This month 10 of the best young female chess players in the country will compete in St. Louis for the title of U.S. Girls’ Junior Champion. It is the first in-person national championship among girls since the pandemic moved American chess online in early 2020. It is also the first such championship since the premiere of “The Queen’s Gambit,” the
hit series about an orphan girl,
partly based on American chess champ
who rises to the pinnacle of the chess world.
The tournament marks a transition point between Americans—especially American girls and women—and chess. Nearly half a century ago, Fischer’s Cold War shootout with the Soviet Union’s
ignited American passion for the game. But the Fischer phenomenon didn’t include women. Fischer even asserted in 1962 that women are “terrible chess players” and shouldn’t be involved in “intellectual affairs.”
The recent chess boom has brought new players to the game, and a higher percentage of women have been playing on chess.com since the debut of “The Queen’s Gambit.” Sales of chess sets have grown, as have the number of games played online, with millions of new members signing up.
Now, with life starting to return to normal, will interest in chess fade? And, in particular, will it fade for women and girls?
I think not. What we are witnessing is anything but a fad.
American chess has been gathering strength for at least a decade now. Inclusion in chess has been helped by clubs and camps for girls, along with women’s tournaments with unprecedented prize money. The $100,000 purse in the 2018 U.S. Women’s Chess Championship was four times what it was in 2008.
To see the impact of these changes, compare the competitive environment I faced as an emerging player in the late 1990s with what exists today.
A generation ago, there was no U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship. When I was 17, I played the U.S. Junior Open instead, taking a long solo bus ride to upstate New York, with a few changes of clothes and a dream of becoming the first female champion. After winning my games, I took a Greyhound back to Philadelphia, accidentally leaving my giant trophy behind in the luggage compartment. To me, the title was all that mattered.
Today, most girls play women’s events as well as unrestricted ones, where they break numerous records. The top seed at the St. Louis event is
a 19-year-old MIT student who in 2019 became the first female to win the Pan-American Junior Championship in Bolivia.
Top-flight competition among American girls wasn’t possible in the 1990s and early 2000s. When I earned the title of Chess Master, equating to a ranking of 2200, in 1996, at the age of 15, there were only a few American girls at that level.
Today, 16 girls under 21 have U.S. Chess Federation ratings of close to 2200 or above. Among the 10 girls who will play in St. Louis, the youngest—11-year-old
of Minnesota—surpassed the 2000 threshold when she was eight.
The growth of high-level talent among American girls is spectacular. And while the top players are getting stronger, the base is also widening.
Historically, girls and women haven’t been well-represented in chess primarily because their marginal position in self-perpetuating. How much fun is it for a 15-year-old girl to attend a tournament where there are no other girls to hang out with? I pulled back from chess at age 13 for this reason. I pined for my elementary school days, where I’d eat chips and study chess with other girls. I came back to it because my family loved the game—both my brother, Greg, and father, Michael, are chess champions. But most girls who leave the game never look back.
As the obstacles to girls in chess break down, more will share in the game’s benefits. They’ll lose themselves in play, meet people of different backgrounds, and strengthen their cognitive muscles as well as their confidence and decision-making. They’ll also gain through networking, college admissions and scholarships.
The awful pandemic and “The Queen’s Gambit” gave chess a big boost. But this boost won’t fade. Anyone who loves the show will make sure their daughters are exposed to chess.
the actress who played Beth Harmon in “The Queen’s Gambit,” told my girls club at the U.S. Chess Federation: “Make way for a whole bunch of queens.”
Ms. Shahade is women’s program director for the U.S. Chess Federation. She is a two-time U.S. women’s champion in chess and was the first female winner of the U.S. Junior Open.
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