Beatriz Marinello: "A good leader must have the heart of a teacher"

by ChessBase
9/8/2018 – Beatriz Marinello is a Vice President of FIDE, the head of the FIDE Social Action Commission and a Woman International Master. Born in Chile, she moved to the United States in 1990 and started working in chess projects until becoming President of the U.S. Chess Federation. In an interview with the Spanish magazine "Ajedrez Terapéutico", she talks about chess in education, women's chess, Phiona Mutesi and shares some Bobby Fischer stories. | Photo: Dora Martínez / Ajedrez Social y Terapéutico

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An instrument for social development

By Juan Antonio Montero

You preside over the FIDE Social Action Commission, and I know from conversations that we had before that you are absolutely involved in your job. What does social chess mean to you?

To answer this question I have to delve into my personal experience. I come from a dysfunctional family and I was a vulnerable girl. My circumstances improved when I was sent to a hospice run by nuns from age 7 until I was 11 years old. Then, at 13, I learned to play chess. Chess for me was a way to channel many feelings and emotions, while it also helped my self-esteem. My obsession and love for chess gave me a path to develop my abilities, and it has always been an activity that makes me very happy.

I became a good chess player. However, I never stopped questioning what chess really is — hence my interest in educational chess. I was only 17 when I understood that chess is a vehicle and not an end in itself. My Catholic education — although I believe in freedom of worship — provided me with an inclination to do good and help others, so it is logical for me to believe that chess should be used to do good.

Beatriz Marinello has done a lot of work in Africa | Photo: Dora Martínez

You have a position of responsibility in FIDE, but you are also a great player. Do you think it is convenient for people with responsibilities in this field to really know the game?

Interestingly, very often people who are in leadership positions, who have management posts, do not understand the values and benefits of chess. FIDE has excellent people in commissions and working groups, but the priority is the organisation of the World Championship cycle. It is possible to continue advancing from within FIDE, but from my point of view, the main thing we should promote is the creation of an environment that helps the development of chess in the world through other organisations and people. I deeply admire the people that contribute to chess from their bases, whether as teachers, instructors, social workers — that is, the people that are continually sowing.

You cannot say that you do not have experience teaching chess in very difficult contexts — you taught in Harlem, New York, at the beginning of the year 2000. Could you tell us something about it?

Chess teaching is a work that comes from the heart. Obviously, there are techniques to know, but you also have to be a thoughtful person, oriented to understand how each girl and boy learns.Beatriz Marinello, Vicepresidenta de la FIDE y presidenta de su Comisión de Acción Social Fotos: Dora Martínez

In my first job in the U.S., I was an assistant chess coach at Dalton School, which is an elite school in the USA. Dalton is a wonderful school, but I wanted to use chess in the public educational system, so I felt very lucky when I was hired by the New York City Department of Education — I was able to teach chess as part of the curriculum in a public school, teaching from kindergarten to fifth grade, including bilingual classes, special education courses and classes for deaf children.

Then, in 1997, I was hired by the U.S. Chess Federation. As National Director of School Programs, I spent 5 years travelling within the U.S., aiding in the creation of a structure for the development of the game. As a result of this work, I started to be recognised and became President of the U.S. Chess Federation. In the early 2000s, I implemented pilot programs in Harlem and other schools, in addition to continuing my volunteer work as a manager and leader.

I have worked a lot and I have done it with great pleasure. I believe that a good leader must have the heart of a teacher, as it is a task that delivers a service to the community. Working in leadership positions is very ungrateful because in the end, those who manage to stay are those who concentrate on conserving power. I have always been clearly against this, so I am permanently willing to release power and positions. The work continues for me...

As far as I know, the African continent has always been present in your thoughts and your line of action. What could chess bring to this continent? Where do you see more development from an educational point of view? And, why not, from a competitive point of view?

Africa stimulates our senses. It is colourful, smells of earth, sounds like drums, and feels young and immense. All that is wonderful, until you see the extreme level of poverty...situations that almost make you cry, while at the same time you are looking at children smiling. For those of us who love chess and know that it is an instrument for social development, it is inevitable to think that we can use it to improve the lives of our fellow human beings.

Africa is the continent where chess can be most easily developed from the grassroots level, since chess is very low cost — it does not require special equipment or anything expensive, just a set of pieces and a board. In some African countries, we have trained teachers, chess instructors, organisations, etc. We have given seminars for coaches and organisers. Teaching chess to children who cannot even read or write — that is, illiterate kids — is rewarding.

Beatriz Marinello en África | Photo: Dora Martínez

Beatriz Marinello getting to know an African family | Photo: Dora Martínez

How can it be that it is very easy for them to learn to play chess?

I think they can learn any subject, as long as they have the opportunity to do so.

You are well versed in the case of the now-famous Phiona Mutesi, and without a doubt, you had a lot to do with the spread of this extraordinary woman's story throughout the world. Could you tell us something about Phiona?

"The Queen of Katwe" is a film based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi and her trainer Robert Katende. I learned the story of Phiona in 2010, when she played in the Khanty-Mansiysk Olympiad. Then, they came to New York brought by Sport Outreach, an American organisation where Robert Katende works. We spent a few days together. Phiona did not speak English yet, she could not read or write and was just about to start school. She impressed me, and we created a friendship with Robert that has united us to this day.

Beatriz Marinello con Bibiana Aido, Phiona Mutesi y Robert Katende | Fotos: Dora Martínez

Beatriz Marinello with Bibiana Aido, Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende | Photo: Dora Martínez

At that time I took them to UN Women, where we were received by a friend, the former Spanish Minister of Equality Bibiana Aido. I also took them to the Marshall Chess Club, where I was surprised that people kept asking me about Phiona's rating — they did not understand the powerful message she represented. It was there that I told Robert Katende that we would create the Social Action Commission and that he would be the General Secretary — he probably thought I was joking. In 2012, the FIDE Social Action Commission was created and I immediately contacted Robert, with whom we have been very close since then. The transformation of Phiona has been incredible: from being a shy girl, she has become a confident woman with great values. She is a living proof of what can be achieved with chess. Now, Phiona is a scholarship holder at a University in the U.S. and I have continuous contact with her. It is very important that she gets a university degree.

Leaving the field of social chess, I know you are a great admirer of Bobby Fischer. Having developed much of your professional career in Fischer's homeland, is there anything you would like to tell us about the long-suffering genius?

I really am an admirer of Bobby Fischer. My political mentor in the U.S. is Dr. Leroy Dubeck, who was President of the U.S. Chess Federation when Bobby Fischer became World Champion in 1972.

He told me stories that have not been published yet. For example, that the great promoter of Bobby Fischer was the American Army Colonel Edmund Edmondson, who had connections at a very high level in government and was the Executive Director of the Chess Federation. A few years earlier, a FIDE Congress was held in Puerto Rico, and it is said that the head of the Soviet delegation was photographed in a rather dishonest circumstance — those photos went to Edmondson, and when it had to be decided where the Fischer-Petrosian match would take place, the story goes that delegates from the U.S. and the Soviet Union had to decide the playing venue with a coin toss: the Soviets wanted the match to be held in Moscow and the Americans wanted it to be played in Buenos Aires. I know now that there was no such coin toss and, as we all know, the match took place in Buenos Aires.

I know other stories that I hope will be published at some point — a political plot to support Bobby Fischer so he would win the world title, for example.

Fischer has been the biggest success story of American chess and, at the same time, the greatest tragedy, as he refused to play against Karpov. All hopes are now centred on Fabiano Caruana, the World Championship challenger that will try to dethrone Magnus Carlsen. 

A very fashionable subject these days is the role of women in society. If we talk about women in chess, the issue of discrimination is also, in my opinion, enormously complex, as many of us think that chess players have been trying — for quite a long time — for girls and women to participate as much as possible in our game. Could you tell us your opinion?

I think the same: there are many people trying to open up opportunities for girls. This is a historical issue — women began to take part in chess competitions less than a hundred years ago. It is critical that we teach girls and boys equally in schools. We must break down cultural barriers and deliver the message that girls can play chess as well as boys do. Personally, I agree with the organisation of girls-only events, as long as the message is that girls can reach the same goals as boys.

Chess used to be thought of as chess, period. Now it is common to speak of educational chess, transversal chess, non-competitive chess, social chess, even therapeutic chess — the last one gives name to this magazine. What do you think about all this?

I am happy and amazed about how far we have been able to go — chess is inclusive now. I am an admirer of your work and, of course, I completely support chess in all areas of life. Nothing is exclusive. Thank you very much for the interview and for giving me the opportunity to share some ideas and stories.

Thanks to you and my most sincere congratulations for your work.

"Ajedrez social y terapéutico", a magazine that centres on the social and therapeutic aspects of chess | Photo: Dora Martínez

Translation from Spanish by Antonio Pereira


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