Queens United staking a claim in male-dominated world of competitive chess

Two Chicago teens started a nonprofit to introduce chess to more girls. So far, they’ve reached 550 students with free lessons, a podcast and more.

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Walter Payton College Prep senior Maggie Tsyganova gives chess tips as third grader Anaya Thakkar listens during an after-school program at Ogden International School organized by Queens United Chess, a nonprofit co-founded by Maggie. 

Walter Payton College Prep senior Maggie Tsyganova gives chess tips as third grader Anaya Thakkar listens during an after-school program at Ogden International School organized by Queens United Chess, a nonprofit co-founded by Maggie.

Marc Monaghan/WBEZ

For years, two students at Walter Payton College Prep on the North Side were some of the only competitive female chess players in Chicago Public Schools. Now, they’re on a mission to get more girls playing the game.

Senior Maggie Tsyganova and her former classmate Lizzy Brahin started the nonprofit Queens United Chess in 2019. They work with about 35 female instructors or “ambassadors” to offer free chess lessons and host regular “Girl Power Club” meetings for students.

Brahin, now a sophomore at Harvard University, and other leaders participate virtually, which allows the group to expand its reach across the U.S.

Tsyganova said they want female players to feel a sense of community — especially at tournaments, where boys tend to outnumber girls. Only about 14% of competitive chess players in America are women, according to the U.S. Chess Federation.

“That’s a big reason why girls don’t continue chess in high school,” she said. “So we try to find girls that are still excited about chess. …. They’re the ones who help teach these introductory chess lessons.”

Four years after getting started, the group has reached more than 550 students. It has partnered with Chicago Public Schools and the Renaissance Knights Chess Foundation to bring the game to 10 schools across the city. The group on March 19 hosted a virtual tournament for Women’s History Month and launched a podcast on Spotify to spotlight women in chess.

Ogden third-grader Lia Edwards is one of about 40 student who signed up for free weekly chess lessons this spring through a partnership with Queens United Chess, CPS and the Renaissance Knights Chess Foundation. 

Ogden third-grader Lia Edwards is one of about 40 student who signed up for free weekly chess lessons this spring through a partnership with Queens United Chess, CPS and the Renaissance Knights Chess Foundation.

Marc Monaghan/WBEZ

Tsyganova has been playing chess competitively since the fifth grade. She’s captain of the chess team at Payton and led the school to third place at the Illinois state finals in February. She also works with students at Ogden Elementary on Thursday afternoons. More than 40 students from the North Side school signed up for Queens United’s spring session.

“At the beginning, it was like herding cats because none of them knew anything about chess. But it’s been amazing,” said David Ablao, a second-grade teacher at Ogden.

The group is split into two classrooms — one with first- and second-graders, and another with third- and fourth-graders. Female instructors, many of them students from Payton, lead group sessions in the afternoons, helping kids navigate the board and offering suggestions on how to play.

Third-grader Miles Caprio ponders a move as Payton Prep freshman and instructor Merrill Lee looks. Boys are welcome at the free lessons. 

Third-grader Miles Caprio ponders a move as Payton Prep freshman and instructor Merrill Lee looks. Boys are welcome at the free lessons.

Marc Monaghan/WBEZ

“The energy they have with chess is really exciting,” said Payton junior Julia Kim, a chess instructor and marketing officer with Queens United. “I think they really enjoy just playing each other for fun.”

Some kids are still learning how to move the pieces, while others are playing to win.

“I can’t wait to play other people and learn their strategies and what they know,” said 8-year-old Elizabeth “Ellie” Margvelashuili. “I want to use their knowledge against them.”

Ellie enjoys playing chess with her schoolmate Anaya Thakkar. She looks forward to competing in her first chess tournament in May.

Ogden fourth grader Holden Hetzer and third grader Yinying Wang. 

Ogden fourth grader Holden Hetzer and third grader Yinying Wang play a game of chess.

Marc Monaghan/WBEZ

Anaya wants to teach more of her friends how to play. She’s ready to prove that girls can do anything.

“If someone says that girls can’t do something, I’ll prove them wrong,” Anaya said. “If it’s basketball, I’ll play one-on-one basketball with them and beat them. If it’s chess, I’ll play one-on-one chess with them and beat them.”

Even though she’s graduating this spring, Tsyganova plans to keep teaching and playing chess and Queens United will continue under new leadership. She said working with the group and making friends in chess has made the game “so much more enjoyable.”

“The game just becomes more fun,” Maggie said, “though [it’s] not just playing, but also getting to teach and still be a role model in a sense for younger students.”

Nereida Moreno covers education for WBEZ.

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