Newport News teen ranks as a celebrity — and a master — in the chess world

By Mark St. John Erickson
November 9, 2009

Young Abby Marshall may look a lot like the rocking teenage girl next door.

But underneath her trademark T-shirt beats the heart of warrior — one whose remarkable displays of grit, cunning and ferocity on the 64-square battleground of chess have generated international admiration.

Just this past summer, the 18-year-old Warwick High School girl became the first female to win the hotly contested Denker Tournament of High School Champions, which serves as the nation’s high school championship.

She’s also a two-time winner of the Susan Polgar National Invitational for Girls, where her strong, attacking style of play and her clever, tongue-in-cheek blog first began to attract global attention in the world of chess.

Google the name “Abby Marshall” and chess, in fact, and you’ll discover a host of Web sites that cover her matches like those of a sports celebrity — with interviews, pictures and comments from fans, including one describing this “badass” devotee of the much-maligned King’s Gambit opening move as a “chess hero.”

Over the past four years, she’s repaid that attention with some blistering tournament victories, pushing her performance-based player rating past the magical “2,200” points needed to ranks as a national chess master.

This week, Marshall will join the national team for her second trip to the World Youth Chess Championships in Istanbul, Turkey, where she hopes to win a few more points toward her goal of becoming a Grand Master.

Here’s what she had to say when we caught up with her just before her departure:

DP: Abby, you started playing chess competitively in kindergarten. But you didn’t make the leap from learning to lethal for several years. When did you discover you might be pretty good?

Abby: When I won fourth place in the nationals in fifth grade, I realized it was a big deal. And in 7th grade when I won the nationals — and then the Polgar — it cemented my reputation as a rising player.

DP: You study or practice chess every day. You’ve traveled all over the country, not to mention long trips to China and Turkey, to play tournaments. What makes chess so interesting to you?

Abby: I really like the game. I like solving difficult problems under pressure. I like seeing the depth and complexity unfold. It’s a cool experience — and it has this kind of intensity that I don’t get anywhere else. It has some nice travel perks, too.

DP: What’s your best moment since you started attracting so much attention?

Abby: I want to say winning the Denker this summer. Everybody made a big deal because I was the first girl to do it. But it’s really the first nationals I won in the seventh grade. I beat a kid who’d been at the top every year I went for five years, and he was considered invincible. It was a big surprise because I was seeded fifth — and everybody else was ranked so much higher than me.

DP: Your first coach describes your open, tactical style of play as “a fighting game.” He singles you out for your “grit and resolve,” plus “forcing moves that can be explosive, even wild and strange.” What do you see when you play?

Abby: “I don’t see the individual pieces as much as the patterns and configurations they make on the board. And once you get really good, those patterns and configurations can tell you what your opponent’s plan is going to be — and what you’ll be able do. Calculating the sequences of moves is easy. It’s the plan or strategy that’s hard. And when it gets to the end game, you have to be precise, fast and smart. You have to make sure that what you want to do happens faster than what your opponent wants.”

DP: Part of your appeal in the chess world is your honesty and wit as a tournament blogger. Did you know how much people would like your descriptions of the ups and downs, the role of luck and even the goofiness that can happen in a four-hour match?

Abby: They wanted me to make it chatty — and it was very easy. There’s always a lot of stuff to talk about. So I tried to make my experience fun and relatable. I tried to make it personal. But I didn’t expect people to like it so much.”

DP: What’s next?

Abby: “Eighteen is old — like real old — in chess. So my childhood career is over. But since I won the Denker and moved up to master, I’ve been telling people I want to be a grand master — and that’s 2,600 points. So I still have a long way to go. The other thing is that the strongest American-born female player is only about 100 points in front of me. I hope to surpass that — and raise the level of American chess. There are all these 10-year-old girls out there who are really, really good — ridiculously good — and it would be really cool to show them how far they could go.

Abby Marshall

Position: Chess master

Home: Newport News

Age: 18


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