December 29th, 2017

Chess whiz

Remember this post about the teenaged Iranian siblings who were banned from playing chess on their national team?:

Dorsa and Borna Derakhshani, two of the country’s leading youth chess players, were told they can no longer be part of the national team.

Dorsa, an 18-year-old student in Spain, was banned after she did not wear a head covering during the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival earlier this month.

Her 15-year-old brother, Borna, who still lives in Iran, was told he couldn’t compete after playing a match against Israeli chess player Alexander Husman during the same tournament.

Now Dorsa has written an op-ed in the NY Times explaining why she has defected from Iran to the US:

From 2011 until 2015 I played for the Iranian national team. I had to follow the official Iranian dress code, which requires women to cover their hair in public. I understood that being a member of the team meant that I was an official representative of the country, so I never broke the rules. But I chafed under them.

By 2015, when I was 17 years old, it was clear to me that other things mattered more to the federation than talent. Just one example: I had won the Asian championship three times in a row when I arrived at the tournament in India in 2014. I was favored to win, given my record. Yet federation officials weren’t focused on my game, but on my clothing. On the very first day of the tournament, they told me my jeans were too tight. I told them I would not participate in the round unless they stopped scolding me.

In the end, I played and won that tournament in India. But time and time again, those in charge of the Iranian national team showed that they cared more about the scarf covering my hair than the brain under it…

My parents have always been my champions and I never wanted to leave home and live without them. But under the circumstances, they decided it was the wise decision to make — not just for my chess career, but for me as a person…

The last time I felt this kind of stability was at my high school in Tehran. The school was a haven for me, a place where I could express myself and the teachers fully respected the students. I have craved to be in a similar environment and, finally, I have found it. What’s more, I managed to join the U.S. federation in a matter of weeks — a rarity and something I remain deeply grateful for.

Unlike on the Iranian team, I am now surrounded by people who respect me as a player and don’t care or notice what I look like. Unlike on the Iranian team, where the officials could ignore a player’s earned right to play a tournament and replace that player with someone they preferred, here the rules are consistent and fair.

In this sense, America at its best reflects the best values of chess. Chess doesn’t care how old you are or what you wear. It doesn’t care about what gender you are, or how much money you have. It is blind to all of that. It cares only about merit.

That’s why I’m applying for United States citizenship and why I hope to someday represent this country in the Olympics.

I applaud Derakhshani, and wish her great success. I also wonder what’s going to happen to her younger brother and her parents, who apparently remain behind. I also wonder how long chess will continue to be just about merit. Many things aren’t, these days.

[NOTE: Actually, one category chess does pay some attention to is gender. Dorsa is certainly correct that in terms of winning games or championships, chess doesn’t care, but in other ways gender is an issue. There are a lot fewer female than male participants and champions, and many people have wondered why. See this and this, for example.]

18 Responses to “Chess whiz”

  1. Ann Says:

    Her brother is at a boarding school in Kent, England, and is now playing for the English Chess Federation.

  2. steve walsh Says:

    Now that strikes me as brave. I do wonder about how her family that remains behind will be treated.

  3. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Since women are clearly smarter than men, there can be only one explanation for the gender gap; women simply find chess not to be enough of a challenge…

    That not one woman in the world has attained GrandMaster status is obviously a meaningless anomaly.

    And, even though incontrovertible proof has now been discovered that in general, men and women’s minds are indeed wired differently cannot possibly have any relevance to this issue.

  4. Philip Says:

    I’m looking up Dorsa just now; excuse me while I geek out for a moment.

    She seems already rather heavily credentialed – her current FIDE rating (ELO) is 2306, which ties her for 13th place among all internationally rated US women players; has the full International Master (IM) and Women’s Grandmaster (WGM) titles (the former being the more difficult and consequently prestigious of the two to obtain). I see that even at this moment, she’s playing as an alternate (the only non-GM on the team!) on the pretty strong St. Louis University college team in the Pan-Ams going on in Ohio. Finally, she also has a certification as a FIDE Trainer, which is interesting to me in my capacity as a chess coach locally.

    Given all this, I think her goal of getting into the US women’s Olympiad lineup is looking eminently doable, particularly considering that at least one of the recent alternate members of that team in the last Olympiad was rated lower than Dorsa is now, so if she were to step in this instant, she’d immediately bump one of her competitors for a place off the roster, at least purely in terms of seeding. I think the USCF has some regs around how long a formerly-foreign player who switches national federations has to wait until officially representing the USA in certain events. Or maybe it’s FIDE regs. Somebody has some regs somewhere.

    I note that Dorsa wrote of her high school in Tehran being a relatively tolerant environment. That interests me that there may be ‘pockets’ of openness in the big cities of Iran. Once in a while, we on the outside get these intimations that the mullahs don’t have their thumbs on absolutely everything there.

    Since Dorsa is in college for something or other – don’t know what major – her further development as a player may depend on what that major is and where it takes her geographically. The US chess scene is still dominated by the coasts and big metro areas, though there are exceptions here and there. If she lands in the Northeast Corridor, for example, there’ll always be plenty of tournament opportunities. On the other hand, if she continues to live in St. Louis, her commute to play in the US Women’s Championship would be pretty short.

  5. Philip Says:

    Just quickly… GB, there are several women with the full GM title that I can think of right off the top of my head! Irina Krush who lives right close by in Brooklyn being one of them. Going back to Gaprindashvili back in the 70s, for goodness’ sake. Hou Yifan, Susan Polgar… so you need to revisit that, sir.

  6. Ann Says:

    Interesting that protests are going on in Iran right now — and that the government has caved on head scarves:

    There has been a second day of violent protests in Iran that have spread to at least 20 cities. The protests reportedly began over economic issues when Iranian officials raised food prices and the doubling of the price of eggs. Iran has huge economic problems with youth unemployment at 40 percent. There also is discontent over huge government spending on the military and the war in Syria. Over 60 percent of Iran’s population of 80 million is under 30 years old. Despite censorship and the mullah’s propaganda, Iranian youths yearn for the freedom and culture of the West.

    There also is significant and growing opposition to the country’s theocratic system, especially by young people. Incredibly, protesters reportedly have been chanting “We don’t want an Islamic Republic” and “Death to Rouhani.”

    It is no accident that the Iranian government announced today that it will no longer arrest women who go outside without wearing head scarves.

  7. vanderleun Says:

    “…. and that the government has caved on head scarves:”

    I blame DONALD TRUMP!

  8. Geoffrey Britain Says:


    My mistake. This is the line in the NYT’s article that led to my confusion and mistake; “none of the world’s 100 highest-rated players is female.”

    BTW, I thought my sarcasm was sufficiently obvious that no one would take the ‘arguments’ I offered entirely seriously.

    Sarcasm aside, I find the differences in results when women knowingly play men and when unknowingly playing a man to be illuminating. I also find the fact that no women occupy any of the 100 highest ratings to be noteworthy as well.

  9. Philip Says:

    GB, fair enough. I should have thought to calibrate my sarc-o-meter on that one – I take chess too seriously. 🙂

    There is one woman in the top 100 currently, for what that’s worth: Hou Yifan at place #64 in the December list. I was about to say nastily that this proves one can’t trust anything the NYT says, but then I went back and looked at that NYT article from July 2016 and it is in fact true that at that time, there were no women in the world top 100 – but Hou was in a tie for 104th! (Two cheers for the Gray Lady’s fact-checking?) She’s bounced back a bit since then, seemingly.

    I’ve always been a bit careful about playing female opponents – they can be tough, partly I think because of that self-conscious aspect on their side to which the article alludes. It usually pays to be cautious when facing them at the strong-amateur level. I noticed that one of the girls quoted in that article I’ve played once before – not one of my best games.

    One of our top players locally is in the top-20 girls under age 21 nationally. Yay, us!

  10. J.J. Says:

    “In this sense, America at its best reflects the best values of chess. Chess doesn’t care how old you are or what you wear. It doesn’t care about what gender you are, or how much money you have. It is blind to all of that. It cares only about merit.”

    She wants a meritocracy. Yes! Best she not try to join the Democrat Party though. All too many of our native born want no part of a meritocracy. 🙁

  11. bof Says:

    And chessplayers don’t care what species you are, if you can believe what you read in a science fiction story: “The Chessplayers” by Charles L. Harness, available for free at

  12. steve walsh Says:

    Just curious: why are the male and female chess players segregated into separate competitions? Is it a scheme to recruit females?

  13. bof Says:

    Steve, Male and female chessplayers are not “segregated into separate competitions. There are women-only competitions, but no men-only competitions that I know of.

  14. Ymar Sakar Says:

    Chess utilizes brute force logic as an advantage in the early and middle levels. Intuition only comes at the Grandmaster, or top 3%.

    On the ASVAB percentages, women scored substantially higher, by as much as 25-50%, than men in certain sections such as pattern recognition in code breaking sections. Men, did better on mechanics, math, and the sciences, with the gap growing larger and larger when it went into physical skills and details rather than academic regurgitation.

  15. steve walsh Says:

    Thank you bof.

  16. Philip Says:

    Actually, logic in chess remains a force just as much at professional level as at the higher amateur levels. More so in some ways, since logic, in order to operate in chess, needs a lot of material to feed on, so to speak: patterns and outcomes from which to extrapolate when confronted with a slightly different situation. I think this happens especially in the endgame, which becomes more and more logic-driven at a higher niveau, relying not just on patterns, but also on technical execution. This is one reason that endgame play has come to appeal to me – it’s a more pure form of chess, in a way.

    Interesting that there are these indications that women have higher scores on pattern recognition, as that sort of thing plays a huge role in the game generally.

  17. Philip Says:

    On the point of the existence of women’s chess tournaments, in fact that is in part a scheme, if you will, to increase participation and retention. It seems to be helping with that goal, at least in this country; I get the feeling that the percentage of active female USCF members has been going up bit by bit over the last decades. I’m sure someone like Alexey Root would have numbers – I don’t happen to.

  18. AesopFan Says:

    Ann Says:
    December 29th, 2017 at 6:06 pm
    Interesting that protests are going on in Iran right now — and that the government has caved on head scarves:
    * *
    I’ve been following the protest stories today, and it will be interesting to see how they play out this time.
    Obama’s pussy-footing around, for whatever motive, was disgusting.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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