Little Chess Women

Little Chess Women

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Written by Olya Kaye

Back in the post-war, torn down Soviet Russia in the early 1960s, my grandfather made a move that significantly impacted the lives of the next three generations of women in his family. The move was simple: he taught my mother, who was a little girl at the time, how to play chess. 

Little chess women International Women's Chess Day
Olya's grandfather, Vassiliy, on the cover of “Chess In The USSR” magazine, 1953 issue. 

My mother passed down my grandfather’s chess legacy to me and my sister. Now, together with my mom, I am teaching my two little girls. And we all love it! In fact, “love” is a faint word to describe our little obsession with chess. 

One morning, I woke up extra early feeling particularly refreshed and ready to conquer the day. My entire family was asleep, or so I thought. I craved to play some uninterrupted online chess before the chaos of having two little kids around would erupt the whole house.

Quietly, I slipped out of bed and tip-toed down the stairs into our living room, but to my surprise the lights were on. I searched for my laptop but it was nowhere to be found. Fresh cookie crumbs were on the floor, sticking to my bare feet. “This is all strange,” I thought.

Then I heard a very familiar “hleurb” sound. It is the sound that chess pieces make on when a piece captures another piece. The sound came from under the table. It was my six-year-old daughter playing online chess. She had “hacked” my computer and beaten me to playing first.

International Women's Chess Day
Lea playing Chess under the table. Photo: Courtesy of Kaye.

“Lea*! What are you doing under the table?” I asked.

“Hiding from you… Shhh! I’m trying to focus.”

“Lea, you are not supposed to be playing chess so early in the morning. School is the priority,” I muttered, disappointed that my early morning plan was compromised. 

“Mom, don’t be mad. I’m playing the Pork Defense! Come look.”

“What Pork Defense? What are you talking about?” Lea effectively and cleverly captured my interest. 

“You know… it’s your favorite.”

“Aaaah, the Pirc Defense.” I was ecstatic. I had shown Lea my favorite opening to play for Black against 1.e4 a while ago and now she was playing it (hurray!)… or not. Her opening looked nothing like the Pirc, but I wouldn’t take it away from her. And just like that, I got sucked into watching Lea’s game, joining her under the table.

“Watch your Bishop!” I shouted.

“Shhh, I know! Don’t help me.”

“Sorry!” I didn’t mean to help her. My shouting just came out on an instinct, when I saw Lea’s little finger reaching for the wrong piece on the screen. 

Minutes later, my other 4-year-old daughter was joyfully bouncing down the stairs, singing her favorite “Let It Go” song at the top of her lungs. 

“Oooh, is this the Queen’s Gambit, mommy?” she inquired in a cute, squeaky voice while joining us under the table. The Queen’s Gambit is the only opening she knows. Not even that. Just the first two moves of it. In her little chess world, everything at the moment is the Queen’s Gambit.

And just like that, our house was filled with “Ooohs" and “Aaahhs”, “hleurb, hleurb” sounds and shouting of words like “blunder, attack, check, oops,” etc.

“What is going on here?” my mother inquired while yawning. She is temporarily living with us during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Shhh… come look at this game!” I whispered.

“Watch that pawn!” my mom shouted, all of a sudden wide-awake and fully alert. 

“The pawn is fine, he can’t take it,” I responded. 

“Ok, then the… the… look at that open file!”… More shouting in excitement followed. We must have woken my husband up. 

“These women…” he muttered with a smile while coming down the stairs, shaking his head. He was seemingly unaffected by this typical chess gathering and proceeded into the kitchen to fetch some breakfast. He is the only soul in our house who can resist a game of chess.

And that’s how the early morning proceeded. Four women from the very little, to middle-aged, to mature gathered under the table to watch and play a thrilling chess game.

A story like this is very common in our household and perhaps other houses too. But what makes it so special for me is the bonding time we have together over chess, and the wonderful memories we create that will last us a lifetime. 

International Women's Chess Day
Four little chess women. Photo: Courtesy of Kaye.

I am very fond of chess, because of all the memories I have while playing it with my mother and sister as a child. But not only that—for years, chess has brought food to our table thanks to my mom being a chess coach. Thanks to chess, I got a scholarship, better job offers, met incredible people (including my husband), travelled the world, and had a life full of adventures. 

And now, thanks to chess, my daughters have a passion. Passion passed down from their great-grandfather, whom they, nor I, have ever met. Passion that they share with my sister, Alla, whom they don’t get to see very often anymore because of the COVID-19 pandemic (there’s nothing like a good online chess game between Lea and auntie Alla!). Passion that I have dreamed about sharing with my children for years and it is finally materializing into these beautiful moments… 

Unfortunately, my grandfather never recovered from the physical and psychological wounds of World War II. He passed away at the age of 55, just when my mother turned 20. But I am sure that he would be smiling if he could see us today from up above. Today, in particular, because it is International Women’s Day and all five of his little women are sharing his tremendous love for chess.

I am sending my best wishes to all of the female chess players out there, and to all the girls and women - from the very young to the very old. Happy International Women’s Day! Please do take a moment today to hug, call, or text a special woman in your life. And maybe, just maybe, see if you can teach and inspire one girl out there how to play chess. You never know what the impact of your inspiration could be for generations to come! 

*Name has been changed for confidentiality.

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