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Jean Hoffman, 27, is the executive director of 9 Queens, a fledgling nonprofit designed to teach "empowerment through chess." Hoffman taught chess through a similar nonprofit in New York City for three years after graduating from Yale. She enjoyed it so much that she got a master's degree in education from Harvard and moved back to Tucson to launch 9 Queens with Jennifer Shahade, a two-time American women's chess champion. You can learn more at Chess Fest 2008 at Hotel Congress, beginning at 2 p.m., Saturday, May 10. For more info, visit the 9 Queens Web site.

What's 9 Queens all about?

Nine Queens is a nonprofit that is dedicated to empowering at-risk youth and women through chess. We provide free chess instruction in Title I public schools and free chess workshops to try to promote chess and extend the benefits of chess to people who don't normally receive them.

What are the benefits of chess?

There are a lot of studies that show that chess can improve concentration, self-esteem and critical thinking. It improves reading and math scores in second- and third-graders. I personally like chess, because I think it helps people develop a type of self-confidence as a thinker. I learned how to play chess in the first-grade, and that's what it did for me.

So what's going at Hotel Congress?

This weekend, we're hosting Chess Fest 2008 to celebrate the launch of our program in Tucson and our campaign to promote free chess. There's going to be a chess tournament, a human chess match played out on a big board and an opportunity to play Jennifer Shahade, who is a women's grandmaster. She's an American chess champion.

Tell me about Tucson's rich chess tradition.

Tucson has a lot of scholastic chess and a lot of chess champions. Catalina Foothills just won the national championship for the second year in a row. There have been lots of national-championship teams from Tucson. I was on one when I was in the eighth-grade. But unfortunately, (championships are) usually from schools that can either pay to have the program, or parents who can pay to have hired coaches.

So your idea with 9 Queens is to expose folks who would not otherwise be exposed to chess?

Yes, and there are so many fantastic chess teachers and coaches here in Tucson who could work in these schools as well.

How did you get started with chess?

I learned how to play chess in the first-grade. I went to Sam Hughes Elementary, and they had an afterschool chess program there.

Who is your favorite chess player of all-time?

My favorite is probably Judit Polgár. That's kind of a generic answer, but she really changed the perception of what women could do in chess. She was part of the Polgár family. The Polgár sisters were trained at a young age to play chess, and they showed that women could play at the same level as men. ... I think RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan is my (other) favorite chess player. RZA is not only a fairly strong chess player, but he is also working with the Hip-Hop Chess Federation to change a lot of stereotypes about chess. Oh yeah, and if you listen closely to the last Wu-Tang album, a lot of the songs are about chess.

If you went up against some sort of supercomputer that plays chess, who would win?

The supercomputer. But I would say this: I am one of those chess players who prefers to play people a lot more than computers.

For those who don't play chess, what makes it such a valuable thing for people to do?

It's a great tool, especially for students who are not doing well in our public schools or haven't been reached through traditional means. Chess is a fun, competitive, tactile game that actually teaches you how to think. Compared to video games and that sort of thing, this is something that will encourage concentration and focus, and it's also really fun.

If people go to Chess Fest, and they don't know how to play chess, will there be some boards set up so they can play checkers?

There won't be any checkers, but there will be workshops so you can learn how to play chess. And there are lots of ways you can have fun as you learn how to play chess. Everyone can learn how to play chess.

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