This 18-year-old wants more girls to play chess and then change the world |
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Aaron Aupperlee
Ashley Priore, 18, of Shadyside, plays chess with students from St. Edmund's Academy in Squirrel Hill on May 31, 2018.

Ashley Lynn Priore knew she had me beat by my second move.

But that’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

Priore, 18, has been defeating players decades older than her at chess since she was 4.

Priore is ranked among the top 1,500 chess players in the country. She is the founder of The Queen’s Gambit Chess Institute, which teaches chess to children, especially girls. Later this month, Priore will take the stage at TEDxPittsburgh for a talk about how chess can create economic and political change. And this weekend Priore is hosting the Pittsburgh Chess Conference.

Priore, who lives in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood, recently graduated high school from The Ellis School and is preparing for her first year at the University of Pittsburgh.

“It’s not only about getting the game out there, it’s about using it to its fullest potential,” Priore said.

Priore and I set up a chessboard last week at an outside table at Bakery Square. She sat across from me, smiling as she methodically picked off my pieces. She answered a slew of questions about the future of chess, about women in chess, about the good that chess can bring and why it is important for kids to learn the game.

“A lot of times people talk about the educational benefits, and I could go on for days about all the educational benefits with chess. It helps with strategy, math, STEM, even the humanities,” Priore said, cornering my king for an early check. “But one of the things Queen’s Gambit (Institute) likes to do is really show that it’s for economic and political change.”

Economically, kids that play chess tend to be more creative and earn better jobs, Priore said.

Politically, Priore is not only challenging the male dominance in chess with her focus on bringing more girls and women into the game, but she’s also using chess to empower girls and women to use the confidence and strategy chess teaches in society.

“One move can effect the whole game,” Priore said.

My one move was my second. I brought my bishop out, but not far enough, blocking pawns and not using the move for any offensive advantage. That was when Priore knew she had me beat.

Priore asks her students, many of whom live in low-income neighborhoods, about what they want to change in their neighborhoods. They talk about the barriers and challenges to making those changes and how they can overcome them. It’s a lot like chess, Priore said. The goal is checkmate but the game is how to get there.

“This is what you want in life, and how can you get it with the circumstances that you have,” Priore said. “This is what makes it different than all other games, because some games can be really specific about what they do, but chess can do everything, and I think that’s why it’s so important.”

Through teaching chess in some Pittsburgh’s most distressed communities, Priore has learned about the people living there and the problems they face. In areas such as Wilkinsburg and Homewood, kids want more to do during the summer. In other areas, tensions exist between new immigrants and long-time city residents, Priore said. She brought the immigrants and long-time residents in Pittsburgh’s 4th Council District together over games of chess to talk about their issues.

About 50 of those students will face off against each other in a tournament during the Pittsburgh Chess Conference on Friday and Saturday at Pitt.

I found it difficult to talk and play chess at the same time. I would pause my questioning as I considered a move, fire off my next query to Priore and try to balance listening to her answer with studying the board and figuring out what to do next.

Priore had no problem.

“I like it. It’s fun,” she said.

Priore learned the game by watching her family play. Her parents and older brothers all played. Priore, the youngest, felt like she was missing out on the fun. She finally asked her dad to play against her.

“I beat him in like four moves or less,” Priore said. “I was 4.”

Priore and her brothers were homeschooled. Chess was their sport.

At tournaments, Priore was often the only girl. Boys snickered. Some refused to play her. Those who did often lost.

Priore started The Queen’s Gambit Chess Institute at 14. She wanted to make chess available to everyone.

The Queen’s Gambit is a famed opening, a series of first moves, in chess. The player sacrifices a pawn to get the queen out and in action early.

Priore didn’t like the opening early on. She didn’t like sacrificing a piece.

“But then I realized you gain something as you go forward,” she said. “You gain position.”

But the moves don’t come without consequence. With the queen out so early, the player has to be careful to not lose it.

The analogy to Priore’s life is near perfect. She’s sacrificed much to pursue chess, countless hours playing and practicing, weekends at chess tournaments, homework squeezed in between lessons around town. Priore tries to play at least one game of chess a day, even if it is against herself or a computer.

“Chess mirrors life. It can be a maker space for people. It’s a small world,” Priore said, alluding to the theme of this year’s TEDxPittsburgh event, Small Worlds. “It’s a space where we can really test our ideas and there’s really no harm because you can always play another chess game.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected], 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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