Elite competition at Chess Fest

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Courtesy of Jeff Smith/Hotel Congress


Rochelle Ballantyne, a young woman who is on her way to becoming the world's first female black chess master, ponders her next move during 9 Queen's 7th Annual Chess Fest at Hotel Congress on April 26, 2014.

The historical Hotel Congress, full of people on a Saturday afternoon, falls away to the pure mental focus that the black and white chess board demands.

The eighth annual Chess Fest: When you Bishop on a Star, was organized by Tucson-founded group 9 Queens, a 501c3, nonprofit group dedicated to empowering people and communities through free chess workshops around Tucson.

The organization’s mission is to use chess to promote critical thinking skills, academic performance and self-confidence in under-served and under-represented demographics in an effort to help actuate potential.

“It’s creating an opportunity for people to learn, regardless of age, gender or race,” said Vicki Lazaro, board member and interim treasurer of 9 Queens.

The name 9 Queens was inspired by the name of the most powerful piece on the board: the queen. The group’s website explains that while there is only one queen, every other pawn has the potential to become a queen. However impossible it may seem, all eight pawns are able to change into queens, meaning that nine potential queens are on the board.

The name evolves into a metaphor for the capacity all children and individuals have to become a powerful queen.

The event is in its eighth year of Chess Fest mania. Nyssa Miccio, the marketing assistant for Hotel Congress, described the event as, “fun, interactive and local,” and said it brings people together to bond over the love of the game.

This year at Chess Fest, the community-wide celebration will feature U.S. Women’s Chess Champion and International Grandmaster Irina Krush.

The seven-time world champion was the youngest champion to win the title at the age of 14 in 1998. She went on to become the first American woman to obtain a grandmaster title in 2013. Having represented the U.S. in eight world Olympiads, Krush graduated from New York University with a Bachelors in International Relations.

The event will provide opportunities for locals to see current and former professional chess strategists in an engaging, laid-back environment.

Paul Gold, retiring Raytheon employee, former chairman of 9 Queens, and former master-level player and teacher, noted that this event is more accessible to the masses because it is not the like normal, structured tournaments the United States Chess Federation presides over. The competition is one afternoon-long event.

“Most people are there because there’s chess, but it’s also like old home week,” Gold said. “You get to see faces you haven’t seen in a while.”

The activities offered at the event for players of all levels include a giant chessboard painted on the Hotel Congress parking lot for guests to play with a lawn-sized chess set, beginner lessons with the Hendricks Knight Hawks Chess Team and Bookmans Entertainment Exchange, and arts and crafts with the Tucson Children’s Museum, among many other games presented by their community partners.

Lazaro noted that there’s a saying in chess that can be taken beyond the game. Simply put, “Think before you move.”

Hotel Congress is located at 311 E. Congress St., and Chess Fest runs from 3-6 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 15.


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