The No-Boys-Allowed Gambit | Our Town | Chicago Reader

The No-Boys-Allowed Gambit 

There's a gender gap in chess. Is segregating the girls the way to close it?

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Beatriz Marinello, the first female president of the U.S. Chess Federation, attends many chess tournaments, and usually the milling hordes there are almost entirely male. The morning of Saturday, May 14, was different. In the hallways of the Holiday Inn next door to the Merchandise Mart, girls, oblivious to passersby, plopped themselves down on the patterned carpet next to the elevators, unrolled white-and-purple vinyl boards, set up pieces, started their portable double-faced black-and-white clocks, and banged out moves. "It's exciting," Marinello said. "It's beautiful."

More than 200 girls from age 4 to 18 had come from 23 states for the second annual All-Girls Open National Championships, a two-day tournament cosponsored by the Kasparov Chess Foundation; Chess Wizards, a Chicago kids' chess program; and the U.S. Chess Federation.

There are upper-echelon female players: last year, grand master Susan Polgar played seven-time world champion Anatoly Karpov to a tie in a six-game exhibition match in Kansas, and her sister Judit is the eighth-ranked player in the world. But the game is dominated by men: more than 90 percent of the U.S. Chess Federation's members are male.

Women can play the game but few in the U.S. seem to want to. Michael Khodarkovsky, vice president of the Kasparov Chess Foundation, believes that girls are intimidated by playing in predominantly male environments. "In all other countries and in world chess competitions there are separate divisions and tournaments" for both sexes, he says. The foundation decided that a girls-only U.S. championship might help "build a bigger chess community among girls."

The world of tournament chess has a hurry-up-and-wait rhythm. Every three hours or so, through the day and evening, players started another round in one of the hotel's ballrooms, paying little attention to the world outside the hotel windows, or even to mealtimes. Nonplayers were barred from the playing area and relegated to the "skittles room" (chess jargon for a room dedicated to informal games and kibitzing), an alcove where chess books and videos were sold, and the hallways. One playing room housed the girls playing in the eight-and-under and ten-and-under sections; the other housed the four sections of older players.

A few of the larger teams had their own practice rooms; two-time U.S. women's champion Jennifer Shahade was catching her breath in one after getting her students off to their matches. The author of Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport, to be published in June, Shahade brought 15 girls to the event from New York City under the auspices of the nonprofit Chess-in-the-Schools. "Contrary to the stereotype, chess is actually a very social game," she said.

Thirteen-year-old Emillia Stewart doesn't have much of a chess peer group in her hometown of Conway, Arkansas. She studies the game with an Argentine teacher three times a week on the Internet and coaches chess at the grade school where her mother Debra teaches. She plays her father, but doesn't like to play against young beginners because she feels it hurts her own game. In the first round, she beat a higher-rated girl in a hard-fought contest and was pleased to find female competition at her level.

Devon Mitchell, a third grader at Chicago's La Salle Language Academy, ended the first round in tears. But after being comforted by her mother she helped a younger friend play an impromptu game. Later she described her team while pacing the hallway. "Our group has just 14 girls in 60 people," she said. "We expected more girls. We had a lot more in the first semester, but they got bored and had to do lots of other activities."

But girls' enthusiasm for the game seems to fall off once they hit their teens. This year's tournament drew 160 girls under age 12, and only 47 older than that; last year's proportions were similar. "I've had several girls who used to be national contenders," said Valentina Lokhova, founder of Chess Wizards, which counts about 300 girls among its 1,500 Chicago-area students. "Around age 11 or 12, about the time you start thinking about looking pretty, they came to me and said, 'I can't take chess anymore, my friends don't think it's cool,'" she said. Shahade stopped playing for a while and started again in eighth grade--"when everyone was more mature," she said.

But mature opponents can be hard to come by at any age. Maureen Campbell-Korves brought her daughter Alexandra, a seventh grader, to the tournament from New York. Knitting a sweater in the hallway outside the playing area, she recalled escorting Alexandra's middle-school team to last year's chess nationals in Dallas: she was the only girl in the group. The team took an ambitious route and chose to "play up" against high schoolers, who loomed over Alexandra. "These big boys would stand up, shove their chairs back, and she was so intimidated," Campbell-Korves said. Alexandra's team did well, but she was disconsolate on the plane home and talked about giving up the game. Still, she agreed to come to Chicago a few weeks later for the first girls' national tournament. As her mother remembered it, "Susan Polgar and the other women who spoke were so empowering for these girls. They said it's about learning to hold your own ground."

Some in attendance hold the not quite politically correct belief that boys and girls approach the game differently. "I teach kindergartners the basics, and then ask them to show me all the places that the knight can move," said Kieran McHugh, who coaches at Renaissance Academy outside La Porte, Indiana. "The boys will show every move. The girls will show every move except ones that capture an opponent's piece. Boys say things like, 'I'll battle you in chess' and 'I killed your man.' The girls just play. They are more coachable, but you have to get over that politeness factor." F. Leon Wilson, who runs the Chess Learning Center in Columbus, Ohio, interrupted his game to lean over from the next table to add his thoughts. "We've had all-girl classes," he said. "We got more done and the class was quieter."

Campbell-Korves detects the difference even in the hotel elevators. "We came up on the elevator with a bunch of little girls, and they were all about 'Where are you from?' The boys don't talk to each other." So if the all-girl chess strategy succeeds, perhaps another old feminist question will get an answer: will an influx of women change chess society, or will chess society change them?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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