In Tucson, Women and Girls Find a Place at the Chessboard
by Dylan McClain Loeb,
The New York Times.
Becca Kinsey, a 39-year-old stage manager in Tucson, has three children, a husband and very little free time. But nearly every Wednesday, from 10 a.m. to noon, she goes to the Coffee X Change at Grant Road and Campbell Avenue to meet a group of women and play chess.
“I never had an interest,” Mrs. Kinsey said of the game. “It always gave me headaches.”
That changed a few months ago, when she finally learned to play.
Now, she said, “people will say, ‘Come do this,’ and I’ll say: ‘I can’t go to that. I am going to chess on Wednesdays.’ ”
Mrs. Kinsey’s chess group has 16 members, all of them women and most of them beginners. They all share an enthusiasm for chess that borders on obsession.
The group is an outgrowth of a nonprofit organization in Tucson called 9 Queens, started in 2007 by Jean Hoffman, 29, and Jennifer Shahade, 28, a two-time United States women’s chess champion. The group’s name comes from the maximum number of queens that one player can have on the board. (While theoretically possible, it has never been known to happen.)
Ms. Hoffman, who lives in Tucson, said the goal of 9 Queens was to encourage more girls and women, as well as students from low-income families, to take up chess.
Girls make up a small fraction of the children who play in chess tournaments, and women competitors are even rarer. Bill Hall, executive director of the United States Chess Federation, estimated that fewer than 5 percent of the federation’s members are women over 21.
“My dad, my grandfather, my brother played,” Mrs. Kinsey said, “and it was something that the girls never did.”
To help achieve its goal, 9 Queens began holding monthly workshops limited to girls and women to create a more nurturing environment. “In the chess clubs that I have that are coed, the boys will be screaming out the right answer, and they will be fighting,” Ms. Hoffman said. The instructors are, with one exception, also women.
In her effort to publicize the workshops, Ms. Hoffman asked Margo Burwell, 60, a retired college art instructor, to design a poster.
Ms. Burwell used a picture of Marcel Duchamp, the Dada artist who was a passionate chess player, and a quotation from him: “I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art — and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.”
After she was done, Ms. Burwell, whose son played chess but who did not play herself, decided to go to a workshop. “It was good enough for Marcel, so perhaps it was good for me,” she said.
At the first workshop Ms. Burwell attended, girls and women were taught the rules and then paired up to play. Ms. Burwell found herself opposite a 5-year-old girl.
“At one point, she captured my queen, and she laughed and laughed, and I thought, ‘I better buckle down,’ ” Ms. Burwell said. After 45 minutes, she won.
Ms. Burwell found that playing every month was not enough. She asked some women if they would be interested in meeting once a week.
The women have different reasons for joining.
Mrs. Kinsey wanted to be able to play with her 8-year-old daughter, Angela, who competes in chess tournaments. “I wanted to learn myself so I can be more of a support system for her,” she said. “I wanted to actually be able to play a game with her and actually be competitive.”
Mrs. Kinsey said the Wednesday group had not just helped her improve her game. “I really like the ladies,” she said. “Some of the ladies have kids that play tournaments, and we’ll talk about how hard do you push them. It’s sort of like a support group.”
Martha Underwood, 47, an assistant professor of education at theUniversity of Arizona, said that even her children, Aiya, 11, and Zack, 9, who compete in scholastic chess tournaments, are startled by their mother’s newfound zeal for the game.
“They are kind of annoyed with me because they are like, ‘That is all you do,’ ” Ms. Underwood said.
She said that she and the rest of the group hoped that playing chess would have benefits. “We all talk about how we want to do this to stave off Alzheimer’s, instead of The New York Times crossword puzzle,” she said.
While the women are collegial, they are also competitive. Ms. Underwood has played in two tournaments, including one run by 9 Queens. Ann Price, an architect newly laid off from her firm, said she had been a black belt in tae kwon do, but had to give it up after injuring her back five years ago. Chess, she said, was a good substitute.
“One of the things that I missed about tae kwon do was the strategic way of thinking,” Ms. Price said. “The problem-solving is something that I did in my profession.”
Sometimes, men at the Coffee X Change ask to play chess with the women and are welcomed. But there are no plans to make them a formal part of the group.
Some members of the group say that learning chess with women who have become friends has given them a confidence that seems to spill over into the rest of their lives. “I tend to be talkative,” Ms. Underwood said. “I’m trying to be more thoughtful instead.”