Dorsa Derakhshani: From Iran to the USA (Part 2)

by Macauley Peterson
3/29/2020 – IM Dorsa Derakhshani is a third year undergraduate at Saint Louis University on a chess scholarship. Being in St. Louis she's a 'regular' at the Saint Louis Chess Club, and has recorded several lectures for their extensive YouTube channel. Continuing from part 1, after arriving in the USA, Derakhshani has been finding her footing academically, and continuing to feed her chess passion, as she looks forward for building a future in the States.

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


Continued from Part 1: A millennial trend

Dorsa Derakhshani is and Iranian International Master who immigrated to the United States in 2017, where she was offered full scholarships from both the University of Texas, Dallas and Saint Louis University (SLU). Despite having family ties in the Dallas area, she opted for SLU on a pre-med track, which more closely aligned with her academic interests. Another plus was the chess team and its coach, GM Alejando Ramirez. Derakhshani was already friendly with Ramirez, ever since they played in a tournament in Denmark in 2014, and she knew his work as a coach.

Dorsa on YouTubeWithin SLU's chess team she's known as "the girl who knows a lot about a lot". In enacting her immigration plan, she learned FIDE's transfer rules and her rights, via FIDE handbook. With some guidance from the US Chess Federation, she switched to FIDE flag first for a short period of time — just few weeks — as did her younger brother Borna, then Dorsa switched to the USA, while her brother joined the English Chess Federation a few months later. FIDE gave its approval in both cases. This way, the pair didn't have to involve the Iranian federation at all. Transfer fees are only necessary to compete in certain international events, which was not the immediate goal. However, this strategy did preclude her from playing in the 2019 US Women's Championship — it was a FIDE event which would have required paying the transfer fee. She is looking forward to representing US in future international competition.

"I wanted to represent the US in the [2018] World Junior Championship but I couldn't because I honestly couldn't miss too many days of school. That was the big problem for me. And I still can't miss 20 days."

At SLU, her pre-med track is very demanding and precludes her playing in any long events.

"Even if you miss one class you're going to have to work twice as hard to make up for it. I had a very hard first semester at SLU, because I didn't know what I was doing, everything was new to me and I didn't have the best of grades. But now that I'm getting pretty much all A's, I really want to keep that grade."

The plan now is to take her university education as seriously as she did chess in earlier years. But that's not to say there's no chess to be played — after all, she is on a chess scholarship, so has time set aside to take part in all team tournaments. She's also looking forward to trying to a stab at the U.S. Women's Championship and qualifying for the US Olympiad team, if possible. "That's one of the things I have on my to-do list," she told me before both tournaments were postponed.

Dorsa at SLU

Pointing to a write-up at SLU about her TED talk

Understanding brain differences

Neuroscience research, is an area of interest, which naturally fuels curiosity into the apparent gender differences in professional chess. Conversations with her teachers and researchers at neurosurgery department at SLU and at the hospital supports her view that there's nothing biological in neuroanatomy that would necessarily explain the gender gap we have. She recognizes that various biological factors can influence chess performance, such as general athleticism, or the menstrual cycle, but these are not to be found in the brain. She regards the status quo as lamentable, but the "main issue is psychological or environmental circumstances".

Men have bigger brain sizes, but women have bigger Hippocampi (essential for learning and memorization), and these differences between brains doesn't support one gender's dominance. "Different not better", is her credo, noting there are more than 30,000 scientific papers published on sex differences since 2000, and in she's only in the early stages of learning about the topic.

Derakhshani believes the ratio of male to female players needs to be improved and that US Chess' support for women and girls is commendable. In collegiate chess she supports the notion that schools give scholarships to WGM-title holders, not just IMs, even when they have the same rating, and would welcome a female board a requirement in competition, which would encourage all schools to include girls on their teams, creating more opportunities for WIMs or 2200 players. Teach kids early on about differences and abilities, with the focus on ability and talent to help children reach full potential. She's a firm believe in equal opportunity and equal pay.

In a New York Times Op-Ed in 2017, Derakhshani wrote " pure. It doesn’t care about gender, ethnicity, nationality, status or politics. But too often the countries, organizations and people who enforce the rules in the world of chess are anything but."

Maturing as a player

Strategic manoeuvring in chess is a metaphor for removing herself from toxic environments and finding new support group. "I firmly believe that you have the ability to make a difference in the world with the choices that you make."

Derakhshani thinks her overall chess understanding is also improving — her openings or calculation may have declined a bit, but compensates by playing simple but tricky moves, using her time more efficiently, and working on prophylaxis techniques.

"I feel like just because I've grown more and I've matured more I understand some things way better than I used to when I was playing 30 games in a row...So I understand the concept of playing chess annoyingly pretty well."

She also more readily takes practical decisions, for instance, to go for a better endgame rather than grapple in a complex tactical situation. "I would much rather try to dominate the board rather than create a premature attack." 

One illustration was her 2018 US Championship draw against GM Irina Krush, in which she was dominating board but time trouble intervened in what might have been a beautiful game.


"I really played a beautiful game, that's one of my most favourite games — though not my most favourite result!"

Teaching in person and online

After getting her green card Derakhshani was able to work at the Saint Louis Chess Club as the GM in residence, where she has already done two stints before the Club was forced to close temporarily due to the COVID-19 outbreak. There she teaches kids classes, gives lessons and group lectures, and comments on videos for the Chess Club's YouTube Channel (a selection of which we've added below).

"To me it feels like having the doctor on call if anybody wants to play chess, I'm on call as well, and playing with them. If anybody just wants to chat on chess or wants to pick a chess book I'll try to help them. If anybody wants to go through, say, Sinquefield Cup games, I'm there and I'll take them through it. I feel the position is mainly about bringing more awareness to chess and making people feel comfortable talking to a [strong player] to see that I'm not this cold ice monster sitting behind a desk eating up Stockfish.

"I would love to do it again towards the summer when I don't have organic chemistry!"

Friday Action Tactics

The Caro-Kann | Chess and Psychology

Chess and Psychology: The Take-Home Exam

Drawing GM Moussard in Zurich

Insane in the Endgame

Dorsa on the Ladies Knight podcast with WGM Jennifer Shahade


Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register