Photo: Dominique Murray

Ashley Lynn Priore's Queen's Gambit Was Here Long Before The TV Show

Ashley Lynn Priore has a quick response when I ask her what she thinks of the hit show The Queen’s Gambit. “We were here first!” she says, only half-jokingly. Priore, 21, is the founder, president, and CEO of The Queen’s Gambit Chess Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which aims to build leadership and critical thinking skills via chess education. “But,” she continues, “I'm actually sort of excited that people are hearing [about the show] now, because I want them to think of chess in a positive way.”

Priore, now a college junior at the University of Pittsburgh, founded Queen’s Gambit (the chess institute) in 2014 when she was just 14 years old. But she already had a decade of experience under her belt, having started playing along with her siblings when she was only 4 years old. “I remember being really upset that my brothers learned how to play chess before my sister and I," she says. "It was one of those things that, even then, I knew that there was some inequality in the game." Competing in tournaments as a kid and teen — and seeing how few girls were competing — made her realize what a young woman like her could bring to the game. “I wanted to begin teaching chess and inspire young women that they can learn chess as well,” she says, “since every chess instructor I’ve had have been older white guys.”

Chess really teaches skills that are needed for every aspect in life.

Researching how to launch a nonprofit, she found that all the resources available told her to sit down and write a business plan as a first step. “So, that's what I did,” she says. “I wrote up as much as I could: Why I wanted to teach chess, where I would teach it, [everything]. I found myself writing down ideas that some would think could never happen, like forming a building in the shape of a chess piece, and that's OK because it helped to fuel my passion even more.”

With a tentative plan in place, she consulted mentors for feedback, and fundraised the money to apply for nonprofit status by babysitting, tutoring, and teaching chess at the local library. With about $250 in application fees, Queen’s Gambit launched as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit just a year later. “To be honest, the process went very quickly, but I remember feeling pressured to get everything done right,” Priore says.

More than six years later, Queen’s Gambit aims to empower young girls, women, and chess enthusiasts in general by using chess to teach life skills and problem solving. Some research indicates chess can help with educational skills, including math, but Priore thinks bigger picture. “I really do love to talk about that, but what I'm more interested in is viewing chess as a tool for civic engagement, for problem solving, for strategic thinking,” Priore says. “Chess really teaches skills that are needed for every aspect in life.”

Dominique Murray

Pre-pandemic, Priore’s day involved a lot of hands-on teaching. She often spent her days visiting classrooms, after-school programs, and community centers across the Pittsburgh area to teach chess. But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Queen’s Gambit moved online, and the change has actually opened up new doors for the chess institute. “We’re holding a lot more chess clubs, people at home want to learn,” Priore says. Her work has turned more administrative during the pandemic, with a focus on advocating for chess to be included in education curriculums.

She says the reward is in seeing the young players flourish. “We've had a lot of really cool experiences with young people feeling empowered through the game,” Priore says. One of her favorite success stories is a young woman she began working with in fourth or fifth grade who is now in middle school. When the student started playing, Priore remembers, she was always focused on the fear of losing. That didn't last long. “She started to play and gained this confidence — and said [to herself], ‘You know, now I feel like I can face a problem and have tons of solutions to answer it.’” The girl’s parents tell Priore their daughter is doing better in school and is more confident after learning to play chess. “I think that when we open up some of those barriers,” Priore reflects. “It opens up a whole new worldview.”

Priore is quick to recognize the emotional and logistic barriers to getting into chess. The private chess lessons she had as a child ran about $50 for only 30 minutes. Financial hurdles like that, along with fees for club memberships and tournament entry, can contribute to chess’ mystique and reputation as a pastime for the elite. “I remember talking with a parent once who said she never imagined that her child would learn chess” because of the cost, Priore says. It’s part of what she’s trying to break down with Queen’s Gambit: The organization charges $35 for 15 weeks of group lessons at the beginner level and hour-long private lessons for $20, with the possibility of a sliding scale if the fee is beyond a family’s means. Priore says the organization often won’t charge for private lessons if a family can’t afford it, and their after-school programs with partners are entirely free. “What we're trying to do is just make it a part of everyday life,” Priore says.

[The Queen's Gambit] really didn't show what it was like to be a woman in chess.

The show The Queen’s Gambit, she says, has definitely raised interest in chess as part of everyday life. It has also, thanks to the name similarity, caused some very interesting questions to be directed Priore’s way.

“People kept tagging us on social media … and being like, ‘Do you know what type of drugs Beth uses in the series and where I can get them?’” Priore laughs. “The weirdest questions. Things I never would've expected I would receive for an educational nonprofit.”

Weird drug questions aside, Priore appreciates the change in vibe the show has created for chess. “It used to be seen as something that nerdy people did. We used to get that all the time,” Priore says. But the show’s — for lack of a better word — sexiness has brushed off on chess as a whole. Priore has seen a huge increase in interest since the show came out, with people reaching out to ask about classes and how to learn chess. “There’s a boom for interest.”

But she hastens to emphasize the show and the reality are very different. “[The Queen's Gambit] really didn't show what it was like to be a woman in chess because no guy’s going to kiss your hand after you play them," Priore says. "No one's going to give you a hug or say how good you are. They’re really going to poke fun at you, or say that you're not good enough, [or] say really nasty things to your face.” The hostility sometimes made her feel targeted and unsafe when she was competing in tournaments. “When you are a woman playing, it's just a whole different experience.”

Her work is changing that experience. In 2020, for the first time, Queen’s Gambit was successful enough that Priore was able to pay herself as CEO as well as her staff members, something she sees as a sign for the long-term health of the organization. “In the future, if we do get a new head of the organization, it can be sustainable and they can get paid,” Priore says.

Dominique Murray

She intends — someday — to hand Queen’s Gambit off to another young woman who feels a passion for leadership in chess. “I want Queen’s Gambit to continue to be a youth-led nonprofit,” Priore says. The politics and English double-major has other interests to drive her, although chess will always be near and dear to her heart. “I'm also really interested in pursuing a career in politics and using those skills to empower women,” Priore says. “Chess always reminds me of politics in so many ways.”

Her advice for anyone aspiring to be her successor is straightforward. “Just go for it,” she says. “People told me that I couldn't start a nonprofit, that I wasn't good enough at chess to teach it. That I just wasn't capable of things.”

Clearly, those people were wrong. “Don't listen to these outside forces around you, because those outside forces, they can only influence you. They can't make you do something,” Priore advises. “You decide what you want to do.”

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