While her last name may reflect noble human qualities, when it comes to playing chess, Menlo Park resident Lauren Goodkind can leave those attributes — certainly the “kind” one — at the door.
“On the chessboard, I would say I’m a mean kind of person,” she said, smiling, in a recent interview. “I’m a competitive person. It feels really good to win, so I can be mean on the chessboard. … If you’re playing chess, you’ve got to be mean, if you want to win.”
A French proverb offers these words for the kindhearted: “You cannot play at chess if you are kindhearted.” Another French source, painter, sculptor and chess player Marcel Duchamp, described chess as “the movement of pieces eating one another.”
OK, so you probably have to be mean. Ms. Goodkind, 33, apparently has what it takes, with 15 years of playing behind her and a current rating of Class A from the U.S. Chess Federation. She’s one category away from being rated an expert.
When she plays, her opponents are usually men or boys.
She says she once played entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel. At the time, he was in his mid-30s and enjoyed a chess-master rating while Ms. Goodkind was just a year out of Woodside High School and rated well below Mr. Thiel. Ms. Goodkind says she played him to a draw. “Oh, it was exciting to draw against Peter,” she says.
(Mr. Thiel has not responded to requests for comment.)
Occasionally she’ll run into a bad apple, like the time she beat an older man in Burlingame whose skill level was one rating above hers. He began swearing at her after she won, she says. “Really bad sportsmanship.”
She’s been teaching chess to Peninsula residents of all ages for about four years and is the author of the recently self-published “50 Poison Pieces,” a 217-page book of 50 chess puzzles. Each puzzle asks the beginning player to analyze a situation in which capturing a vulnerable piece is a mistake, and often a costly mistake.
“One silly move can cost you the entire game,” she says.
Chess was relief
In high school, chess served Ms. Goodkind as an escape. The arc of her life before ninth grade included working with a speech coach and spending time in special-education classes, she says. In high school, she says she was bullied because of the way she talked.
With a C+ grade point average and unable to concentrate on her schoolwork because of the bullying, Ms. Goodkind says she had no interest in taking advanced-standing or advanced-placement classes. “I didn’t really care,” she says. “My classmates were really mean to me.”
The weekly chess club offered her a way past the misery. “Chess helped me get through high school. It felt good to win and I felt happy beating other people,” she says. “Everybody is smart in their own way.”
She graduated in 2002 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in communications from Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont.
Women and chess
Playing other women is something she especially appreciates, but it doesn’t happen often. “I hope to see more women and girls playing chess,” she says.
Most of the top players in competitive chess are men. At tournaments, she says, the number of women players is usually less than 2 percent.
“A woman can beat any man,” says Alexandra Kosteniuk, a Russian grandmaster and author of “Diary of a Chess Queen,” published in 2010 by Mongoose Press.
Ms. Kosteniuk says the challenges of attracting women and girls to chess are like the challenges in other areas, including physics, math and being an astronaut. The key, she says in a 2016 interview at the World Chess Hall of Fame in Saint Louis, Missouri, is creating more chess clubs that are friendly to girls and more programs to support them.
Asked about women mixing it up with men in a milieu in which men outnumber women, Ms. Goodkind had a simple reply: “Women are strong. We can play chess, too.”
Judit Sztaray is the executive director of the nonprofit, BayAreaChess Inc., and the mother of three chess-playing girls. At BayAreaChess, she is organizing girls-only events to give them a better chance of winning titles.
She says she sees no differences between girls and boys in their ability to play. “The value of learning chess is universal,” she says, “especially among the young in that their brains and capabilities are still developing.”
Resistance from men to the idea of playing against women is “very, very rare,” she says, though boys do tend to tease girls about it. “I have to say that generally kids who are playing chess are the more civilized people,” she says.
Chess is a civilized game then? She laughed. “Depends on who you ask,” she says. “Mentally, it is a brutal game. It’s win or lose.”
Avoid silly moves
Skilled chess players typically think two or three or four moves ahead, which takes practice. A lot of practice. With her puzzles, Ms. Goodkind gets the readers on the road by asking that they think just one move ahead. And avoid moving without thinking.
An inner Q-and-A about upcoming moves for you and your opponent, and whether they can succeed, should become second nature, she says.
“You have to focus,” she says. “That’s the key to playing chess.”
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