Move over, Beth Harmon, the real Queen’s Gambit is here. Ashley Priore started her Pittsburgh-based nonprofit, Queen’s Gambit, when she was just 14 years old. As a chess aficionado herself, Ashley wanted to share the joys and challenges of the game with other girls. Queen’s Gambit seeks to empower young girls and women through chess, teaching them important problem solving and leadership skills along the way.
Where did your interest in chess come from?
My dad taught me to play chess when I was 4 years old. I never had a formal lesson but was able to observe how the pieces moved, and I started to beat my dad in just a few moves. Although chess was hugely popular in Pittsburgh when we were kids, the interest in chess in our community had dwindled as we grew up. I decided I wanted to teach chess and bring more girls into the game. When I was 8 years old, my mom, who worked at the local library, said that I was too young to teach lessons there. I went to my mom’s boss at the library instead and asked to teach a class. A few years later, when I was 14, I wrote all my ideas for the nonprofit down on a big piece of paper and got to work. I started to connect with schools, community centers, and local government officials to understand the climate of after school programs and learn how I could get my organization off the ground.
What kind of life skills does chess teach young girls?
Girls are often called “too emotional” or are told that they can’t play chess. We need to empower women and girls to play so we can change that standard. When I was younger, chess taught me how to sit and concentrate for long periods of time and taught me to think in different ways. In school, we’re taught to come up with one answer to a problem. In chess, however, there can be numerous answers to one problem. Chess players learn strategy, critical thinking skills, collaboration, behavioral skills, communication, and empathy. It’s hard to find a fun activity where you can learn all those emotional, social, and cognitive skills. There’s a lot of research that shows the educational benefits of chess, such as with math or testing. I think it’s important for girls to learn how to be themselves in a male dominated world. I would go into tournaments and not see anyone who looks like me. Even though that was hard, it’s a great skill to know how to handle yourself in a male dominated space since so many other fields are like that.
What advice do you have for other young people who want to make a difference?
Above all else, just go for it. There are so many distractions in the world and people who will shift you off course telling you that you need to focus on other things. How can you find your passion if you’re focused on having a traditional career? Take the time you need to connect with yourself and with others to build a network of support. The hardest part about launching something on your own is sitting down and writing down a plan. Once you have the logistics together, it’s such a great feeling to make a difference in the world. Nothing has to be perfect but having confidence in yourself and your plan is everything.
We have to ask— how did you feel watching Queen’s Gambit on Netflix?
I thought it was really interesting because it’s very different from other chess portrayals I had seen. All of the chess moves they used were correct and it was great to have a woman in chess being highlighted. The acting, score, and fashion were all amazing, and if I wasn’t a chess player I probably wouldn’t have noticed the problems with it. I found it to be somewhat frustrating because it didn’t accurately portray what it’s like to be a woman in chess. Beth had so much support and was celebrated for her talent, which wouldn’t happen in today’s chess world, much less the chess world of several decades ago. I wish that it hadn’t given women this false sense of security, because there is still a lot of sexism in chess culture that needs to be addressed. If I get a handshake from a man after a match it’s a really big deal. Normally there’s a lot of horrible name calling and disrespect going on while you’re playing or after the game. I’m glad that the press around the show has sparked a new interest in chess, but it definitely wasn’t perfect.