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Girls, Chess, and Education by Richard Seltzer

This article originally appeared in Chess Horizons (the magazine of the Massachusetts Chess Association) in February 1987.

When a young girl is pretty enough to get attention and approval with a smile, it's easy for other people, perhaps especially for parents, to underestimate her intellectual abilities.

A couple of years ago, at age seven, our daughter, Heather was quite content, with no apparent need to achieve. She enjoyed "playing school" at home, but she was having trouble with her school work, in particular math. She would spend several hours a night on assignments that seemed relatively simple. Time and again she would be bewildered by basic addition and subtraction exercises.

She seemed to have difficulty concentrating at school.

Then we started taking Heather to chess tournaments. Her brother Bobby (then age nine) wanted to play in chess tournaments and since there were very few such events for kids in New England, we put together a team from their school, the Jackson School in Newton, to compete in team tournaments. Bobby was on board one, and Heather and next-door-neighbor Sean, both of whom barely knew how to move the pieces, were on boards two and three when they entered a scholastic three-player tournament in Dec. 1984.

That first time, Heather lost her games soundly. But she wasn't discouraged, and she cheerfully entered tournament after tournament, learning a little more each time. She also went with her brother to the Newton YMCA chess club on Thursday afternoons.

By the following year, the school team, with Heather still on board two, was a match for any other elementary school team in New England, and actually succeeded in winning the New England elementary three-player team championship, and the Massachusetts elementary five-player team championship. The team also played in the Greater Boston Scholastic Chess League. They were the only elementary school in a division with jr. highs, and came in second behind Boston Latin.

Over the course of that year, Heather's level of play and, more importantly, her confidence in her abilities rose considerably.

She had the pleasure of beating boys six years older than she and twice as tall as she. And she had the pride of marching into school with trophies she and her team had won.

And that new confidence started showing up in her academic work as well. She proudly announced that math was her favorite subject, and that she wanted to be an astronaut, a scientist or a doctor. When at the end of that third-grade year, the teacher handed out little prizes for achievement in various subjects, Heather got the science prize.

Of course, chess wasn't the only reason for the improvement. But it did help. As she says, it helps her concentration and she learns something every time she plays. Basically, she's a bright child who tends not to push herself. Thanks, in part, to her experience in chess, she's now much less shy and more willing to assert herself and try harder at what she wants to learn.

She still has a long ways to go, both academically and chess-wise. Her chess is uneven. She sometimes goes straight for checkmates in total disregard for loss of material, and drops so many pieces along the way, that it becomes impossible to win.

But, apparently, she doesn't let the losses undermine her confidence. At the Nationals in Charlotte, N.C., she declined an offer of a draw from a player rated more than 400 points higher than her, because she could see that she had the superior position. She played on and ended up falling for a trap and losing; but it was the right choice, and she knew it.

We recently took Heather and Bobby to the U.S. Jr. Open in Pittsburgh. It was there that it became evident to me how few girls there are who enter chess tournaments. Out of 119 kids from across the country, only three were girls -- Heather (then age eight), a nine-year-old from Pennsylvania, and an 18-year-old from Arizona. And it occurred to me that an effort should be made to encourage girls to take up this game at an early age so they can reap the benefits that come from discovering that they can compete and win with the power of their brains.

In June, when we sent Bobby to the Sport of Kings Chess Camp in Bronxville, NY, we sent Heather too, and she had a great time, even though there was only one other girl there. She has gotten used to playing against boys, and does quite well against them.

But it would be good to get enough girls of about that same age involved in the game, so they can be self-supporting; so that before they become involved with all the interests and anxieties of teenagers, they'll already recognize chess as a natural and stimulating activity that they will want to continue to enjoy over the years.

Last year, a neighbor began holding a series of small invitational tournaments for his daughter  (age 7) and other young players of similar strength. Heather was invited and did very well, coming home with trophies every time. Heather also began attending weekly chess gatherings, with others her age, primarily girls.

And a small contingent of young girls -- Heather, and two friends -- became regular participants at the Newton YMCA. Those activities are all very helpful, but for the most part they just reach the daughters and sisters of male tournament players. I'd hope that something might be done to spread the word about the potential benefits of chess -- particularly for young girls -- and to create activities to foster and develop their chess-playing abilities.  privacy statement