With moves on the chess board and from his native Turkmenistan to America, Ruslan Ahundov became one of the highest ranking players in the world and a lake breeze-loving resident of Port Washington
Ruslan Ahundov pleaded with his father to take him to chess school.
The Port Washington resident grew up in Turkmenistan with little access to books, but his family had a chess set. The game quickly became a passion, and he wanted to become a better player.
“He kept saying in the near future,” Ahundov said of his dad’s consistent response. “But I was young and aggressive for knowledge.”
Finally, in October 1984, Ahundov’s father took him to the chess school. Enrollment had filled in September as it operated on a regular school calendar, but the coach let Ahundov play one of his middle-strength players.
Ahundov beat him, so the coach let him play his top player.
Ahundov beat him too.
Ahundov was enrolled. Since his family didn’t have a car, the 9-year-old took a trolley alone to the school three days per week after his regular school.
Ahundov became his team’s best player and beat everyone in his first-ever tournament. He moved up the ranks in his country, taking different coaches to bring him to the next level.
In 1995 at 20 years old, Ahundov became a FIDE Master (Federation Internationale des Echecs, or World Chess Federation) and today holds a 2400+ ranking, one of the highest echelons in chess.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ahundov was allowed to play internationally and competed in tournaments in Romania, Bulgaria, Germany and India. Through a point system, he earned the title of international master.
In 1996, he became the Turkmenistan national champion. He had earned plenty of certificates and recognition for his success, but chess wasn’t a way to make a living.
Ahundov earned his degree in geophysics and seismology in Turkmenistan and worked in logistics and inspection in the oil and gas industry.
He began applying to come to the United States in the late 1990s, but for five years in a row wasn’t selected in the lottery system.
After getting married, he applied twice – once for himself and once for his wife Regina. She ended up being selected.
“She was my lucky number,” he said.
The family of three came to the U.S. in 2006, completing a dream Ahundov had since 1994.
“If you do right and know your job, you get financial independence,” he said of America.
That wasn’t the case in Turkmenistan. He didn’t bother to have more children since career opportunities were so scarce. Since he is of Azerbaijan descent, he wasn’t allowed to play on the Turkmenistan national chess team or work for the government.
Ahundov now has three children, Rena, 13, Ralph, 5, and Roxana, 3. His family loves the lake breeze that reminds him of living near the Caspian Sea, but coming from the hot, dry climate of Turkmenistan has been an adjustment.
“My family still struggles a little with winter,” he said.
Ahundov works as a senior electronic data analyst for a group of benefit management companies called SKYGEN USA in Menomonee Falls. He is able to apply decades of mastering his favorite game to his career.
His job requires access to multiple systems and ever-changing passwords. Ahundov uses piece locations from opening moves of various types of chess games.
“If you are a hacker and you want to break my password, you better play chess,” he said.
Though he works long hours and spends as much time with his family as he can, Ahundov teaches chess and plays online in his spare time. He has his own website, www.russianchessschool.com.
He said one of his most memorable victories came in 1994 in Bulgaria against a grand master. This time, money was on the line.
“He was three times older than me. My coach said do just the best you can,” he said.
Ahundov tried to earn a draw from the start, taking a defensive strategy.
“I want to get $100,” he said.
His opponent went on the attack, and Ahundov kept thwarting the efforts.
“If you fight back, you can make a mistake and he can get you,” he said. “He couldn’t resist, and I started improving my positions and I started attacking.”
With Ahundov in the lead, the grand master knocked over the chess pieces, got up and left. He didn’t shake hands, violating chess etiquette.
“I was a tricky player but it’s all sportsmanship. He didn’t catch me and all he had left was a draw.”
That was the first grand master he ever beat. Ahundov ended up being called the “defender.”
“In the beginning, everyone tries to win. I tried to defend right away. He didn’t expect that strategy,” he said.
At high levels of chess, games usually don’t end in checkmate, Ahundov said. Many players resign after 10 to 15 moves.
Games may last for days. At the start, each player is allowed two hours to make 40 moves. After that, each player has one hour to make 20 moves.
If the game still isn’t over, the players come back the next day and have one hour for another 20 moves, and then come back the following day for the same thing.
Ahundov said his longest game took eight hours.
His success came from hours of practice under guidance of his father, who became his first coach and second opponent.
“If you want to beat me, you have to play 1,000 games against yourself,” his father told him.
His dad taught him to get proper rest before games and had him play with loud music blaring, along with other distractions. That experience now helps with multi-tasking at work, Ahundov said.
Ahundov has been featured in various publications, including “64,” a popular chess magazine in Russia.
He still has a rose gold ring with diamonds and a knight and a rook, a gift from his parents.
Ahundov’s favorite chess piece is the knight, which moves in an L shape, two squares horizontally and one vertically, or two vertically and one horizontally. He said he is trying to teach Ralph how the knight works.
“With the way it moves, it’s more like innovation,” Ahundov said.
The game of chess, he said, is a brain fight. Beginners don’t understand they must have a goal and integrity among the pieces.
“You really find out the logic and the way to want to achieve the goal. It’s your personality,” he said.
Each piece, he said, plays to one another, covering different spaces.
“It’s some kind of harmony,” he said.
Masters see two to three moves ahead. If Ahundov finds himself in a bad position after 10 or 15 moves, he has a strategy.
“At this part I start concentrating. Every single time I try to improve my position,” he said.
It becomes a metaphor larger in scope.
“Life, from any position – you should be able to improve your position,” he said.