Dorsa Derakhshani, December 29, 2017
Right now in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the World Chess Championships are underway. But some world champions are noticeably absent: The Israeli players were blocked from participating when Saudi Arabia denied them visas.
Chess — a game that I have loved since I first sat down at a board — is pure. It doesn’t care about gender, ethnicity, nationality, status or politics. But too often the countries, organizations and people who enforce the rules in the world of chess are anything but.
This is a subject I know something about.
I was the second-highest-ranked player for girls under 18 in the world in 2016. I am the second-highest-ranked female chess player in Iranian history. And yet my passion for the game has taken me thousands of miles away from my home in Tehran to seek citizenship here in the United States.
From 2011 until 2015 I played for the Iranian national team. I had to follow the official Iranian dress code, which requires women to cover their hair in public. I understood that being a member of the team meant that I was an official representative of the country, so I never broke the rules. But I chafed under them.
By 2015, when I was 17 years old, it was clear to me that other things mattered more to the federation than talent. Just one example: I had won the Asian championship three times in a row when I arrived at the tournament in India in 2014. I was favored to win, given my record. Yet federation officials weren’t focused on my game, but on my clothing. On the very first day of the tournament, they told me my jeans were too tight. I told them I would not participate in the round unless they stopped scolding me.
In the end, I played and won that tournament in India. But time and time again, those in charge of the Iranian national team showed that they cared more about the scarf covering my hair than the brain under it.
Since choosing to leave the team and play chess with no strings attached, I’ve never taken a penny from the Iranian government. My parents pay for all of my expenses, including travel to tournaments. One benefit of flying solo is that I dress the way I want to. I like my outfits to reflect my mood for that day and I don’t like to dress to please others. I no longer cover my hair, including at tournaments.
To me, the choice to stop covering felt morally right, and I never felt a shred of guilt about my decision.
In 2016, I lived in Spain and played under the auspices of various European clubs. Never once did I cover my hair. Never once did I compromise my principles or my pride.
And yet, in February 2017, the Iranian chess federation announced it was barring me from playing in Iran for not wearing a hijab at a competition in Gibraltar the month before. It also barred my younger brother, who had played an Israeli player at that same competition.
The barring was baffling, since I’d already left the national team. But it sent a clear message: Independent thinkers aren’t welcome.
This September, I officially joined the United States Chess Federation and started school at St. Louis University. I write this from Columbus, Ohio, where my college team is competing in a tournament. My parents remain in Tehran.
I miss my family every second of every day, and the pain of not knowing when I’ll see them next never goes away. But their belief in me is the reason I had the strength to make this choice.
My mom was the one who taught me to read when I was only a year old. She put all her time and energy into me and my brother. She and my father taught us by example to be open minded and curious.
From a young age, I was fiercely competitive and I loved solving puzzles and reading people. My parents signed me up for chess classes when I was 6 and it immediately became an obsession. The game was a perfect fit.
My parents have always been my champions and I never wanted to leave home and live without them. But under the circumstances, they decided it was the wise decision to make — not just for my chess career, but for me as a person.
For years, they watched me struggle trying to be myself in Iran. I grew up in a society in which being exceptional, correcting your elders and generally being a smart aleck is shunned. One thing that I love about living in an open society is that I can talk straight. I never follow a script. My human interactions are just that: human. And I am free of fear of being punished for saying the wrong thing. At last, my heart and mind work in unison.
The last time I felt this kind of stability was at my high school in Tehran. The school was a haven for me, a place where I could express myself and the teachers fully respected the students. I have craved to be in a similar environment and, finally, I have found it. What’s more, I managed to join the U.S. federation in a matter of weeks — a rarity and something I remain deeply grateful for.
Unlike on the Iranian team, I am now surrounded by people who respect me as a player and don’t care or notice what I look like. Unlike on the Iranian team, where the officials could ignore a player’s earned right to play a tournament and replace that player with someone they preferred, here the rules are consistent and fair.
In this sense, America at its best reflects the best values of chess. Chess doesn’t care how old you are or what you wear. It doesn’t care about what gender you are, or how much money you have. It is blind to all of that. It cares only about merit.
That’s why I’m applying for United States citizenship and why I hope to someday represent this country in the Olympics. And it’s why barring people from the game based on their ethnicity, religion or clothing is so wrong.