After playing chess for maybe a year in the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, I stared in amazement as I arrived at the Susan Polgar Girls National Open tournament in Corpus Christi, Texas. There were ballrooms upon ballrooms of just rows of tables with chess sets on top. There, I played and won my first ever all-girls tournament – well, I tied for first, but that’s close enough for a nine year-old who was the only one able to defeat the first seed. For the first time ever, I just knew that chess was what I wanted to do, not dance or gymnastics or any other ‘girly’ activity.
That was 2007. Five years later, I found myself invited to be the New Jersey representative for the Susan Polgar Foundation Girls Invitational. In those five years, I never played in an all-girls tournament outside of the local New Jersey Girls Junior – where the open section was maybe ten people on a good year. When I arrived at the St. Louis airport for the first time ever, I felt that heart-wrenching pressure to win as the top seed. But something was different when I stepped on campus and the pre-tournament events began. For the first time ever, I was there not to win, not to just eat, sleep, chess. I went into the tournament with no friends, and just one acquaintance who I had met while in Greece for the World Youth Chess Championships two years prior. I came out of the tournament with at least a dozen new friends, most of which I still keep in touch with even today.
Five days ago, I again found myself here, in St. Louis. When I first accepted the invitation, all my friends asked me why I would even consider returning – it’s my last summer before college and I’ve already won the title, so why take that week out of my life to come back and risk losing that 2100 rating I’d finally achieved after four years? Shouldn’t I be relaxing on a beach somewhere, enjoying my last taste of freedom before I become shackled to college life? To be honest, I asked myself these questions even while I was on the flight here, but as I settled into my dorm room, I remembered the excitement of the tournament, the friendliness of the organizers and the fellow players and I knew I made the right decision to come back.
In a way, it feels only right that I end my scholastic career here at the 13th annual Susan Polgar Foundation Girls Invitational after launching it at the foundation’s National Open nine years earlier. It’s taught me that tournaments are not just a battleground – it’s a place to experience immersing oneself in chess completely for the first time ever, or a place to realize you’re not the only girl who loves this game, even if you are the only one in your school or even state. The SPFGI is an event that inspires, not only pushing me to keep playing chess, but also pushing me to promote chess with the NJ All-Girls Chess Camp.