Chess is one of few professional sports where it’s not uncommon to see children playing adults—and winning.
Just ask Akshita Gorti, a 13-year-old from Virginia who played against some of the country’s best female players in the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship this April.
“Anyone can play—it’s a brain game,” says Gorti, who is the highest-rated female chess player under 14 in the world. While Gorti did not win the tournament (she placed tenth out of 12), she has no plans to slow down anytime soon. “It doesn’t matter whether I win,” she says of the competition. “I still have a very long way to go.”
Gorti was one of five players under the age of 16 at the women’s tournament this year, which is is unusual but not unheard of, says Tony Rich, the executive director of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, which hosted the tournament.
“There are more and more young girls playing,” says Rich, a trend he attributes to the proliferation of online chess resources. “It’s easier for younger players to train than it used to be, with so many of students doing preparation online. Training against computers helps,” he says.
“It used to be that you started playing at eight or ten. Now if you haven’t started by age five, it’s too late,” he adds.
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Women’s chess players are getting better as well as younger, says Rich. The average World Federation rating (otherwise known as a FIDE rating) for women entering the tournament gets higher every year.
Still, chess remains heavily male-dominated, with only one woman ranking in the top 100 players in the world. Sexism lurks in some corners of the sport, as evidenced by U.K. grandmaster (the highest possible title in the sport) Nigel Short, who provoked outrage last summer when he said that we should “gracefully accept it as a fact” that men are better at chess.
The most commonly accepted explanations for the lack of top women is simply that, historically, few women have devoted themselves to the sport. As Hana Schank writes in Aeon, as the rules of the game changed, so did the demographic of its players:
“Around the turn of the 17th century, women abruptly dropped out of the chess scene…This could have been related to changes in the game: the queen and bishop, both formerly weak pieces with limited movement, were now allowed to swoop terrifyingly across the board and dominate. Chess went from a leisurely game played between lords and ladies to a cut-throat competitive sport played in public houses and cafés, and therefore considered an unseemly activity for women.
But with young women like Gorti and Nazi Paikidze, the 22-year-old who won the women’s championship this year, coming up the ranks, that dynamic is shifting once again. “There are not as many female players overall, but that’s changing now,” Paikidze says. Those young girls who picked up the sport over the past decade or so are maturing into skilled players.
Both Paikidze and Gorti have their sights set on eventually earning a spot in the U.S. Chess Championship, a national competition that includes both men and women and is considered more prestigious that the women’s tournament.
“I think I’ll probably go to the National Championship,” says Gorti. “And maybe after that I’ll think about college.”