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She Got Game

Russian chess coach Valentina Lokhova shows them how it's done.



The kids getting dropped off by their parents on a Saturday morning at Lake Forest's Gorton Community Center look like they should be heading for the swing set. Instead, they're headed to a basement room for an advanced chess class.

The 16 kids, most of them between five and nine, converge on the chairs and couches in the room. At around 9:30 Valentina Lokhova, their 23-year-old Russian emigre coach, sets up a problem on a chessboard hanging on the wall, sliding flat pieces in and out of plastic slots. The lesson is about promotion, the elevation of a pawn to a stronger status when it reaches the opposite end of the board, and she asks which would be the best piece to choose given the positions of the other pieces on the board, saying, "It's not as easy as it seems."

The children stare at the board, then several raise their hands. Lokhova calls on the kids who have a harder time figuring out solutions. One boy gives an answer. It's wrong. So is the next. And the one after that.

Finally she calls on Martin Gold, who's five, the smallest kid in the room. He announces a solution he later says came to him in two seconds: the white side could win by promoting its pawn to a knight instead of a queen, the strongest piece.

Lokhova nods her head. "If you make a queen," she says, "you lose the game."

As she sets up a different problem, nine-year-old Jake Levine walks into the room. She asks him which side is now strongest. He correctly answers black, whose pawns are farther down the board than white's. Eight-year-old Brenna Shannon, one of only three girls in the room, adds that the black king's position allows it to attack the opposing pawns.

Lokhova sets up other situations that illustrate the lesson, letting the kids debate the choices, lowering the board so that the smaller kids can see it, drawing out the quieter children. Then she steps aside and lets them move the pieces around to test their theories.

After 10 or 15 minutes she says, "Let's go play for a little while," and the children scatter to pick tables.

Lokhova, who lives in Wicker Park, has led Gorton's Chess Wizards program since last July. The results are already apparent. In November, Gold won the kindergarten section at the Illinois All Grade State Championships in Bloomington. Jeff Nickels, 11, won the top unrated-player award in the fifth-grade section. Bob van Gelder, 7, took the same award in the first-grade section, Shannon in the second-grade section. In January, Gold and Sam Saalfeld, 9, won prizes at the Northwest Scholastic Open Chess Tournament in Hoffman Estates.

"She lets us debate our ideas, and she does not stop us until things get out of hand," says eight-year-old Taylor Cathcart. "Other teachers don't let us debate. They don't give us a chance to think about it."

Jim Goldman says his eight-year-old son Carson started beating him after working with Lokhova. "That's how I know he's doing a lot better," he says. "She has a passion for the game. She's helped to instill that in the kids."

Lokhova started playing chess at a later age than many of her students. She was born in Chelyabinsk, an industrial, scientific, and cultural center in the southern Ural Mountains. Her mother owned a small women's clothing store; her father helped design nuclear power stations and taught at the local university. The family split their time between Chelyabinsk and Saint Petersburg while he was working on state projects; because of his work the KGB wouldn't allow him to leave the Soviet Union.

Lokhova started drawing early and later took up photography and painting. When she was eight she added chess. "My parents thought I would be a designer or a painter," she says. "They started teaching chess to my younger brother and sister. I was just standing there looking at how they were taught, and I picked it up somehow." Her siblings beat her for over a year, but then she started winning.

Her father took her to a chess school in Chelyabinsk, and after a year the coach told her she had potential. Lokhova, who studied and played three hours a day, proved him right, emerging as one of the strongest female chess players in the area. In 1991, when she was 12, she won the first of six consecutive tournament championships for girls in her age group. For four years she played the top board for the women's team representing the region in national tournaments. She also tutored younger students.

Back then the government picked up expenses--training, equipment, travel--for promising players. "The government viewed it as strategic development of the country--it invested money in nuclear warheads and athletes. It sounds funny, but actually it's pretty sad," says Lokhova. "Chess in Russia is taken on a much more professional level than it is here. You have soccer moms in the United States who drive their kids to practice and pick them up every day. In Russia we have the same with chess. Parents would literally spend days driving their kids to state tournaments. The only thing I didn't like about Russia and the way chess was played there is that when I played in tournaments I was not allowed to play against men. I only played against women."

After the breakup of the Soviet Union her father's earnings dropped to $100 a month, barely enough to feed his family of five. And the government quit supporting chess players. At 15, Lokhova was forced to stop playing competitively.

Academics gave her a way out. In 1996 her high school sent her to the U.S. as an exchange student. She lived with a family in Richmond, Illinois, and spent her senior year at the local high school. That November she won the unrated prize at the U.S. Class Championship, held in Chicago.

After graduation, she chose to stay in the U.S. because she'd developed an interest in economics. "I couldn't study economics in Russia," she says. "The country had a planned economy for 70 years. What the government asked to produce, it was produced. There was no supply and demand. There was no equilibrium in the country. It was a terrible place to study economics."

Lake Forest College gave her a scholarship to study art, which she had never dropped, and she started classes there in the fall of '97. She also worked part-time in an office in the suburbs, where she met Gorton board member Patricia Ryan. "I mentioned that I play chess, and I used to go to a chess school in Russia, and I taught some chess in Russia as well," Lokhova says. "She said they might be interested in having me come in and teach kids."

She earned bachelor's degrees in economics and studio art last spring, and the college, which exhibited her watercolors on silk last year, named her the top senior in studio art. Peak6, an options-trading firm, soon recruited her for its trainee program, figuring a skilled chess player could perform well in the high-pressure environment. She started there last July, the same month she began teaching an eight-week course at Gorton.

Gorton hadn't offered a chess program before, and Lokhova expected three kids to show up for the first class--ten at the most. Instead 30, mostly boys, arrived. Lokhova played games with the students, watched their matches, and divided them into advanced, intermediate, and beginner sections. Soon ten more students showed up. To avoid taxing their attention spans she limited instruction to 10 to 15 minutes between games.

Boys still constitute the majority of the 50 students in the program; only 9 are girls. That's not surprising; according to the U.S. Chess Federation, only 12 percent of its members who are 19 or under are female. "In the United States, whether we want to admit it or not, girls look at chess as something that's more for boys to do," Lokhova says. "It's something that needs to be changed. It's not the fault of women that they don't play chess. It's the culture that needs to get changed. People have to get educated. People have to see more women playing. I hope that through my program I attract more women, and I give them a chance to see that they could be good at it."

She says chess provides an intellectual challenge that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of gender, background, or class. "I can be from Russia, Guatemala, or Cambodia," she says. "I might not know the language, but I can find something in common with people. It has no boundaries. The game of chess does not discriminate. If you are good at it people will appreciate you for it."

Lokhova calls home every week but hasn't visited Russia since graduating from high school. She's always worried that if she leaves the U.S. she won't be allowed back in, a concern that only increased after the September 11 attacks led to tightened security. "That's totally understandable from one point of view," she says. "Unfortunately, it affects other people who could benefit the United States a lot. Every morning I wake up hoping that my parents are OK and that I can see them." Her mother had to close her clothing shop five years ago because of gangsters. "It's hard to run a profitable business in Russia," she says. "Some people come after you. They feel that some of the money belongs to them."

Lokhova wants to resume playing in tournaments, become a master, and write a book about teaching kids chess. But Peak6 and coaching eat up her time. Her brother, a chess master, may come here this summer and help her at Gorton. "If you have the love for teaching, if you have the love for the game of chess or the love for anything you teach, you can succeed at it," she says. "I don't regard myself as a very good chess player. I'm pretty good at it, but I know there are a lot of people who are much better than me. Some of them are very well known throughout the world, and some of them are not. But I think I'm a very good coach."

After the Saturday advanced class at Gorton ends, the children stick around and play. The intermediate students arrive, and an hour later it's the beginners' turn.

Around 12:15 the room finally begins to empty. Lokhova starts putting away the sets and pieces, then notices a little boy with his head down walking out the door with his father. He hasn't won a single game.

Lokhova catches up with him and puts her hands on his shoulders. "Don't take it too close to your heart," she says. "I didn't win a game for a year. You can learn from your mistakes."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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