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NJ girls take on the challenges, and inequality, in chess

December 23, 2018

HAMILTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) — Anshruta Chidananda’s interest in chess started when she attended elementary school.

She had to wait while her older brother finished his chess club meetings at the William Davies Middle School.

“It was very new to me. When I started playing, I thought it was really interesting, all the different abilities of the pieces,” said Chidananda, now 16 and a junior at Oakcrest High School here.

Chidananda, who is the only girl who plays tournaments as a member of school’s chess club, has become a pretty good player in her own right over the years.

Last year, she placed seventh and received a plaque during a junior varsity tournament that involved at least five schools.

“As I have become older, I have gotten more into strategic games. Chess has that nice strategic concept,” said Chidananda, who lives here.

A girl playing chess at a high-school age and at a level of proficiency good enough to compete in secondary school tournaments is an unusual sight.

The percentage of girls playing chess between the ages of 5 and 10 is 30 percent, and only 15 percent of girls play chess between the ages of 14 and 18, said Daniel Lucas, senior director of strategic communication for the United States Chess Federation.

“Why fewer get into it initially is often like a self-perpetuating thing,” said Jennifer Shahade, women’s program director for the federation. “There are fewer girls and women in the game right now, so there are not a lot of role models. Beyond even role models, there are not even as many buddies to travel to chess tournaments with and talk about your game.”

Sean Olson, the Oakcrest chess team club adviser, began volunteering with the club during the 2014-15 academic year and took over during the 2016-17 school year.

There aren’t many sports or types of competitions that are truly co-ed and have males vs. females one on one.

Olson and the high school librarian, Terra Hiltner, the club’s official chess mom, are working to try and attract more girls.

Hiltner started a chess school or camp for Oakcrest girls that was held during the summertime, Olson said.

“My goal, while they are here, is to increase their opportunities for them to be able to play,” Olson said.

At Oakcrest, chess can be played in the library where boards and pieces are available during study halls, during lunch periods and before the academic day officially starts, Olson said.

“We fully stocked our library for kids who can’t stay after school,” said Olson, who added he knows some high school girls who will play chess during their free periods, who are not a part of the club. “I probably see more females playing for fun during the school day.”

Besides Chidananda, the only other female member of the 15-member Oakcrest chess club is Hannah Thompson, 14, a freshman, who lives in Galloway Township.

“I’ve always been interested in strategy games,” said Thompson, who has only been playing for the past two months and doesn’t know any girls who play chess. “I love playing. It’s fun.”

Thompson said one of her chess-playing strategies is to move a piece forward that she hopes her opponents will be preoccupied with trying to capture, so she can hit her competitors with moves they don’t see coming.

Recently the Atlantic City Free Public Library received a donation of 10 chess boards. The donations allowed the library to host its first summer chess club this year, which accommodated at least 10 children, said Maureen Moffit, the library’s head of youth services.

There is no disparity between the elementary-school boys and girls that play at the library, and the children told Moffit that students at the New York and Pennsylvania avenues elementary schools play chess.

The library’s chess club returns on June 25 and runs through Aug. 13.

“Here is the thing I like the most about chess: It really strengthens your ability to focus, which is something that children struggle with today, so I think it’s a really healthy and important game to introduce,” Moffit said.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2A6T4tO

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Information from: The Press of Atlantic City (N.J.), http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com

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