NUR-SULTAN (Reuters) – Kazakhstan is going through a chess boom whose poster children – unusually for its patriarchal society – are young female players who have far outperformed men.
A cohort of local prodigies routinely make headlines by winning international tournaments and some players such as 23-year-old Dinara Saduakassova – the highest-ranked among Kazakh women – are gaining broader prominence outside of the game.
Saduakassova has opened a chain of chess schools in the country teaching 600 children, and has become a goodwill ambassador of the United Nations Children’s Fund.
“I see this chess boom, I see so many chess centers being opened, chess being introduced at schools and I realize I have contributed to it, to making chess popular, to encouraging parents to enroll their children in chess clubs,” Saduakassova said in an interview.
“It is great because chess… is very helpful in life, she added, explaining it helps develop analytical thinking.
The former Soviet republic is No.9 in world chess body FIDE’s ranking of countries by their top 10 female players, up from 28 a decade ago. For both male and female players combined however, Kazakhstan ranks only 37. China has the top ranked women.
Kazakhstan is also among the world’s top 20 countries by female participation in chess, according to a study by Australian grandmaster David Smerdon.
He believes women may be more likely to play chess in gender-unequal countries because it is one of the few fields where they can actually compete with men, and be sure that the result is judged without discrimination.
The number of chess schools in Kazakhstan’s two biggest cities – Almaty and Nur-Sultan has jumped tenfold over the last three years, according to the local federation, with some 200,000 children and teenagers involved in organized play.
Chess is also taught in more than 200 regular schools.
Widely celebrated for their intellectual prowess, Kazakh female players defy gender stereotypes in a nation where many consider feminism a dirty word and Ulbolsyn, meaning “let there be a son”, is a legitimate name given to some girls.
“I think that today in the former Soviet Union countries the word feminism carries some negative connotations and I’d like to say that feminism is not about just fighting for women’s rights, it’s also about combating major issues such as domestic violence, child marriage, bride kidnapping, so I stand for every person’s rights to be fully respected,” said Saduakassova.
She said she does not seek profit from her schools, which were opened with a state loan for small businesses and which are free for children from poor families and those with disabilities.
It is hard to pinpoint one single reason behind the success of female chess in Kazakhstan, although being a part of the Soviet Union which had dominated the sport for decades until its collapse in 1991, might have helped.
Kazakh women outperformed men as early as the 1980s, says entrepreneur Saule Kaldybayeva, who played in the Kazakh national team at the time, before choosing to pursue a different career in the tumultuous 1990s.
Another factor could be generous financial support both from private donors and the state.
“I have been asking myself this question,” says Kaldybayeva.
“There must be something about Kazakh women.”
Additional reporting and writing by Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty; Editing by Alexandra Hudson