CHELSEA — Eight-year-old Aliya Saldanha-Suri was convinced she’d lose her first match at the first-ever New York State Girls Chess Championship this past weekend.
“I played against this girl so many times, and I always lost,” the P.S. 33 Chelsea Prep student said. “But then I won against her, and I was so happy.”
By the end of the weekend, she and her teammates had clinched first place in two tournament sections and second place in a third — becoming the “winningest” team in the state, coach and program director Russell Makofsky said.
With 16 players competing, the team was also the state’s largest girls squad, Makofsky said — making it something of an anomaly in a pastime where a wide gender gap persists.
“The energy and excitement around girls chess is unique to this school,” said Makofsky, 31, who launched P.S. 33's program five years ago.
Forming the girls team a little over a year ago was the “natural next step” for the program, coinciding with the US Chess Federation’s push to promote chess for girls, he said.
“Now that there’s more girls getting into chess, there’s more friendships being built, and there’s more community surrounding the girls chess program,” he said. “You see girls sticking to chess a lot longer.”
Having a supportive group of teammates helps when it comes to playing a game that several students acknowledged can be “stressful” at times.
“I love the girls chess team, because they’re all my friends,” said Saldanha-Suri, who’s been playing chess since kindergarten. “I think it’s fun because everybody is a girl.”
The game requires a great deal of critical thinking and strategizing, the players added.
“It’s very interesting — you get to make up your own moves based off of the board, and what will happen after that move,” Simone Morden, 9, said.
“It gets me smarter when I play it,” her younger sister Rose Morden, 7, added.
All of P.S. 33’s chess players practice together at the school once a week and have committed to spending between one and two hours a week training at home, Makofsky said.
Students also compete at citywide events at least once a month.
“The team itself, they take this almost as a sport,” coach Angel Lopez, 27, added.
Student Kailee Powell, 9, admitted she was “nervous” about competing in her first championship this past weekend.
“I lost all of them, except my last round, but every round I played I got a little bit better, and I learned new moves to play against my opponents,” she said. “I like how it makes you think a lot.”
That’s one of the many benefits of playing chess, Lopez explained.
“They say you go through more problems in a chess game than you do in an entire week of life,” he said. “Maybe even more, honestly.”
Following up on their victory this past weekend, the team will be heading to Chicago in April to play in the All-Girls National Championships.
Last year, they won second place at the national tournament. The team also placed first at the Connecticut State Girls’ Scholastic Chess Championships this past January.
“For these young girls, it’s a tremendous confidence boost. It’s being part of a community, it’s learning how to be in a competitive environment, yet still be in a very supportive environment,” Makofsky said.
“And it’s not like they’re just good for girl players — they’re some of the best players in the entire school.”