Interview with IA & WFM Shohreh Bayat

by Tatiana Flores
6/10/2024 – In an exclusive interview for ChessBase, the international chess arbiter Shohreh Bayat sat down with international chess journalist Tatiana Flores to talk about how her life has changed since the hijab incident in 2020 and how she’s built a new one for herself in the UK. The 37 years old Iranian also looked back on her early successes as a chess player and gave interesting insights into the challenges of an arbiter’s job.

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Interview mit IA & WFM Shohreh Bayat

International Arbiter and Women’s FIDE Master Shohreh Bayat was born in 1987 in Rasht, Iran. When she was nine years old, Bayat started playing chess. She won her first international title in 1998 when she became Iranian Girls U12 Champion. Many other national victories followed in classical chess, rapid and blitz.

Bayat began her career as a FIDE chess arbiter at the age of 25, after which she became the first Grade A arbiter from Asia and a prominent arbiter in Iran. In 2020, while executing her role as the tournament’s chief arbiter at the Women's World Chess Championship in Shanghai, pictures that insinuated she was wearing her hijab wrong (and thus, not respecting the strict Islamic dress code she had to follow as an Iranian arbiter) reached Iran and generated great controversy. Bayat had to apply for asylum in the UK after refusing to apologize publicly—as the Chess Federation of Iran requested from her—for a wrong she didn’t commit. Bayat now lives in the UK and referees under the English flag since September 2020. Her husband now lives with her in England, while the rest of the family still lives in Iran.

Bayat’s ambitions and talents didn’t remain restricted to the world of chess, as in 2017 she became the first female General Secretary of the Iranian Sport Federation. Besides graduating with a Master's Degree in Natural Resources Engineering, Bayat has published several scientific articles in journals, as well as at the 1st International Conference of IALE-Iran.

The Iranian chess arbiter and player Shohreh Bayat has found a new home in the UK where she enjoys an environment full of diversity. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Are you content living in the UK?

Yes, I am currently extremely happy living in the UK. One of the main reasons is its remarkable diversity. This diversity is incredibly important to me as it spans various aspects of life. I appreciate that people in the UK can freely express their identities, whether it's related to religion, gender, neurodiversity, or political views. The respect and acceptance of differences here are exemplary, making the UK a uniquely inclusive place to live. It's like experiencing the world within a single country, with people from all backgrounds coexisting harmoniously. This rich tapestry of cultures and perspectives is something I truly love about living in the UK.

What do you do as an international arbiter, what does your job consist of?

That's a good question. Being an International Arbiter is not a full-time job, but a part-time one. In addition to being an arbiter, I work for Chess in Schools and Communities, developing chess among primary school children. As an International Arbiter, I officiate at various tournaments (both within the UK and internationally) covering all levels of play. This role is very special to me because I get to work not only at top-level tournaments, but also at children's tournaments, which offer a unique and lively environment.

Each tournament I work at provides an opportunity to learn something new. Sometimes, I officiate at school tournaments, which are typically lower-level, and other times, I travel to other countries for top-level tournaments featuring some of the best players in the world. Regardless of the level, each experience contributes to my growth as an arbiter.

An essential part of my job involves continuous study. I need to be thoroughly familiar with the rules and all related regulations because there isn't time to look things up in the FIDE Hand book while a tournament is going on. I must have everything memorized and understand the rule behind each article.

As an arbiter, you meet a lot of interesting players and people, and get to see different venues all over the world. Do you have some memorable moments and anecdotes to share with us?

One of the most memorable tournaments I've had the privilege to work at is called Chess to Change, organized by GM Pontus Carlson. It's an annual online tournament that holds a special place in my heart. What sets this tournament apart is its transformative impact on people's lives.

Chess to Change isn't just about competition; it's about making a tangible difference. In this tournament, we see a unique blend of players—from seasoned businessmen to African children in need. The entry fees paid by these businessmen go directly towards supporting the education, food and basic needs of these children. It's incredibly touching to witness how this tournament brings about immediate positive change in the lives of these individuals.

Being a part of Chess to Change has been a profoundly meaningful experience for me. It's a reminder of the positive power of chess.

Bayat is not only a successful arbiter, but has also won many national chess titles in her home country Iran. | Source:

You have a master’s degree in natural resources engineering and have published scientific articles in diverse papers and journals. Why and when did you decide to become a professional chess arbiter?

I began playing chess at the age of nine, and soon, I found myself drawn to the role of an arbiter. Observing arbiters at work during my childhood—especially in the era of manual pairing—ignited a genuine interest in their responsibilities. Assisting them occasionally only fueled my curiosity. However, in my country, one had to be at least 18 years old to become an arbiter. So, around the age of 14, I delved into studying the Laws of Chess and participated in arbitrating courses, despite not being eligible for the final exam.

Meanwhile, I actively competed in chess tournaments and achieved success, notably winning national youth championships. Upon turning 18, I promptly obtained my arbiter's degree. In Iran, this process involved progressing through three grades: starting from grade three, advancing to grade two, and finally attaining grade one. Balancing arbiter courses with university studies and competitive chess engagements was challenging, so I prioritized arbitrating over playing.

Interestingly, during my university years, I recognized the importance of learning English for my research endeavors as well as for my role as an arbiter. Obtaining an IELTS certification opened doors for me to establish connections with international colleagues. This marked a significant turning point in honing my skills as a chess arbiter.

Has the incident at the Women’s World Championship 2020 in Shanghai (with the pictures of you falsely wearing the hijab wrong) affected your job as an IA?

Yes, the incident regarding my hijab at the Women’s World Championship 2020 in Shanghai has significantly impacted my life as an arbiter. At the time, I was living in Iran, and following the incident, I had to immediately relocate to the UK and apply for asylum. This process resulted in the loss of my passport, rendering me unable to travel for a year. This was a period of transition for me as I had been actively participating as an international arbiter, traveling extensively to tournaments.

Upon settling in the UK, I encountered a different arbitration environment than the one I was accustomed to have in Asia and FIDE events. Through these experiences, I found opportunities for growth and steadily adapted to the new environment and gained valuable experience. I learned about the cultural differences in arbitration approaches, with a greater emphasis on common sense prevailing in the UK compared to the strict adherence to rules in Asia.

I managed to integrate my experiences from different parts of the world, leveraging each to enhance my arbitration skills. While the incident brought about significant changes in my life, some aspects were positive. It has also garnered recognition for me, but I always identify first and foremost as a chess arbiter.

You have pointed out in an interview that your career accomplishments as an arbiter are often overlooked since the incident with the hijab. Therefore, I want to know how it felt for you to receive the International Women of Courage Award in 2021—only one among many acknowledgements you have received.

Receiving the International Women of Courage Award in 2021 was indeed a deeply touching experience for me. While I felt immensely honored, I never viewed it as an individual achievement. Instead, I saw it as a representation of the resilience and courage of countless Iranian women who confront challenges and fight for their freedom every day. This award symbolized their unwavering bravery and determination in the face of adversity. Thus, I accepted it on behalf of all those remarkable women who inspire me with their strength and perseverance. It was a moment of recognition not just for me, but for the collective struggle of women striving for a better future.

Shohreh Bayat was awarded the Women of Courage Award 2021 by the Department of State for "her dedication to women’s rights in the face of threats from the Iranian government." | Photo: Courtesy of Iran Watcher, Embassy of the United States of America

What have been your personal highlights in your career as both, a chess player and an arbiter?

In my chess journey, winning the Iranian under 12 Chess Championship marked the beginning of my success. I went on to secure victories in various age categories, including gold in the under 16 and under 20 (Iranian Junior Chess Championships). Representing both, the Iran and England national teams, was a privilege. Additionally, I've triumphed in numerous other events and championships, contributing to my overall success as a player.

Regarding my job as an arbiter, I became the first female category A arbiter in Asia and was later recognized as the best European Female Arbiter by FIDE in 2022.

Furthermore, I've officiated in numerous FIDE events, including serving as the chief arbiter of the Women’s World Championship Final 2020 and as the deputy chief arbiter in various championships such as the Women’s World Chess Championship, FIDE World Rapid Chess Championship, and FIDE World Blitz Chess Championship. I've also worked in many top-level international events, including Norway Chess, Gibraltar, London Chess Classic, Abu Dhabi Masters, US Masters, Sharjah Masters, Maia Chess Festival, and Thailand Open.

What’s your current opinion on the chess world?

Well, in my opinion, the current state of the chess world is one of rapid development. I believe this is largely due to the accessibility of online chess platforms, coupled with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. During this period, we've seen a surge in the number of chess enthusiasts joining the online chess community. The majority of new participants in the chess world are those engaging in online play from around the globe, thanks to its increased accessibility.

I consider this trend to be significant. Some countries, like the UK and US, have implemented chess programs in schools, leading to a growing number of children learning chess as a skill, even if they may not participate in tournaments. So, from my perspective, chess is evolving rapidly, and its community is expanding. It's becoming an integral part of people's lives, serving as a mental health tool and contributing to educational development. I believe this aspect is particularly important.

What would you like to change or improve in the chess world?

I believe that incorporating chess into school curriculums would be a significant improvement in the chess world. This initiative has been incredibly successful in the UK, where I personally teach chess to approximately 400 students each year. Witnessing the positive impact of chess on their lives and seeing it become one of their favorite subjects is truly rewarding. Moreover, chess has shown remarkable benefits for children with special needs, including those with ADHD and other learning difficulties, making it a valuable tool in education for students with diverse needs.

My desire is to see chess integrated into school programs in more countries, as currently, only a few nations have made it a compulsory subject. It's disheartening because starting chess education at a young age can have a profound and lasting impact on individuals. Therefore, I advocate for broader implementation of scholastic chess programs to enrich the educational experiences of children worldwide.

Bayat on the cover of the British Chess Magazine for an interview in 2020. | Photo: Courtesy of the British Chess Magazine.

Thank you very much for your time, Ms Bayat. The ChessBase team and I wish you all the best and strength for your future.

The interview was conducted in English via Zoom in May 2024.

Tatiana Flores was born in Andorra in 1998 and moved to Germany with her family when she was 14. She works as a chess journalist, poet and multilingual author. Besides chess, she is also passionate about literature and music. See also her website under
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