Girls to Grandmasters: Teaching Life Lessons Through the Game of Chess

Nicole Maffeo playing chess as a young girl

In 1997, Karsten McVay and Nicole Maffeo played their first game of chess in formal competition. They were only 6 years old at the time. But chess would go on to serve both of these impressive women quite well. The two would eventually rank 1st and 2nd respectively among female chess players in the United States. And both learned important values that helped them attain success in their personal careers. Neither of these U.S. national chess masters would have expected to find themselves together again over 20 years later. Then again, their passion for the game of chess has always kept them bonded in one way or another.

“Humility and determination are salient lessons that chess teaches. Losing chess games repeatedly at a young age teaches you to accept loss, and cope with that loss so that you can recover and rebound. Learning how to reflect on mistakes, absorb and learn is a key life lesson that carries into professional and personal lives. Life is full of adversity and it is crucial to equip girls with the toolbelt needed to overcome barriers.”

The Unusual World of Female Chess Players

The game of chess is certainly not new. In fact, professional chess competitions have existed for more than a century. But throughout the 132-year history of the World Chess Championships, none of the chess grandmasters (a title awarded to chess players by the world chess organization FIDE) winning the contest have been female. That seems a bit strange to say the least. The last time the final competitions even involved a female chess player was in 2005. Only 7 percent of all competitive chess players today are women. In fact, the ratio of male to female chess players is an incredible 16-to-1!

These are the statistics that Karsten McVay and Nicole Maffeo are looking to change. For more than a decade, the two have been thinking about how to expose girls to the game they both love. Last year, their vision became a reality. Together, they founded Girls to Grandmasters, a non-profit, 501(c)3 organization with a mission to encourage and support female chess players. These national chess masters are passionate about showing girls of all ages the incredible life benefits of playing chess.

Girls to Grandmasters CEO Karsten McVay and President Nicole Maffeo

“First and foremost, girls need access to fair and equitable resources. Without resourcing, girls are placed at an inherent disadvantage. Second, we need to shift the stereotypes embedded in the chess community. There has been a pattern of top male GMs positioning women as inferior chess players. This type of messaging creates an environment of inequality and intimidation. We need more female mentors and advocates to ensure our girls are treated with equality and respect. Chess is a mind sport and in chess, all minds are equal.” 

Hidden Barriers for Female Chess Players

With the number of female chess players being so small, the obvious question is “why?”. As in other fields, barriers for female chess players have reflected a societal bias against women. When you think of a chess grandmaster, you might think about Bobby Fischer or Nigel Short. It is highly unlikely you will recall a single female chess grandmaster or any female chess player for that matter. An undercurrent exists that presumes girls are inherently less adept at chess than their male counterparts. And these biases against female chess players have profound effects.

In competitions, female chess players often describe being bullied and intimidated by the overwhelming male majority.  As a result, this biased view becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In addition, the small number of female chess players perpetuates the problem as well. Few role models and mentors exist for female chess players currently. And media rarely covers the Women’s World Chess Championship showcasing female chess grandmasters. These are sizable barriers in society that have been pervasive for a long time.

“G2GM endeavors to encourage girls to enter chess for more than just the competition (vis-a-vis our experience in competition). Chess is a mind sport, life sport, and the lessons reach well beyond the board.  Our hope is that girls can harness lessons from the game to understand, strategize and overcome the chaos or adversity in life.”

Empowering Girls Through the Game of Chess

Chess has been a powerful influence in the lives of Karsten McVay and Nicole Maffeo. The game of chess has taught them humility, discipline, and commitment while boosting intellectual power. Today, these valuable life lessons have enabled both women to attain powerful career positions. Karsten McVay runs legal operations at Glossier Inc. in New York. Nicole Maffeo is a manager and team lead within Google’s Artificial Intelligence division. Through Girls to Grandmasters, they want to share their experiences (and successes!) with other girls.

How will these two chess masters achieve their mission? One female chess player at a time. Through grassroots recruitment, competition events, and funding supports for female chess players, progress can be made. Today, most female chess players drop out of the game around 13 years of age. But by providing support structures and mentorship, Girls to Grandmasters can keep girls involved longer. As a result, future role models and mentors can be developed over time. These are the seeds of change that Girls to Grandmasters hopes to nurture.

Grand Hopes for the Future

Big changes in society rarely occur overnight. Instead, major shifts in perspectives and attitudes evolve over time through a series of incremental steps. Girls to Grandmasters presently strives to change the way female chess players view the game of chess. But the larger goal is to create parity among male and female chess players. Exposing biased views against female chess players and advancing female chess grandmasters serves the organization’s future mission. For Karsten McVay and Nicole Maffeo, they believe this goal is not only right but also completely attainable.

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Dawna is a mom of two young kids, puppy lover, ice cream lover, chocolate lover, and lover of any ice cream with chunks of chocolate in it. She is the author of seven books, a business owner, certified health coach, motivational speaker, and creator of the 5-Day Detox and the 14-Day Clean-Eating Program. Dawna appears regularly on local and national television. She has appeared on the Today show, Martha, MSNBC, HSN, and morning news programs on NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox. Dawna is a highly sought-after speaker and has done speaking engagements for Chobani, Disney, American Heart Association, Mass Mutual, Wharton Business School, Women’s Entertainment Television, PGA Tour, Super Bowl Leadership Forum, Susan G. Komen, and many more.

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