She’s a chess champion who can barely see the chessboard

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Have you ever heard this story? The girl has a difficult start in life, discovers chess. She becomes champion of the United States. She is studying Russian. And now she has to find a way to get to Russia to play chess, because she can’t afford it.

No, I’m not talking about Beth Harmon, the fictional hero of the Netflix mega-bit “The Queen’s Gambit”. Meet Jessica Lauser, the reigning three-time American blind chess champion. You can call her Chessica – the nickname her math teacher gave her in eighth grade.

Lauser, now 40, was born 16 weeks premature. Like many infants born so early, she needed oxygen, which damaged her eyes, a condition called retinopathy of prematurity. One eye is completely blind; in the other, she has a 20/480 eyesight. His visual field is limited and the chess pieces appear blurry and distorted. She can tell when a square on the board is occupied, but she can’t always tell which piece it is.

When playing against a sighted player in a tournament, she will explain all of this. The biggest problem is the chess touch-move rule, which says if you hit a piece you must move it.

“If I need to identify a piece during a game, I’ll touch the top lightly and say ‘identify’, not grabbing the piece, just brushing it off,” she says. Other than that, says Michael Aigner, who was recently his teammate at the first Online Olympiad for People with Disabilities, “No one can say Jessica is blind.” Blind chess players often use a tactile game, a special chess board with pegs that allows them to feel the pieces without knocking them over. She doesn’t. But she has to remember where the pieces are (unlike Beth Harmon, she doesn’t have a photographic memory, but she has strong pattern recognition skills), so identifying them by touch is sometimes helpful.

Chess has long been Lauser’s refuge. She learned the game at age 7, when she transferred from Arizona Public Schools for the Deaf and Blind to a regular school. At that age, she says, “it was just a game like Monopoly or Parcheesi.” But by seventh grade, when she started at a new school in California, she had started to take gambling more seriously.

“When I walked into class on day one, the first thing I saw at the back of the room were waist-high cabinets with chess sets on top,” says Lauser. “I knew the kids were going to call me ‘Four-Eyes’ and I said ‘Hey maybe if I beat them they’ll shut up eventually.'”

Lauser, who now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and works for the Internal Revenue Service, has lived in an impressive number of places because his blindness made it difficult to obtain stable employment. She has been homeless for the past year. It’s a very sensitive subject with her. “What frustrates me the most is not having the right view on life, because of the way I was born,” she says. In order to maintain her eligibility for Social Security disability insurance, she cannot earn more than $ 2,110 per month.

“The limit is hard and fast,” she said. “It has kept me in perpetual poverty all my adult life, even though I have always worked. That’s why I play chess, because it helps me deal with all the things that I can’t change, especially that.

She later added, “I don’t want pity, but rather an opportunity. I just want to be equal.

She perfected her game of chess in the streets: Market Street in San Francisco, Santana Row in San Jose, Dupont Circle in Washington. Her favorite place was the student union at San Francisco State University, where she received her undergraduate degree at age 36.

“I would put on several sets at a time and face all the comers,” she says. She drew crowds not so much because she was blind or female, but because the struggle of one person against many never fails to fascinate. Nearby stores noticed that their sales increased when she was there, as people stopped to look. “The building coordinator said to me, ‘I hope you don’t mind this, but we would love to adopt you!’ “

Because she’s been playing on the streets so much, she plays really fast, using openings that are often considered misguided for chess tournaments. In blitz, or five-minute chess, her maximum score placed her one category below the master. Obtaining a master’s title is still her goal, even though she realizes the odds are stacked against her: few players have achieved that goal in their forties. “I’m not giving up on this dream of mine,” she said.

In October, Lauser won his third straight United States Blind Championship – a tournament that was held in person, despite the pandemic. It had been postponed from July. Before the pandemic, explains Virginia Alverson, president of the US Blind Chess Association, she had hoped to attract 20 participants. (Normally around 10 players come, out of around 100 members.) But with the pandemic, they’ve had to settle for three: Alverson, his roommate, Pauline Downing and Lauser. “We thought if Jessica was willing to travel from Kansas City to New Hampshire to defend her title, we should have some kind of tournament,” Alverson said. “It says a lot about Jessica that she wanted to come. Jessica loves to play chess. And frankly, I wanted to see Jessica.

This year’s Olympiad for People with Disabilities, held over Thanksgiving weekend, was a much more publicized event. Originally slated for Siberia in August, it went live and drew 60 teams from 44 countries. The American team, led by Aigner on the first board, finished tied for tenth. Lauser started slow but won a key game in the last round against a player from Brazil. And she was arguably the most important player, because every team had to field a player. Without it, there would have been no American team.

“In the middle of the tournament, after she lost the first three rounds, we played blitz chess for about an hour, just for fun,” says Aigner. “She was playing all of her games against me, and in some games I got in trouble. When she finally won in the fourth round, my reaction was, thank goodness, for someone else to see how good you are. She was playing the style she played against me in blitz, and of course she won.

Currently (subject to change) the next Olympiad is scheduled for Russia in 2022. Lauser would like to go, but she doesn’t know how she can. This year, before the event in Siberia was canceled, FIDE, the international chess federation, offered to pay for accommodation plus 1,500 euros for the trip, or about $ 1,800. “Whether this would get people to and from Russia is debatable,” says Chris Bird, FIDE Events Manager for the American Chess Federation. Until the end of the pandemic, the federation does not provide financial support to teams for international events.

For Lauser, it’s a familiar story. She also qualified for the World Blind Championships six times, but was never able to attend.

In the short term, Lauser hopes to keep her job in Kansas City, as well as her current apartment, from where she can hear trains passing to and from Union Station. In the long run, she says, “My dream situation would be to make enough money to live, not to be in debt, maybe to have a house at some point. To be able to use Russian every day, to be able to compete, to be able to help others. Maybe live in Russia, teach English and play chess.



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