“I Want All Girls To Play Chess”: International Master Tien Nguyen ’22 Seeks Gender Parity In The Game She Loves

Tien Nguyen '22

As a five-year-old growing up in Vietnam, Tien Nguyen ’22 received a present from her father that would not only have a profound impact on their relationship, but also spark a passion that would take her throughout the world and foster a dedication to inspire other women and girls.

That gift was a chessboard, and the initial benefit was giving Nguyen ample quality time with her dad. “He coached me to become a chess player and I was very happy because I could play chess with him,” she recalled.

Nguyen quickly developed into an exceptional player and in the ensuing years her talent took her to competitions in Vietnam and beyond: To date, she has played in ten countries, including India, Indonesia, Korea, Mongolia, Myanmar, Philippines, Russia, Thailand (three times), Turkey, and the United States. Winning the Asian Girl Championship earned her the lifetime designation of Woman International Master, which is the second-highest ranking given exclusively to women chess players by the World Chess Federation.

In this country, the United States Chess Federation (USCF) ranks Nguyen 67th out of 10,389 female chess players, or in the 99.4 percentile. Among players of all ages and genders, the USCF places her in the 98.1 percentile. The organization has awarded Nguyen the title of Candidate Master (given to players who achieve five performance-based “norms” in competition) for life, and has named her a U.S. Chess Expert, recognizing that she is among the top five percent of all USCF tournament chess players.

Nguyen said endurance – both physical and mental – is the key to thriving in the world of chess. “A typical chess game lasts from three to five hours and the only breaks are to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water,” she explained. To prepare for matches, Nguyen eats a healthy diet and engages in light exercise activities such as yoga or walking. “I also like to sit down and just look at the chessboard for hours to visualize moves inside my head. Between competitions, I play online a lot.” Maryke Barber, information literacy and arts liaison librarian at Hollins’ Wyndham Robertson Library, and her husband, are Nguyen’s host family here, and they introduced Nguyen to the Roanoke Valley Chess Club so that she could complement her online play with face-to-face practice.

When discussing her future goals, Nguyen doesn’t focus on personal accomplishments. “I really want all girls to play chess,” she said, “to learn about it and enjoy it.” Competing in the Virginia Scholastic and College Chess Championships during her first two years at Hollins (she will continue to represent the university in her junior and senior years), she was struck by the fact that “I was the only girl – they all looked at me like I was a museum exhibit! Some of the male players were upset when they lost a game against me. I got used to it.” Nguyen said one of her proudest moments in serving as a role model for girls and women in the game occurred this year when the 2019 National Chess Congress Standings for her U.S. Chess Expert section were released, and she learned she was co-champion with three male players.

Nguyen takes advantage of outreach opportunities to extol the joys of chess wherever she can. Last year during her spring break, she spent two hours teaching concepts of the game to 40 local elementary school students and clearly made an impact. “When I played with them I shook their hands the same as I would with professional chess players. Their teacher told me later that whenever they play now, they shake hands with one another.”

At Hollins, Nguyen successfully blends her love of chess with academic responsibilities. A psychology major, she will spend Short Term 2020 engaged in independent study researching chess and child development. Outside the classroom, she works four to five days a week in Hollins’ Quantitative Reasoning Center, where she tutors fellow students in mathematics. She is also active in Model United Nations (she was part of the Hollins delegation that traveled to Chicago for the organization’s national conference in November) and Model Arab League (she was named Outstanding Delegate, Social Affairs Council, at the Fourth Annual Appalachia Regional Model Arab League, held at Hollins in November 2018).

“I love the small and friendly environment at Hollins,” Nguyen said. “It’s so beautiful and wonderful here.”