Chess takes over Hotel Congress
Annual event puts spotlight on the game and it’s many benefits
by Inger Sandal
Originally in Arizona Daily Star
In chess, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board.
A player starts with one, but each of the eight pawns has the potential -if it gets across the board – to turn into a queen.
9 Queens is a local nonprofit started five years ago to promote chess and its benefits, particularly among girls and at-risk youth.
“It’s a utopian vision for everyone reaching their potential. It doesn’t happen a lot in chess but it’s our metaphor,” said Jean Hoffman, the nonprofit’s co-founder and executive director.
The nonprofit has helped start chess programs in a number of schools, in addition to hosting games and activities throughout the community.
Chess Fest at Hotel Congress is the group’s largest and most diverse event, growing from 250 attendees the first year to more than 1,000.
Hoffman expects this weekend’s festival will be the biggest and most exciting to date as 9 Queens celebrates its fifth anniversary on Cinco de Mayo.
“We’re really trying to celebrate the urban nature of the game. It’s exciting to see hundreds of people playing chess,” she said.
Forty players of all ages and experience levels will have the chance to challenge former world chess champion Alexandra Kosteniuk in a simultaneous exhibition. “It’s basically first-come, first-serve,” Hoffman said, explaining how players will be selected. “We’ll start taking people’s names right at 2 p.m.”
There will also be a host of other pickup games, face painting, a taco cart and a DJ.
Hoffman credits David Slutes, the hotel’s entertainment booker, with the idea of transforming the hotel’s parking lot into a life-size chessboard with human chess pieces – which has become a tradition. “He was really creative,” she said.
“It’s been a blast – the whole event,” said Slutes, who is also an avid chess player.
The event draws a range of demographics. It’s not uncommon, for example, to see a 7-year-old matching moves with a 50-year-old.
This year there will be more visual arts as Chess Fest pays homage to Marcel Duchamp, an artist known for using ordinary objects to create “ready-made” pieces of art. Attendees will be invited to decorate “ready-made” chess sets they can take home. An avid chess player, Duchamp is also known for saying “that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”
Festival-goers can also watch Tucson-based artist Joe Pagac paint a chess-themed canvas mural. Pagac’s talents have also transformed the walls at the Rialto Theatre.
Hoffman said the passport station is the part of the festival that’s nearest and dearest to her heart.
Each participant gets a booklet that has a page designated for each piece on the chessboard. To get it stamped, it must be taken to an instructor who explains how the piece moves and then leads an activity in it.
“We make it really friendly. It’s not threatening. You can learn one piece and then be done or you can learn them through all the stations,” she said. Others use it as a refresher.
“Some people as young as 3 come and learn a piece and then move on to do arts,” Hoffman said.
At the end of the festival, Kosteniuk will be presented with the 9 Queens Award for being an “inspirational role model to thousands of women and girls throughout the world.”
This will be the second time Kosteniuk has taken part in a 9 Queens event in Tucson.
A lot of people don’t know the Tucson area has an incredibly strong scholastic chess community, with some of the best instructors and teams in the nation, said Hoffman, who learned to play chess as a first-grader at Sam Hughes Elementary School.
She played in tournaments until the eighth grade when she was on the St. Gregory Middle School team that won the national chess championship. Then she told her parents she was retiring. “I figured I would go out on a high note,” she joked.
She returned to chess while she was living in New York preparing for law school. She learned about a nonprofit that made chess part of the curriculum at low-income schools and they needed instructors.
“I thought that would be a fun and easy job while I was studying for the LSAT. It turned out to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Hoffman, who discovered she loved teaching. She returned to school and earned a master’s degree in eduction and eventually returned to Tucson. “I love teaching chess.”
Traditional chess events and tournaments aren’t necessarily inclusive, she said, noting that usually fees are attached.
Free events also tend to be less intimidating.
While the idea behind 9 Queens was to bring chess to underserved and underrepresented populations, the bulk of the nonprofit’s programming is open to everyone.
Chess has lasting payoffs, Hoffman said, noting that research shows it improves math scores, cognitive ability and reading.
“I think the most powerful and beneficial thing about chess is that it makes thinking fun and it instills a sense of self-confidence as a thinker,” she said.
“You face problems all the time as a chess player and you need to come up with a plan … having that faith in your own ability to tackle problems is really helpful off the board as well as on the board.”
Those benefits have also helped guide the growth of 9 Queens.
“Luckily, we’re at the point now where we have an incredibly active and dedicated board of directors,” said Hoffman, explaining that she is glad the organization has grown from her individual vision to become more representative of the Tucson community.
If you go
• What: Fifth Annual Chess Fest presented by 9 Queens, featuring chess-themed activities and art. Alexandra Kosteniuk, former winner of the Women’s World Chess Championship, will play up to 40 players in an exhibition.
• When: 2-5 p.m. Saturday.
• Where: Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St.
• Cost: Free.
9 Queens and Bookmans offer free family chess nights that include pickup games and puzzles for chess players of all ages each month at two of the stores. The next one is May Family Chess Night at Bookmans Ina, 3733 W. Ina Road, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. May 17.