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Could Tucson become the nation's next chess capital?

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During a time when everyone seems to be talking about what's wrong with our public schools, Tucson's chess educators exemplify what we have been doing right.

It's a little-known fact that Tucson is home to some of the most talented chess players and most successful chess coaches in the country. Since 1994, the Catalina Foothills High School chess team has won the national high school chess championship four times. Over the past 20 years, Tucson has a produced a slew of national individual champions, including 1997 world junior champion Tal Shakad, 2000 kindergarten-through-eighth-grade Champion Leo Martinez, and 2006 high school champion Landon Brownell. In 2008, the Southern Arizona Chess Association (SACA) was named Scholastic Organizer of the Year by the United States Chess Federation.

Tucson's emergence as a national chess epicenter is in part due to organizations like SACA, which have organized monthly scholastic chess tournaments for more than 40 years. At the same time, world-class instructors like Arizona state chess champion Levon Altounian, World Chess Federation Master Robby Adamson and World Chess Federation Master Ken Larsen have created a dynasty of powerhouse chess clubs throughout the city. Other factors contributing to the strength of Tucson's chess community include the creation of the Scorpions—Arizona's first professional chess team.

The value of Tucson's chess community lies not only in the creation of national champions, but also in the promotion of chess literacy. Chess is a powerful educational tool with the potential to improve educational outcomes. Research shows that chess can increase cognitive abilities, improve student achievement and promote emotional intelligence. Now more than ever, chess provides an innovative solution to the problems faced by our educational system.

Unfortunately, in spite of the abundance of talented chess teachers in Tucson, all Tucsonans do not have equal opportunities to benefit from chess education. Due to budget cuts, most schools have started charging students to participate in after-school chess clubs. Subsequently, only students with the financial resources and an initial interest to seek chess instruction outside of school are exposed to its benefits. In addition to low-income youth, women and girls have been traditionally under-represented within the Tucson chess world. Last year, women made up less than 10 percent of chess players in local tournaments.

To counter these inequities, the nonprofit organization 9 Queens has worked to extend the benefits of chess to Tucson's underserved and under-represented populations. In addition to providing free after-school chess programs in Title I public schools, 9 Queens launched the 9 Queens Initiative in August 2008, a series of monthly free chess workshops exclusively for women and girls.

Since launching the 9 Queens Initiative, the percentage of females participating in 9 Queens chess tournaments has increased from 10 to 50 percent in the beginners' sections. However, in spite of the relative success of the program, there is still much work to be done. Women and girls still make up a small percentage of tournament players in championship sections of tournaments. In addition, schools are continuing to cut funding for extra-curricular programming like chess.

On Sunday, Oct. 18, 9 Queens will celebrate the one-year anniversary of the 9 Queens Initiative and honor Tucson's growing population of female chess players at All Queens Chess Day. The day will include a free chess tournament exclusively for women and girls, and members of the Arizona Scorpions will offer free beginner chess lessons for anyone (male or female) throughout the day. It takes place from 1 to 4 p.m., at Bookmans Entertainment Exchange, 6230 E. Speedway Blvd.

In light of the strength of our chess community and the power of chess, all Tucsonans should take advantage of this opportunity, not only to celebrate the success of local chess players, but also to replicate their success by promoting basic chess literacy.

Jean Hoffman is a co-founder of 9 Queens. For more information, visit 9queens.org.

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