events?

Anna: Actually I didn't like those (the school events) very much because they were all 30 minutes and I think
that the 30 minute reglament is the worst that you can get. It's not blitz and it's not a normal game. A normal game for me would just be 40/2. So I played in regular Seattle Chess Club tournaments more than I did in scholastic events.

NWC: What role does chess play in your life and How important is it?

Anna: It's a great way to just calm down and organize one's thoughts. Everything else in life is usually so chaotic. You have to run from place to place. Everything has deadlines. It has to be done right now. Chess allows you to sit down and think. A lot of other things you just have to do them and it doesn't allow you much time for thought. Previously it was also one of the only things that I did that was . . . Right now, with college life, you really can't just do chess.

NWC: Some people get into chess and it takes over their life. This obviously hasn't happened with you. But have
you had to curtail your chess activities?

Anna: Yes, and that is really unfortunate because once you stop devoting a lot of time to it, it really goes downhill. I haven't been playing much recently, but I have been teaching a lot. Looking at the games of the kids, you start playing like a lot of them - you know, just looking for quickies and that gets you into a lot of trouble with serious chess players.

NWC: So you teach chess - in what connection?

Anna: I teach chess at Bryant Elementary School. Actually, I've been teaching in elementary schools for 3 years now.
And in Elena and Georgi's chess camps over the Summer.

NWC: You also did some work with SmartGirls last Spring in connection with af4c?

Anna: Yes, that was a workshop. I don't remember what the formal title was, but it was about how chess computers think and how computers think in connection with how you play chess. Actually, I didn't really like the idea of the
workshop because computers think in trees - you know, they have one move and then they have different combinations which can come from that move, whereas if humans think like that, they'll never be able to play a decent game in their life. They'll just run out of time, they can't take operations like that, so at the workshop I inserted "How to NOT think like a chess computer" in the title.

NWC: Chess is a competitive game. Are you a generally competitive person?

Anna: Oh, definitely. All I do are competitions, like the robotics competition and chess tournaments and fencing
tournaments and . . .

NWC: Does this aspect ever invade areas which may not be suited to competitiveness?

Anna: Frequently. I actually have to watch for that, try to not get into competitions with my friends. I frequently
find myself arguing just because I think debating is fun and I sometimes forget that a lot of people don't think
that way.

NWC: The competitiveness of the game is one of its attractions for you, though?

Anna: Definitely. Also, the game is really elegant, I find. I frequently would rather have a good game than
just get together with a 900 player and just sweep them off the board. I don't think that is very interesting,
but then again that is not really competition.

NWC: Back to the robotics for a moment. Can you explain how the robotics competition works?

Anna: The competition is set up as a tool to inspire younger kids. There is a version for elementary school kids and middle school kids, but this one is for high school kids. It pairs them up with partners and mentors from universities and/or corporations. In our case, we are a university team working with Roosevelt High School. We are given 6 weeks to build a fully functional, 130 pound remote-controlled robot. Then we go to regionals (which this year will be held here at the University of Washington) and somewhere else if we have the money for it. The Nationals are
usually held in f-cot (?), in Disney World, but this year they are going to be in Houston, Texas.

NWC: What do the rules specify concerning the task and the types of materials, et cetera?

Anna: The rules give you a general task. They limit you on the weight of the robot and on the dimensions of the robot and on the material that you can use on the robot. In previous years, they also limited the amount of money that you could spend on it, but last year they didn't and I don't expect them to this year.

NWC: Do the robots compete solo, or is there a battle element?

Anna: Actually, that is part of the rules. Sometimes, it is one-on-one. Last year, it was two-on-two. Previously
it was a team of 4 robots working together in an earthquake simulation. It is whatever T. Kamen (?) who is the founder of the competition, comes up with.

NWC: When do the rules come out?

Anna: January 4th.

NWC: And what is your role in the project?

Anna: I am the team captain and have been for last year and all of this year. I organize the team, I get everybody
together during the Summer, I get everybody situated, I organize sub-teams, like fund raising, graphics, animation. I don't do the technical organization much because I am just a Sophomore and I haven't gone too far in the Engineering program. I do most of the coordination and I do a lot of the strategy. This sort of comes with chess. A lot of it is just like a giant chess game.

NWC: How has your involvement in the robotics club benefited you?

Anna: Well, you get a lot of technical training. You have to go through extensive machine shop work, for example, but I don't think that is as important as learning to organize people, to deal with them, to figure out how to get them to do what is necessary. It is a huge team - about 30 people - and to get them working on the same thing and understanding what everybody needs to do and just communicating with each other is a huge task. But once it gets going it is something pretty amazing - it is something you can be proud of.

NWC: What do you do in connection with the robotics club apart from the competition itself?

Anna: Well, it is a $50,000 project and our economy is dead. So there is a lot of fundraising and marketing and
publicizing. We have to get our name out, otherwise the businesses that support us will not really get anything
out of it - that is why they support us in the first place. Aside from the fact that they are sponsoring a good thing,
they want to get their name out in the papers in connection with supporting this educational project.

NWC: Who is in charge of the fund raising?

Anna: I usually have to find business majors to coordinate the fundraising, but the problem is that the business majors are not connected very well to the technical side of the team, so I act as an intermediary. It is mostly during the Summer and the Fall that a lot of organizational stuff happens - the team has to be assembled. Every year it is a new team. So we have to find new people, they have to be trained in the machine shop - that has been going on ever since Summer. They have to be put into the sub-groups. For example, the graphics team has to make posters, the animation team has to learn 3-D Max or whatever animation software they are going to be working on.

NWC: In a lot of your activities - chess, rock climbing, robotics, engineering, fencing - women are a very decided
minority. Do you sometimes feel a bit isolated?

Anna: Actually I find it a lot easier to interact with men. Maybe that is because I have been involved with so many activities where women are the minority that it has become natural. I know that is not very common among women.
They usually feel hindered by that. It's just not that way for me.

NWC: I know of one woman chessplayer who said that it was an intimidating experience just to walk into a room
with a hundred other men and you're the only woman there.

Anna: I don't think about it any more. I honestly cannot remember a time when I was intimidated by that. I guess
partly it was because I have more in common with men just because they tend to do the things that I do. That is who
I usually interact with.

NWC: Do you find yourself ever wishing that there were more women involved in these activities?

Anna: I would like to interact with interesting people whether they are men or women. I find it very sad that a lot of women are intimidated by it and I would certainly like to change that. If somebody wants to do something or thinks that they should be able to do something I fully support that and would like to be of assistance in having them do that, but I don't want to say that we need to have 50% men here and 50% women here regardless of what anybody wants.

NWC: Do you consider yourself to be a role model for girls or women?

Anna: That's kind of hard to say. I like what I do and I think I do a lot of things well and if that is what it means to be a role model, well, sure.

NWC: Who were your role models, I mean, besides Dr. Claw?

Anna: (laughter) He operates from behind the computer and I think that's great because there is so much he can do with just pushing one button.

NWC: And nobody ever sees his face - is that part of it?

Anna: It's more of a hierarchy. You push a button, a butterfly flops its wings somewhere in the desert, and a typhoon happens somewhere in Zimbabwe. I think that kind of effect is really cool.

NWC: Do you have any human role models?

Anna: My mind doesn't really work that way. There are a lot of people whom I admire, like the mentor for the
robotics team, Prof. Momishev. He got the whole team started. He balances ten thousand things in one minute.
That kind of ability is amazing. That is something I would like to be able to do some day. But every person is amazing and has something to be learned from.

NWC: You do a lot of volunteer work, for example with SmartGirls and also Stone Gardens - a rock climbing club?

Anna: It's a rock climbing gym. You can do rock climbing outside, like in the Cascades, and I do some of that or
you can do rock climbing inside where they attach fake rocks to the walls and basically make routes. I volunteer
there, sometimes just belaying people, holding the rope so kids can climb up.

NWC: And with SmartGirls you've done some work and I guess the Bryant school is volunteer.

Anna; Actually, that is a paid job. An hour a week.

NWC: How do you like working with kids?

Anna: It's a lot of fun, but it can sometimes frustrating. Their chess is frustrating. I mean, when you tell something
and they nod and they seem to understand and then you look at their board and their first move is 1 h4.

NWC: Turning to politics - are you a feminist? Is feminism relevant to your life?

Anna: There are many different definitions of feminism. If by "feminism" you mean do I think that women are
superior to men, then of course not. I don't think that the world should be ruled by a division of sexes in any way. It should be ruled by personalities, by abilities.

NWC: Some of the more radical, or extremist, depending on your point of view, segments of the feminist movement
have criticized the scientific method, saying that it is anti-woman, that it represents male patriarchal ways of
thinking, and that women's ways of knowing are somehow different. Have you encountered any of these attitudes?

Anna: Not really, but then I don't spend that much time around radical feminists. I think that if there is a way
of thinking and it is applicable then it should be recognized.

NWC: In my encounters with people like this, they would substitute this for scientific proof.

Anna: Like if you feel like it's going to rain, is just as solid as meteorological. I think intuition is valid in many ways, and I think it is a valid psychological thing but it is certainly not a substitute for science in any way.