Soccer moms and Chesster

by ChessBase
5/20/2003 – "The US is going to become the world's powerhouse of chess, I can guarantee that," writes star journalist Rudy Chelminski (Smithsonian, Wired, Life, et al.). "How? Why? Because of the soccer moms and Chesster." After some experiences with our program Fritz and Chesster Rudy is convinced that the next Morphys, Fischers and Polgars are at their computer screens right now. More...

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Recently we received an interesting email from a friend in the US:

Fred, this is probably telling you something you already know, but I'm sure there's a big future for chess (and hence ChessBase) in the U.S. I've been recently back in e-mail contact with my old college roommate, and more specifically his wife, who has become the number 1 supporter and encourager of the chess-playing activities of her two little granddaughters – aged 4 and 7.

Through her I am beginning to get a glimpse of a groundswell phenomenon occurring over there: suddenly all the kids are playing chess – in school, at home and in endless tournaments. With that optimism, energy and determination that characterizes them, American housewives (that redoubtable breed of animal) have thrown themselves headlong into backing chess the way they did with girls' soccer.

I got an illustration of their unhesitating determination when I mentioned to Anni Ruppel (wife of my Harvard roommate Hans) that Chess Base had a new kids' program. Within 24 hours I got an answer from her telling me that she not only loved the presentation, but had already ordered the Fritz and Chesster CD. And you can bet she'll be telling her friends, and the word will go around. You're on to a good thing, my friend.

From their correspondence:
  • Anni, you should know that Chessbase has just released a chess-learning game. I had thought your grand-kids too advanced for it, but maybe it's right for the little one. Go to the ChessBase page and read down their little one-graf chronicles until you come to the Chesster item and the article about it in the Houston Chronicle. Maybe this is right for the little ones? – Rudi

  • Merci, Rudy!! Went to the site, heard the Herald speak, ordered the CD immediately. It will be just right for Megan. When I first saw it, I thought..."Forget the kids! This is just right for ME!" I hope they speak in rhymes all the way through. It's pretty neat. – Anni

  • Rudy, Fritz and Chesster arrived!! Hans and I had such fun with it last night. We are going to keep this one here and order another to be sent straight to our kids in Seattle. The game box says is designed for ages 8+ but will be just right for Megan even though she's fours years. It is so clever and humorously presented that I think Emily will enjoy seeing it, too. Using two Sumo wrestlers to demonstrate the king's moves was wonderful. – Anni

  • Hans just came upstairs to tell me Emily has won two games now. He also said that Megan tried out the "Scholar's Mate" in a game but FIRST announced to her opponent what she was going to do. The opponent promptly took her Queen. She always helps her opponent out. when Hans was last in Seattle and played with her, she pointed out moves to him. He told her if she kept pointing out moves to her opponent like, "You can check me if you move here," she would never win a trophy. She said, "I know," and happily skipped off to play with her fairies. The school coach will not allow the young players, who are playing seriously, to use this trick. He says it's not fair and not real chess. The team is still at 3rd place in the tournament and New York holds the first 2 places. NY sent many teams and they are very good. – Anni

We asked Rudy to explain the soccer mom thing in greater detail, and he sent in the following article.

The Chess Soccer Mom

Like most other adult chess fans, I didn't give anything more than cursory attention to the ChessBase item announcing the birth of Chesster. Teaching chess to kids, I thought. Good idea. Cute. I scanned rapidly through the text, then went on to other things.

If I had given it a bit more reflection, though, I wouldn't have been so hasty, because there was a big and important message there that in my impatience I had not seen. And that message is this: the U.S. is going to become a powerhouse of chess, perhaps the world's powerhouse. I can almost guarantee that.

How? Why? Because of the soccer moms and Chesster.

The Sagalchik daughters hanging around while Hana Itkis and IM Anthony Saidy analyze (yes, the oldest played the youngest in 2002's US Championship!). That's GM Chernin behind Itkis. Photo John Fernandez.

The realization struck me like a thunderclap when I mentioned the new Chessbase program to Anni, wife of my old college roommate Hans Ruppel. Anni had told me her two little granddaughters were playing chess in a school program, but she had not heard of Chesster. When I prompted her about it, she went to ChessBase and instantly ordered it. When she slipped the CD into her computer, she kept it for herself, ordered another for the grandkids and sent me some of the back-and-forth correspondence about the school's chess team.

Courtney from Phoenix, Arizona, and Elena Winkelmann, the U12 champ, played an international Internet match on the server in Dresden

It was then that I realized that I was witnessing the start of a terrifyingly efficient process: the Soccer Mom phenomenon. When, as a corollary to the civil rights movements of the sixties, the U.S. congress decided that American school sports programs were guilty of gender discrimination by favoring boys' teams, a Niagara of funding suddenly flooded down upon girls' sports from Anchorage to Miami Beach. Nowhere was this money used to greater effect than with a sport that until then had been an exotic curiosity for boys, and virtually non-existent for girls: soccer, the thing Europeans called football.

A girls' soccer team (St. Steward's University)

Arcane it was, but America's mothers saw that it was also clean, healthy and (relatively) non-violent. They went for it – big time – and the Soccer Mom phenomenon was born. They studied the game, they helped with coaching, they bought the videos, did the lunches, car-pooled the journeys for away games, lent their shoulders to cry on and generally evangelized for the game with such spirit and determination that women's soccer in America went from nowhere to world championship level within the space of a single generation.

Mia Hamm is generally considered the best all-around women's soccer player in the world. She helped the U.S. win gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where women's soccer made its Olympic debut.

Mia has also competed at the past three Women's World Cup competitions, at which America triumphed in 1991 and 1999 and finished third in 1995. Described by former national team coach Tony DiCicco as the most exciting player in the world, Hamm became the all-time leading scorer in the history of international women's soccer on May 22, 1999, in a 3-0 victory over Brazil. She broke the record of 107 goals held by Elisabetta Vignotto of Italy. Source: Nationwide

Now the same thing is happening with chess. I'm not saying that Chesster will necessarily be the only instrument defining the movement – other programs will surely come along to compete with the ChessBase guys. But the point is that the process is now under way, gathering steam and headed toward a revolution in mass chess expertise in America.

Three young Fritz & Chesster fans playing against the program at a Hamburg bookstore

I invite skeptics who view this prediction as wild speculation to stick with the easy, comfortable things in chess life, like playing black against Kasparov. Me, I'm going to stand aside at a safe distance and watch the Chess Moms in action. There is not a more redoubtable adversary on the face of the earth. The next Morphys and Fischers – and Polgars, of course – are at their computer screens right now.

Roving reporter Rudy Chelminski, an American freelance writer living in France.


Fritz meets ominous King Black in Fritz and Chesster

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