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, Fonaldson’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.
Donaldson wanted to move to the U.S. in part because she wanted Van Zandt to have more opportunities.
The couple eventually settled in Seattle, where John Donaldson worked for a magazine called Inside Chess.
About a year later, Donaldson returned to the Soviet Union to get her daughter, then 7 years old, a trip that also made headlines because it was a risky move by someone who had defected.
News reports from the time said Donaldson received permission to take her daughter out of the country, but Van Zandt remembers leaving in the dark, early-morning hours.
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.
At times, Van Zandt said, they had little money.
“I remember literally counting pennies before we went shopping,” she said.
But Donaldson, she said, always succeeded in what she set out to do.
“When she had an idea, she would play it out in life as she would at the chess board. And we all know how well she succeeded at playing out her strategies on the board.”
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. They taught individual lessons, held classes and ran chess camps and tournaments. Donaldson, of Redmond, also wrote a chess column for The Seattle Times for many years.
Orlov said his wife, who earned the title of international women’s grandmaster, had a knack for helping young students learn and love chess.
Donaldson valued her privacy, Orlov said, and didn’t talk much about the past.
“She’s not the kind of person who would look back,” he said. “She was always looking forward.”
After she was diagnosed with brain cancer last February, one of her last wishes was that the Chess Mates Foundation, of which Orlov is executive director, would host one of its elementary-school chess championships in Washington state. Van Zandt helped the foundation win the bid to host the 2014 tournament, which will be held in Seattle.
Besides her husband and daughter, Donaldson is survived by a son, Nicholas Orlov, and a sister, Tatiana Resnianskaya.