Sunday, 9 September 2007

Why I play chess: part 3

An essay by Emma Pierson, part 3

<< Click here for Part 2

Emma Pierson

Stereotypes are alluring because they let us be lazy–you don't need to bother to understand someone, with all their complexities and nuances, but can rely on a preconception. It didn't matter that I played piano and basketball, that I wrote essays to understand the world and dreamed of being a writer, that I empathized so deeply with people I couldn't even watch scary movies–all the quirks that make me who I am were ignored. Instead, I was a chess geek, as boring and black and white as the game that was my supposed obsession. Stereotyping someone is like reading a summary of a poem–you're missing the point, for while you may understand it well enough to pretend you've actually read it, you won't get the beauty, the uniqueness, that makes it worth reading it the first place.

The social stigma surrounding chess hits women particularly hard. Only four percent of chess players are female; when I asked girls who still play chess the reason for this lack of participation, all of them cited the social stigma surrounding chess. Girls are more confined by stereotypes than boys, something I still struggle with. After vowing fierce opposition to all social trends in junior high, I moved to a new high school and slowly reconciled my chess playing with my social life. I realized that, as foolish as social trends may be, it is necessary to conform somewhat to fulfill people's expectations–it may be too hot to wear clothes in the summer, but we still don't go naked.

my friends accept me for who I am–a girl with an eccentric habit but to whom they can still relate.

Thus, I compromise–I go to dances, I gossip about boys, but I also fly across the country to play in national tournaments–and my friends accept me for who I am–a girl with an eccentric habit but to whom they can still relate. The stigma around chess still bothers me, although I laugh about it when questioned. I was walking alongside a highway with some friends when one commented, "That car just honked at you."

"No one would honk at me," I said cynically, "I play chess." The words were bitter, but my tone was not. While I have no illusions about chess's sex appeal, I have gradually realized that people worth knowing will accept that I'm a chess player–I went out with a boy who was willing to play chess with me at three in the morning.

Still, I live in two worlds–one where I can discuss the intricacies of the Danish Gambit and the second where I can discuss the intricacies of dating–but the worlds do not intersect. And while I feel at home in both, they sometimes come into conflict. I once skipped a team tournament to attend a friend's sweet sixteen. When I finally arrived at the tournament, still wearing the dress from the party, I endured the ridicule (some joking, some serious) of everyone from the parents of my teammates to the employees at the tournament. "You skipped a chess tournament," they would say incredulously, "for a birthday party?" As incredible as it seemed to them, I'm sure my other friends would have been equally shocked had I skipped the birthday party instead. What's a girl to do?

It is ironic that chess, the game rejected by social boundaries, is the game that overcomes them.

And the stereotypes come not only from outside the chess world but from inside it as well–many boys find it hard to believe that a girl is as good as they are. I actually enjoy lower expectations; my reaction to the "glass ceiling" has always been to crash through it. There are few things more beautiful than the expression of an overconfident teenage boy–after I beat him. Once I win their respect, however, most boys I play are friendly and–at least over a chess board–outgoing. Most of the time I almost forget the gender distinction exists; for me, it is easier to be accepted inside the chess world than outside it.

It is ironic that chess, the game rejected by social boundaries, is the game that overcomes them. But it is also fitting: for chess players, who must be brave or oblivious enough not to care about social boundaries, create an environment where they dissolve. The nature of the game itself–the equality at the beginning of the game and the fact that the same rules apply to everyone–also overcomes differences.

I once played a game against an old Norwegian man with a reputation as a formidable chess player. He was a longtime friend of my grandparents; I was around ten at the time and had the sense I was upholding our family honor. I defended my position carefully and managed to force a draw; afterwards, as we analyzed the game together, he explained the nuances of the position to me in fluent, accented English. We played again the following day; overconfident from my previous success, I attacked recklessly. He defended patiently, then exploited the weaknesses I had created; soon, I was forced to resign. Again we analyzed the game; as we shared our thoughts of the past few hours, we began to see beneath the silent facade that social boundaries build. Though we were from different lands and generations, we found a link in chess.

I never saw him again. A week later, I asked my mother why he had come to visit.

"He came to say goodbye, honey," she told me softly. "He's got terminal cancer."

I turned away, standing quite still as it sunk in. Then I fled up the stairs, barely able to see through my tears. I did not understand how I had grown to care about this man so deeply over the course of two chess games. Only later would I see how chess had forged a bond between us: through cooperating to understand its infinite possibilities, we had grown to understand each other.


Blue Devil Knight said...

Emma: considered starting a blog?

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written, and I found the ending very moving. Emma, as the father of one of those (hopefully not overconfident) teenage boys, I hope my son has the opportunity to play you at one of the Nationals. Good luck on all your future endeavors.

Polly said...

I first read this piece on Susan Polgar's blog. It's an awesome piece of writing. Emma should start a blog of her own about about femalea and chess.

Chess teaching said...

I like this piece of writing vey much. I think that one of the reasons a lot of girls are quitting chess is that only four percent of the chess players are female.

Katrina Muller said...

Just found this piece. Really glad I did!


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Chess Tales by Roger Coathup: A collection of online articles about chess and chess players.