This weekend, we agreed to learn to play chess, seriously. My daughter and I sat in front of each other, the board between us, all of the black and white pieces in position, standing tall, with a pen and piece of paper nearby to take notes. She and I, alone; the world around us could come crashing down and we wouldn’t even notice.
I would teach her everything I know, which isn’t much, but it’s enough to play and admire this game, where we learn to think and make decisions in advance about a pretty vast repertoire of possibilities. Like in life, I told her.
If there’s something you’ll come to understand, my girl, it’s that nothing is simple when playing chess: your mission is to kill a king while defending your own, and that means thinking twice as hard. Putting yourself in your “enemy’s” shoes, predicting their tactics so you can adjust your own, and provoking movements and sacrifices they never wanted to make, which will end up helping you to survive; maybe even to win.
This is how they say we women think, who need to defend ourselves in an unjust world that subordinates us still. Where we have to know how to play our “own chess” to get ahead the best we can with all of patriarchy’s obstacles in our way, as well as macro and micro-machismos.
I was 23 years old when my father taught me how to play. Late. We would celebrate our own style family tournaments. He would let me touch the pieces even though I wouldn’t move them, and he would also correct clearly erratic plays. He would explain the Sicilian Defense to me over and over, and he told me one thing or another about the now famous opening to the Queen’s Gambit.
When our elbows dug into the table for a long time and with our hands on our forehead, it looked like we were planning great strategies and we would make fun of each other, accusing each other of being cheap imitators of Spasski or Fischer. Sometimes, we would take more time than what’s bearable for the other’s threshold for boredom or anxiety.
That’s how we used to play, that’s how I learned to get nervous in front of a board as if my whole life were on it, and to lose my king, which was inevitably knocked over most of the time, sometimes embarrassingly; although I always tried to put up a fight.
When I discovered chess – late, I repeat – I didn’t have much time to learn the truth anymore. I realized that my father, the only one who knew how to play in my house, and a dedicated father, hadn’t had the precaution and vision to teach me when I was a little girl.
He didn’t think it was important, and I told him off. In my heart, I felt like he might have underestimated the interest I could have had for the game. I had never wanted to be a Grandmaster or dedicate myself to chess professionally as a sport, as I’m sure I lack the talent for that. But if I had grown up exercising, as an amateur, the method of thinking two or three plays ahead, calculating cause and effect, I would have most probably made a lot better decisions than I have in my life up until now. I would have been freer.
Unfortunately, chess can also be a podium for manic egos, and for people trapped in their vanity. I’ve grown up seeing them in my neighborhood. On the other side of the coin, lots of people underestimate themselves and think that they will never be good enough and don’t even go near the game. Sometimes, they apologise in advance saying that they don’t have the patience for it. At the end of the day, it’s a “scientific game” and it’s sanctified.
But chess is especially a space dominated by men, where women are underrepresented and where some of the most renowned men in history have contributed to reaffirming their alleged superiority in the game over women, children, the less gifted or just ordinary people.
“All women are weak. […] They shouldn’t play chess. They are beginners,” Bobby Fischer told Harper’s Magazine in 1962. In 2003, several decades later, Garry Kasparov told London’s The Times that “chess is a combination of sport, psychological warfare, science and art. When you look at all of these components, men dominate.”
We are in actual fact surrounded by preconceptions that seem to become truths when you’re hit in the face with statistics that examine the performance of women in professional chess. While there is no conclusive evidence to prove that men have greater intellectual skills, the statistics seem to say it all. There is only one woman today among the top 100 chess players in the world, 27-year-old Chinese Grandmaster Hou Yifan, who is in 86th place in the rankings.
Throughout history, there has only been one woman among the top ten chess players in the world: the Hungarian Judit Polgar. Alongside her, her sisters Sofia and Zsuzsa were also champions, thanks to a completely extraordinary experiment. Their parents, Laszlo and Klara Polgar, in socialist Hungary, decided to convert them into great chess players, and they succeeded.
The Polgar family know that what they did is extraordinary. Their decision to homeschool their daughters and train them in front of a 64-square board ever since they were little, isn’t a recipe for success to be reproduced on a large scale. They tried to prove a very special pedagogical method to create young geniuses.
The Polgars’ story, and of other female chess whizzes, just goes to prove two things. First of all, that intelligence – the inherent capacity – of girls is similar to that of boys and they can do anything they set out to do.
The second point is that women’s chances of shining in the world of chess dominated by men, will always depend on doing the same things as them when they want to be champions: play and play. Play all of the time. The family home is usually the place where you begin your career as a chess player.
But who wants a life full of so much sacrifice to reach these pinnacles? Only a few, who immerse themselves in chess. What about us simple souls?
Generally-speaking, we detest walking down the hardest paths: chess is one of them, although we know that behind every play, there is a brain that is becoming more and more robust and is training, while a more powerful self-esteem stands.
Girls need to learn to play chess, just like they play with dolls or dance the hula-hula, or build large structures in lego. We parents need to help them to learn the method, so that “they invade” a universe with their lucidity, a universe where they are ignored. Girls are and will be great strategists who, like women, can want to move their pieces, freely.