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Dumped Iranian chess star fights back into the game

Dorsa Derakhshani, 19, playing chess at the Marshall Chess Club in New York. (AN photo by James Reinl)
NEW YORK: It has been a tumultuous year for Dorsa Derakhshani. The stress of being kicked off the Iranian chess team and starting college in the US left her anxious and losing weight as her world chess ranking plummeted.
But, in an exclusive interview with Arab News, the Iranian chess prodigy said she was glad to now be studying in the US, playing with the US Chess Federation and training for a tournament next month to get her game back on track.
“The US Chess Federation took me under their wings. The university helped me a lot. I feel really welcomed,” Derakhshani, 19, told Arab News in the Marshall Chess Club, a century-old institute in Manhattan. “I want them to feel like they made the right decision.”
Derakhshani was kicked out of the Iranian chess federation after competing without a hijab at the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival in Gibraltar in February. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has required women to wear the hijab in public places.
“I felt disrespected, it was humiliating. I did not deserve it. It took me a long time to feel back in my skin,” she said.
The teenage Grandmaster started a biology degree at St. Louis University in August and, in October, the US Chess Federation announced she had “switched federations” to represent America in global showdowns.
College life and training has been tough, she said. Exams and bad grades led to sleepless nights and losing 4 kilos in weight — though the ready supply of cookies on her Missouri campus helped put those pounds back on, she said.
At the start of the year, she was in the top 100 women of the FIDE World Chess Federation rankings. The upset saw her ranking drop to 191, although she is currently the ninth best woman on the US team with a rating of 2306.
She praises her coach and teammates in St. Louis for stepping in for her family, who are 11,000km away in Tehran, and helping her fight her way back in to the game and aim for a place in the global top 10 of women players, she said.
She rails against Tehran’s chess federation, saying the decision to kick her out was political and had nothing to do with wearing headscarves. Officials were more interested in having “puppets” perform for the cameras than nurturing players, she said.
“They preferred the image, they didn’t care about the talent,” she said. “They would never have stopped trying to change who I am, and I would never have stopped being myself. It would never have worked out.”
The Iranian chess federation did not respond to requests for comment.
It has not only been a stormy year for Derakhshani. Her native country and her new home — Iran and the US — are at loggerheads over Tehran’s alleged development of missiles and nuclear technology and support for militias in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
While Derakhshani’s switch from the Iranian to the US chess team marked a public relations coup for Washington, she does not see herself as a pawn in a geopolitical spat between two countries that have rowed for decades.
“In chess, I want to be able to predict and find the good patterns. And when I do that, it makes me happy. In politics, I can’t do that. I can’t understand it, I don’t know enough about it.” she said. “Everybody lies in politics. It’s not my thing.”

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