Time To Recruit More Girls To Play Chess


The disparity in the number of girls playing chess has been well documented. As students approach middle school, the number of girls playing chess drops off. If we want more girls to play chess at the highest levels, we have to bring more girls into the game at an earlier age.

Look at your existing chess clubs. What percentage of your competitive chess players are girls?

At Rainbow Elementary in Madison, Alabama, over 40 percent of our competitive chess players are girls. That more than doubles the national average of girls playing competitive chess. We are making a conscious effort to increase the number of girls playing chess. The first time our school won a section at the National Elementary Championships was in 2015. We did it with three of the top four scores coming from female players.


Here are some of the things we are doing, in conjunction with the local non-profit Madison City Chess League, to accomplish this.

1. Recognize that girls play chess for different reasons than boys.

When I ask the boys on our team why they like to play in tournaments, they give me answers about the competitive aspects of chess like winning trophies and medals and competing. When I ask girls on our team why they like to play in tournaments, their answer is “to hang out with my friends.” 

Recognize that girls play competitive chess for the camaraderie as much, if not more, than the competition itself. In response, I build in activities that allow both girls and boys to bond. We hold team parties and events like going to the movies together. Friendships and team spirit contribute to the growing number of girls on our competition team.


2. Cast a wide net when sponsoring chess contests.

As a school board member for Madison City Schools, I recognize the academic benefits from playing chess. Because of those benefits, our school system purchased a site license with ChessKid.com to provide every elementary student a gold subscription. We wanted all students to experience the benefits of chess, whether they were on the chess team or not.

With every student in all of our elementary schools having access to ChessKid.com, we are able to hold school-wide contests.

Contests and prizes motivate kids to participate. At Rainbow Elementary, we crown a king and queen for each grade level in contests we hold. Both boys and girls of all ages are excited and motivated to participate. Puzzle contests are suitable for all kids as puzzles are tailored to the kid's abilities.

If you award the boy (king) and girl (queen) at each grade level for the most chess puzzles solved correctly, you are giving everyone a chance to win. You are also providing them an opportunity to exercise their brains. It is a win/win for all students. You may even identify and encourage girls who had not realized they could be good at chess.


3. Award top female medals at every tournament.

The Madison City Chess League (MCCL) hosts numerous tournaments throughout the year. At each tournament, we award a top female medal in every section to the female player who does not otherwise place in the tournament. MCCL also hosts a team tournament where a top female team trophy is awarded to the top four-person team that is composed of all girls. I have asked female chess players across the city whether they like this recognition or feel it is demeaning. They unanimously responded they like any recognition and encouragement they receive. It encourages them to return and keep competing.


Photo: First place team in Under 500 Section at 2015 Queen's Quest chess tournament from Rainbow Elementary.

4. Recognize girls at tournaments.

When girls are outnumbered by boys at tournaments, it is easy for them to feel isolated, particularly on teams where they are significantly outnumbered. They may not play on a team with 40 percent female students like mine at Rainbow Elementary. At a recent tournament of around 200 students in Madison, I asked all of the girls to come to the stage to take a “Girl Power” photo so they could see how many of them were there and so they could connect with each other.

The photo opportunity was empowering! I heard and could see the excitement in the crowd as parents were snapping pictures of all the girls who were there to compete. Dispersed among each team, the girls did not feel as significant. Standing on stage together, they could see what a force they were and how much their numbers continue to grow. Try it at your next tournament, and take that photo each year to see how your numbers grow.


5. Start early. 

The earlier we introduce girls to chess, the greater our chances to see more girls continuing to compete. Early success is the greatest encouragement any student can receive. If your school chess club only offers admission to older students, you are limiting an access point for female students. By the time students are in third or fourth grade, girls can already feel greatly outnumbered by boys in chess clubs. At a recent local tournament in a neighboring city, we saw our efforts paying great dividends in the K-3 section where half of the awards went to females — all from Madison!

Rookie Rally K-3 winners.

6. Host a girls chess night.

I have written a previous article about how the Madison City Chess League started a girls chess night program in the summer at a local restaurant. During the school year, we again tapped into the local school system to grow and extend Girls Chess Night by hosting a tour of schools

Every month, girls chess night is hosted by a different school in Madison. This draws a different set of girls each month as we travel to different host schools and use their chess equipment to play chess with other girls. The girls who come to the event range in ability and are paired accordingly.

Because girls chess night is on Tuesday night, we always participate in the National Fast Chess Hour on ChessKid by providing computers and Chromebooks for our students to log on to play. When I host at Rainbow Elementary, I offer the library/media center for recreational players and a separate playing room for the more serious tournament players. I meet new girls every month that I would never have known were it not for girls chess night.


Girls chess night at Columbia Elementary in Madison.


Girls chess night at Rainbow (left) and Madison (right) Elementary Schools.

7.  Offer girls scholarships for camps.

Girls need support and encouragement. Chess camps are a great way for any player to improve, but they tend to be dominated by male participants.  Last summer, the Madison City Chess League was able to offer one girl a scholarship to its annual Summer Knights Chess Camp. We had other girls participate, but scholarships will help that number grow.

This spring, MCCL received a donation to its Girls Chess Initiative Fund that will allow two girls to attend Mid-South Summer Chess Camp, a week-long overnight chess camp in Memphis, TN. Summer chess camps that offer girls scholarships can open a door for girls who might not otherwise be able to attend.


8. Look to the future. 

There are numerous ideas that have been percolating that need to be discussed and shared among the chess community. Here are a few:

 Photo: Constance Wang (one of Rainbow's top competitors), Ranae Bartlett (MCCL Executive Director), and Nancy Brandon (Rainbow Chess Team Sponsor).