Dina Belenkaya: My first stream was a total mess
Dina Belenkaya, a St. Petersburg-based streamer, has joined a roster of chess influencers by doing popular streams while maintaining a professional chess career — a feat that only a handful of chess players could manage. World Chess spoke with Belenkaya about her chess career and her experience of being the chess influencer, and her suggestions on how to become one.
Please tell us about your mother’s role in your chess development. Did she teach you how to play? Is it true that your mom was Anish Giri’s coach? As a child, did you think about a different path for your life?
Yes, my mom is a chess coach. She’s always been teaching children in Saint Petersburg. Over the last 30 years, she must have trained thousands of children. One of them was indeed Anish Giri. It’s kind of sad that her most talented player isn’t me, right? Thanks to her, I learned to play when I was three and started my first competition at 5.
I did not have any specific career in mind as a child. However, I knew that I wanted to take on some challenges and discover the world, and in the end, chess allowed me to do it.
Where did you study and where did you learn so many languages?
I mainly studied languages at the university in Saint Petersburg,
two semesters in France, and private lessons. I now consider myself trilingual (French, English , Russian) even if I don’t really like this term since I believe that you cannot fully understand the subtlety of a language that is not your mother tongue.
It took me approximately ten years for each, and the road is still long to compete with native speakers, especially when I’m commentating to a local audience. You can always see in the event’s chat some people complaining about some exotic translation you’re making! But that’s part of the game.
The best hack is to set a specific goal and a deadline. I knew that I was going to study in France and I needed to prepare in a few months, so I had the proper pressure to do it.
Motivation and goals are the best, we all know a guy or a girl who fall in love with a foreigner and become bi-lingual in a short period because they wanted to live with him or her, it’s the same spirit.
How did the idea of streaming come to you instead of going into, say, big sports?
Like many players, I had much free time during Covid since the competitions were stopped and I was invited to some online tournaments (Isolated queens run by Alexandra Botez).
I saw some potential in this activity because I had a small community already following me, and it was an opportunity to get better at commentating, creating content. Streaming is like creating your media and allows you to master a lot of new skills in a short period: editing, writing, doing your makeup really fast ;)
After the first year of trial, I decided to invest more time in this activity, mainly to build a wonderful community. In streaming, you have what everyone sees but in the background; you have a lot of people totally implicated in your channel and making you want to give even better content.
Then my sister, who was always a true artistic soul, joined me to create specific content on my channel. So we became even closer thanks to that, and having the luxury to work with someone you love is indescribable.
Can you remember your first streams? How exciting were they?
My first stream was a total mess, to be honest. Managing all of the tools, speaking for 3 hours… So it’s not always easy at first. But I remember the adrenaline and pleasure of running your live event. What’s addictive is being able to interact with people without any barriers. This interaction gives you a lot of emotion, primarily positive but even sometimes challenging.
There were not many people back then, but I found a few very supportive souls who could push me to do more.
Regarding the growth of the channel, it’s a step-by-step process. First, you have a small group composed of people already following you on social media and IRL mixed with some strangers and you manage to build a small community. Then, after this community becomes more federated, you gain some traction thanks to your content, and one day you manage to drive a lot more people. The last step is to meet bigger streamers that will help you to have even more exposure.
It seems that you mentioned that you once wanted to become an actress. It’s true? Why are you so interested in this profession and why did you decide not to follow this path?
Well, I have always admired a lot of great actresses Like Natalie Portman, but to be honest, when I was young, I was more doing some Mr. Bean faces in the mirror. I think that what I wanted was to do a challenging job where I could practice languages and interact with people. When you think of it, streaming is not that different from acting: you are setting up a show and need to deliver a good performance.
But with all of my chess training and language lessons, I never had time to take some acting classes. Maybe I should do it now to improve my performances as a commentator and streamer; who knows.
You can easily imagine what the work routine of a teacher or doctor consists of. Can you tell us what yours is made of? What rhythm do you exist in? Do you have a schedule for, weekend?
No routine at all, which is complicated to understand for people doing some 9 to 5 jobs. I generally train in the morning, then prepare to stream in the afternoon and start the broadcast in the evening. But you have to imagine that I had never worked in a corporate environment, had a boss, working schedules aside from when I was studying. I don’t even know all the blank holidays! Therefore, I can reply to an email on Saturday at 2 am, which can disturb some people!
How did you prepare to comment on the World Cup? Maybe you did some preparation of topics for discussion?
To commentate 20% of the job is related to preparation. Knowing the players, understanding the context of the tournament. But Since I am a player myself, I’m already following competitions daily. Then 80% of the job is to be good on the spot and be generous with the people listening to you. It’s a mix between acting and teaching performance.
Resting is the most crucial part because the audience can perceive even a small change in your mood, and you need to always be at your best, even at the end of a long day.
No specific numbers! Can you tell us what constitutes a chess streamer/host’s salary?
Unfortunately, I’m not a billionaire yet, even in ruble! You have different sources of income: Twitch and Youtube give you a regular cash flow and you improve it thanks to the events you’re participating in and the partnerships.
What’s interesting for me is the growth of Twitch and Youtube in this equation, which is also why I’m dedicating most time to this activity over the last months.
You’ve streamed hundreds of times. But anyway. Nervous before turning it on? Were you nervous while commenting on the World Cup?
Always, but the more you do it, the more you understand that stress is normal and can even be an ally. Not being stressed is a myth, and even big commentators always have pressure, especially in an international event.
I’ve been commentating regularly over the last three years, and now I try to experiment to find my style… The road is still long, but I hope to become better.
By the way, about the World Championship match. What do you think about the situation with Dubov? How do you feel about this patriotic uprising “you (a Russian player) can’t root for Magnus (and work in his team in the match vs a Russian)”?
It seems that the situation around the scandal with Danya Dubov is greatly exaggerated. On the other hand, such publicity can be beneficial as it adds more drama. When Andrea Botez asked Magnus at the World Championships how the knight moves, a huge drama immediately arose, and the more there is, the more people are attracted to chess. Danya has always impressed me with a special approach to everything. As for this situation: he had already worked with Magnus before, so I don’t see anything criminal here. Danya himself said that Karjakin helped Rajabov, an Azerii, in the Candidates Tournament. So you can blame anyone for not being a patriot like this...
Is it easy for you to work with your sister? Do you have work / creative disputes?
No dispute at all, we are very close and it’s a pleasure to work together. We have some passionate chat from time to time about some type of content, about how to position ourselves as women in regard to the Twitch community, which can be harsh sometimes.
You said in one interview that you get upset when you see/hear sexist comments about your appearance. Are you going to do something about it? (Change image/answer haters)
Yes, it’s always hard, but you learn to cope with negative comments with time. Unfortunately, I am often reduced to my appearance and gender a lot, and since I’m advocating for women’s empowerment into the chess world, it’s not a good example.
Some articles depict me only as “a beautiful woman also playing chess”, others as “one more sexy streamer”...
What is hard is that even if you do not recognize yourself in this image, you are always afraid that this is the one you are unintentionally giving the audience.
If I am not mistaken, you will have a women’s tournament “Pride of the Amazons” on December 18th. What’s the idea behind the tournament? Does the idea contradict the idea that men and women should play on equal terms?
I consider my contribution to women’s chess one of my most important goals as a chess ambassador. For example, on December 18, I hosted a tournament with the support of Motiva, a company that makes breast implants for women. Since the fall of 2021, she has become a FIDE partner. By the way, next year has been declared by FIDE as “The Year of Women in Chess”. It was an honor for me to organize a women’s tournament, to help women prove themselves.
Alexandra Kosteniuk recently said in an interview: “If we want to support female chess players, it’s better to leave a lifeline called women’s tournaments.” Do you also see women’s tournaments as a way of equalizing men and women in the chess world?
As of today, I totally agree with her as there is still a need to have tournaments for women. The reason is that we have much better male players than women players in terms of percentage. It’s good to have some tournaments reserved for women.
But what interests me is more about what could happen in the next 20 years. If we have more women playing chess, we might increase the female audience following chess and create many more women champions that will be more and more able to beat men. It will also attract more sponsors, helping more women to live only out of chess, and creating some new role models that will push more little girls to start playing, creating a virtuous circle that in the end, maybe, will manage to allow men and women to play on equal terms in the same competition.
It’s the same about the place of women in business. 50 years ago, it was impossible to consider a woman being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Now maybe 15% of it is driven by women. There was a positive trend of women studying, affirmative action, role models that inspired a generation of young women to be more ambitious etc…
Your work is closely connected with a constant presence in public space. Please tell us in this regard – what is your relationship with your appearance? Do you fully accept yourself? Are you satisfied with yourself? How much attention do you pay to it? If you tell me what exactly you like (sports, cares, cosmetics, some beauty bloggers), it will be cool.
Of course, I pay a lot of attention to my appearance as it is part of the show and my image. When an event takes me as a commentator, they for sure look at my skills and want to have a feminine figure that will add up to the show, and I’m aware of that.
Inappropriate comments about my appearance or style are always hurtful, and you have to learn to build up your resistance to any negativity. But the most hateful comments are not related to my appearances but when my appearance only defines me. Being feminine is essential, but I want to be recognized only by my efforts, not my image.
You have interesting looks for streaming! Please tell us where you dress, does someone help you, are you inspired by someone?
The challenge is not the style itself, but the number of clothes you need to maintain the rhythm! If I have ten shows in a row, I need ten different outfits, while in real life I would have reused some of them.
What is your average screen time per day? Are you getting tired of your phone?
My biggest challenge is reducing my screen time, but I have to face that it is almost impossible as all my activities need a screen. For example, I need to be in front of a computer when I train or stream, and most of my businesses and social media require a phone.
But I try to disconnect as much as I can, doing some walks or a bit of sport to change my mind, but I found it hard to do regular detox.
How sensitive are you to comments on social media? Do you often feel offended and unpleasant, or have you already increased your armor?
At first, it was very hard because the reality is that when you stream and have some social media you have hundreds of messages and comments per day and 10% of them are negative. In some events, it can go up to 30%. They can be related to your appearance, how you talk, your skills etc…
But with time, you realize that some of them are constructive or help you in a way to identify some areas where you need to get better. And for the purely negative ones, well, I like to remind those people that I am the one commentating or playing and if they are better, they are welcome to stand up and try to do what I do if they can.
In the end, it’s part of the game and you need to learn to deal with it by dissociating the “public Dina” who is criticized and the real me that they don’t know. But this distinction is sometimes thin so the negativity often hurts.
As a person whose work is largely tied to a public image, how do you cope with situations/days when you feel sad or want to send everything to hell?
I will say that my sister and my community are my best allies to overcome tough days. You need to remember that many people like what you are doing and why you are doing this. One great moment is worth ten negative situations.
Do you have any ideas on how to make chess Great again? And is it necessary?
Well, a war between Russia and the US would help, right? More seriously, I think we saw that chess could become more mainstream thanks to the Queen’s gambit TV show, which increased the number of beginners worldwide.
Imagine for a moment a world without the Internet. What would you do in it?
Well, the internet has profoundly modified chess but this sport existed centuries before its apparition. I would be a happy chess player, reading books and training chess on the real board.
Please tell us what an ideal weekend for Dina Belenkaya looks like in her favorite city?
Sleeping until noon, having 4 hours to prepare myself… I guess a luxury for me is just having unlimited time that I don’t have anymore. The perfect mix for me is learning, doing sport, and disconnecting.