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Time to Recruit More Girls To Play Chess

April 19th, 2016

Written by Ranae Bartlett

The disparity in the number of girls playing chess has been well documented. As students approach middle school, the number of girls playing chess drops off. If we want more girls to play chess at the highest levels, we have to bring more girls into the game at an earlier age.

Take a look at your existing chess clubs. What percentage of your competitive chess players are girls?

At Rainbow Elementary in Madison, Alabama, over 40 percent of our competitive chess players are girls. That more than doubles the national average of girls playing competitive chess. We are making a conscious effort to grow the number of girls playing chess. The first time our school won a section at the National Elementary Championships was in 2015. We did it with three of the top four scores coming from female players.


Here are some of the things we are doing, in conjunction with the local non-profit Madison City Chess League, to accomplish this.

1. Recognize that girls play chess for different reasons than boys.

When I ask the boys on our team why they like to play in tournaments, they give me answers about the competitive aspects of chess like winning trophies and medals and competing. When I ask girls on our team why they like to play in tournaments, their answer is “to hang out with my friends.” 

Recognize that girls play competitive chess for the camaraderie as much, if not more, than the competition itself. In response, I build in activities that allow both girls and boys to bond. We hold team parties and events like going to the movies together. Friendships and team spirit contribute to the growing number of girls on our competition team.


2. Cast a wide net when sponsoring chess contests.

As a school board member for Madison City Schools, I recognize the academic benefits from playing chess. Because of those benefits, our school system purchased a site license with ChessKid.com to provide every elementary student a gold subscription. We wanted all students to experience the benefits of chess, whether they were on the chess team or not.

With every student in all of our elementary schools having access to ChessKid.com, we are able to hold school-wide contests.

Contests and prizes motivate kids to participate. At Rainbow Elementary, we crown a king and queen for each grade level in contests we hold. Both boys and girls of all ages are excited and motivated to participate. Puzzle contests are suitable for all kids as puzzles are tailored to the kid's abilities.

If you award the boy (king) and girl (queen) at each grade level for the most chess puzzles solved correctly, you are giving everyone a chance to win. You are also providing them an opportunity to exercise their brains. It is a win/win for all students. You may even identify and encourage girls who had not realized they could be good at chess.


3. Award top female medals at every tournament.

The Madison City Chess League (MCCL) hosts numerous tournaments throughout the year. At each tournament, we award a top female medal in every section to the female player who does not otherwise place in the tournament. MCCL also hosts a team tournament where a top female team trophy is awarded to the top four-person team that is composed of all girls. I have asked female chess players across the city whether they like this recognition or feel it is demeaning. They unanimously responded they like any recognition and encouragement they receive. It encourages them to return and keep competing.


Photo: First place team in Under 500 Section at 2015 Queen's Quest chess tournament from Rainbow Elementary.

4. Recognize girls at tournaments.

When girls are outnumbered by boys at tournaments, it is easy for them to feel isolated, particularly on teams where they are significantly outnumbered. They may not play on a team with 40 percent female students like mine at Rainbow Elementary. At a recent tournament of around 200 students in Madison, I asked all of the girls to come to the stage to take a “Girl Power” photo so they could see how many of them were there and so they could connect with each other.

The photo opportunity was empowering! I heard and could see the excitement in the crowd as parents were snapping pictures of all the girls who were there to compete. Dispersed among each team, the girls did not feel as significant. Standing on stage together, they could see what a force they were and how much their numbers continue to grow. Try it at your next tournament, and take that photo each year to see how your numbers grow.


5. Start early. 

The earlier we introduce girls to chess, the greater our chances to see more girls continuing to compete. Early success is the greatest encouragement any student can receive. If your school chess club only offers admission to older students, you are limiting an access point for female students. By the time students are in third or fourth grade, girls can already feel greatly outnumbered by boys in chess clubs. At a recent local tournament in a neighboring city, we saw our efforts paying great dividends in the K-3 section where half of the awards went to females — all from Madison!

Rookie Rally K-3 winners.

6. Host a girls chess night.

I have written a previous article about how the Madison City Chess League started a girls chess night program in the summer at a local restaurant. During the school year, we again tapped into the local school system to grow and extend Girls Chess Night by hosting a tour of schools

Every month, girls chess night is hosted by a different school in Madison. This draws a different set of girls each month as we travel to different host schools and use their chess equipment to play chess with other girls. The girls who come to the event range in ability and are paired accordingly.

Because girls chess night is on Tuesday night, we always participate in the National Fast Chess Hour on ChessKid by providing computers and Chromebooks for our students to log on to play. When I host at Rainbow Elementary, I offer the library/media center for recreational players and a separate playing room for the more serious tournament players. I meet new girls every month that I would never have known were it not for girls chess night.


Girls chess night at Columbia Elementary in Madison.


Girls chess night at Rainbow (left) and Madison (right) Elementary Schools.

7.  Offer girls scholarships for camps.

Girls need support and encouragement. Chess camps are a great way for any player to improve, but they tend to be dominated by male participants.  Last summer, the Madison City Chess League was able to offer one girl a scholarship to its annual Summer Knights Chess Camp. We had other girls participate, but scholarships will help that number grow.

This spring, MCCL received a donation to its Girls Chess Initiative Fund that will allow two girls to attend Mid-South Summer Chess Camp, a week-long overnight chess camp in Memphis, TN. Summer chess camps that offer girls scholarships can open a door for girls who might not otherwise be able to attend.


8. Look to the future. 

There are numerous ideas that have been percolating that need to be discussed and shared among the chess community. Here are a few:

  • Develop regional girls summer chess camps that begin or end with a tournament just for girls.  
  • Conduct a national girls chess town hall via Twitter to get ideas from coaches across the country on what they are doing to grow the number of girls playing chess. There are numerous successful programs that we can all learn from if we can get together virtually to discuss and share.
  • Develop online girls chess clubs and forums where girls can hang out virtually and share information.
  • Increase female role models and coaches on your chess team.

 Photo: Constance Wang (Rainbow's top female competitor), Ranae Bartlett (MCCL Executive Director), and Nancy Brandon (Rainbow Chess Team Sponsor).


My Chess Camp in New York

March 4th, 2016

Written by NM Carissa Yip

My second-ever chess camp was in New York City, in the summer, whereas my first was held in St. Louis during the winter.

Marshall Chess Club generously let us use its club as a place to hold the US Chess School. The field was very strong, with 14 NMs and a few FMs.

This group included me, Jennifer Yu, Akshita Gorti, David Brodsky, Aaron and Brandon Jacobson, Marcus and Matthew Miyasaka, Andrew Liu, Nicolas Checa, Joshua Sheng, Hans Niemann, John Michael Burke, Aravind Kumar, and Josh Hernandez-Camen.

We got to choose where to sit and I discovered some traits of all the people sitting at one table.


This group featured Andrew Liu, Nicolos Checa, John Michael Burke, Josh Hernandez-Camen, Aaron Jacobson, Matthew and Marcus Miyasaka, and Joshua Sheng. These guys were basically older, maybe the average age of 14-15. They always thought a lot before raising their hand to answer a question.


This group featured younger kids, like Brandon Jacobson, Hans Niemann, Aravind Kumar, and David Brodsky. Hans was the one who would call out stupid answers to be funny, and I have to say, Brandon is really talkative. And it may not look like it, but David and Aravind can be super chatty.


There were only three girls: me, Akshita Gorti, and Jennifer Yu. Since there weren’t any other girls, I’m calling us the pretty ones.

And of course, there was one more group.


During the whole training session, we had three teachers.

Day 1: IM Greg Shahade

Day 2: GM Alexander Stripunsky

Day 3: IM Alex Ostrovskiy

Day 4 : Back to Greg.


On the first day of the chess school, my dad and I were having trouble navigating NYC.

Trouble Navigating NYC

We lived in a hotel in NJ that provided a shuttle to the subway station. When we arrived, there was a ton of people rushing to work. In NYC, on a subway, you must first get out a door to this cramped little space, where you then get off the train. And since there was no space in the car itself, we were squeezed in that tight little space with about 10 other people.

When we finally got off, we had to walk about a mile through the sadly littered and polluted streets of NYC. We finally arrived at the road where Greg had said the Marshall Chess Club was. As my dad and I looked around for the club a kid and his dad passed us in the opposite direction. He had this weird grin on his face, and I wasn’t sure if he was a chess player or not. I later realized he was John Michael Burke.

As we still weren’t sure where the club was we kept walking down the street, when someone called “Hey, Percy!” (my dad’s name). It turned out to be Greg, and he pointed us in the right direction as we followed him to the Marshall.

After all the morning chaos, we were finally settled down and ready to start the camp. Greg told us about the schedule and gave us a lecture about not being too loud and being nice to others, stuff like that. Then he announced that we would be having a positional understanding test, with 60 puzzles, and we had to solve it in 30 minutes.

Whoever had the most correct would get a free pass in the first round of the blitz tournament.

The puzzles weren’t tremendously difficult, but the time limit made it hard. The common themes were:

  • Prophylaxis
  • Restricting the opponent's pieces
  • Gaining squares
  • Exchanging off bad pieces (or the opponent's good ones)
  • Pawn breaks

I ended up with 30 out of 60, which is OK, I suppose. The person with the highest score turned out to be Brandon Jacobson, so he got a bye in the first round of the blitz tournament.


We had Alex Stripunsky come over to teach us about typical h7/h2 sacrifices. It was quite easy at the first, and gradually became much more difficult. In one example, when Hans suggested giving up the rook as one of his jokes, he turned out to be right!

We also had the first round of the blitz tournament today. As promised, Brandon Jacobson got a free pass and the rest of us fiercely battled. I was paired against David Brodsky and lost. Hans was absent for a bit of the class and the whole first round of the blitz tournament. He came back with a Snapple.

Akshita told me that apparently he had to use the bathroom, because on this particular day, the Marshall had no water. So he went to Lenny’s, a nice nearby sub shop just around the corner. But he had to buy something to use the bathroom so he waited in a long line to buy a Snapple -- which was how he ended up back at the Marshall Chess Club after 30 minutes with a Snapple. Greg joked that he forfeited the first round of the blitz tournament. But we had saved his game for last, so he still got to play.


This third day wasn’t like anything I had ever known before. IM Alex Ostrovskiy talked about how he made the big jump from master to international master and gave us tips, such as expanding your opening preparation and adding strange sidelines so your opponents couldn’t prepare. He also went to a US Chess School a few years ago, and joked that maybe in a few years, we would be the ones making a speech.

After lunch, we went back to the blitz tournament. At this point Jennifer, Marcus, Matthew, me, and possibly Aaron went upstairs to play bughouse, as we had all lost the first round. When we went back downstairs about 30 minutes later, they were playing the finals: Joshua vs Brandon. Their first game led to a quick draw, so the second game’s time control was changed to bullet with one minute for each person. In the end Joshua won.


There was nothing much on Day 4, since the Marshall club was having a tournament.

Day 4 in New York

Greg gave us the 30-minute test again and I scored 32-33. Afterwards, we kids who weren’t playing in the Marshall’s tournament played some bughouse upstairs and then Greg gave us a position to see how to defend. In the end, it turned out to be the most unlikely move possible: sacrificing your queen for absolutely no material in return, with your opponent having three ways to take it.

But after Akshita, David, Aaron, Jennifer and I discussed it, we agreed the moves made sense. The queen was covering the escape square for the king, and Black still had a rook and two pieces. After lunch, my dad and I left to go back to Massachusetts, and I said my goodbyes. It turned out to be a fun learning experience where chess kids could hang out and just enjoy ourselves while improving our chess skills.

I would like to thank IM Greg Shahade for organizing the camp and GM Alexander Stripunsky and IM Aleksandr Ostrovskiy for guest lecturing. Special thanks to Dr. Jim Roberts and the Scheinberg family, the sponsors and the Marshall Chess Club for being so generous by hosting the camp.

Here is a positional puzzle. Black to move for positional advantage. See if you can find the solution.


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