‘No quiero lástima, sino oportunidades’: la vida azarosa de una célebre campeona de ajedrez para ciegos

Have you heard this story? A girl has a difficult start in life and then discovers chess. She becomes the American champion. Learn russian. And now he has to find a way to come to Russia to play chess because he cannot afford it.

No, I’m not talking about Beth Harmon, the fictional heroine of Lady’s Gambit, Netflix’s megahit. This is Jessica Lauser, America’s three-time blind chess champion. You can call her Chessica, the nickname her math teacher gave her in eighth grade.

The 40-year-old Lauser was born 15 weeks earlier. Like many babies born this prematurely, he needed oxygen, which damaged his eyes, a condition known as premature retinopathy. One eye is completely blind; in the other he has a vision of 20/480. His field of vision is limited and the chess pieces appear blurred and distorted in his view. You can tell when a space on the board is occupied, but you can’t always tell which piece it is.

If you play a sighted player in a tournament, she will explain all of this to you. The biggest problem is the rule of touch and movement in chess, which says that you have to move a piece when you touch it.

“When I need to identify a piece during a game, I tap the top and say ‘identify’, not by grabbing the piece, just by touching it,” he says. Aside from that, says Michael Aigner, who was recently her teammate at the first online Olympics for people with disabilities, “nobody can say Jessica is blind.” Blind chess players often use a set of pens, a special board that allows them to feel the pieces without knocking them over. She doesn’t do it. But she needs to remember where the pieces are (unlike Beth Harmon, she has no photographic memory) so it is sometimes helpful to identify them by touching them.

Chess has long been Lauser’s refuge. He learned the game at the age of seven when he moved from Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind to a regular school. At that age he said, “It was just a game like Monopoly or Parcheesi.” But in seventh grade, when he started a new school in California, he had started to take the game more seriously.

“When I went to class on the first day, the first thing I saw in the back of the room were waist-high cupboards with chess sets assembled,” says Lauser. “I knew the kids would call me ‘four eyes’ and I said, ‘Aha, this will be a way of silencing them.’

Lauser, who now lives in Kansas City and works for the Internal Revenue Service, has lived in a surprising number of places because his blindness has made it difficult for him to find a steady job. You were homeless last year. It’s a very sensitive issue for them. “It’s frustrating not to get a fair chance because I was born,” he says. To maintain your Social Security disability insurance eligibility, you cannot earn more than $ 2,110 per month.

“The limit is hard and fast,” he says. “It kept me in poverty even though I was always working. That’s why I play chess because it helps me deal with all of these things that I can’t change.

He later added, “I don’t want pity, I want opportunities. I just want to be like that ”.

He perfected his game of chess on the streets: Market Street in San Francisco, Santana Row in San Jose, Dupont Circle in Washington. His favorite place was the student union at San Francisco State University, where he graduated from college at the age of 36.

“I would organize three games and a folding chair and face everyone who came,” he says. She attracted a lot, not so much because she was blind, but because she was a woman who played three games at once. The shops nearby noticed that their sales increased when she was there as people stopped to look. “The building coordinator said to me, ‘I hope this doesn’t offend you, but we want to adopt you!'”

Having played a lot on the fairways, he plays very quickly and uses openings that are often not considered healthy for tournament chess. In blitz or five-minute chess, your maximum score is one category below that of the masters. Achieving a Masters degree remains his goal, though he fears the odds are against him – not many players have made it in their 40s. “I’m not giving up on this dream,” he says.

In October, Lauser won his third consecutive US blind championship, a tournament that was played in person despite the pandemic. It had been postponed since July. Before the pandemic, says Virginia Alverson, president of the American Blind Chess Association, she hoped to attract 20 participants (usually about 10 players out of about 100 members). But they had to come to terms with the pandemic. with three: Alverson, his roommate Pauline Downing and Lauser. “We felt that if Jessica was ready to travel from Kansas City to New Hampshire to defend her title, we should have some kind of tournament,” says Alverson. “It says a lot about Jessica that she wanted to come. Jessica likes to play chess. And the truth is, I wanted to see it ”.

This year’s Olympics for the Disabled, held on Thanksgiving weekend, was a much better known event. Originally planned for August in Siberia, it went online and attracted 60 teams from 44 countries. The American team, led by Aigner on the first board, took 10th place. Lauser started slowly but won a key game against a player from Brazil in the final round. And she was possibly the most important player because every team had to have a player. Without them, no US team would have been formed.

“Halfway through the tournament, after she had lost the first three rounds, we played an hour of fast chess, just for fun,” says Aigner. “She played all of her moves against me and I got into trouble in a few games. When she finally won in round four, my reaction was, thank god someone else can see how good you are. She played the style she played against me in the Blitz and of course she won.

The next Olympiad is initially planned for Russia in 2022. Lauser would like to participate but is not sure how she can do it. That year, before the event in Siberia was canceled, the international chess federation FIDE offered to pay for the accommodation plus 1,500 euros for the trip, or about 1,800 dollars. “Whether that would bring people to Russia and back is controversial,” says Chris Bird, FIDE event manager for the US Chess Federation. Until the pandemic is over, the association will not financially support teams for international events.

It’s a family story for Lauser. He has also qualified for the blind world championship six times but has never been able to participate.

In the short term, Lauser is hoping to keep his Kansas City job as well as his current apartment from which he can hear the noise of the trains going to and from Union Station. In the long run, he says, “My ideal situation would be to make enough money to live, not be in debt, and maybe one day have a house. Being able to practice Russian every day, being able to compete, being able to help others. Maybe live in Russia, teach English and play chess. “

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