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When Kaitlyn Hardesty ’18 was the Beth Harmon of Country Day

In honor of International Chess Day 2022, enjoy the article below, which was written by Dr. Yven Destin, former CCDS history faculty member. 

The game of chess is undergoing a surge in popularity today—thanks in large part to the pandemic spurring interests in board games and Netflix’s hit mini-series The Queen’s Gambitwhich follows the life of an orphaned chess prodigy named Beth Harmon. The seven-part mini-series chronicles Harmon’s chess successes and major defeats amid personal challenges, trouncing all her male opponents along the way.

It was not long ago that Country Day witnessed an almost similar feat when senior Kaitlyn Hardesty ‘18 bested male players in a field of 20 but lost the championship match in Country Day’s 2018 chess tournament. It was the school’s first such competition in more than a decade. Kaitlyn was one of two females in the tournament; the other, sophomore Helen Kovach ’20.

I had the opportunity to interview Kaitlyn, now a biomedical engineer student at Washington University in St. Louis, about the tournament. She recalled that had Helen not been the one other female in the tournament, she would not have joined in the competition. She said she felt compelled to boost female representation.

Much like in Harmon’s first chess tournament at the local high school, Kaitlyn and Helen would play each other in the first round, by the coincidence of random selection. In the mini-series, however, Harmon was pitted against female player Annette Packer to play up the sexism in what still is a male-dominated sport. But the series’ portrayal of real-life sexism in chess doesn’t go far enough as critics have noted, and it was not lost on anyone that Kaitlyn and Helen were the only females interested in playing in the tournament. As tournament director, I was so thrilled they joined the competition and was especially impressed as Kaitlyn proceeded on a winning streak that drew crowds during the three-week-long tournament.

Perhaps unbeknownst to her, Kaitlyn had fans among students and faculty—some of whom publicly or privately shared that they hoped she’d win the competition. While the tournament drew public attention during the lunch hour and break time, as non-participants could drop in and out of the tournament week after week, I couldn’t help but wonder if many of them were coming to see Kaitlyn who at that point was the only female player in the competition. Kaitlyn, when asked about that moment, felt the support might have also stemmed from friends gaining interest in an already thriving chess craze that started in her sophomore year—a craze I, as the Chess Club advisor, helped facilitate.

Unlike the overly chess-obsessed Beth Harmon, Kaitlyn played chess occasionally, often with friend Zach O’Brien ‘18. In the tournament, she did not compromise her commitment to her academics for chess, choosing to forfeit a crucial game to prep for a major assessment. Even so, she closed the seven-round regular tournament (under a blitz time control of 10 minutes, 0 increments) with 5 straight wins, 1 loss, and 1 draw to qualify for the three-round semifinals.

In the semifinal matches, she won with a score of two wins no losses. Her victory secured her place in the five-round championship match against friend Zach O’Brien who then was favored to win with a perfect record of seven straight wins in the regular tournament and two straight wins in the semifinal match.

Zach was a formidable opponent who was immersed in chess culture. He played in chess clubs around Cincinnati and joined a couple of chess competitions. He plunged himself into the chess community, knowing and playing the same players I knew and frequently played me during his free bells between classes. It was amazing to see Kaitlyn, who was not known to engage in such activities, not only win her matches but go head-to-head with Country Day’s top chess player.

Few people knew that Kaitlyn was very practiced in chess, having been taught by a female master-level chess player during her time in Singapore. She said her father taught her to play the game around age six. She didn’t play much after middle school and only started up again during the sophomore year chess craze where she’d occasionally play Zach, and sometimes in online correspondence in timed blitz games. Hers and Zachs is a friendship that continues to this day. But back then, the two would eventually compete for the title match.

If becoming Country Day’s first female chess champion had been her goal, then Kaitlyn didn’t share such thoughts at the time. Instead, she showed a genuine desire to win her games regardless of the significance of her sex. For her, playing in the tournament seemed more about winning a competition than defeating the other sex.

In my interview, Kaitlyn shed some light on the matter. She recalled, “I was super conscious about being the only female in the tournament, which added pressure but gave me the necessary impetus to see me through the matches.”

But did the pressure of being the sole female contender intensify now that she made it to the championship match? And what would becoming a chess champion mean to her female peers (and male peers) who became interested in playing chess because of her? Indeed, throughout and after the tournament, the Chess Club experienced a surge in the number of female students who wanted to play chess and felt more comfortable doing so. To my surprise, Kaitlyn recalled that the pressure to win as a female had been somewhat lessened by the title match. By then, “I felt I had accomplished my goal” of showing that a female can be a formidable chess contender. “I focused on winning the tournament…you have to have that goal in mind,” she said.

Regardless of her thoughts at the time or the impact she had on the Chess Club, the moment of truth arrived when she entered the five-round championship match against Zach.

One thing was for sure, Kaitlyn entered the tournament to “prove a point,” that: female chess players can be just as good if not better than male chess players. But it was a personal point to prove to herself more than anything else—one that did not generate from any particular sexist, subversive, or explicit act against her for being a female. She said she felt the most pressure at the start of the tournament over worries of being “tripped up,” or being eliminated early in the process. That she was (is) a self-avowed perfectionist meant being eliminated early on would have been devastating. The championship match was just as “nerve-racking” with spectators in the room, live game recordings (every mistake being recorded), and a ticking time clock.

Amid the crowd of onlookers, she lost the first two games. She was visibly disappointed in those matches. On the cusp of losing the tournament in a best of five matches, she desperately needed a win. The third, possibly final, round of the championship match would be played the next day. Down two losses, Kaitlyn would have to change strategy against the formidable Zach O’Brien and change strategy she did.

To the lay observer and novice chess player watching Kaitlyn and Zach play, it might have been difficult to glean from their chess moves any sort of strategy. Kaitlyn and Zach were strong players because they knew the basics of chess. They knew to protect the king, used all their pieces, knew the value of their pieces, were conscious of controlling the center of the board, made plans, watched for checks (threats to the king) and pawn/piece captures, looked for the best moves, never hoped that their opponent didn’t see a move, and learned from their mistakes as well as from the pros.

A chess player’s strongest tool against a strong opponent in this toolkit of skills is an opening repertoire—the first few moves of certain pieces to increase one’s best chance of winning. So, it was impressive when the seeming chess amateur Kaitlyn countered Zach’s chess opening with a strong defense chess repertoire for the third match.

Ironically, Zach played the queen’s gambit—the very chess opening Beth Harmon played against the final opponent Vasily Borgov in the Netflix series. Kaitlyn seemed to know a bit about Zach’s preferred chess opening, and so decided to decline the Queen’s Gambit, opting to employ the SLAV DEFENSE. Clearly, Kaitlyn came to win! When I asked about her great choice of defense she shared that opening theory was her weakness, something Zach was good at, and remembered attempting to learn a few strong opening repertoires. The level of play in their game reached similar positions in high profile matches such as the 37th Chess Olympiad: Women (2006) tournament between Poornima Menon Jayadev and Frentina Andrea; the Politiken Cup (2015) tournament between Julius Molvig and Mads Wollan Myhre; and the World Blitz Championship (2017) tournament between Zeyad Saleh Al Abdali and Mohammed Alanazy. Between the three tournaments, the player playing with the black pieces either won or drew the match. So, Kaitlyn who played black came prepared for battle, which gave Zach a run for his money! (CLICK to read the analysis of the game, published in the Scroll, May 16, 2018).

Kaitlyn Hardesty '21 and other chess players

From left to right: 3rd place winner Jack Connelly ‘21, 1st place winner Zach O’Brien ’18, 2nd place winner Kaitlyn Hardesty ’18, tournament director & club advisor Dr. Yven Destin

Then Zach blundered and Kaitlyn had a checkmate in one move! But would she see it? With the chess clock ticking down to less than a minute, people in the audience were dying to know the outcome. Would Zach become our first Chess Master of Country Day, or would Kaitlyn with two losses in this best out of five matches advance the championship game to round 4 for a possible comeback? Alas, it seems the chess clock got the best of Kaitlyn. She missed the mate, deciding to check Zach’s white king with the wrong black rook—R8d2+ rather than Re1# checkmate!

Kaitlyn would lose the match. She missed the checkmate on Zach and with that the opportunity to advance to the next game. Zach capitalized on her missed win, checkmating her in another exchange of pieces. Kaitlyn and Zach shook hands. Immediately after the game, Zach, seemingly relieved, exhaled the comment, “This was not my best game!”—which partly was attributed to Kaitlyn’s strong showing in this crucial match. Zach became the first Chess Master of Country Day, Kaitlyn finished in 2nd place, and Jack Connelly ‘21 in 3rd place.

In my interview, Kaitlyn said she learned about her missed mate from her dad. He had reviewed the game notation posted in The Scroll later that week and pointed out the possible win. She believed playing under time constraints via a chess clock favored Zach’s preferred game of chess—which she factored into her strategy. But she never doubted her ability to defeat Zach because had done so before the tournament. While she lost the championship match under time constraints among other external factors, given more time she said she would have been able to “find that move!” and checkmate Zach!

Kaitlyn’s participation and successes in a male-dominated competition represent one of many in-roads females like herself have made and are making in chess. Take female chess players like Ugandan Phiona Mutesi, who became the first titled players in Ugandan chess history. Her life story and rise in chess from a slum in Katwe, Kampala, was depicted in Disney’s 2016 film The Queen of Katwe. Hungarian player Judit Polgar became the only female ever to be ranked in the Top 10, and Ukrainian-American Irina Krush (who regularly attends the Queen City Classic in Cincinnati) is the only active female grandmaster today—the highest title awarded to a chess player. 

Yet, challenges for females in chess abound. According to the New York Times piece How 'The Queen’s Gambit’ Started a New Debate About Sexism in Chess, “Among the more than 1,700 regular grandmasters worldwide, only 37, including Polgar and Krush, are women.” In the article, Polgar said the Netflix mini-series, though accurate about what it’s like for players to be immersed in chess competitions, she felt the portrayal of Harmon’s male opponents was inaccurate: “They were too nice to her.” In her own professional chess career, Polgar recalled experiencing disparaging comments and jokes about her ability. She said, no man ever resigned a game “...as Shapkin did to Beth in Episode 7 by gallantly holding her hand near his lips… and [t]here were opponents who refused to shake hands”— a custom of sportsmanship typically done before and after a game.

Polgar’s professional experience explains some of the reasons few females participate in chess competitions, let alone play in mixed-gender chess clubs.  It’s an issue that programs like New York City’s Chess in the Schools, which hosts an annual All-Girls Chess Championship, are all too familiar with. The program’s website notes, “girls often lack the educational opportunity, support, and role models they need and deserve.”

The importance of connecting girls to female role models was something our own Angela Barber-Joiner, director of equity, diversity, and inclusion at Country Day, shared with me. “We need to intentionally focus on the stories and accomplishments of women and to amplify the voices of those who continue to be devalued and marginalized…We have to remember that ‘If she can’t see it, she can’t be it!’ and she explained the impact of role models. For Kaitlyn, a female role model was a core reason behind her parents’ decision to hire a female master-level chess player. She said being trained by a female chess tutor probably had the intended effect on her confidence in the game.

As the coronavirus pandemic has suspended face-to-face chess play around the world, chess continues to thrive online. Some of the leading chess sites enjoy a growing following—including Chess.com, Chess24, and Lichess. Members of Country Day’s Upper School Chess Club have taken to playing online. Club co-founder and 2019 Country Day Chess Master Jack Connelly has been facilitating the face-to-face transition to these online platforms. A year after Kaitlyn’s appearance in the tournament, female participation in the club dwindled with no female participants in the 2019 chess tournament. In general, girls’ lack of interest in chess, one expert argues in the Times, goes to show that cultural stereotypes abound despite the few female players who succeed in the sport. Cultural assumptions that chess is a “boy sport” or that “boys are better at chess than girls” continue to discourage female participation in the classic board game. These are assumptions the Chess Club would like to change, assumptions Kaitlyn helped debunk at the time.

Hopefully, the popularity of The Queen’s Gambit mini-series will continue to turn fans into advocates of making chess an inclusive community of players. When asked about her take on the mini-series, Kaitlyn said she particularly liked how the series seems focused on the learning process of chess with Harmon picturing the moves on the ceiling.

While Kaitlyn Hardesty did not get the victorious ending Beth Harmon did, and though it may have been difficult to notice after a major championship loss, she had earned the respect of so many of her fans in the course of three weeks. If there was any solace she could take from that competition, then it is that her chess run may go down in Country Day's lore: there once was a senior who bested the males at a chess tournament and made it to the championship match, and that female’s name was Kaitlyn Hardesty.