Yelizaveta Orlova. Photo by Monica Chung.
Yelizaveta Orlova‘s new endgame is to raise the profile of chess for women in Canada. The 18-year old has has been declared a Woman National Master in Canada. She has represented Canada twice at the World Chess Olympiad.
The number of women playing competitive chess in Canada is dismally low – only 60 active players. The Canadian Federation of Chess (CFC) recently introduced the new titles of Women’s National Master (2100) and Women’s National Candidate Master (1900) as an incentive for women to play and stay involved with the game. Chess is typically the domain of males, conjuring images of child prodigies and socially-inept eccentrics.
“There’s a stereotype in North America about people who play chess,” says Orlova. “It’s assumed that if you play chess that you’re not popular, it’s not cool. People join the chess club that can’t fit in anywhere else.”
Orlova was taught how to play chess when she was four years old. Both her father and grandfather were accomplished players – her grandfather was an American Master. When she was nine, her father brought her to a simultaneous exhibition where she played an International Master, and it ended up in a draw. She decided to start playing seriously. She grew to become the fourth highest rated female chess player in Canada. In her native Ukraine, chess was taught in the school system. Here, it’s an anomaly to see a female chess player. “Here, if a girl plays chess, people are very interested because they don’t see a lot of girls play.”
Her longest game took six hours, but that is atypical. Orlova says that the game puts her into a focused, meditative state where time goes by unnoticed. She enjoys the calm, logical march of chess, and the mannered culture of studiousness and respect that it encourages. Her forte is the middle game: the positional portion where there are lots of pieces on the board. “You’re persuading your opponent to make bad moves. Setting them up in a trap,” grins Orlova. This is in contrast to many who prefer the finishing moves of the end game.
Her idol is Bobby Fischer, one of the most prolific chess players of all time. She admires his ambition. She visited Fischer’s grave in Iceland at a recent tournament. “He ended up dying at age 64,” she says. “There are 64 squares on a chess board. He was born to be a real, true chess player. I find him very interesting.”
Orlova wants to get more women playing chess to raise the bar competitively. “Men – they’re supposedly technically better at chess. Nowadays, the highest rated female is really close to 2700. The highest male is close to 2900. That’s a 200 point gap. Judit Polgár — she was always highest rated. She was the only woman to prove to men that women have the ability to play good chess.”
Although women can technically compete against men in open tournaments, females have their own set of ratings. Many players take offense to the fact that chess, despite being a non-physical game, still separates females into their own category. Orlova supports this division, telling me that most women she has competed against play a more emotional game. “People say that everything is much more interesting when you watch the females play than the males. The males tend go with the positional element, whereas the females try to attack. Males are less aggressive while women want to give it all they got.”
In open tournaments, particularly in Canada, Orlova thinks that girls may occasionally have a small advantage in competing against guys. “If a woman plays against a guy, it’s usual. I play against guys all the time. But if a guy plays against a girl, its very unusual. I feel like a lot of guys start worrying, ‘Well, she’s a woman so I need to win.’ They have that mentality. I feel like they’re more worried to lose.”
Orlova claims there is a significant drop in girls playing chess when they reach high school. At 14, she quit playing chess for a year and a half, a decision she deeply regrets now.
“I finally smartened up. High school is only four years of your life. So I don’t understand why I have to be so self-conscious about playing chess. Chess is a smart, logical game. It makes me laugh that they think it’s not cool. In high school, all the conversations are all ‘Oh do you know? He’s dating that girl?’ In chess, they wouldn’t talk about that kind of stuff. That would be absurd. I am very happy that I didn’t give up chess. I realized I shouldn’t be degrading myself to them. In grade nine, everybody’s worried about what people think. So I think people kind of forgave me, for dropping out for that year and a half,” she jokes.
What the game needs is a strong female ambassador, a role that Orlova is happy to assume. She started her own YouTube channel, Beauty & the Chess Geek, where she scrutinizes games, discusses strategy and interviews notable chess players she meets on her travels (she has been to 21 countries all over the world, largely due to chess). Orlova’s dream is to open her own chess school in Toronto. “I love teaching kids. I have many private students, I teach groups of kids as well. Not a lot of people have the patience to teach chess to kids. My youngest student is five years old.”
“I’m not trying to just advertise myself but chess in general,” she states. “It would be really nice if I could get more girls playing chess. The more girls that play chess, the better the tournaments are going to be. And the male players won’t look at it as inferior.”