Changing the Image of Chess for Girls in America

I wrote about the challenges (see the article below) in girl's chess nearly 15 years ago. Since then, the Susan Polgar Foundation has been in the forefront to create and implement needed changes. More than $5,000,000 in scholarships, cash, and chess prizes have been awarded ...

I was originally approached by Mr. Frank Niro, the Executive Director of the USCF in 2002, to help promote chess in America. I agreed. I made many comprehensive suggestions and proposals on how to properly promote chess in the United States, especially for girls. It was an eye opening unpleasant experience as I faced countless red tapes, bureaucracy and petty politics.

Very little was done to help promote our game for years. But when qualified and experienced people try to help, some other people take offense as their “power” and “territory” are challenged. So instead of doing what is best for US Chess, people are working against each other which directly harm the proper growth of chess in America. I have faced countless insults, demeaning and rude remarks as well as attacks on both personal and professional level.

I am not the only one to face this. Other chess sponsors, supporters and enthusiasts face the same pattern of abuse and attack. That is why you see so many organizations working from the outside. This was the reason for the birth of the Susan Polgar Foundation.

Girl’s Chess in America:

A Social Dilemma

Over the years, I discussed my opinion about the differences in chess for men and women, especially in America. Now I would like to share with you my ideas of how to correct these problems and raise the bar for women’s chess in the United States.

1. Change the Image of Chess for Girls in America

Image is everything and right now, the image of girls playing chess in America is not too popular. We should start with the next generation, the young girls of America today. Change the image of chess in general for them. Let them know that there is nothing wrong with girls playing chess. “Chess is cool!”, “Chess is fun!”, “Chess is fantastic!”, “Let’s show the boys what girls are made of!”, “You can do it!”, “It is OK to be beautiful and smart at the same time!”. Those are the things we should tell our youngsters.

Let’s face it, until recently, this was the same problem for boys as well. Boys who play chess in America are considered nerds, geeks, social outcasts, etc. How many movies have we seen where this has been portrayed, where the school chess teams consist of the biggest losers, the most made fun of characters, the ones who button their collar buttons, the ones who have pen organizers in their pockets? All of a sudden, with the popularity of a movie like Harry Potter and with famous athletes such as Latrell Sprewell (New York Knicks superstar guard) and other celebrities stating that they enjoy chess, chess all of a sudden becomes “cool”.

If you think the social pressure for boys is tough, it is equally tough for girls, if not more so. If we want to build champions, we have to help them. If a hit movie from Hollywood and the admission of a New York Knicks player can change the image of chess for boys in America, we can do the same for our young girls. And why not start now?

2. More Chess Promotions for Girls by the Top Women Players

Our young girls need role models. They need someone to guide them, lead them, show them and set good examples for them. They are very valuable assets for the future of chess in America for the next generation. They are role models for younger girls.

3. More Support from National and State Organizations

Our young girls need a lot more support. The Samford scholarship is awarded each year for the most promising junior. How many girls have received this? Frankly, if you compare the pure statistics among the top juniors in America, no girls deserve it. I understand that it is unfair to give it to promising girls when they don’t qualify and disregard the talented boys. But why not help both?

Solution?

Why not have separate awards? In fact, why stop at just one junior per year? Why not have national training programs for our youngsters? It costs very little if it is done right without bureaucracy.

In addition, there can be similar programs and supports at the state level. I am sure if we put our efforts and work together, each state can find some sponsors to put up money for various activities for our young girls. It can be done if it is important for us. This has been long overdue. I think it is time to do something about it.

4. Separate Chess Training for Girls in Some Capacity

This is very important. When girls and boys reach a certain age, “distractions” will occur. In order to be a champion, the concentration level and commitment has to be maximized. By putting boys and girls together in all training sessions, it is harder to accomplish this.

In addition, there is the intimidation factor. The girls are not as good as the boys at the moment. Therefore, many girls would feel less intimidated if they are at least given a chance to catch up. This goes back to the first issue I stated. Due to the lack if social acceptance, a lot fewer girls are playing chess than boys and their level of play is also lower. Having some separate training programs will help build their confidence and give them a better chance to succeed. Once the acceptance and the level of play increase, we can slowly merge the programs in some capacity later.

5. More Opportunities for Girls

If we go strictly by ratings to receive invitations to special tournaments, then girls will have very little chance to compete to gain confidence and valuable experience. We can create special tournaments and give our top rated young girls a chance to compete and learn. It does not cost much if it is done right and it can bring tremendous results.

6. Financial Support and Incentives

Has anyone ever asked why for so many years women’s chess in the former Soviet Union and now in China is so much more superior to the U.S.? One of the answers is because they have financial support. It is hard if not impossible to make a living to pay the rent and be a champion at the same time.

I remember some years ago, a large sum of money was put up for the first computer program that could beat IM David Levy. Countries like England and France also had substantial incentives for the first player to achieve the grandmaster title. Has anyone checked the titled players list from England and France lately? I guess you can say it worked out quite well.

I am not saying we need an enormous dollar grant or incentive to accomplish this. But there should be some incentives out there for our youngsters. How many promising juniors (girls and boys) have given up chess when they reached a certain age because there was simply too little incentive for them to continue. I know many who did that. Why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to become a GM so you can barely make $20,000 a year? Some say they play chess for the love of the game. It is a noble concept but the love of the game does not pay the rent or put food on the table for your family.

7. Patience

It took approximately a decade for China to see phenomenal results in women’s chess. Even with an incredible amount of support from a national system, it took time to make a difference. If we want to change chess for girls and women in America, we have to make a long term plan and stick with it. We need a true commitment and we need to be patient. You cannot build Rome in one day but it does not hurt to start now.

8. Stop the Politics

There is too much chess politics at every level, from local clubs, state or regional organizations, USCF to FIDE. Have we lost sight of our objectives? When was the last time that the US sent a Women’s Team to the Olympiad with a realistic chance of bringing home the Gold? I urge everyone to put off his or her differences and work together for the common good of chess in America, especially for our youngsters, the next generation. So what is my conclusion?

There is no reason why the United States cannot develop a successful chess program and system for women to compete with other chess elite countries. I hope with the cooperation of various organizations, we together can make it happen.

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