people of all ages play chess
The Berkeley Chess School holds regular tournaments for youth and adults. It will be the host of the first-ever U.S. Senior Women’s Champion this weekend. Courtesy: Berkeley Chess School

Since its founding in 1982, the Berkeley Chess School has overseen several major milestones for women in chess. It hosted the first girls’ and womens’ California chess championships, as well as the first regional championships for women in western states. 

U.S. Senior Womens’ Championship, Berkeley Chess School, 2622 San Pablo Ave., Friday-Sunday, Nov. 3-5

The school is poised to add a fourth landmark achievement to its list: It will host the inaugural U.S. Senior Womens’ Championship, which begins Friday evening and runs through Sunday. 

Twelve of the country’s top women chess players over 50 will square off against each other over five intense rounds. The tournament, which will be played using the Swiss system (meaning no one gets eliminated), will be streamed online and can be viewed for free in person at 2622 San Pablo Ave. Spectators watching the tournament live will be asked to place their phones on a designated table in the tournament room as part of an anti-cheating protocol. 

“I am just so chuffed that I actually was chosen to do it,” said Berkeley Chess School founder Elizabeth Shaughnessy, who has long worked to increase recognition of female chess players. Just 14% of the U.S. Chess Federation’s membership is female, according to the governing body’s website

The lineup of participants includes the Ukraine-born Anjelina Belakovskaia, who holds the title of Woman Grandmaster and is a three-time U.S. Womens’ Chess Champion; Chilean-American Beatriz Marinello, who holds the title of Woman International Master and was vice president of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) from 2010 to 2018; and Ukraine-born, Bay Area resident Natalya Tsodikova, who holds the title of Woman FIDE Master and won the California Womens’ Championship in 2019. 

Alexey Root, who holds the title of Woman International Master and who has authored several books on chess strategy and women’s chess history, will hold a book signing at 6:15 p.m. on Friday, 45 minutes before round 1 starts. 

The senior womens’ championship cost around $20,000 to organize, with support from the Eades Foundation and U.S. Chess Federation. Prize money totaling $8,000 is split among the top five winners.

Elizabeth Shaughnessy during a game of chess. Her hands are gripping her head as she looks at the board intently
Berkeley Chess School founder and executive director Elizabeth Shaughnessy focuses during a match. “If you play chess at a high level, it almost hurts your head,” she said. “The thinking is so intense and so deep, and that’s exhausting.” Credit: Courtesy of Berkeley Chess School

Shaughnessy said she embraced the opportunity to host the tournament in Berkeley because she knows firsthand the challenges older women face. 

In 1970, she was named the Irish Womens’ Chess Champion; just three years later, following the birth of her eldest daughter, Orna, she went on hiatus. She returned to competition 25 years later, securing a spot on the 1998 Irish womens’ team and representing her home country in several Chess Olympiads. But she felt her skills never fully returned to where they were in her youth. 

Shaughnessy’s story is not uncommon among competitive female chess players. 

Even the legendary Hungarian chess grandmaster Judit Polgár, the only woman to have ever been a serious candidate for the World Chess Championship (open to both men and women), retired from competition to dedicate more time to her children.

“If I can get older women who have raised their children now and are wondering what to do with themselves into playing chess, it would help them see it’s not just live a long life, but it’s live with your marbles in place,” said Shaughnessy, who is 86 and credits chess for keeping her mind sharp (she still plays chess online daily). “That’s the big deal.”

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Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...