Iranian International Master Dorsa Derakhshani discusses her chess career with Wikinews

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Dorsa Derakhshani in Baku, 2017 (Image: Gibraltar Chess Festival)

In February 2017, the Iranian Chess Federation announced two teenage chess players, Dorsa Derakhshani and her younger brother Borna Derakhshani, were banned from representing the national team. The federation announced their decision although Dorsa Derakhshani had previously decided and informed the chess federation she did not wish to play for Iran.

Dorsa Derakhshani is currently 21 years old and holds the International Master (IM) as well as Woman Grand Master (WGM) titles. Her brother, Borna, plays for the English Federation and holds the FIDE Master title.

Dorsa Derakhshani was banned since she did not wear a hijab, an Islamic headscarf, while competing at the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival in January 2017. Under the laws of Islamic Republic of Iran, hijab is a mandatory dress code. Her brother Borna Deraskhsani was banned for playing against Israeli Grand Master (GM) Alexander Huzman at the same tournament. Iran does not recognise the existence of Israel, and previously, Irani athletes have avoided playing against Israeli athletes.

Mehrdad Pahlavanzadeh, the president of the country's chess federation, explained the decision to ban the players saying, "As a first step, these two will be denied entry to all tournaments taking place in Iran and in the name of Iran, they will no longer be allowed the opportunity to be present on the national team." ((fa))Farsi language: ‍اولین اقدام ما این است که این افراد را از تمام مسابقاتی که در ایران و به نام ایران برگزار می‌شود، محروم می‌کنیم و دیگر شانس حضور در تیم ملی را نخواهند داشت. He further stated, "Unfortunately, something that should not have happened has happened and our national interest is paramount and we have reported this position to the Ministry of Sports." ((fa))Farsi language: ‍متاسفانه اتفاقی که نباید می‌افتاد، افتاده است و منافع ملی ما بر هر چیزی ارجحیت دارد و ما این موضع را به وزارت ورزش هم گزارش دادیم.

IM Dorsa Derakhshani, who currently studies at Saint Louis University in the United States and plays for the United States Chess Federation, discussed her chess career, time in Iran and the 2017 controversy, and her life in Saint Louis with a Wikinews correspondent.

Interview with IM Dorsa Derakhshani

IM Dorsa Derakhshani grew up in Tehran, and she had learned to read and write at a very young age because her parents were "persistent" about her education. She remarked lack of chess tournaments in a country where "women are seen as second-class citizens" was one of the challenges she'd faced living in Iran.

Her childhood

 

Could you please tell us something about yourself?

 ((Dorsa Derakhshani )) I'm a professional chess player and right now I'm a pre-med student at Saint Louis University.

 
Dorsa Derakhshani in her childhood. (Image: Dorsa Derakhshani on Instagram)

 ((WN )) What interested you in chess and who taught you this game?

 ((DD )) I got interested in chess because of my dad. He used to play in high school before the revolution in Iran. But since after the revolution chess was banned for about ten years. So he couldn't play in public, so he would just play in the house and I remember he used to play with my mom. And, yeah, that's how I learned chess.

 ((WN )) What do your parents do?

 ((DD )) My dad is a doctor, he is a pædiatrist and family medicine. My mom is a psychiatrist.

 ((WN )) How was your childhood like?

 ((DD )) I was the first child, so they, my parents put a lot of effort into teaching me a lot of different skills. So, for example, my parents really wanted me to start writing and solving puzzles as soon as possible. So when I was two-and-a-half, I finished first grade. I could do maths and read the books and write. And they kept going. So when I was a little over four, I finished fourth grade. And so they wanted me to start fifth grade when I was five but the government didn't really have any protocols for this so they didn't allow me to skip classes. And so my parents tried to fill my time with other activities such as ballet, painting, music, swimming, and eventually chess. And chess was the one thing that I [jumped for consistently] because I really liked puzzle-solving and I really liked the winning, the competition.

 ((WN )) How did you train as a kid?

 ((DD )) I always wanted to be the best at everything I was doing, and chess had the clear category of what I was best at. And I really liked that. Because for example in ballet or in painting, I was good, but, I wasn't sure what I was good at, just, was I good just for a kid my age, was I good just for the class I was in. And in chess, one of the first tournaments that I played, I won the Girl's Under-8 National Championship. So I knew clearly, I felt like clearly I was best at that. And, yeah, I was very ambitious and competitive, I don't know why.

 ((WN )) When did you realise you were a serious talent?

 ((DD )) My middle and my high school, I went to the organisation which is called SAMPAD . It's an acronym for, hold on, let me look that up. It's called the National Organization for Extraordinary something. I will look that up in just a second. So I knew that I had the ambition and I had the brain because I used to be a TV host when I was a kid and it was always very easy for me. It wasn't very stressful. I didn't have to do too many preparation because of the confidence that my parents gave me. Ah, the name of the school that I went to, on Wikipedia, it's National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents. So we had to do an exam, somewhat like an SAT, in fifth grade. And we would get into these schools and it was very hard to balance school and chess. And that's around the time that I stopped playing music and I stopped giving concerts and just started to focus on school and chess.

 
GM Judit Polgár, one of Derakhshani's inspirations. (Image: VanWiel)

 ((WN )) Who inspires you in chess?

 ((DD )) I really liked the three sisters of Polgár, 'specially Judit. Just because she kept on going and she didn't just want to be the best female chess player. She was in top 10. She was one of the first to break the barriers of gender, especially in chess society. So yeah, she would be.

 ((WN )) Tell me about your most memorable tournament.

 ((DD )) She [Judit Polgár] played so many. She hasn't been playing much in [the] past few years because she is focused on family, which I also respect a lot because I am a big family-person myself, so I completely understand that. Her most memorable, it's really hard to pick. She played so many high class tournaments.

 ((WN )) I meant your most memorable.

 ((DD )) Oh. My. I want to go with my first time, the first tournament that I won. The Iranian National Championship for girls Under-8. Because that was one of the changing moments and I remember I wore like a princess dress and a tiara because it felt like a very powerful time for me.

 ((WN )) What is your favourite game? Could be yours, or could be someone else's.

 ((DD )) Favourite game. Um, I play a lot of online chess and lot of good positions and good tactics happens there but I don't really know the name of the opponents.

 ((WN )) Tell me about the challenges you had faced as a chess prodigy living in Iran.

 ((DD )) Well one of the big challenges was that there weren't enough tournaments. Because in Iran, women are seen as second-class citizens, so, I wasn't allowed, and women weren't allowed to play, in open tournaments. And there weren't enough women chess players to organise a big event. And so when I was growing up and I was eight, we started — my parents started to request that okay, she is a good child, she should be able to play in male-based tournaments, basically. And they weren't even female tournaments, they were just tournaments. And so when I was eight, and when I was ten, they allowed the children, like the girl childs to play, which was kind of awkward. And then they came up with more flexible rules, like if you are in the national team, you can play whatever tournament you want, if you win your category. But still. It was very sexist.

 ((WN )) You mentioned you were a TV anchor as a kid. Tell us more about that.

 ((DD )) Oh, so, one day I was singing and dancing in a mall, just, I don't know why, I liked that, when I was two. And a TV producer saw me and really liked my confidence. So they gave me the opportunity to co-host a TV show for kids. And to try [to] inspire and motivate them to read and write to do other activities. And I did that up until I was six years old, a little over two months and I was six. And I quit because they wanted me to change the way I was dressing and start wearing hijab and start not wearing dresses and stuff. And I thought that was stupid. So I didn't go anymore and my parents fully supported my decision to stop the co-hosting.

 ((WN )) You also learned to read at a very young age.

 ((DD )) Yep. Yeah that was all due to my parents. They were very persistent with my education.

 ((WN )) How was your personality like, in your childhood?

 ((DD )) Oh, my mom sometimes makes fun that I was like a child robot, that I was always saying what I was thinking. And I was always very confident and just talking and trying to, I quote, she said, "boss people around" — as a two-year-old, which was kind of adorable. [laughs] But I was always very competitive and, yeah: that was something that my parents gave me. My parents [... to] have that potential to want to inspire other people.

Her decision to not play for the Irani Chess Federation

Having won multiple tournaments as a kid, IM Dorsa Derakhshani decided not to play for the Iranian Chess Federation saying "it wasn't a good fit" for her.

 ((WN )) Early in your life you had decided you didn't want to play for Iran.

 ((DD )) Yep. I made that decision around [...] two-thousand, so 2011, 12, 13, 14 were the years that I won Asia National Championships and Youth National Championships. And I just didn't really fit with any of the teammates or any of the people from my federation. And they all expected so much time and energy to try and, for the lack of better words, kiss their asses. I just don't have a better word to put there. And so I refused to do that because I was busy with school and busy with chess, and I refused to go there and sit and have weekly meetings about I don't even know what, not chess-related. So it wasn't a good fit for me.

 ((DD )) And I was looking for immigration even before that because most of my family lives outside of Iran. Not my immediate family but my aunts and cousins from both of my parents' sides. So we were looking for immigration from early on, but I wanted to see if I could grow as a chess player within chess in Iranian Chess Federation but, when I was sure that it was not a good fit, is when I started to look for another federation and decided not to play for Iran anymore. And the last time I officially played for Iran in an official tournament was 2015. And in 2016, I immigrated to Spain to see if that federation and country would be a good fit for to live in and play chess for. But when I was trying to make a decision if I should transfer my federation to Spain or stay with Iran, I received scholarship offers from US colleges and I decided to immigrate here and play for US federation.

 ((WN )) If Iran did not impose the compulsory observation of the headscarf, would you have, in that case, chosen to play for Iran?

 ((DD )) I don't think it was about the headscarf because that's just a piece of clothing. I mean, every job has a dress-code. So it wasn't just about the headscarf, it was more about the way the society viewed women and how hard I as a woman had to fight. I had to work like ten times harder than a man just to be seen as half as good as him, while I understood more and it should have been different. It should — I mean the women face inequality in so many places but I decided instead of fighting in a country where I wouldn't have enough voice, I would immigrate to another country where I would have a better voice and a better future.

 ((WN )) Back then, did your younger brother Borna also decide not to play for Iran?

 ((DD )) He also wanted to immigrate, but he wanted to see which country. He wasn't sure — Because my family still do have a pending immigration case to come to the US. So he wasn't sure if he would want to wait until after immigration to start playing for the US, or he would want to play for a European Federation. But since he is going to boarding school in UK, he switched his federation very quickly.

 ((WN )) When did you inform the Iranian Chess Federation about your decision?

 ((DD )) Early 2016. Because they wanted me to play different tournaments for them, team tournaments. Because I would be their solid second board because I was Women Grand Master and then International Master in 2016. So they wanted me to represent their country. And I flat completely refused and I said that I'm in Spain and I'm working to transfer federations and I don't want to play for Iran anymore. So I was in, for example, in 2016 [chess] Olympiad in Baku, I refused to play for Iran National Team and I chose to work as press for the French Chess websites. And I was there. I just didn't play for the team. I went there on my own and I met with my family.

 ((WN )) So how long did you represent Iran at the chess tournaments?

 ((DD )) Well, I stopped representing them in 2015. And, well, I did play in an international tournament in 2006. So I played World Youths in 2006, so I would say nine years? Less that ten years, yeah.

 
Iranian WGM Atousa Pourkashiyan with a headscarf. Head scarf is mandatory for all Iranian women after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. (Image: Stefan64)

 ((WN )) Had the federation ever warned you to cover your hair?

 ((DD )) Well, I quote, they said "Even if you are not wearing the headscarf, like on your head, at least have it around your neck", and I just thought that was extremely stupid because they [the Iranian Chess Federation] wanted this to cover their asses. So if there was a picture, they would say, "Oh, it [the head covering] just fell". And it was like, if I don't believe in something, why would I bother faking it? And that whole idea of, like, "put the scarf around your neck and if somebody sees, just, like, put it up, put it down". That was extremely stupid. But that's something that other female chess players in the team have been doing for years. And most of them have already immigrated out of Iran anyways.

 ((WN )) Were there any other regulations [Iranian] female chess players had to adhere to?

 ((DD )) Oh yeah, well the classic "no parties", "no alcohol", "no contact with men", blah blah blah, which we all broke anyways, but.

 ((WN )) After deciding you won't play for Iran, what did you do?

 ((DD )) I, in 2015 I was trying to figure out which federation to go, which country to represent. Switzerland was one of my choices. But it [fell] through just because — it was very complicated. I did want to represent the country of Switzerland, and they did want me to represent them. So I would be their highest female [rated player]. I would be their board one. But it was really hard to fit a good educational system for me and I didn't speak other languages besides English and I needed to be able to speak German or French or something else in Switzerland to be able to live and that was a big problem for me. So I ended up moving to Spain and seeing if that would be the country I would keep living in and I only lived there for a year before I decided to move to US.

Her career in chess

 
Dorsa Derakhshani at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain. Montcada is just a few kilometres away from Barcelona (Image: Dorsa Derakhshani on Instagram)

 ((WN )) How was your time in Montcada Chess Club?

 ((DD )) Very nice. They were very nice people. They helped with a lot of things. They helped me find a place. They helped me find good tournaments. They had good tournaments themselves. I think one of the big tournaments didn't happen last year, but hopefully it will happen this year. Yeah, it was a very growing chess club.

 ((WN )) After immigrating to the US, have you been to Spain again?

 ((DD )) No I haven't had the chance because mainly I am very busy with studying because I am pre-med student and the other problem was that I didn't have my green card at the time. I got my green card last summer. And I went to South America for a tournament: Panama. I also went to Munich for the TEDx talk last summer, and no I haven't been to Spain.

 ((WN )) Tell me about your success at the Iranian National Youth under-8 tournament.

 ((DD )) I don't really remember much from the games. But I do remember I scored eight wins and one loss. And that's how I won the tournament. I didn't really have a coach while the other girls did. And I don't really remember anything else besides the closing ceremony and how much I scored.

 ((WN )) Tell us about your participation in the Asian Junior Championships.

 ((DD )) That's actually around the time I started to think of chess as more possible career. So the first, 2011, was in Philippines. I got the first runner-up. Second one was 2012 in Sri Lanka, I believe. Yeah. And I won that one. The third one was in Iran. Yeah, in 2013. I won that. '14 was in India: New Delhi. After I won that, I just didn't play in the Asian Championship in 2015 anymore, just because I kind of won it a few times already.

 ((WN )) Were you supposed to observe the regulations of Iranian Chess Federation at the Asian Junior Championships as well?

 ((DD )) Yeah, because those were the years that I was trying to figure out if this lifestyle is for me or not. So, yeah.

 ((WN )) What are some of your career highlights?

 ((DD )) One of the big things that I actually realised yesterday when I was reading another article was: in 2016, I got my FIDE trainer title. And even to this date, I am the youngest FIDE trainer in the world which is kind of cool, because that was like four years, almost four years ago. I received the titles of Woman Grand Master and International Master in 2016. 2016 was a big year. And I won so many [...] prizes in international tournaments. I played for different leagues, European Leagues, such as Switzerland, Belgium, Spain. And I am a part of the British League. I just don't really think it is safe to travel right now, otherwise I would be playing for tournaments. Ah, let's see, I did play in US [Chess] Championship 2018 and I will be playing in US [Chess] Championship this year, but it has been postponed because of the [COVID-19] pandemic. But I am supposed to play in it when we know the dates, anyways. I think those are some of the ones that I run over just right now.

Her games

 
The French Defence opening 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 (Image: acagastya)

 ((WN )) What is your strategy while playing against players rated 2500+ points?

 ((DD )) It really depends on the colour and the preparation that I do. But I usually just try to play solid and wait for opponent's mistakes while trying to put my pieces in the best places possible. So that's something that I do regardless of who I'm playing. But the opening preparations might change depending on the opponent's rating.

 ((WN )) How has your strategy and game improved over the years?

 ((DD )) Well, my endgame is really improved when I started to read Mark Dvoretsky's books. And, those really helped. But I still have a long way to go to feel completely confident in my endgame skills.

 ((WN )) What is the opening you prefer?

 ((DD )) I really do like to play against French Defence. Just I've always had a pleasant position and I just have so much space and it really fits with my style. So yeah, I really like to play against French Defence.

 ((WN )) And which chess opening you really don't like?

 ((DD )) When I am black and they play something like Catalan against me because it is such a boring and without-any-soul position. I can't really get that creative and everything is just, well sitting and waiting, basically.

Anna Muzychuk in 2011 (Image: Andreas Kontokanis)
Mariya Muzychuk in 2013 (Image: Przemysław Jahr)
Muzychuk sisters

 ((WN )) Who is the toughest opponent you ever faced?

 ((DD )) It's kind of hard to say, let me keep thinking for a little. I played the Muzychuk sisters Anna and Mariya in a round-robin tournament in late 2016. They were, I think they were one of the toughest ones.

 ((WN )) Do you prefer over-the-board games or Internet chess?

 ((DD )) A mix of both.

 ((WN )) Which time control do you prefer?

 ((DD )) Standard.

 ((WN )) How do you prepare for a tournament?

 ((DD )) It kind of depends. Because sometimes the tournament is really, the one thing I try to do is to match my time. So for example, US Championship is going to be held everyday at 1 pm sharp, so I try to do lot of trainings at 1 pm. Just because I want my brain to be prepared for that 1 pm chess-time instead of 1 pm nap-time. So I think that's one of the big things that I always try to do. If I have an important tournament and if I have the chance on the time to prepare for some of the physical and mental habits like this, I try to always do those. I also try to find a coach that I am comfortable with, and who has enough time for me, and just figure out my issues and try to fix them. Like if there is an opening issue, endgame issue, just something that I am missing about how to be better in chess.

Chess in general and other players

 ((WN )) What do you think of the prevalence of chess engines?

 ((DD )) They're good but I think it's kind of also disturbing to some extent because when you are analysing a line, you don't use your own brain as much anymore and you just rely on the computer's brain. Which is not necessarily a bad thing but it just kind of takes away the beauty of putting your brain to work.

 ((WN )) What do you think is the future of chess?

 ((DD )) It's kind of hard to say. I'm hoping that — I have a lot of different suggestions from different Grand Masters and Women Grand Masters about the fact that in FIDE's rules there is a difference between woman title and open titles and not everybody is a big fan of that. And we were having a discussion just in the kitchen at the Saint Louis Chess Club with the other Grand Masters about the pros and cons and they were saying that, as pros, some of the women in developing countries when they achieve the titles, that is like a really huge deal for them even though it is a woman title and it doesn't make sense to call something like a Woman Title and another Open Title. So there are a lot of controversies going around, so that as a pro that these women are being helped because they achieved the title. And another con is that, well, this doesn't feel right. It seems you are telling women that you are only good enough for women titles and that's — it's really wrong because it creates the ideas that men think better, men make better decisions, blah blah blah. I talked a lot in my TEDx talk last summer, that that's not true and this is just something that we have been told by society and by history. And that is something we should work to change but I hope that chess society will be able to come up with better ideas 'cause if I had an idea about what to do about chess society, I would find the right person to pitch it to, I just don't, right now. But I know there is a problem, I just don't have a solution for it.

 
From left: GM Alejandro Ramírez, IM Dorsa Derakhshani, GM Fabiano Caruana and GM Yasser Seriwan. Fabiano Caruana is one of the two current players who influence Derakhshani, the IM said. (Image: Dorsa Derakhshani on Instagram)
 
From left, FM Borna Derakhshani and his sister IM Dorsa Derakhshani. (Image: Dorsa Derakhshani on Instagram)

 ((WN )) Which current players influence you the most?

 ((DD )) I am a big fan of both Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana because there are both really great chess players. And Fabiano Caruana, he does live in Saint Louis, so I know him more than I know Magnus Carlsen. And their personalities: like how different their personalities are and again, and at the same time, how they both are number 1 and 2 in chess and they're both the best players of this generation. That's something really interesting to me: not just their game, but how they think, and how they behave and, yeah. I tend to analyse people which gets me in trouble sometimes. [laughs]

 ((WN )) Who is your favourite opponent?

 ((DD )) My favourite opponent? My brother.

 ((WN )) How is he doing by the way?

 ((DD )) He is good. He helped me install an anti-virus on my laptop yesterday, so, kudos for that!

 ((WN )) He is in England right now, right?

 ((DD )) Yes.

The 2017 Gibraltar Chess tournament and getting banned from the Iranian National Chess team

 
IM Dorsa Derakhshani vs GM Damian Lemos in the second round in the Gibraltar Chess Tournament in 2017 (Image: Gibraltar Chess Festival)

 ((WN )) Okay, tell me about the Gibraltar Chess Tournament.

 ((DD )) It was a really good tournament. I played very well. There was just one game where I could have played better. But I had very good results. I was drawing higher-rated Grand Masters and I was winning the lower-rated opponents, and I had a very nice tournament. It was a very high-class tournament and the organisers were super nice. And I was there with my mom and my brother, which made it even more nice. What else? I just really liked the atmosphere. I would like to go back and play again when I get some chance, but unfortunately, it's been during my exam every single year so far. But yeah, it went very smoothly. I played very well, I really liked it. It was just really great.

 ((WN )) Were you satisfied with your performance in the tournament?

 ((DD )) I feel like I could have done a little bit better, but yeah, overall I was, I played very well, and I really liked it.

 ((WN )) But it appears [as if] more happened in the media outside the tournament

 ((DD )) Oh yeah. Yeah, well, that's been kind of... interesting. Well, it wasn't right after that. It was, I played another tournament in Portugal right after, which I got sick during and I couldn't really play to my best. But I did get the best woman, anyways. Anyways, after that, I went for a vacation for about a week. And after that I went to play in tournaments in Austria right after. And that's when, I remember I didn't have Internet connection for a few hours because I was in a train ride from [...] I don't remember, a city in Germany to Austria. And during that time, during that hours I was offline, the whole hell broke lose. Well, yeah it did. And my phone started to blow up when I got Internet connection again. Just with Instagram followers and my friends messaging me where am I, if I were in Iran, if I am in Iran I should get out, and I was like, I am not in Iran, I haven't been back in Iran since I moved out in 2016 to live in Spain. But okay, I am not there and I start to follow news. And the next morning, my mom and my brother got to the hotel that we were staying at. And I explained to them what was going on and we were all extremely shocked. Because it's the timing of it, was extremely suspicious. Because the tournament [Gibraltar] happened weeks before and I was a resident of another country for more than six months. So the timing of it was extremely suspicious because the Women World [Chess] Championship was happening in Iran at that time, and all of the Iranian female players who were playing in that tournament got eliminated and the Federation was under huge scrutiny from the Iranian government and the people. And they were like, "Well, if you don't have good enough players to actually win this thing, why did you host it and why did you make us spend so much money on it?" And because a lot of the best women chess players in the world refused to play in that tournament because of their values. And they didn't want to go to a country where they are required to have a certain dress code and they wanted to be comfortable when they were playing the tournament. So that was a whole big mess. And when the story about me broke out that I was not wearing a scarf and I was representing, whatever they were saying, all of the attention shifted to me and my brother instead of the Iranian Chess Federation mistakes in hosting the tournament.

 ((WN )) You weren't living in Iran at that time. You weren't representing Iran. You had made it very clear you didn't want to play for the federation. And yet they decide to sensationalise this banning of yours?

 ((DD )) Yep. That's why it was very idiotic and seemed more conspiracy rather than they actually were offended by my actions. Because they knew I weren't there. They knew I was living in another country and looking to change federations and I've told them that I won't be representing them in official tournaments any more and the whole thing was very idiotic. And more like a trying for a distraction rather than being actually offended. Because if they were actually offended, I would have probably understood that, I guess? But they weren't, because there was no reason to be offended. I wasn't in the country, I was a resident of another country and that was very interesting the way they dealt with it. And the fun fact is that if I was actually in Iran when the news broke, I would most likely still be in jail for I don't know what. So even if I was the resident of another country, citizen of another country, because the laws in Iran don't really follow much of human rights. Yeah, most likely I would still be rotting somewhere. Yeah.

 ((WN )) How did you cope with that?

 ((DD )) With the fact that I would never go back to the country I was from? I kind of expected that anyways, because I am against the government and everything it represents. I don't have enough power to speak up to more authorities and do much. So I just decided to leave the toxic environment. And to live in somewhere that I'm respected for my beliefs and my values rather than being told to shut up and just deal with [the world] as it is. So I didn't like living in Iran because of the Government anyways. So I was okay with my never going back when I moved out to go live in Spain. But, yeah, I still miss it. I still have dreams about my home and a lot of the places in Iran that I went to. But I accepted that I am never going back.

 ((WN )) How did you parents react to this?

 ((DD )) My mom is a huge planner. So she had planned for something to happen because she always likes to have a plan A, B, C, D, be like just continuous — she is a huge planner. And so she had somewhat prepared for the media scrutiny. And we decided not to give any interviews, because we didn't know at the time what was going to happen. My brother hasn't completed his immigration for his boarding school at that time. He was still working on it. And they probably realised that, all right, I was living in Spain anyways, so I would just live the life as I had. And staying focused on finalising my brother's immigration process. And we all decided to talk to one media at that [time]: chess.com. And I told that I am not ready to talk anything political, I want to be respectful and I want to just tell my side of the story. And they said they really liked that I agreed to just talk to someone. But after a few months, I was ready to talk about the political aspects of things. And I felt that I understood that more. So I wrote a piece for The New York Times and I talked to more media outlets about this whole thing.

 ((WN )) Did the Iranian chess players reach out to support you?

 ((DD )) Very very few. And that was something that I expected to be more. Because all of my high school friends, actually most of my high school, just the class that I had: they reached out and they have a group chat and they were really supportive, my high school friends. But from the chess players, I think, Iranian Chess players, very few, maybe not even five or ten reached out to show their support which was very shocking to me.

The Iranian government's hesitation of Iranian players playing against Israeli athletes

 ((WN )) Your younger brother was also banned by the [Iranian] Chess Federation at the same tournament, playing against an Israeli Grand Master. He was fourteen. He was just a kid.

 
Protest in Iran against Israel (Image: Ali Khara)

 ((DD )) Yeah. They keep making a big deal about playing against Israel. But the funny thing is that that tournament was in 2017 but in 2015, we both played against Israel in another tournament and nobody seemed to care, in the old tournament. I don't understand why they make it such a big deal. I understand that they don't recognise Israel as a country, which is super idiotic to me but anyways. And just because they don't recognise it, they want to pretend that it doesn't exist. So we are not supposed to play with it. Something like that. Which just doesn't make any logical sense.

 ((WN )) I just feel he shouldn't have been dragged into this [situation].

 ((DD )) Yeah. That's completely true. He shouldn't have. Because they just wanted a story and, well, the thing is that the first interviewer who talked to the [Iranian] Chess Federation's president, he questioned about my brother first. And then put me in as "And her sister also doesn't wear a scarf". But my story became more popular because it was something more relatable to the people outside of chess. Because just playing with Israel doesn't really make much sense why is a big deal to other, to foreign people rather than not being banned for not wearing scarf. But yeah, they made a big deal about him first, and then me, in Iran, in the interview that they had.

 ((WN )) Do organisers of the chess tournaments take measures not to pair Israeli players against Iranians?

 ((DD )) They used to, but, they stopped that since —. Yeah, they used to, and they used to call it "forbidden pairing". But I think in about a year or two ago, when one of the Iranian chess players refused to play [against Israeli player] and when he went back to Iran, he became like a national hero. He didn't win the tournament. He didn't really do anything. He just refused to play against an opponent which is very wrong in any sportsmanship manner, but anyways. He became a national hero. He scored a lot of financial and media attention. He met with like the Iranian Government. Yeah, it was like, just because he didn't play, he gained so much from it. And so that's something that the FIDE refused to play by anymore and they, FIDE, made this rule that, yup, you can't play, we are not going to help you with your not playing against the opponent and then going back to your country and scoring all this financial, and attention.

 
File photo of GM Ehsan Ghaem-Maghami. Ghaem-Maghami in 2016 chose not to play against Israeli Grand Master in Basel, Switzerland, Mehr News reported. (Image: Armin Zahed)

 ((WN )) In 2016, in a Swiss Chess tournament at Basel, Iranian Grand Master Ehasn Ghaem-Maghami refused to play against an [Israeli] player. Do you remember that?

 ((DD )) Yeah, I was there. I was playing the same tournament. From what I remember, he faked showing up late. He showed up few minutes after the time control has already made the opponent win by time and pretended he was late for whatever reason and, blah-blah. They tend to fake illnesses and get some doctor notes. And that's what they did, some of the boys did in World Junior Championship. And, yeah, it's an ugly situation. Because for the players, it's a lose-lose. If you don't play, you won't be respected as a chess player in the chess society. But if you do play, you'd be under huge scrutiny from the country; the government. So it's a lose-lose. And that's, from what I understood that was one of the deal breakers for [Alireza] Firouzja and that's why one of the reasons that he immigrated and stopped representing Iran as well.

 ((WN )) I must say, on Lichess he [Alireza Firouzja] has been terrific.

 ((DD )) Yeah! I have seen him playing a lot of online tournaments and streaming and he's very cool, I'm very glad for the kid.

More about her life in the US

 ((WN )) Does your family still live in Tehran?

 ((DD )) My family, yeah. They still do.

 ((WN )) What are the things you miss the most about living in Tehran?

 ((DD )) The food. I really really really like Persian food and it is kind of really hard to find it here. And I miss my mother's home-cooked meals rather than restaurants. And she can't just ship me food. It would be awesome if she could. [laughs] Um, what else? I really like spending time with family and friends. Which, right now, everything is just online. So. I still do have some connections. But.

 
The administrative building of the Saint Louis University. (Image: Wilson Delgado)

 ((WN )) Why did you choose to leave Spain, and what would you have done if you hadn't received the scholarship?

 ((DD )) Well, I really knew that I would continue in education, 'cause I didn't want to play chess and not go to university. I wanted to have an option. But I didn't want to play chess because I didn't have options. That is a big thing for me: I wanted to have gone to college and have a degree and see if I want to pursue a career out of chess or to choose chess. So I wanted to have that choice. So I was looking into going to universities in US anyways, and before I did my SATs, I talked to two different universities: Saint Louis University [SLU] and UTT [University of Texas at Tyler]. And they both offered very great scholarships. And the one factor that I, kind of like made my decision was the summer housing. Because I wouldn't have anywhere to go and live. I don't have the luxury of going back to my family for a summer. And I just hated the idea of every summer having to find a friend and just like being living with someone for three months. So SLU offered to cover the summer housing and I would be on campus dorms — apartments — and that was the big decisive factor for me.

 ((WN )) Did the Iranian Government cause any trouble when you accepted the scholarship or decided to play for the US Chess Federation?

 ((DD )) No. No; well, they didn't really have a say in this switching the federation part, specially because I talked to FIDE. I emailed FIDE and I informed that I would like to switch federations without Iranian being involved because they already disrespected me enough and I don't want to have to face them and FIDE agreed. And I simply switched federations first to FIDE, and then from FIDE to US.

 ((WN )) Previously you had mentioned, "no federation is perfect". Is there anything that Iranian Chess Federation gets right?

 ((DD )) Well, I think you are referring to the interview, that video interview that I had in Baku. Well, I wasn't ready to talk realistically about the Iranian Federation and I didn't want to be disrespectful because at the time, they hadn't disrespected me. And I wanted to keep decent relations with them. And that's why I said "no federation is perfect". I was hoping that someone would read between the lines and see that I am not happy with the federation.

 ((WN )) How was the federation in treating their athletes?

 ((DD )) Well, not very good. Most of the student athletes didn't really have financial support or coaches. So it was just like you were basically on your own. And there was some help to send people to tournaments but it was no where nearly enough to see who has what potential.

 ((WN )) Should elementary schools teach and encourage students to play chess?

 ((DD )) Yes, definitely.

 ((WN )) And what are some of the advantages in doing that?

 ((DD )) One of the biggest things is that you learn to plan. You learn to strategise. You learn to think ahead. And I think that those are some of the basic things you learn from chess. If you want to win at any game in chess, you need to be able to have confidence to actually mate your opponent. You need to have time management. And you need to be able to strategise and plan ahead, see what you opponent want to do.

 ((WN )) What are some of the chess strategies you have applied in your real life?

 ((DD )) Oh, this one I did say in my TEDx talk; I'm gonna use that. I strategically manuevered and removed myself from the toxic environment of the Iranian Chess Federation and I moved to Spain and then US. That was good strategic maneuvering.

 
Derakhshani in her childhood with a puppy. (Image: Dorsa Derakhshani on instagram)

 ((WN )) What is the one thing, other than chess, that you are an expert in?

 ((DD )) My cat. I am very good with animals.

 ((WN )) What are the key things you learned living in Iran?

 ((DD )) I learned to fight for what I want. I learned that nothing actually comes easy. You have to work for it. And I learned that even though a lot of thing seem like basic human rights and logic, that's not how everybody sees it. And those are some of the things I have been struggling to deal with here in college, because for most people: they are Americans, and their families are here. And probably the most horrific thing that's happened to them was maybe they had to put a dog down. Which is sad. I understand. But still, you can't compare that to not seeing your family for years, and not being able to go back to your country. I feel like I'm like a hundred years older than the kids my age here.

 ((WN )) How has the atmosphere changed since moving to the United States?

 ((DD )) I have learned, that it is okay to be myself. I don't have to fake it to please people. I hate being a people-pleaser. I am still trying to adjust to how people see the world, because not everybody is always analysing and calculating things the way I am, because that's how I grew up. And that's how I grew up doing chess. And that's something I am still adjusting because sometimes it can be too much for my friends. [laughs] That I am always trying to see moves ahead of what they're going to do, what's going happen in their lives. And, yeah, I can understand how that might not be a pleasant thing for my friends. Because nobody like a smart-ass, so.

 ((WN )) How is life at the Saint Louis University?

 ((DD )) I have a lot of great friends. I really enjoy studying with them. I really enjoy just meeting up with them. And, I really like it here.

 ((WN )) How do you train these days?

 ((DD )) Well, everything is online. So we have been training and playing a lot of online games.

 ((WN )) Tell us about your team at the Saint Louis Chess Club.

 ((DD )) Well, the chess club is slightly different than Saint Louis University's chess team. Because the club and the team do collaborate, but the team is slightly different than the club. [...] For the first time last year, we had an all-girls team. And that was very empowering to me.

 
Derakhshani, her coach GM Alejandro Ramírez on the left and GM Robert Hess on the right. (Image: Dorsa Derakhshani on Instagram)

 ((WN )) Who coaches you there?

 ((DD )) Alejandro Ramírez.

 ((WN )) Well, how is it to have Alejandro Ramírez as your coach? How is he in person?

 ((DD )) He is very friendly. I was friends with him before I came to this college. The year we played a tournament in Denmark, 2014. And he was always a very nice person and always looking out for his friends. And yeah, he was always very nice to everybody.

 ((WN )) How do your fellow teammates describe you as a person and as a player?

 ((DD )) Everybody is quite respectful, but the ideas of gender-inequality do exist. Mainly because they are not informed enough about the biology and how human biology actually works. So I did receive questions about my TED talk and to me it seemed like they simply wanted to understand the topic more than criticise it. So they had questions like "But by statistics, men drive better, men are better in maths, men are better in chess". And I was like, so you are saying that men think better and make better decisions basically. And, they were like "I don't know enough about it, but it seems that way". And I was like, well, answer this question: If you are dying, if you are bleeding out and they take you to an emergency room and your doctor is a female, would you be like "No no, I want a male doctor. Female brain doesn't work as well." Well, you don't say that. You are glad that the woman is there to fix you. So if you can trust your life with a woman, why can't you trust a woman do think as good. [...] It is not about the gender who thinks better. It is about each individual. And they were very respectful to these topics.

 ((WN )) You had applied for the US citizenship. Has it been approved?

 ((DD )) Yeah! I got my green card last year.

 ((WN )) What is your major at the Saint Louis University?

 ((DD )) I am double majoring in biology and clinical health sciences.

 ((WN )) How do you manage to train and participate in chess tournaments with ongoing academic curriculum?

 ((DD )) Well I haven't been able to participate in as many tournaments as I would want, because I have so many exams and different classes. But I play as much as I can and the teachers are very cooperative. Because they understand that I am a professional chess player and I need to, I kind of have to play. It's like if I don't play then it's — well some of the team tournaments that we play also are university sponsored. Well, most of the tournaments we play are university sponsored, so the teachers do their best to cooperate with that as well.

 ((WN )) What is the biggest decision you have made since moving to the US?

 ((DD )) Biggest decision. Wanting to be a surgeon.

The chess federations she was associated with

 ((WN )) Have you participated in the Chess Olympiads? And are you looking forward to participating in them?

 ((DD )) I am looking forward to participating in them; I haven't represented any country because I didn't want to represent Iran, previously, and I did tell you that I was there working as press in 2016, Baku Olympiad. But I refused to participate for Iranian Federation. But I hope that some day I will be able to represent US in Olympiads.

 ((WN )) Are there any advantages of playing for any federation?

 ((DD )) No.

 ((WN )) Apart from the Olympiads, I guess.

 ((DD )) Well, here I have better stability and it's more welcoming than Iran would ever be.

 ((WN )) Did the Iranian Chess Federation ever support you, back in the days?

 ((DD )) Yes. They did send me to different tournaments. And they did provide me with some coaching in 2012–13.

 ((WN )) How is the US Chess Federation different in that aspect?

 ((DD )) Well, right now, I am more supported by the University and the Chess Club rather than the Federation as a whole. But the US Federation has been always supportive of my decisions to speak up.

 ((WN )) How can the problems at Iranian Chess Federation be improved?

 ((DD )) I don't think they can until [while] the government is the same, or, shares the same values and is unwilling to do the basic human rights.

 ((WN )) Tell me about the time you got the title "International Master". And which title: Female Grand Master or International Master gave you more joy?

 ((DD )) So, I have received all of the female titles. I started from Women Candidate Master, Women FIDE Master, Women International Master, Women Grand Master, and ultimately men International Master. It was approved in Baku, the same 2016 Olympiad. And it was very pleasant. I expected it to be approved anyways, because that's just their normal routine. But it was very nice because at that time, as soon as it got approved, as soon as I officially hold the titles, my family were in Baku at the same time. So we went out, and we had a nice celebration.

Bridging the gender gap, especially in chess and the society

 
Derakhshani at TEDxYouth@München in 2019 (Image: Dorsa Derakhshani on Instagram)

 ((WN )) You had previously mentioned in your TED talk, you are curious about the human brain, and would like to study more about it. How is that going to affect your chess career?

 ((DD )) Yep, that's true. Well, I feel like the more information I have about how anything works, it helps me become a better human being. And more mature, and I have seen the way I think about chess has changed compared to when I was, let's say eighteen, just because I am more mature right now and I am more honest to myself. It's easier for me to see certain moves and certain patterns whereas when I was a teenager. So I hope the more information I get anywhere helps me become a better human and better chess player.

 ((WN )) Are the gendered titles and segregated events bad in the long run?

 ((DD )) I think so, yeah. But at the same time, that is not a problem they can fix immediately, because if they take away all of the women titles, so many women will be harmed by that. Because they are receiving benefits from their governments and from the chess federations.

 ((WN )) Earlier this year, Mitra Hejazipour an [Iranian] Female Grand Master in a tournament in Moscow: she chose not to wear [a] hijab. Iranian Chess Federation President announced she was now banned from the Iranian Chess Team. Iranian chess arbiter Shohreh Bayat decided not to return to the country after a photo of hers was circulated by the Iranian press in which her headscarf was not visible. What do you think of this situation?

 ((DD )) I mean, I am glad that they're finding their voice. But they were not supportive when I found my voice.

 ((WN )) What was the President of the Iranian Chess Federation Mehrdad Pahlavanzadeh like?

 ((DD )) At the time I thought he was nice and genuine, but the more I got to know him, it felt like he was very power-hungry and a lot — really fake. I just don't really have better words to put.

 ((WN )) Why does the federation take these actions instead of looking at the player's performance?

 ((DD )) Well, the other problem is that they are under big scrutiny from the government because the government expects the women to behave a certain way and to dress a certain way. So it's not just about what the federation thinks. It's also a lot on the government.

 ((WN )) What message would you like to give to Iranian chess players?

 ((DD )) Be true to yourself. If this isn't the right fit for you, find the right fit. And if you do believe and you are happy where you are, nobody should be able to tell you not to be happy and to disrespect your beliefs.

WGM Nazí Paikidze in 2016 (Image: Andreas Kontokanis)
GM Hikaru Nakamura in 2016 (Image: Andreas Kontokanis)
Organising tournaments in Iran and Saudi Arabia was criticised by both WGM Nazí Paikidze and GM Hikaru Nakamura

 ((WN )) Back in 2017, the World Rapid and Blitz Championship was held in Riyadh [in Saudi Arabia‍] and Israeli chess players were denied visa. Iran hosted the 2017 Women's World Championship and it was boycotted by [WGM] Nazí Paikidze due to the mandatory hijab. What is your say in organising events in these countries where players are either forced to adhere to a dress code, or denied visa altogether because of their nationality?

 ((DD )) That's very wrong to give tournament organisation to these countries. They shouldn't do that. Because these countries aren't following the basic human rights. And we shouldn't support and encourage them to just keep treating women as they are, and giving them organisation, giving them publicity will just encourage that [what] they are doing is right which they aren't.

 ((WN )) Back in 2017, even [GM] Hikaru Nakamura tweeted, "To organise a chess tournament in a country where basic human rights aren't valued is horrible. Chess is a game where all different sorts of people can come together, not a game in which people are divided because of their religion or country of origin."

 ((DD )) Yes, I completely agree with that.

Her life

 ((WN )) Well, what are you favourite places to play chess?

 ((DD )) Switzerland.

 ((WN )) What are you favourite chess books?

 ((DD )) I really like the Mark Dvoretsky books. I also really like the five books by Kasparov, My Great Predecessors. Another book that I really like is My System. A lot of people don't like it, and I probably wouldn't like it right now, but it was a huge deal for me when I first read it. The way that they explain it and the way they inspired me to think was different than what I was doing. So I learned a lot from it.

 
File photo of Dr Atul Gawande, whose books she likes to read. (Image: Amar Karodkar)

 ((WN )) What are your favourite non-chess books?

 ((DD )) Non-chess books. Um, I really like to read books by [Atul Gawande], and he's a doctor here in the US who writes different books and explains how he felt on his experience, on his intake. So I really like that.

 ((WN )) Who helped you get where you are today?

 ((DD )) My parents.

 ((WN )) What important truths do a very few people agree with?

 ((DD )) I think one of the things that's kind of, people are still trying to learn is respecting everybody's beliefs. Because people can be extremely judgemental. I can be judgemental sometimes, and I have to talk myself and explain to myself that, okay — people are allowed to do what they want and it is not my place to judge everybody. And sometimes we all need that reminder.

 ((WN )) What do you do to relax when you are not playing chess?

 ((DD )) I really like to watch TV shows, about different careers, 'cause I am never going to be a lawyer but just watching a law-related TV show helps me understand that aspects too.

 ((WN )) What according to you makes chess beautiful?

 ((DD )) Sometimes it feels like chess is like you are hearing the music that the pieces are making and you're dancing, the pieces are dancing, to it. And then you figure out a beautiful tactic. I really like that analogy.

 ((WN )) What motivates you to play chess?

 ((DD )) Well, I'd like to show people that you can do different things with your life. And the idea that you can play chess and still study and still have a life outside of chess. I think that's one of the big things for me.

 ((WN )) How much time do you spend behind analysing your own games?

 ((DD )) Quite a lot actually. It kind of depends on the game and ideally if I have the time, I would like to go back and talk to my brother or another chess friend. And get their inputs.

 ((WN )) What advice do you have for new chess players?

 ((DD )) To figure out what they want and to find a book and find a coach who cares about them. Well the book shouldn't care about the person, but the book should be able to speak to the person, because sometimes you just look at the books and look at the positions just because of the positions. But sometimes when you are reading the book, you are actually feel that you understand this, and it is more than just a book to you.

 ((WN )) What are some of the bad traits that hold a player down?

 ((DD )) Feeling like you are not good enough. And feeling like your opponent is better than you, or, lot of these feelings that you are not good enough, you can't do it. Because if you have any of these thoughts going into a chess game, you are not gonna come out it very happy.

 
Dorsa Derakhshani with her mother. (Image: Dorsa Derakhshani on Instagram)

 ((WN )) What is the best advice given to you?

 ((DD )) My mom, she always encouraged me to be true to be myself and to find the best way of expressing myself. Because I went through a period when I was extremely straightforward with everybody and it was kind of hurtful. Because I just didn't want to pretend anything. I didn't want to fake anything. And then my mom helps me realise that it is not about being straightforward or faking it. It is actually finding the right words to put in, because sometimes what you say is hurtful but what you mean is not. So that smooth transition between matching what you say and what you mean, I think that was one of the biggest advice I've got.

 ((WN )) In future what do you want to achieve in the game of chess?

 ((DD )) I would really like to be in US top five. And I would also really like to be involved in chess as much as I can. I do have my FIDE trainer title, and I would really like to be able to teach more kids. I do have a few students and it seems to be going good, so far. But I would like to understand better how to fix and help the players.

 ((WN )) Those were all the questions I had for you. Is there something you would like to add?

 ((DD )) Um, no I am good. Thank you.


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This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.

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