By George Sells
The St. Louis Chess Club leadership is working hard to make the Gateway City the epicenter for women in chess, both at the highest levels and the grass roots. A combination of youth education and what may be the top women’s pro event in the world are among the tools they’re using.
Chess has never been a game that moved particularly fast, and that’s not just on the board. When it comes to involving women at the top of the game, some would describe the progress in chess culture as glacial.
Tania Sachdev, a professional player from India and well-known commentator in chess circles, is among those pushing for change. She says the lack of women at the top starts with a shortage of girls at the youth and high school levels.
“It’s just a pure numbers game,” she says. “Men have been taking it up, but it’s a very new sport for women. It’s only over the past few years that it has been a career option for women.”
Tony Rich, the St. Louis Chess Club’s executive director, says you can’t overlook how the game gets started with kids.
“Traditionally the game of chess was passed down, father to son,” he points out.
And the game continues to be male dominated today. Rich says right now, membership of the United States Chess Federation is 95% male. Take a moment to drink that in, 95 percent. Rich believes making a dent in that daunting number requires making the St. Louis Chess Club an attractive place for girls to walk in the door.
“Usually women, compared to men, don’t play chess as often,” Rich says. “There aren’t as many women involved in the game. So by focusing on women and having women specific events we’re hoping to grow the number of female players in the game of chess.”
One way they are doing this is with the Cairnes Cup, a women-only tournament in St. Louis recently that brought some of the top female players in the world to square off. The winner walks away with $40 thousand in prize money. The Cairnes Cup claims to be the world’s first women’s tournament with such a prize.
Ten of the best female players on the globe were here to play. They came from a variety of countries, mostly in Europe as well as the United States. Top Chinese players were noticeably absent. The goal is to create an environment where top women can win, remain focused on chess, and improve. Organizers believe this is the route to women rising in the rankings and becoming competitive with the top men in the game.
“So this is the first tournament where there is real cash money for women only,” tournament organizer and philanthropist Dr. Jeanne Sinquefield says. “So, if they win or do well in the tournament, that gives them enough money for the next year to focus on chess, and that’s how you get better.”
Sinquefield and her husband, Rex, are the people who got the St. Louis Chess Club off the ground. They are also the creators of the Cairnes Cup. (Cairnes is her maiden name.) They hope this move to reinforce the top end of the women’s game will create chess heroes for youngsters and get them involved, too. Sachdev sees the idea as a good one.
“Young girls see all these top female players come to their country to play the sport and win the big bucks, they want to be like that when they grow up,” she says.
Anna Zatonskih, a naturalized U.S. citizen who plays professionally under the American flag watched it unfold from the inside as she competed in the Cairnes Cup competition.
“(Girls) want to qualify for this tournament. They want to play such tournaments, and you see the future of chess. You see what they can gain in chess,” she says.
The high school level is where St. Louis Chess Club officials say the number of girls playing the game seems to drop off. But that’s news to Maddie Bartin, a Kirkwood High School Student who has recently signed up for the chess club. When told women only make up 5% of the U.S. Chess Federation, she seemed a bit shocked.
“I am surprised by that. I thought more women played chess,” she said. “In my experience it’s always been pretty equal with the people I’ve played with and the people I’ve seen playing chess.”
But she clearly hasn’t seen he school’s entire chess club assembled at once. Club sponsor Cindy Coronado describes a breakdown of her group that isn’t far off from the national number.
“I would say we have between 20 and 30 kids signed up to be part of the chess team here at the high school and two of those are girls if that gives you any indication of the disparity between the two groups,” she tells us.
Coronado says the girls tend to walk right past her table during recruiting season for the school’s vast number of clubs. Part of the problem, she says, is the competition, both from other clubs and from sports. Everything goes on at the same time and a kid can only take on so much.
“A lot of the girls just keep walking. We try to pull them in, we bake brownies and try to pull then in through those means, but we have not been successful,” Coronado says. “I wish we had a recipe to be more inclusive, but we just aren’t there.”
Bartin believes more exposure in the schools, particularly for younger students, will do the trick.
“After school care,” she begins. “If they had along with coloring and all the gym games they play, they offered chess boards and you could play chess and talk about the rules and just more opportunities to play.”
On that grass roots front, the St. Louis Chess Club is doing events focused on girls the get interest in the game among the young to build and sustain. They have nights dedicated to female play, which has been popular with moms and daughters. The club was also the home to a girls only merit badge class, which led to the first girls in the newly co-ed Boy Scouts of America to earn the badge.
They are now looking for more ways to grow their programs, and keep girls engaged longer.
“What we’ve seen in our scholastic chess programs is, for the most part, up until middle school and high school boys and girls play chess in equal numbers,” Rich says. “Starting in high school is where you really see those numbers changes.”
They say succeeding with girls in chess is about much more than putting players at the game’s upper levels, though.
“I have this foundation on neural activity and neural science,” Sinquefield says. “And there are three activities where your brain just lights up. Okay? Math. Music, and chess. So if you want an activity for your daughters that teaches them to be effective in using the entire brain, chess can be one of them.”
“I think definitely chess breaks gender barriers,” she says. It’s a level field and everybody can play everyone.”
And they are now progressing toward making the numbers as level as the board. But like everything about chess, they say, it’s going to take time.