Elementary school girls gear up for chess tournament
8:12 PM, Jan. 8, 2012
When 11-year-old Mina Takahashi started playing chess at Lincoln Elementary School, she wasn’t sure if she had the same enthusiasm as her younger brother, Michael. It wasn’t until longtime chess player Jim Hodina taught her a new series of moves to open the game that she really got into it.
“That helped me improve,” the sixth-grader said. “I kind of like the strategy.”
Eventually, she went on to win the state championship in 2010.
Takahashi is one of 11 girls from Lincoln Elementary who gathers each week to practice chess. On Sunday, they convened at Takahashi’s house, their final practice before the 2012 Iowa Girls Chess Championship on Saturday.
Christian Schmitz, Takahashi’s father, coaches the girls from Lincoln. Initially when his son and daughter started playing chess at school, the game seemed like too much “brain work” for him to play in the evenings, he said.
“Pretty soon as you kind of get beyond that first hurdle and you’re really starting to understand the game, it really sort of grabs you,” Schmitz said.
Of all the competitive chess players worldwide, only about 10 percent of them are females, he said. Society typically regards chess as a male activity, but females have the same mental skills and talent to compete, Schmitz said.
“At first, it strikes you as a little bit curious, because the skill set you initially bring to chess is really not that gender-specific,” he said.
Hodina, who is organizing the upcoming chess championship, said that’s why he’s been trying to get girls more involved in the game.
“If you’re looking to grow an activity, you go after the part of the population that isn’t participating,” he said.
Hungarian-American chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar explained the phenomenon in a 2007 column she wrote for ChessCafe.com. Polgar wrote that society and families tend not to accept the concept of girls playing chess. Intimidation, stemming from the fact that there are so few female players, also plays a big role.
Polgar also wrote that males and females take very different approaches to the game. While males tend to focus more on winning or losing, females tend to appreciate the artistic and social aspects of the game.
At the practice Sunday, Hodina first explained the rules of a tournament, because many of the girls there hadn’t been in one yet. He taught them to record every move on a chart and use timers during turns.
He also taught them about the rules of a tournament. For example, once you touch a piece during your turn, that’s the one you have to move.
“That’s hard,” he said. “I teach people to sit on their hands, pretend they’re eating peas and carrots really, really slowly.”
After the lesson, the room became silent as the girls took to the boards for a mock tournament. Their faces turned serious as they contemplated their moves. After the wins and losses, there was no teasing or mocking — they simply moved quietly to the next round.
Just because the kids are young doesn’t mean they’re too young to be good at chess, Hodina said.
“Age doesn’t necessarily dictate your ability as much as it does in other activities, especially athletics,” he said.
Schmitz said he was shocked at how quickly his kids surpassed him in their ability to play chess.
“I consider myself an average intelligent person,” he said. “There aren’t many other cognitive skills where I see my 9-year-old son doing better than I can do. I don’t know what it is; I just can’t keep up with him.”
Third-grader Nina Meng started playing chess at school with her two sisters. She said she wasn’t sure about it at first, but then eventually got more into it. Now, the 9-year-old said she thinks she’ll be playing chess for a long time.
“It’s fun,” she said, “and it helps my logic thinking.”