Euphemia Mu was at a summer camp dance when she spotted two guys
playing chess. "Watch this. I'm going to go beat one of them," she recalls telling her "cool" female friends, who had no clue she could play.
Euphemia walked over, challenged one of the guys and beat him in a
few moves. Her friends were amazed. "You kind of get used to it," she says of her chess triumphs. Euphemia, 15, is in a minority. She is a girl who competes -- and wins -- in a game dominated by males. She is the only girl in a chess club she started at Myers Park High. She teaches chess at local parochial schools to mostly boys. Boys also predominate at the Charlotte Youth Chess Club, which her mother, Joyce Mu, runs on Sundays at Metro School. So, having a few more girls around might be nice. "I would love to have somebody, just to team up against the guys with," Euphemia says. In chess, players use attack and defense tactics to capture the opponent's king. Many who play say it strengthens math, concentration and planning skills and teaches that every decision has a consequence. Euphemia was bored with the game and would have quit last year were it not for Martha Fierro and Julio Becerra. Both are grandmasters, the highest level of chess player. They teach the game in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. "They showed us all these strategies, and I was like, `Oh, neat,' " Euphemia says. Few girls nationwide Local chess leaders say girls make up 10 to 20 percent of students playing chess in clubs and at tournaments.The same is true nationally, according to Tom Brownscombe, who directs the U.S. Chess Federation's scholastic program "There's no reason why girls shouldn't be playing chess just as much as boys," he says. Brownscombe says girls don't play as much because they get teased by their peers. He also says girls have fewer role models. There's never been a female U.S. chess champion. But that could one day change. The U.S. Chess Championships in Seattle this month were open for the first time to women. The youngest player was a girl -- Hana Itkis, 13, of New Jersey. She qualified to enter the 56-player tournament through open competition, the tournament's new format. She is younger than record holder Bobby
Fischer, a role model for boys who was 14 when he first competed in the
event. Euphemia says she had girl chess mates when she was younger, but
they quit when they hit seventh grade. As in her case, homework and other
interests left less time to play. Euphemia also says fewer girls play because boys are naturally attracted to competitive "battle" games. Girls find other ways to spend time. "For some girls, it's like `Oooh, I want to be pretty, go shopping, watch movies,' " she said. "It's a lot to sit for long hours playing a game that's pretty deep."
Euphemia is one of three Charlotte girls recently listed in the national top 100 among girls 16 and younger. In the U.S. Chess Federation ratings posted in December, she is 25th. The Wheeless sisters -- Amelia, 11, and Colette, 14 -- are rated 74th and 82nd respectively. The ratings are based on their scores at local and national tournaments and are updated every three months. The Wheeless sisters, who are home-schooled, have played chess for about two years and boast a dresser overflowing with trophies. Their dad, Randy Wheeless, has been teaching and holding practices with them at home. The girls prefer tournaments, where they make friends and enjoy the competition. They say they have no problem competing against boys or adults. "I think once they started successfully playing against some boys, they warmed up to it a little bit," Wheeless said. "They just look like sweet little girls. You can let your guard down, and the next thing you know, you're fending them off and losing." Colette prefers playing boys, since she says girls tend to not play as well. "I really like beating people that are better than me," she said.
Urging girls to play
Fierro would especially like to see more girls play. "We need a girl
champion," she said. "They have the same chances to play." Fierro says she tries to treat boys and girls the same, but notices the girls often come to her for advice instead of Becerra. She and Becerra try to foster friendly competition by pitting the girls against the boys. Fierro and Joyce Mu say the best thing to do is to teach girls early so they develop confidence.
Lakshmi Anand, 5, is off to a strong start. Why does she play? "Because I like it sooooo much," she says. "It proves my knowledge to play the game, and think what I should do. Maybe one day I'll be a world champion. That would be kind of fun."