Why chess tournaments can be hostile for women and girls

by ChessBase
4/21/2022 – "The chess world isn't a safe place for us," says popular chess streamer Tallulah Roberts, aka "lularobs", recounting an incident at the blitz tournament of the Reykjavik Open 2022. Jamaal S. Abdul-Alim, 2013 Chess Journalist of the Year, explains "why chess tournaments can be hostile for women and girls". | Photo: Reykjavik Open

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By Jamaal S. Abdul-Alim

When Tallulah Roberts – a British chess streamer who goes by the name lularobs - tweeted that she had been harassed by male players at a major chess tournament in Iceland, I didn't doubt her claims for one second.

The reason I never doubted Lula, as she calls herself on Twitter, is because I've witnessed this type of behavior several times in the 2010s when I used to take my then-teenaged daughter to chess tournaments throughout the nation.

Most of the harassment took place in Philadelphia, the so-called "City of Brotherly Love." It was there that my daughter and I encountered some of the creepiest creeps.

The author and his daughter after winning a "mixed doubles" prize at the 2013 National Chess Congress in Philadelphia.

In one case, a vigilant tournament director, Harold Stenzel, brought the harassment to my attention. Harold told me that one of my daughter's opponents was standing up over the chessboard and using a cell phone to take pictures. Supposedly he was using the camera to take photos of the position on the board, which isn't really necessary since chess players write down all their moves. Harold didn't buy the guy's explanation. He told the guy to stop taking pictures of my daughter and immediately told me about the incident so that I could keep an eye on him, which I did.

Later, when the game was over, my daughter shared even more disturbing behavior. She told me her opponent was making weird comments during the game. For instance, instead of saying "check" when he put her king in check, he would say "checky-poo" in a sing-song voice like what you would use if you were talking to a baby.

I don't know about you, but without being too vulgar, I'll just say that "checky-poo" sounds like a pretty suspect thing to say during a chess game. Saying something like that to a young girl smacks of pedophile vibes.

In another case, I found a spectator talking to my daughter while she was minding her own business playing on her iPad after her game was over. "What's going on here?" I asked the guy. He said he was talking to my daughter about a chess program he was trying to start. Then he tried to pivot to asking me – as a well-known chess journalist – to write about the program. I told him I wanted to know what possessed him to think it was OK to talk to my daughter instead of her parents.

"What, do you think she's here by herself?" I asked him. "I'm her father."

At that point the guy squared up, almost as if he wanted to fight. He questioned why I wouldn't support his program by writing about it.

Meanwhile, the guy's friend was trying to tell the guy that I was right to question him about talking to my daughter. "I have daughters myself and I'd be doing the same thing," the guy's friend told him.

Rather than escalate things, I just stood my ground as his friend escorted him away. I'm glad he left because I'd hate to make a scene at a chess tournament. Plus, truth be told, I really didn't want to fight this guy. Even though I'm 6'1", this guy stood at a good 6'4" and was in much better physical shape. I would have fought him if I had to, but I was relieved to see him walking away.

The point is this: If I felt apprehensive as a man potentially coming to blows with a much larger man over harassing my daughter, then how might a woman or a girl feel when a man harasses her?

It's easy to say "speak up" or "make a scene." But you never know what a person is experiencing or perceiving at the time, especially when dealing with unexpected harassment or belligerence.

In my case, as a Black man, I was worried that police might be called and just see two Black men fighting and take us both to jail. So I decided I wouldn't get physical with the guy unless he got physical with me.

So what exactly did Lula say happened to her at the Reykjavik Open chess tournament in April 2022?

'Consistently disrespected'

Once she returned to her home in the United Kingdom, Lula tweeted:

Feels safe to talk more about this stuff now I’m home. Myself + other female players were consistently disrespected by a minority of men at the tournament. One even pinched me on the waist when I walked past him in the tournament hall (games were going on, incl my own). #chess

Lula also raised questions about how young girls were supposed to deal with harassment at a chess tournament when she wasn't exactly sure how to deal with it herself at age 23. Specifically, she tweeted: 

I’m an adult woman entering chess, but I have no idea how we expect young girls to navigate this landscape. The chess world isn’t a safe place for us, and it’s time to stop pretending these issues are in the past or that people are only sexist online. It’s 2022 and this happens.

Finally, she addressed how difficult it can be to report harassment, tweeting: 

Some people don’t realise how difficult it is to report things like this, even outside of a lack of signposting/knowing HOW to report. Harassment make me feel so small + it’s so scary, bc usually it feels safest to be quiet, smile, + try to escape ASAP, rather than make a scene.

Lula basically said everything I had already felt as a father whose daughter had been subjected to creepy conduct at chess tournaments. Just like Lula, I, too, do not believe the average open chess tournament is safe for girls. And also just like Lula, I know from firsthand experience how a person would rather just hope the situation subsides rather than make a scene.

Facing reality

In order to confront sexual and other forms of harassment at chess tournaments, I think the chess world must first face certain realities.

The first reality the chess world has to face is that men – for the most part – are preoccupied with sex, particularly at chess tournaments.

This is not conjecture or opinion – what I'm saying is actually documented in "Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport," by Jennifer Shahade, a world-renowned chess player, educator and author. On page 5 of her book, Shahade reveals what male players have told her about how sex often diverts their focus in chess.

She writes of one 22-year-old amateur who told her jokingly: "I would be a grandmaster if only I could stop thinking about sex during the game for more than fifteen minutes. I think it would be easier if I was a woman."

But the problem is not confined to amateurs. Even grandmasters wrestle with thoughts of sex during chess tournaments. For instance, Shahade wrote that, according U.S. Chess Hall of Famer Alexander Shabalov, most men are thinking about sex for most of the game.

"With characteristic candor, the Latvian -born grandmaster tells me, 'In most games, I am thinking about girls for about fifty to seventy-five percent of the time,'" Shahade wrote.

But that's not how male chess players are portrayed in popular culture.

Unrealistic characters

As much as I loved "The Queen's Gambit," the 2020 Netflix hit series that sparked an online chess boom among girls during the pandemic – a time when in-person tournaments were cancelled – there was one major aspect of the storyline that I simply did not buy. What I didn't buy is how the central character, Elizabeth Harmon, got introduced to chess by Mr. Shaibel, the maintenance man at the orphanage where she was residing.

This is how The Queen's Gambit wiki describes their first encounter in the movie:

Beth saw Mr. Shaibel when she went to the basement to clean her chalk erasers and saw him playing chess. She was fascinated by the game and wanted to learn more about it. Having worked out how the pieces move by observing him, she asked him to teach her more. She lost many games, but began simulating chess games on the ceiling before sleeping, allowing her to quickly develop her skills and defeat him. Mr. Shaibel eventually contacted Mr. Ganz from Duncan High School, who coaches the chess team there. Mr. Ganz was so impressed with her skills that he invited her to come play the members of chess club, where Beth easily defeated all of them.

You can believe that storyline all you want. But if you think there is a such thing as whiskey-drinking custodians who teach 9-year-old girls about modern chess openings – and nothing else – in the basement of an institution away from all other adults, I would say you probably don't read many news articles, at least not crime news.

Headlines about adults taking indecent liberties with little girls in schools and other institutions are not hard to find. Just the other day in the Washington Post, I read about an IT specialist at a Virginia elementary school who was arrested and charged with four counts of aggravated sexual assault and four counts of indecent liberties by a custodian.

The basis for the charges?

"According to police," The Washington Post stated, "four 8-year-old girls said they were inappropriately touched in an office at the school between March and April."

Yet, the chess world seems jaundiced about the prevalence of these kinds of incidents. Stories that present chess instructors as these benevolent and trustworthy characters gain critical acceptance rather than skepticism.

One example is "Lisa: A Chess Novel," by grandmaster Jessi Kraai.

Kraai told Chess Life Online in 2014 that he "had to write" the story of Lisa, a 13-year-old girl who sneaks off without her parent's permission to a grandmaster's cottage – wearing a tight tank top – to study chess.

According to an excerpt of the book, when the grandmaster – his name is Igor – opens the door, he meets Lisa with his belt buckle open and his pants soiled and barely hanging on his ass.

The book continues:

The giant man finally looked down and found Lisa. He began to examine her. And it was then that Lisa first saw real chess eyes. They were cold and wet, like a healthy dog’s nose, impolitely sniffing at all the things she couldn’t smell herself.

Are we to believe that Igor's "impolite sniffing" didn't involve anything untoward? I, for one, would find that hard to believe.

Take no chances

When I worked as an after-school chess instructor at a youth center in Washington, D.C., my supervisor at the time – we'll call her Janet – did not hesitate to prevent me from being alone with female students.

"Make sure this door is always open," Janet told me regarding the door to a small classroom where I had been teaching chess to a 17-year-old girl who – in addition to being a promising chess player – was an aspiring fashion model.

I took no offense to Janet's orders. She was just doing her job and trying to keep the organization – and me, for that matter – out of trouble.

Obsessed with sex

As long as men have active libidos, you can pretty much bet that they will hound and harass women in chess venues – whether in person or online.

For instance, one Saturday night after Lula shared her experience, I decided to check out the livestream of CryBabyCarly, another popular chess streamer on Twitch.

No sooner than I popped into CryBabyCarly's room, she was dealing with male players who were making bawdy remarks.

"See, this is why we don't have women playing chess," Carly said not long after I logged on to her livestream. "Because you guys come in here saying, 'Can you occupy my D-file?'"

For the uninitiated in chess, the D-file is one of the middle columns on the chessboard, which has columns A through H. The "D-file," in this case, was basically a double entendre – one meaning being in literal reference to the actual D-file but the other interpretation being a popular D-word for the male sex organ.

Nevertheless, Carly took all the bawdy remarks in stride and – from the safety of her livestream – made some slick remarks of her own. But there's a fundamental difference between online sexual banter and the type of harassment that Lula described having experienced at the Reykjavik Open.

Whereas Carly could simply boot or ban anyone she wants from her livestream, Lula found herself in a real-life physical environment where men who apparently did something unexpected could have responded in even further unpredictable ways.

I don't blame Lula for not knowing how to respond because, after all, I still agonize over whether I responded appropriately when I found that guy at the chess tourney in Philly talking to my daughter about his chess program. And I applaud Lula for being brave enough to raise the issue in the Twittersphere, even amid the skepticism that she would inevitably endure.

"Anyone who thinks I’d lie and risk trivialising the issue of gender-based harassment in chess, or risk losing everything I’ve spent a year building, and a game I love, clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about," Lula tweeted after naysayers and doubters began to cast suspicion over whether her accounts were true.

I, for one, don't need any convincing. To me, Lula's story only confirms what I've already known all along.

What can be done?

So what can be done to help prevent incidents like the ones Lula described from taking place at chess tournament venues in the future? I have a few thoughts.

1. Always have a parent or chaperone: Whenever girls who are minors go to a chess tournament, they should be accompanied by a parent, a guardian, some other family member or a female chaperone who will pretty much always be in the midst. A male chaperone just won't do, especially when it involves overnight stays in a hotel. If you're not in a position to accompany your daughter or young female relative to a tournament, you need someone with some strict "auntie vibes" to keep your girls safe.

2. Bring a buddy or a companion: As much as young women ought to be able to travel solo to a chess tournament, it helps to bring a friend, boyfriend or girlfriend. That way if something goes down, they can at least be a witness to what takes place but hopefully they can also help you gather your thoughts or intervene. If you can't afford to bring anyone, try to make some acquaintances at the tournament. There's strength in numbers.

After tweeting about her experience at the Reykjavik Open, Lula added: "One thing I want to highlight is that there were also male players I met at the event who I felt safe with, who walked me home late, who checked if I made it back okay, + offered to speak with the guys doing us wrong. I’m so grateful for them + they made a huge difference for me."

 

3. Seek out tournament directors for help

A big part of fighting harassment at tournaments lies with the tournament directors. Fortunately, as I mentioned previously, I had the benefit of a vigilant tournament director named Harold Stenzel who kept me posted on shady things he saw my daughter's opponent doing.

Tournament director Harold Stenzel helps NY State Scholastic Primary Champion, Liam Putnam, hold up her trophy at the 2017 NY State Scholastic tournament.

Granted, Harold was aware that I am a chess journalist who is almost always on assignment when I'm at a chess tournament, and some people might read this and conclude that my status as a member of the press factored into his decision to tell me what he saw. It's true that Harold has been a longtime trusted source of mine. But whatever the case, I'm just glad Harold told me what he saw, and I trust that the more these issues are brought to the attention of tournament directors, the more tournament directors will be on the lookout for inappropriate behavior toward female players.

A more welcoming environment

Beyond being more vigilant against harassment, I think tournament directors can build on what they're already doing to create a more inviting environment for women.

Perhaps more "mixed doubles" prizes would foster more positive interactions between male and female players, especially since female players are so scarce. If men want a mixed doubles prize – a prize where bonus money goes to the male-female team withe best overall combined score – male players, at least theoretically, will have to learn how to approach women – and in the case of girls, their parents or guardians – with respect.

Tournament directors might also want to explore having "skittles" rooms or lounges exclusively for women and girls. With my daughter, for instance, the guy I found talking to her once tried to strike up a conversation with her in the skittles room and offer "advice" on how she could have won her games. I couldn't always be there to stop it because I'd still be playing a tournament round myself.

I also like all-girls tournaments like the one that Garry Kasparov holds each year in Chicago. I've taken my daughter to that tournament in the past and we didn't face the kind of issues we faced at open tournaments.

Above all, the chess community needs to keep discussing this issue of how women are experiencing chess tournaments around the world. In that regard, Lula's tweet about her experience at the Reykjavik Open is an important first step.

This article was first published on vocal.media. Republication with kind permission.

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