Chess is shedding its old man image for something much more rock ’n roll, and Tucson group 9 Queens has been a major player. By Gabby Ferreira.
The atmosphere on this Friday night is lively. Children are playing, shouting and laughing, while their parents chat with each other and sometimes join in on the fun. It's a scene that could be found on a playground or a 4th of July get-together. But this is, in fact, a giant chess gathering.
Boys lug giant chess pieces across a large chessboard while others - children and adults - sit at tables, in a space at Bookmans Entertainment Exchange in Tucson.
The organization behind it?: 9 Queens, a Tucson non-profit that wants to not only empower children – especially girls – through chess, but to prove that this board game is anything but boring.
In a perfect chess game, nine is the highest number of queens you can have on a board – hence the name 9 Queens. Through events like the 4th Friday Family Fun Night at Bookmans, and its annual Chess Fest – held in the courtyard of Hotel Congress every April – 9 Queens seeks to do several things: make the game fun and accessible; encourage people to reach their ultimate potential; and help chess shed its old-man image.
That image-shedding is already happening thanks to some pop culture boosts to the game. Ben Affleck, Will Smith, Jessica Simpson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Keanu Reeves have all been associated with the game. Chess superstar Magnus Carlsen, ranked world's top player at the age of just 22, has been dubbed the “Brad Pitt of chess”. He lends his name to brands like the fashion line G-STAR RAW, and last year was named by Cosmopolitan magazine as one of the world’s sexiest men.
Here in Tucson, 9 Queens’ Chess Fest has attracted its own star players. This year the special guest at the event - held April 26th - is Rochelle Ballantyne, a famous female chess player who is part of the new chess generation.
Rochelle, who attends Stanford University, was featured in the documentary Brooklyn Castle, which is about five members of a chess team at a below-poverty-level junior high school in Brooklyn that has won more national championships than any other team in the U.S., despite harsh budget cuts. Rochelle was taught by her grandmother, and says that her family forced her into playing but she started to love it after she won her first competition. "[Winning] translated into me being one of very few women who are very good, and it made me work harder," she says.
9 Queens was founded in 2008 by Jean Hoffman and Jennifer Shahade, the latter a Woman Grandmaster and the author of the books Play Like a Girl and Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport. And while Tucson is something of a chess capital – home to the highest number of chess masters in the United States after St. Louis, Missouri, says Jean – there were populations that were under-served and under-represented. Jennifer points out that, though half of the general population is female, not enough women are involved in the sport. In Chess Bitch she lifts the lid on the gender bias in the sport and tells of young women who are successfully challenging it.
As the mother of a boy and a girl, Tucsonan Vicki Lazaro had always offered the same after-school activities to her children. “Whether it was karate or ballet, we wanted our children to know they can do anything,” she says. “When we offered our daughter chess, she kept refusing. When I asked her why she looked at me and said ‘Because you don’t play.'” Vicki was determined to play chess with her daughter, despite her own reluctance. “I thought it would be boring and difficult and I didn’t think I’d have the patience for it,” she says.
Then mother and daughter attended a Chess Fest organized by 9 Queens, and Vicki was hooked. "I loved the concept of empowerment through chess. They were encouraging all genders and all races. Once I got involved, I put away all my other puzzles like Sudoku because this was just so much better," she says. "The self- confidence that my daughter got when she realized she could play what she determined to be a very difficult game was very cool to see. For myself, it's helped the way I think. I am better at keeping track of things now."
Vicki is now interim treasurer of 9 Queens and relishing the opportunity to put a different spin on the phrase ‘playing like a girl’. "Being involved in the community and putting out something that's fun and positive and focused on smarts instead of frilly things, it's wonderful," says Vicki.
Though 9 Queens started out in 2008 as a female-oriented organization, the focus has shifted in the past year. "It really was limiting us - especially in our local community. When you live in a community like Tucson, you want to make something like this available to as many people as possible," says Ann Price, interim president.
"9 Queens is for everybody, but we have a focus on underrepresented communities, like women and girls, refugees, Title I schools, and so on. We are not only focused on women, but we have strong women involved in the organization," adds Vicki.
9 Queens teaches an after-school program at Mexicayotl Academy, as well as providing teacher training. "The cost of a private chess coach is $45," says Vicki, "and we are free." Some of the youth members go on to excel at places like MIT. "Seeing more of our community do things like that is outstanding," says Ann.
They host non-competitive tournaments, as well as the Bookman's night and Chess Fest. The highlight of Chess Fest is a 'simultaneous exhibition' in which special guest Rochelle Ballantyne will play twenty-five people at the same time.
"My hope is that 9 Queens has served as a bridge between the traditional chess world and the greater public," says Jean, who is now Executive Director of the United States Chess Federation and divides her time between Tucson and Tennessee. Jennifer lives in Philadelphia but spends time in New York. Checkmating and castleing apparently run in Jennifer's family; her father Mike Shahade is a FIDE (World Chess Federation) Master and her brother Greg is an International Master who makes instructional chess videos at chessvideos.tv.
The women behind 9 Queens have seen the changes for themselves. Says Jennifer, “you can definitely see the difference” in terms of the number of women involved in chess. Adds Ann Price: “Oftentimes girls would go to a tournament and there would maybe be one other girl in the room. I've had girls tell me that they don't play anymore because they didn't enjoy that. It's tough when your friends aren't playing."
Rochelle says the skills developed with chess – strategizing, communication, self confidence – are translated into all facets of life. “Nothing in life is too far-fetched. If you see something, you can do it - regardless of gender."
* Chess Fest this year will take place on April 26th at Hotel Congress. Family fun nights are held on the 4th Friday of every month at the Bookmans on Speedway and Wilmot. Learn more about 9 Queens at their website, 9queens.org and on Facebook. You can also check out their Kickstarter campaign here.
3 chess-inspired styles we love
1. Instead of toppling the King with a pawn, why not use a terraced London house to topple Canary Wharf? The Skyline Chess set by London designers Ian Flood and Chris Prosser replaces traditional pieces with recognizable London buildings. They're raising money for the set through Kickstarter, and plan to produce chess sets inspired by New York and Paris in the future.
2. This chess end table by Moooi in The Netherlands can be used as a chessboard or just as a feisty accent piece. We think it's a great conversation starter. And we spotted something similar down at Tucson's Playground bar and lounge.