- Garett Fisbeck
- Veronika Zilajevs plays against her younger sister Victoria during a ladies' chess club meeting at District House in Oklahoma City, Saturday, Feb. 30, 2016.
Its 10:03 on a sunny Saturday morning in January, and the meeting room at District House coffee shop, located in the Plaza District, slowly fills with guests for the first meeting of a chess club for girls and women. One by one, they come in to play.
Some roll in with bed head, bleary-eyed but excited. Others stride in carrying chess boards in snazzy cases, wearing chess team T-shirts, hair coiffed, ready to roll. Coffee, cocoa and pastries are purchased, and players take their places across from one another.
Women in their 60s chat amicably as they sip and play. The youngest players are 6 years old.
Pretty soon, the chess girl arrives. Veronika Zilajeva is the highest-ranked female chess student in the state. She and her sister begin a game at a corner table. Zilajeva is tall and confident, a native of Latvia now living with her family in Moore, and she wants more girls to follow in her footsteps.
I love chess, she said. You have to constantly challenge yourself while youre playing.
Zilajeva has been paying for 10 years, since she was in first grade.
This females-only chess club meets the last Saturday of each month and is the brainchild of mother, writer and chess devotee Rebecca Rutledge, whose sons odyssey into the world of competitive chess spurred her own rediscovery of the game.
I played competitively in my 30s, and my son loves to play, she said. I taught him when he was 3. When he was in first grade, he joined the chess club at Wilson Elementary.
Rutledge took over the management of Wilsons WISE Wolves Chess team and club in 2014 and has since brought in a coach. She also heads Youth Chess League of Central Oklahoma, which provides chess programming for the City of Oklahoma Citys recreational centers.
Chess is really good for kids, Rutledge said. It increases cognitive ability and helps to proliferate dendrites, which means it makes the brain stronger and more efficient. It increases development of the prefrontal cortex.
That makes it a perfect activity to get youths involved in before their teen years.
Chess punishes impulsive moves and rewards thoughtful moves, Rutledge said. Its not an everyone-gets-a-trophy game. Its you against one person. One of you wins and one of you loses, and you learn to do both gracefully and to move on.
- Garett Fisbeck
- Harper Ruhl and Angela Reid during a ladies' chess club meeting at District House in Oklahoma City.
As Rutledges chess involvement grew, she noticed a glaring imbalance in who plays chess and who doesnt and an inherent sexism in the organized world of chess, wherein being a Womens Grand Master requires a lower ranking than a Grand Master.
Theres a gender gap in chess, and it has nothing to do with ability, Rutledge said. Of course, you could take chess out of that sentence and substitute it with any of an endless number of human pursuits. When it comes to achievement, theres a gender gap in everything.
Before the 60s, our choices were serial motherhood or celibacy. That wasnt all that long ago. Those expectations about what women and girls can do or should do, they get passed down from generation to generation regardless of whether theyre relevant or not.
Dolls arent for boys, trucks arent for girls and there arent any female grand masters. Except there are. Not many, but more than there used to be.
With chess, theres an opportunity to broaden those expectations not societys expectations of what a girl could or should aspire to achieve or become, but our girls own expectations, how they see themselves.
- Garett Fisbeck
- Girls and Womens Chess Club meet the last Saturday of each month at District House, located in Plaza District.
Kathryn Aliotta is a teacher and chess coach at Del City High School. She has played the board game since she was a second-grader in Michigan, thanks to her grade schools librarian, Mr. Dykstra, whom she remembers with a nostalgic smile.
This morning, Aliotta brought one of her two chess-playing daughters to the event, while she, like many teachers, went to work at a second job.
At Del City, weve got about 20 students in our chess club and six to eight who compete, Aliotta said. Its been five or six years since weve had a girl in a tournament.
Feb. 27, Aliotta and Del City High School host the 20th annual Oklahoma State Scholastic Chess Championship, open to K-12 students from across the state. She expects more than 200 competitors to participate.
The educator in Aliotta shares Rutledges conviction that chess is excellent for young minds.
Chess teaches kids to think about consequences, make a plan and to be able to change that plan if it doesnt work the way they thought it would, Aliotta said. It is a game where there is no luck; its completely about skill.
She worries about the underrepresentation of girls in chess and the passive demeanor she sees in young women.
Im concerned about the attitude of our girls they really lack self-confidence. Ill see a girl, a strong player, do pretty well, and shell say shes no good. A male player in the very same position, who may have less natural talent, will immediately talk about what a good player he is, Aliotta said. I dont know if we dont give girls enough self-confidence or if we raise them not to want to compete with boys, but I want to see it change.
For her part, Zilajeva, 16, said she doesnt really care if shes playing boys or girls, and her quiet, polite confidence is a thing of beauty.
She and her sister are accomplished players. Zilajeva also plays basketball. Shes considering pursuing an engineering degree in college and wants to keep playing chess.
I want to make sure that the younger generation plays, as well, she said. I want to increase the popularity of chess in Oklahoma. I want it to be as popular as basketball.
Rutledge is determined to see things change.
Society doesnt expect you to play chess if youre a girl, Rutledge said. Often, Ill see a girl at a tournament and shes not participating; shes only there because her brother is playing, so shes reading a book or playing on her moms phone, whatever. Maybe she gave chess a try and it wasnt her thing, or maybe she doesnt play because nobody expected her to.
Low expectations for girls might inhibit them from participating, but there are challenges for girls who play, too.
As for the girl who does play, the world is going to reinforce the notion that shes different, that shes doing something they dont expect. Some adult will find out she plays competitive chess and go, Oh, really? like theyre thinking, Thats so cute! I get it all the time, Rutledge said. I run chess programs, I take my team to tournaments, I organize and promote chess events, and still people are surprised when they see me playing. Not just men; women, too. So yes, its sexist, but its everybody.
The US Chess Federation appointed a womens committee to address some of these issues.
The first meeting was in December, Rutledge said. Not much came out of the meeting, but it was nice of them to have it. This is where I got the idea to start this club.
Print Headline: Open game, No longer pawns of the patriarchy, a local group launches a women- and girls-only chess club.