She’s a Chess Champion Who Can Barely See the Board

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Have you heard this story before? Girl has a difficult start in life, discovers chess. She becomes an American champion. She is learning Russian. And now she has to find a way to come to Russia to play chess because she can’t afford it.

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

The 40-year-old Lauser was born 16 weeks early. Like many babies born this prematurely, she needed oxygen, which damaged her eyes, a condition known as premature retinopathy. One eye is completely blind; in the other she has 20/480 eyesight. Your field of vision is limited and the chess pieces appear blurry and distorted. She can tell when a space on the board is occupied, but she cannot always tell which piece it is.

If she’s playing a sighted player in a tournament, she’ll explain all of that. The biggest problem is the touch-move rule in chess, which says that you have to move a piece when you touch it.

“Whenever I need to identify a piece during a game, I lightly touch the top and say ‘identify’, not grabbing the piece, just brushing it,” she says. Aside from that, Michael Aigner, who recently was her teammate at the first online Olympics for people with disabilities, says, “Nobody can say Jessica is blind.” Blind chess players often use a tactile set, a special board with pens that they use can feel the characters without knocking them over. She doesn’t. But she needs to remember where the pieces are (unlike Beth Harmon, she has no photographic memory but strong pattern recognition skills) so it is sometimes useful to be able to identify them by touching them.

Chess has long been Luser’s refuge. She learned the game at the age of 7 when she moved from Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and Blind to a mainstream school. At that age she said, “It was just a game like Monopoly or Parcheesi.” But in seventh grade when she started at a new school in California, she had started to take the game more seriously.

“When I went to class on the first day, the first thing I saw in the back of the room were waist-high cupboards with chess sets,” says Lauser. “I knew the kids would call me ‘four eyes’ and I said, ‘Hey, maybe if I beat them they’ll finally shut up.'”

Lauser, who now lives in Kansas City, Missouri and works for the Internal Revenue Service, has lived in an astonishing number of places as her blindness has made it difficult to find permanent employment. She was homeless last year. It’s a very painful subject for her. “What frustrates me the most is that I can’t get a fair shot in life because of my birth,” she says. To maintain her Social Security disability insurance entitlement, she cannot earn more than $ 2,110 per month.

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

She later added, “I don’t want pity, I want opportunity. I just want to be the same. “

She improved her chess game on 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 got her bachelor’s degree at the age of 36.

“I would set up several sets at the same time and compete against all comers,” she says. She drew a crowd, not so much because she was blind or a woman, but because one person’s struggle against many is always fascinating. The shops nearby noticed her sales increased while she was there as people stopped to watch. “The building’s coordinator said to me, ‘I hope this won’t offend you, but we want to adopt you!'”

Because she has played so much on the street, she plays very quickly and uses openings that are often not considered healthy for tournament chess. In blitz or five-minute chess, she placed a category below the master because of her highest rating. Getting a championship title is still her goal, even though she knows the odds are against her: not many players have achieved this in their 40s. “I’m not giving up my dream,” she says.

In October, Lauser won their third consecutive US blind championship – a tournament that was played in person despite the pandemic. It had been postponed from July. Before the pandemic, Virginia Alverson, president of the US Blind Chess Association, had hoped to attract 20 participants. (There are usually about 10 players out of about 100 members.) But with the pandemic, they had to settle for three: Alverson, her roommate, Pauline Downing, and Lauser. “We felt that if Jessica was ready to travel from Kansas City to New Hampshire to defend her title, we should have some kind of tournament,” says Alverson. “It says a lot about Jessica that she wanted to come. Jessica likes to play chess. And to be honest, I wanted to see Jessica. “

This year’s Olympics for the Disabled, held on Thanksgiving weekend, was a much better known event. Originally planned for Siberia in August, it went online and attracted 60 teams from 44 countries. The US team, led by Aigner on the first board, came in tenth. Lauser started slowly, but won an important game against a player from Brazil in the final round. And she was arguably the most important player because every team had to field a player. Without them, there would have been no US 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 played all of her moves against me and I got into trouble in a few games. When she finally won on round four, my reaction was thank god someone else can see how good you are. She played the style she played against me in the Blitz and of course she won. “

Currently (subject to change) the next Olympiad is planned for Russia in 2022. Lauser would like to leave, but isn’t sure how to do it. That year, before the event in Siberia was canceled, the international chess federation FIDE offered to pay for accommodation plus 1,500 euros for travel – or about 1,800 US dollars. “Whether that would bring people to Russia and back is controversial,” says Chris Bird, FIDE event manager for the US Chess Federation. Until the pandemic is over, the association does not support teams for international events financially.

This is a familiar story for Lauser. She also qualified for the World Blinds Championship six times but was never able to participate.

In the short term, Lauser is hoping to keep her Kansas City job as well as her current apartment from which she can hear the trains rumble past on their way to and from Union Station. In the long term, she says: “My dream situation would be to earn enough money to live on, not struggle with debt and maybe one day have a home. To be able to speak 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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