It was almost inevitable that Ashley Lynn Priore would pick up her first chess piece at the ripe old age of four. “I grew up in a family that played chess, and my siblings and I would go to tournaments together; it was a big part of my upbringing,” she said.
However, the lack of female participation in the game bothered Priore. “There are a lot of assumptions that girls can’t play chess or that it is a man’s game,” she explained.
In 2014, those early experiences led Priore—as a high school freshman—to launch the Queen’s Gambit Chess Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching chess to the community.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity to have an organization that empowers women and girls to pursue chess,” she explained. “We teach it to the community, but also use it as a tool for social change. We do that by teaching critical thinking and strategic planning skills, not often taught in schools.”
The institute offers classes, chess clubs and tournaments.
When she originally started the institute, more boys than girls were signing up. “We found that this is really generational and woven into society,” she said, adding that the organization now has an all-girls’ chess club that meets weekly, and it is also partnering with Girls Inc. to host a class.
“While our focus is women and girls in chess, we do work in all types of communities, particularly those that don’t have a lot of resources, to make sure that chess is incorporated into programs because we know it is a tool that can inspire a lot of people,” she added.
Priore views chess as a miniature version of life. In fact, the home page of her website says ‘There is no better way to rehearse life than to play a game of chess.’
“Chess is a game of strategy. You can see how the pieces interact with each other, how they challenge each other, and it asks how you can get to your ultimate goal by juggling things simultaneously,” she elaborated.
The benefits of chess are numerous, and Priore said she thinks of these benefits in tiers. In addition to laying the foundation for math and science skills, it elevates concentration and teaches the player to visualize a sequence of events and to think about the consequences of their moves. Another important tier is sportsmanship.
“It teaches patience and being thoughtful and shaking your opponent’s hand,” said Priore.
Although she said that anyone at any age can learn to play chess, her students run the gamut between pre-K age and 12th grade, though she has seen a spike between fifth and sixth grades. “When students are younger, it’s interesting to engage them; they see the chess board as a story,” she said.
Some of Priore’s students are very serious about the game and on the competitive track, while others take classes as a tool for their own lives, and to develop critical thinking skills.
Sonia Palit’s grandfather taught her how to play chess. When the seventh-grader moved to Pittsburgh two years ago, she took classes with The Queen’s Gambit and played in a number of tournaments. Now she acts as a student teacher with the institute.
“I love how it is not a script; it is improv. You don’t know what your opponent is about to do. I love how there are strategies,” said Palit. “It’s not like a sport, because when I’m old, I will still be able to play.” She added that chess helps her think on her feet.
Like with every other aspect of life, the pandemic changed the organization’s operations, but chess is something that translated well to online learning.
“I think that the Queen's Gambit was very successful in turning the pandemic into an opportunity to teach chess and reach more kids via online programming,” said Sonia’s mother, Deepa Nayak. “This will hopefully translate to more Pittsburgh-area kids playing the game in person once life returns to normal.”
Priore added that she has reached between 1,000 and 2,000 students now that the classes are online.
Like millions of people, Priore watched the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit. While she enjoyed the show, she said it did not accurately reflect her experience of how women are looked upon and treated as chess players. In fact, Priore recently wrote an article, published in Ms. Magazine about this topic.
“It’s a tough world as a female chess player,” she said.
Although there may be a few individual classes or clubs in Pittsburgh, The Queen’s Gambit is unique across the board due to its focus on viewing chess as a tool for change.
Said Priore, “We can reach more people and be more inclusive if we view chess as a way to teach people about life, by being a hub to be more civically engaged. That is how we are different.”