Women hold their own in chess

By Gene Johnson

Associated Press

SEATTLE — When the organizers of the U.S. Chess Championship decided to make this year’s event coed, there were some questions about how the women would do.

Jennifer Shahade put them to rest.

The 21-year-old New York University student had an outstanding tournament, earning a draw against the top-rated player in the country, Seattle’s Yasser Seirawan, and offering solid evidence that organizers made the right decision by sitting men and women at the same board.

"It’s great," said Larry Christiansen, 45, of Cambridge, Mass., who was playing a tiebreaker for the championship Sunday night. "Having segregated tournaments in this day and age, well, it’s just very hard to explain."

Christiansen, playing with black, drew against Joel Benjamin of New York in 16 moves Sunday, the last day of the nine-day tournament. The draw gave him 6.5 points.

Nick de Firmian, a California native who now lives in Denmark, beat Alex Yermolinsky of San Francisco to compile the same score.

Christiansen and de Firmian were to play a $15,000 game of speed-chess, with severe time restrictions placed on moves, for the title Sunday night. The loser was slated to get $11,000.

Shahade’s 5 points gave her the best finish among the 12 women in the tournament and $9,500 in prize money. Final overall standings had not been determined as of early Sunday evening.

Shahade, of Philadelphia, wasn’t the only woman to perform well. Lithuanian-born Camilla Baginskaite finished with 4.5 points, good for second place among the women.

The event was staged by the Seattle Chess Foundation at Seattle Center. Hoping to generate some excitement for it, Seirawan and others in the foundation dramatically changed its format.

Women and men played each other for the first time in the tournament’s 157-year history. Fifty-six players were invited, instead of the usual 10 or 12 regulars for the men’s championship and six or eight for the women’s.

The total pot of prize money doubled, to $200,000, and to prevent a repeat of last years’ three-way tie for first, organizers allowed for playoff games.

There was no bigger fan of the changes than Shahade, who finished with three wins, four draws and two losses.

"I think it’s great — well, obviously," she said. "It was more exciting. There were all these interesting matchups."

She didn’t play another woman during the tournament.

Historically, there have been fewer professional female chess players, and thus less competition. Because they have had less competition, the women generally have been rated lower than male players.

For that reason, many players say, keeping tournaments segregated has been a disservice to American chess as a whole. Some countries, including England, have already taken similar steps to integrate the game.

"This is a milestone," said John Henderson, a chess columnist for The Scotsman newspaper in Scotland who attended the event. "None of the female players are out of their depth. We can see the future of U.S. chess in this tournament."

Copyright ©2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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