Jessica Lauser, U.S. Champion

by admin on December 24, 2020

Two days ago I hinted at a piece of good news that I had to keep secret for the time being. I can now reveal what it is. This morning, the New York Times published my article about Jessica Lauser, the U.S. Blind Chess Champion. For people who like print, the article is also scheduled to appear in the print version of the newspaper on Tuesday (December 29), in the Science Times section.

Here is how the article came about. Last month, like so many other people, I watched the series “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix. Just about the same time, I started reading (mostly via Michael Aigner’s Facebook posts) about the U. S. team’s performance in the first Online Olympiad for People with Disabilities. Though seeded in the bottom half of the field, the U.S. team ended in a tie for tenth place, with a team score of 4.5-2.5 in spite of playing against higher-rated teams every round. And I noticed that the fourth board on the U.S. team was Jessica Lauser, the current three-time U.S. Blind Champion.

Not U.S. women’s blind champion. U.S. blind champion, period.

That’s when it hit me. If so many millions of people were so interested in a show about a fictional national champion who is a woman, wouldn’t they be interested in a real one?

I pitched it to an editor at the New York Times whom I had written for once before, and she loved the idea. So did several other editors she discussed it with. Then I contacted Jessica (with help from Michael Aigner! Thanks, Michael!) and we had a great phone interview. She’s the best kind of interview subject, not only because she is eager to tell about her experiences, but also because she tells stories. A little advice to anyone out there who is contacted for an interview by the news media: if you can tell good stories, the reporter will love you for it.

In the end, the article came out so well that the newspaper selected it for a section called “The Great Read,” which highlights one selected article per day that they think readers will find particularly interesting. If you go to the website today only (12/24/2020), and scroll down just a little bit past the politics stories and the pandemic stories, it should be one of the first things you see, called “She’s a Chess Champion Who Can Barely See the Board.”

Let me make a couple of comments about the photos, which I personally had nothing to do with. First, I love the main photo, which I think is very arresting. Jessica is looking straight at the camera over the chess board… except that her right eye isn’t. It’s looking off to the side. She has had surgery to correct this defect, which didn’t work. The right eye is her blind eye, and she doesn’t actually know what it’s looking at, which has led to awkward moments when strangers on the subway come up to her and start yelling at her for “staring” at them. If I were directing a movie about her life, I think this would be a great opening scene. It would highlight the obstacles that she and other blind and disabled people constantly have to deal with. What can you do when the mere sight of you creeps some people out?

There’s also a video, which has an interesting story behind it. Jessica’s favorite game from the Olympiad was actually a game that didn’t count. Before the first round, every team played a practice match to get people used to the computer interface. Jessica played White against a player from Croatia, and they got to this position:

Position after 29. … Qg3. White to move.

FEN: 3r1r1k/1b5p/pp2Bpn1/2pP1R1Q/P7/4B1qP/2R3P1/6K1 w – – 0 30

Jessica gave up a pawn earlier in the game but she has gotten a dangerous-looking kingside attack as compensation. Her opponent seems to be not too worried, though, and he is threatening to take her undefended bishop. Should he have been worried?

(Space provided in case you want to think about it.)

The answer is yes! Lauser now has a rare opportunity to finish the game with a queen sacrifice: 30. Qxh7+! Kxh7 31. Rh5+ Kg7 32. Bh6+ Kh8 (or Kh7) 33. Bxf8 mate!

Surprisingly, Jessica played 30. Bf2 instead, and she eventually won the game as her opponent continued to be more interested in grabbing material than in defending h7. I asked her whether she saw the queen sacrifice, because it’s exactly the sort of thing I would be looking for in a position like this. She said that yes, she did see it, but she somehow convinced herself that it wouldn’t work.

I can, of course, sympathize with this. All of us have had similar hallucinations. There are a couple flavors. One hallucination is to think you need to do more preparations for a sacrifice or a combination that is already sound. A second hallucination is the fear that you are overlooking something. The sacrifice looks sound to you, but you’re not sure, and your clock is ticking, so you play a simple and safe move that you know is okay. Remember, the goal of chess is to win, not to play the most amazing sacrifice.

I do think it’s a shame that she couldn’t bring herself to play 30. Qxh7+! Anyway, in the video on the New York Times website, she is showing how the game would have ended if she had played that move. If I were making a movie about her life, this combination would be a really good candidate for the final scene. But we’d have to say, “based on real events,” because it isn’t actually the way the game ended.

Enjoy the article, and once again, merry Christmas and may your Christmas stockings be full of good moves for the coming year!

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Bryan Pendleton December 24, 2020 at 5:16 pm

It’s a lovely article, I just saw it online in the Times’s RSS feed. Congratulations!

And great shout-out to FPawn (Michael Aigner) for all the wonderful work he does!


Larry Smith December 25, 2020 at 11:00 am


Congratulations on getting this published. It’s a very nice article. The adjective that came to mind for me was “tender.”

And, like “The Queen’s Gambit,” ultimately it turns out that your article was not about chess. Just as TQG was as much about other things than it was about chess (addiction, feminism, etc.), your article was more about our treatment of the differently abled than about Qxh7+.


Mary Kuhner December 25, 2020 at 3:40 pm

Jessica played in the Washington State Women’s Championship in 2016 (it’s not limited to WA residents). As a warm-up she beat me at blitz several times in a row–she is really formidable at blitz. There’s a writeup in Northwest Chess, though it only mentions her in passing.


Jon Jacobs December 27, 2020 at 1:36 pm

Congratulations to Jessica, and to Dana the author.


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