Darrian Robinson, right, plays chess

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Darrian Robinson, 12, plays chess on the Internet, trains with a coach in school, travels extensively and completes her homework.

She also smiles and buzzes with excitement when she talks about chess and beams when she recounts her achievements in the sport.

Darrian, ranked third among girls under 13 in the United States, says she doesn’t like spending time in malls or getting her hair or nails done. She looks forward to competitions, wants to be an oncologist because her grandfather died from cancer and enjoys learning to play guitar.

When she was younger, her father, Darran Robinson, took her to parks near her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she watched older people play chess and then started taking her seat at the boards. At first she lost over and over. But now she beats her father as well as almost anybody who sits across from her, both in and out of the parks where she first glared at a chess board.

The role her father played in her chess training echoes that of another African American chess star, Baraka Shabazz. When Shabazz was living with her family in a cabin in Alaska, her father gave her a chess set and his time across the board. She began to beat her father, a competitive player, repeatedly. In the 1980s Shabazz participated in the U.S. Women’s Championship at age 15 and represented the United States in the Under-16 World Championships in England.

Last year Darrian represented the United States at the World Youth Chess Tournament in 2006 in the Democratic Republic of Georgia. She was the only African American from the United States. It is common for her to be the only black competitor. At nationals, boys can outnumber girls 15 or 20-to-1. At invitationals, such as the World Youth Chess Tournament, girls and boys are equally represented.

‘We Need More Examples’

Freeman A. Hrabowski is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, whose chess team won the national college title for the fourth year in a row in 2006.

“We have to find ways for girls in America in general, and of course African American girls . . . to play the sport,” says Hrabowski. “Quite frankly, we need more examples of African American girls and American girls in general playing chess to encourage other children to consider the sport and to encourage families to help their girls have opportunities to have chess.”

“The women in my program come from other countries, including China and Bangladesh,” says Hrabowski. “Other countries encourage girls to play chess.”

Darrian’s 65-member chess team at Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn belongs to the United States Chess Federation, which allows them to play in tournaments.

“We go to the national championships and won the national junior high two and three years ago. Last year we placed second,” says Elizabeth Vicary, the chess teacher at Darrian’s school, who has worked with her for two years. “We also go to grade nationals and we won the eighth grade three years in a row from 2003 to 2005. It’s a pretty big deal. Most of the kids we compete against are from private schools and have had private tutoring since they were young.”

Vicary says that team members are 60 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African American, 10 percent Asian and 10 percent white, mirroring the school’s population. Boys make up 80 percent of the team. More than 65 percent of the school’s students qualify for free lunch.

Barriers in Chess World

Darrian’s coach, Vicary, notes financial and other barriers to admission to the chess world. “The more I teach, the more I see class tension in the scholastic chess world,” she says. “The school pays part of my salary, someone who works with me, and the students’ memberships, entry fees for tournaments, meals and travel expenses.”

When the team goes to nationals, the school, which partners with New York City-based Chess-in-the-Schools, pays for everything. The majority of the funds for invitation competitions must be raised privately. When Darrian competed in Georgia, Chess-in-the-Schools, her school, family and private sponsors supported the costs.

The World Chess Federation barred women from competing in its international championship before 1986, when Susan Polgar qualified but wasn’t allowed to compete; public protests prodded the federation to let women enter.

It wasn’t until 2005, though, that a woman made it into the round with the final eight of the championship; Susan’s younger sister, Judit Polgar, became the first woman to do so and compete for the title. But both grandmaster sisters remain anomalies in the world of chess.

Chess continues to be male-dominated, and chess is more popular and better supported in Eastern European and Pan American countries, says Alan Sherman, director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Chess Program. He also notes that in the United States at the elementary school level more girls than boys play, and the girls do very well. Then there is a transition, he says, and girls drop out so at the college level very few women play the sport. Sherman says he’s found no scientific evidence to support the idea that girls and women cannot play as well as boys and men.

Minority on Two Fronts

This leaves Darrian facing minority status on two fronts.

“The hardest struggle is financial,” says Cenceria Edwards, Darrian’s mother. “Coaches charge $60 to $150 an hour. We were told Darrian should train with a coach at least one hour per week. Going to tournaments is very expensive. There are entry fees, hotels and airfare.”

Edwards says Darrian’s competitive playing is a financial strain, with the family facing between $10,000 and $12,000 a year in related expenses.

“When you have a child as gifted as (Darrian) we do need to find the money to help her,” says Hrabowski. “But I’m interested in seeing chess used broadly to develop discipline among children and strong thinking skills,” which does not need to cost $10,000, he adds.

But funding isn’t the only hurdle for African Americans.

“Chess isn’t prevalent in our community,” says Edwards. “We don’t have the mentoring. We have to go out and find trainers and coaches. In other communities they have chess clubs. We don’t have them.”

There are some advocates in the chess community working to help girls and young people have access to the sport. The New York-based Susan Polgar Foundation was created to promote chess in the United States and sponsor tournaments throughout the year for younger girls. In Livonia, Ga., Be Someone Inc.’s Making Every Move Count program uses chess to help students develop practical skills and build character.

None of that, however, seems to faze Darrian, who wants to be a grandmaster.

Currently she has a national rating of 1,771; higher than the average rating of between 1,400 to 1,500 for competitive chess players. But to become a grandmaster she must reach a rating of at least 2,500. Ratings are awarded using a statistical system to measure a player’s ability and are applied to all competitors regardless of age. Judit Polgar is currently ranked as the world’s top woman in chess and 13th in the world; she has a rating of 2,727.

“I think it’s an ambitions and a fantastic goal,” says Vicary, Darrian’s chess coach at school. “There are about 1,000 in the world. There’s no reason she can’t do it.”

Angeli R. Rasbury, a writer, educator, artist and lawyer, writes about women, girls and culture and works with youth in New York City.

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For more information:

Susan Polgar:

The Chess Drum:

United States Chess Federation: