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Article written by SPFGI Alumna Aiya Cancio
Webster Groves, MO
As the 15th annual Susan Polgar Foundation Girls’ Invitational (SPFGI) wraps up this week with sixty participants from ten different federations including a representative from most of the fifty United States, it is important to look back and see how far chess for women and girls has grown since the Susan Polgar Foundation (SPF) and the SPFGI were instituted.
“Back in 2002 when the SPF was founded, I felt there was a desperate need for an organization that specifically pays attention to girls’ and women’s chess. That was the main reason I founded it and tried to get support from different people who felt the same way,” Polgar said.
“Growing up as a girl in a man’s world of chess, I felt there was a need for more encouragement, because for a lot of the girls, they don’t get involved in the first place, or, even if they do get involved, they get discouraged seeing the demographics. It can feel lonely.”
Polgar, having been an incredibly talented player herself by winning four Women’s World Championships, becoming the first world chess champion in history to win the triple-crown, (blitz, rapid, and classical World Championships), and becoming the first woman to earn the men’s Grandmaster title through traditional FIDE requirements in 1991, as well as many other triumphs, is certainly familiar with this imbalanced atmosphere.
“I know that when I was growing up, in most of my tournaments I was the only girl. It is a strange feeling, somewhat an unnatural feeling,” Polgar reminisced.
Fortunately, times have changed and there has been a far greater emphasis on supporting female chess players. Polgar’s SPF and SPFGI can be credited for much of that improvement. The importance of girls only events such as the SPFGI, as Ms. Polgar says herself, is “… to develop a community and encourage each other. It shouldn’t be certainly the only type of events girls participate in, but I think it’s a very encouraging environment, especially at a younger age.”
There is something to be said about Polgar’s ability to create such a unique tournament environment where chess is unquestionably the main attraction, but evidently not the only focus. For example, one of the returning participants in this year’s invitational said, “It’s really nice that you get to see the same people, but you also get to meet new people and make lasting friendships. Honestly, one of the things I really like about this tournament is the community, going over games with friends … just being able to hang out and talk to other chess players.”
With the second annual alumnae blitz event taking place on the Saturday prior to the start of the main tournament, past SPFGI qualifiers were further reminded that the bonds established over the board are ones that can endure for years to come. Although I am a few years removed from competitive chess, my participation in the alumnae blitz tournament was just as much about the competition as it was an opportunity to reunite with past prominent SPFGI attendees, Luisa Mercado, Alexandra Wiener, Rebecca Lelko, and Tori Whatley. While reconnecting with these accomplished women, there was a collective realization that some of our closest and oldest friends have come into our lives by playing chess, and more specifically, directly because of the SPFGI.
Of the 15 years this prestigious invitational has taken place, I have participated in eight, and have been on staff for an additional two. I certainly grew up over the course of these past ten years, with this tournament and my fellow contenders being a major part of my adolescence.
Completely attributable to Susan Polgar and her dream of strongly encouraging girls to play chess, I, and many others, have indeed found a wonderful community of people whom we will have in our lives far beyond playing in chess tournaments. Even though I am no longer eligible to compete, continuing to annually participate in the facilitation of the SPFGI is something I eagerly anticipate every summer. It is a privilege to develop a new role for myself in support of the SPFGI, to now work alongside individuals I greatly admire and respect, and to be a part of an initiative that that inspires and values women in the many facets of their lives.
As stated earlier, I have gained most of my closest friends directly because of my participation in the SPFGI. Now, some of the alumnae are engaged to be married, and I will be attending their weddings as they begin the next phase of their lives. Alexandra Wiener recently initiated a Facebook group comprised of SPFGI alumnae, already nearing 100 members. The camaraderie established will continue to gain momentum and influence to lead and empower new generations of female players.