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Chess is Not A Boy’s Game

Earlier this month, almost 100 chess queens from 20 Success Academy schools made their best move yet! These chess queens traveled to Harlem West on a day off from school to compete in the first Success Academy all-girls chess tournament. The tournament is part of a new initiative to get more girls involved in chess.

It is no secret that chess is far more popular with boys, especially in the older grades. Boys outnumber girls nearly 20 to 1 in the chess world. The gender gap is worse on a professional level: No woman has won the World Chess Championships, and just 2 percent of all chess grandmasters are female.

At Success Academy, every child learns to play chess. The schools have chess teams that compete against each other. Our teams also regularly compete against other schools and have won national championships. These teams have girls who love chess just as much as the boys. Unfortunately, many of their closest friends believe that chess is “a boy’s game.” Our girl chess players have told me this.

As an educator, I feel a responsibility to help change these perceptions and empower more girls to play chess. I learned to play when I was 5; growing up in the South Bronx, I was just one of two girls on my school chess team. I loved chess because it taught me valuable lessons and skills.

I am not the only one who feels strongly about closing the gender gap in chess. Sean O’Hanlon, the network’s chess program director, reminds us that girls can play just as well as boys. “As teachers, we have to make sure that we are cognizant of our biases and that we are destroying them right at their root,” he tells teachers.

With his support and the help of other chess teachers at Success Academy, we planned the all-girls tournament – and in just this one event, we already saw promising signs of change. “I got to analyze every single one of their games, which is something I don’t normally get to do with 15 scholars at every tournament. The girls definitely got that individual attention, and it really helped,” Chris Johnson, a chess teacher at SA Harlem 4, told me. Our chess queens benefited from that more targeted feedback. We also observed girls talking about the gender gap in chess. A fourth grade scholar named Maia, for example, shared with her teammates that there are only two women on the list of top 100 chess players.

We hope it won’t be for long.

Our long-term goal at the network is to have an equal ratio of boys and girls in the chess program. We know we can get there. The top five players at eight of our schools include girls. At two of these schools, girls hold the number one spot.

We will continue to invite girls to compete against each other in chess in hopes that they will keep learning from one another and serve as role models for other girls. Our expectations for them will remain high. They will still attend the same chess club practices, camps, weekend tournaments, and external events as the boys. They will also continue to compete with boys and be accountable for completing the same work.

And they will make their mark as Success Academy’s own chess queens.

Written by Tanisha Millan February 26, 2015

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