Chess' greatest challenge: girls
By Lisa Suhay
In the world of chess, boys are always in, but U.S. Chess Federation numbers confirm girls are out the minute they hit the teens. Where is Heidi Klum when girls need her most? We need the fashion-forward players as model minds to keep girls in the game of chess rather than dropping out in droves as they reach puberty.
In fact, overall, chess is crying out for a fashion edit.
Of the 700 million chess players worldwide, 45 million are Americans. Half of those are children. Next Saturday, National Chess Day, will be a sad reminder that teen girls are losing an opportunity for a life map to critical thinking and scholarships.
We don't have to lose girl players to the Terrible Ts: Twitter, Twilight and tween angst. We can change the approach for girls and decrease their hasty exit.
Not surprisingly, of the 1,100 International Grandmasters in the world, only two dozen are women. The United States has only one - Susan Polgar, who is Hungarian-born and naturalized. Only 1 percent of the U.S. Chess Federation's adult membership is female.
Despite the fact that Heidi Klum, Christina Ricci, Sandra Bullock, Salma Hayak and Madonna all play, the stereotypical public image of chess is still one of stuffy exclusivity, populated by disheveled, older men with seriously quirky natures.
As an official IOC Olympic sport, chess makes curling look sexy.
It's a team sport. In high school, a student can letter in chess. As Norfolk's new superintendent of schools, Richard Bentley, embarks on the creation of a state chess league that will make that possible for students here, statistics show we will see those letters mainly on boys' jackets.
But after attending the five-day Susan Polgar Foundation Girls' Invitational in Lubbock, Texas, and staying in the dorms with the girls, I now have a better handle on how to help our girls here.
In five sleepless nights as I sat in the hallways packed with boards, clocks and girls ages five to 18, breathing in the scent of nail polish remover, I learned a lot about little girls who can tear you up on the 64 squares while painting their toenails ice blue, listening to an iPod, texting, singing, giggling, gossiping and munching apple chips.
It is both a humbling and mildly terrifying experience to have an adorable 6-year-old girl multitask and checkmate you into oblivion. Which I suspect is the reason behind the programs by the American Association of University Women, the Carnegie Center and others to get girls into science, technology, engineering and math. Ladies, we need to talk. Let's do coffee across a chess board and I think we can fix all our problems.
Even at the tournament, the girls were relaxed, happy and exchanging little tokens of esteem, very unlike the mixed boy/girl tournaments I have seen over the years where you can cut the gender anxiety and head-games with a battle ax.
If chess is going to be redesigned to be more girl-friendly, as experts like Dr. Alexey Root have suggested, it should start with non-rated girls' tournaments. Rating tournaments merely encourages a toddlers-in-tiaras-worthy conflict of superior and inferior labels. Girls don't need more labels. They're already coping with body-image hate, acne and boys.
To keep girls in, we need to focus on the game. To bring more boys and girls from our state into the game and build their critical-thinking skills, focus and life strategies, a group of community partners has formed, including: the NPS' superintendent, the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk State and Old Dominion universities, teachers, parents, The Virginian-Pilot and the Carnegie Math and Science Initiative for Girls. The group is called the Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence. That means we are N.I.C.E.
When people come to Norfolk, we will teach them to play the N.I.C.E. way, starting March 2-3 at Virginia's first-ever all-girl state chess championship. All Virginia girls ages 5-18 can enter for free, rated or unrated, and play for scholarships. And we will give a free chess-in-education seminar for teachers while the girls play.
We are going to send fun, free, unrated, rewarding chess down the runway and see how it scores.
Guest columnist Lisa Suhay runs a free community partnership - Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence (N.I.C.E.) in Virginia. Email: Lsuhays2@cox.net.