Chess Fest Puts the Fun into Pawn to King 4

April 3, 2013

By Teya Vitu

Chess has the reputation of being deadly serious and cerebral.

That’s not what you’ll find at the 6th annual 9 Queens Chess Fest on April 13 at Hotel Congress.

Intergenerational Chess Pickup Games Chess Fest 2012. Photo by Ryan Mihalyi

Intergenerational Chess Pickup Games Chess Fest 2012. Photo by Ryan Mihalyi

9 Queens makes chess fun. Chess Fest offers face painting. You can make your own king and queen crown.

“This is such fun,” 9 Queens co-founder Jean Hoffman said. “You can play chess outside in a low-key environment. We have a DJ.”

The word has gotten out the past six years. Some 1,000 people crowd the triangular plaza behind Hotel Congress during the 2 to 5 p.m. event. Parents bring children as young a three to introduce them to chess. Nonagenarians have taken part in Chess Fest, too.

“It really is multigenerational,” Hoffman said. “People have changed their perception of the game.”

Chess Fest offers pick-up games and a simultaneous tournament where two chess masters play 40 people at one time. There’s a lawn chess set.

If you don’t know how a rook or knight moves, don’t let that keep you away. Chess Fest has a Chess Passport system with a table for each chess piece and a volunteer to explain how each piece moves.

“My favorite part of Chess Fest is the Chess Passport system. It’s how we try to make chess user friendly, beginner friendly. There are kids as young as three,” Hoffman said.

Vicki Lazaro brought her daughter to the second Chess Fest and has been back ever since, so much so that Lazaro became the interim executive director of 9 Queens on March 1.

“I’m just a chess mom,” Lazaro said. “Chess Fest was just a huge awakening for me. Everybody was having such fun. There’s a lot of families.”

Alexandra Kosteniuk playing in 40 simultaneous matches at Chess Fest 2012. Photo by Ryan Mihalyi

Alexandra Kosteniuk playing in 40 simultaneous matches at Chess Fest 2012. Photo by Ryan Mihalyi

Lazaro first attended Chess Fest to introduce her young daughter, Varga Luna Michaud, to chess. Mom got swept up by chess as well.

“For me it was a matter of I saw chess as a very empowering game. It was something we could do together as a family,” Lazaro said.

Lazaro happily admits that Varga, now nine years old, and her 12-year-old son Max and her husband all play better chess than she does.

“It totally raised Varga’s self-esteem when she won or did really well in a game,” Lazaro said. “She’s very confident. I learned to love the game. I started at age 40. Once I started playing, I started thinking ahead more often. In chess, it’s thinking before your move. That can be applied to so many things in life. Playing chess makes you more aware of your actions.”

9 Queens is entering a new era, the post-Jean Hoffman era. Hoffman co-founded 9 Queens six years ago and served as its executive director until March 1, when Hoffman handed off leadership to Lazaro.

“It’s good for the organization. 9 Queens is as strong as it’s ever been,” Hoffman said. “Getting new ideas and new people is good for the organization. It’s time for somebody else. I’m very excited about the future.”

Hoffman believes she found an ideal successor in Lazaro.

“Vicki brings a rare combination to 9 Queens,” Hoffman said. “She hasn’t spent her entire life as a chess player. Since the first time I met here, she approached me and said ‘I really want to talk to you.’ She has a really strong passion for what 9 Queens does. Not being from the chess community but being passionate about the power of chess and our mission, that’s very had to find.”

Hoffman founded 9 Queens in Tucson with Jennifer Shahade, a two-time American Women’s Chess Champion based in New York. Shahade has 9 Queens as one of the home page buttons on her Web site. The proceeds from her book “Play Like a Girl” go to 9 Queens. Shahade has come to two of the prior five Chess Fests but won’t be at this years event.

Jennifer Shahade and Marcia Lopez Chess Fest 2011. Photo by Jeff Smith.

Jennifer Shahade and Marcia Lopez Chess Fest 2011. Photo by Jeff Smith.

Chess royalty, however, will be on hand. The husband-and-wife team of Amanda Mateer, a women’s FIDE master, and Mac Molder, an international master, will put on a tandem simultaneous chess exhibit vs. 40 Tucsonans.

“They are going to play 40 people at the same time,” Hoffman said. “They will switch off making moves. They won’t be communicating. So they won’t know what the other person is thinking, necessarily.”

Mateer is a Phoenix native who graduated from the University of Arizona in 2008. She attended the first Chess Fest. Molder is from New York.

The simultaneous play will run for two-and-a-half hours. Don’t count on your match to go the distance.

“It can be very constructive, but for people who haven’t played a lot, it can be very quick,” Hofmann said.

Mateer/Molder vs. 40 people should be twice the fun of last year’s simultaneous play when former women’s world champion, Alexandra Kosteniuk, took on 40 opponents by herself. 9 Queens invited Kosteniuk and Mateer to Tucson to award them the first and second 9 Queens Player of the Year awards for embodying the mission of 9 Queens and its commitment to empowering under-served and under-represented populations.

9 Queens was specifically founded to introduce chess to young girls, especially in underserved populations.

The absolute girl-centric focus didn’t last long.

“Early on, we’d notice mothers and daughters – and their brothers were there,” Hoffman said. “We had chess at Girl Scout events and so many people were bringing their boys. This had to be for everyone. We stopped doing a lot of girls-only events.”

9 Queens has become comfortable in its gender neutral skin

“We’re covering everyone, not women and girls separately,” Lazaro said.