Women can compete

2/10/2005 – At the recent US Championship a historic event went almost unnoticed. Chouchanik Airapetian became the first woman ever to receive a gender neutral invitation to the event. "Shoushan" predicts that in five years a woman will win the overall US Championship!

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Chouchanik Airapetian

By Jamie Duif Calvin


Chouchanik Airapetian

The US Championship has long had a tradition of inviting a few amateurs, usually the winners of the US Junior Championship and the US Open. This year with a historically large prize fund of $250,000, the America's Foundation for Chess also expanded the field to 64 players, many of whom could qualify by a strong performance at one of several "national heritage" events.

Airapetian scored 5 out of 7 at the 2004 Chicago Open, qualifying her for a US Championship invitation that was open to either a man or a woman. (By the way, other players with 5 in the Chicago event included soon to be US Champion GM Nakamura and the winner of the Larsen Prize, GM Alex Fishbein.)

How did she do at the Championship itself? Just fine! She started out ranked 60th out of 64, and finished in 54th place, ahead of two men and eight women. Five of these players, including both of the men, were rated higher than Airapetian at the start of the event.

In the last three years several women have achieved historic milestones in America. In 2002, Laura Ross became the highest rated 13 year old, male or female, in the US. In 2003, GM Susan Polgar won the US blitz Championship in a field that included five other grandmasters (all male). And now in 2004 Airapetian has become the first US woman to earn a gender-neutral invitation to the national championship.

It perhaps says something about just how far we've come that these accomplishments went largely unnoticed!

The making of a chess player

Recently I had a very nice conversation with Chouchan (this nickname, pronounced "Shoushan", means "water lily," which is what her husband calls her). She told me that her father had died when she was only six years old. When her mother was putting away the father's things, she found a wooden chess set in a box, which she left out. What her mother did not know at first, though, is that Chouchan would sneak the pieces out of the box and play with them like dolls!


Chouchan playing in a tournament at the age of ten

This went on for several weeks. Then one day the mother found some of the pieces in the girl's room, hidden under her pillow. She asked her daughter if she would like to learn to play the game of chess. Chouchan says she was amazed. She loved the little pieces, and she said, "There's a game that goes with them, too?" It is interesting to note that Karpov has a similar story, except that he played toy soldiers with the pieces from his parent's set!

So Chouchan learned to play. Her mother thought her younger sister Marina might like to play, too. But instead, she opened up the wooden box and began to pretend that the chess set was a piano! And today Marina is a professional musician. So the girls are very creative, and their mother is very supportive of their talents. When Chouchan was only 7 or 8, her mother would spend long hours waiting for her at chess tournaments. She worked hard to make sure that Chouchan had the right coaches and the best opportunities to continue to play chess.


In 1992, at the age of 18, Chouchan became the Yerevan champion.
In the above picture she is in Tigran Petrosian's Chess House.

The family left Armenia in the early 90s, when things were very difficult politically and economically. They moved to Germany, where Sena and Marina still live. Chouchan speaks Armenian, German, English, Russian, and a little Spanish. Later, Chouchan married a boy she had known in Armenia, and she and her husband moved to the United States. They now live in Seattle where Chouchan is a chess coach at several elementary schools. They have one son, who is now two years old.


Chouchan, her mother Sena and sister Marina portrayed in a German newspaper

Chouchan says that she has actually become a much better player since her son was born. She knows that many women give up chess when they have children, but she has found that she has bits of quiet time throughout the day, and she uses these to study. She also plays a lot of Internet chess.

In the above newspaper clipping Chouchan is playing in the 2002 US Championship in Seattle. "This picture is the funniest one since my opponent's reaction to my move," she said. "It was a great advertisement for the AF4C since it is the first championship where women and men were competing together for the title. Among the spectators are my friends and my husband in the middle, hiding his smile by covering his mouth.

When she was a girl in Armenia, her mother took her to a children's chess club where there were many coaches, known as Khalikyan Hovik's Chess Club. The kids there could just play for fun, or they could get lessons. So the coaches could find the really promising players, or the ones who had a strong desire to learn more, but the kids who just wanted to play for fun were also welcome. Chouchan hopes to start a similar club in the United States. Her dream is use chess to build a bridge between kids around the world by offering international open tournaments for junior players.


Her collection of chess pins

She thinks that one of the things that has kept chess from becoming more popular in the US is that there is this great divide between professional and amateur players, almost like two different worlds. The one place where it is different is on the Internet, but there the teaching is more formal. So she thinks it would be good for both amateurs and professionals if, at least at the kids' level, there was more mixing.

Chouchan said for example that even at the recent US Championship, she really enjoyed the fact that on the rest days the players went to a local school. She said she had a slow start at the event, which is typical for her. But then when she saw the kids, they were all asking "How are you doing? Are you winning a lot?" and she felt it really inspired her! She felt she had to focus and play well in order to meet the kids' expectations!


Helping kids to become champions: Chouchan on the back right

She thinks that girls do need extra encouragement to play, at least while they are such a small minority. But she doesn't feel it has to be a cash prize, if the boys feel that is unfair. Just something like a medal for the best girl could be very effective, especially for school age children. She says sometimes in a tournament you will have 200 boys and 10 girls. If a girl comes in 15th, Chouchan feels it can help keep her playing if she gets a special mention.


Chouchan with her husband, Ararat Agaian (left) and GM Varuzhan Akobian. This picture was taken after the last round of the Chicago Open 2004 with Var's cellphone. So it is brought to us thanks to modern technology!

On the other hand, she believes absolutely that women can and will play as well as men, especially as more enter the game. She predicts that a woman will win the overall US Championship in five years!

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Thinking about the future of women's chess: Jamie Duif Calvin


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