SEATTLE Elena Akhmilovskaya Donaldson, once ranked the second-best women’s chess player in the world, moved to Seattle after eloping in 1988 with the captain of the U.S. chess team when they were both playing at a tournament in Greece.
She went on to win the U.S. women’s chess championships in 1990 and 1994, and tied for first in 1993. More recently, she devoted herself to coaching young chess students in the Seattle area, especially girls.
Donaldson died Sunday, nine months after being diagnosed with brain cancer. She was 55.
Born in Leningrad in 1957, Donaldson learned chess from her mother, who was a regional chess champion in the former Soviet Union, said Donaldson’s husband, Georgi Orlov. She attended a state university in Siberia, but before graduating she left to play chess professionally.
In 1978, when Donaldson was in her early 20s, she won all 10 of her games at the Chess Olympiad, an international team tournament. She played for the Soviets again in 1986, when they won the tournament. That same year, she won the right to challenge Maya Chiburdanidze, another Soviet player who was the reigning world women’s chess champion. Donaldson lost that match.
Donna Van Zandt, Donaldson’s daughter, said at that time her mother was one of the few professional women chess players who had a child. And she was a single mother after Donaldson divorced her first husband in 1987.
Van Zandt remembers traveling to some of her mother’s tournaments, where other chess stars took care of her while her mother played. Once, she said, her caretaker was World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov.
Van Zandt said her mother lived a glamorous life as a Soviet chess star, owning a condo and wearing fur coats.
But in the late 1980s, she left all that behind. She had fallen in love with John Donaldson, then captain of the U.S. men’s chess team. When both were playing in Greece in 1988, they eloped and left before the tournament was over.
The couple eventually settled in Seattle, where John Donaldson worked for a magazine called Inside Chess.
Donaldson’s marriage to Donaldson lasted only a few years, but she stayed in Seattle, taught herself English, worked as an accountant and wrote software as she continued to play chess.
Donaldson married Orlov in 1995 after he, too, had moved to the Seattle area. They had first met in Moldova, when she hired him as one of her coaches.
Together, the couple ran the Orlov Chess Academy, which has offices in Seattle and Redmond. Besides her husband and daughter, Donaldson is survived by a son, Nicholas Orlov, and a sister, Tatiana Resnianskaya.
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