For years, two students at Walter Payton College Prep on the North Side were some of the only competitive female chess players in Chicago public schools. Now, they’re on a mission to get more girls into the game.
Senior Maggie Tsyganova and her former classmate Lizzy Brahin started the nonprofit Queens United Chess in 2019. They work with about 35 female instructors or “ambassadors” to offer free chess lessons and host regular “Girl Power Club” meetings for students. Brahin, now a sophomore at Harvard University, and other leaders participate virtually, which allows the group to expand its reach across the U.S.
Maggie said they want female players to feel a sense of community — especially at tournaments, where boys tend to outnumber girls. Only about 14% of competitive chess players in America are women, according to the U.S. Chess Federation.
“That’s a big reason why girls don’t continue chess in high school,” she said. “So we try to find girls that are still excited about chess… they’re the ones who help teach these introductory chess lessons.”
Four years after getting started, the group has reached more than 550 students. It partnered with Chicago Public Schools and the Renaissance Knights Chess Foundation to bring the game into 10 schools across the city. The group on March 19 hosted a virtual tournament for Women’s History Month and launched a new podcast on Spotify to spotlight women in chess.
Maggie has been playing chess competitively since the fifth grade. She’s captain of the chess team at Payton and led the school to third place at the Illinois state finals in February. She also works with students at Ogden Elementary on Thursday afternoons. More than 40 students from the North Side school signed up for Queens United’s spring session.
“At the beginning it was like herding cats because none of them knew anything about chess. But it’s been amazing,” said David Ablao, a second grade teacher at Ogden.
The group is split into two classrooms: one with first and second graders, and another with third and fourth graders. Female instructors, many of them students from Payton, lead group sessions in the afternoons, helping kids navigate the board and offering suggestions on how to play.
“The energy they have with chess is really exciting,” said Payton junior Julia Kim, a chess instructor and marketing officer with Queens United. “I think they really enjoy just playing each other for fun.”
Some kids are still learning how to move the pieces, while others are playing to win.
“I can’t wait to play other people and learn their strategies and what they know,” said 8-year-old Elizabeth “Ellie” Margvelashvili. “I want to use their knowledge against them.”
Ellie enjoys playing chess with her schoolmate Anaya Thakkar. She turns 9 years old next week and looks forward to competing in her first chess tournament in May.
Anaya wants to teach more of her friends how to play. She’s ready to prove that girls can do anything.
“It’s Women’s History Month so if someone says that girls can’t do something, I’ll prove them wrong,” Anaya said. “If it’s basketball, I’ll play one-on-one basketball with them and beat them. If it’s chess I’ll play one-on-one chess with them and beat them.”
Even though she’s graduating this spring, Maggie plans to keep teaching and playing chess and Queens United will continue on under new leadership. She said working with the group and making friends in chess has made the game “so much more enjoyable.”
“The game just becomes more fun,” Maggie said, “though [it’s] not just playing, but also getting to teach and still be a role model in a sense for younger students.”
Correction: A previous version misspelled the names of David Ablao, Maggie Tsyganova, and Merrill Lee.