Fourth Place Writing – Personality/Profile Writing

Aryana Hadjimohammadi

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University of Missouri
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Real life ‘Queen’s Gambit’: From chess grandmaster to med school

By Aryana Hadjimohammadi

When Dorsa Derakhshani was 19 years old, she came to the United States with six suitcases and a passport. St. Louis University offered her a full ride scholarship if she played on the chess team for up to six years, and she knew she couldn’t pass it up.

The chess federation in Iran, her home country, had just banned her from playing for its national team because she didn’t wear a hijab in international chess matches. She wrote an opinion article for the New York Times about the experience.

“I (didn’t) have a family I can rely on in (the United States) at the time. I didn’t have any money. I was on my own,” she said. “If I fail out of college, nobody’s going to take care of me.”

However, she is more than just a college student — she is the second Iranian woman in history to become a chess international master. She won the Asian Youth Chess Championship three times, her first win being at 14 years old. She was awarded the prestigious titles of woman grandmaster and international master in 2016, among the highest ranks awarded in chess by the International Chess Federation.

Her team at St. Louis University won silver in the 2017 Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championship, the highest-rated intercollegiate team competition in chess. She went on to finish third in the 2020 U.S. Women’s Championships.

Now, she plays on the chess team for the University of Missouri while in her second year of medical school.

While she is known worldwide for her impeccable chess skills, her life wasn’t always the easiest, growing up in Iran under a strict, religious government.

Growing up, a woman in Iran

Many would consider Derakhshani a prodigy.

She was born and raised in Tehran, Iran. At 2 ½ years old, she could read a first grade-level book.

As a toddler, she enjoyed singing and dancing and was scouted by a television producer. She appeared regularly on television specials as a “baby television personality,” where she sang, danced and tried to inspire kids to read and write.

However, when she was 6 years old, she was told to wear the hijab, a mandatory head covering for women that is part of the religious code in Iran, on live television. She didn’t want to do it.

“I ran out of the studio (and) never went back,” she said.

She describes her childhood as “tricky” and “dramatic” because of her relationship with the hijab. She remembers hating having to wear it as a young child.

“I get out of school. I’m taking it off. I’m wearing whatever I want because I’m 6 and who cares?” she said.

In fifth grade, her hair was long and would stick out of her hijab. She was walking back home one day when a stranger just cut her hair off.

“You can’t do anything about it because if you go to the police and complain, they’re like, ‘Oh, they shouldn’t have been able to see your hair. It’s your fault,’” she said. “The blame is always on the woman.”

When Mahsa Amini died in police custody in Iran in 2022 after allegedly violating Iran’s hijab law, Derakhshani said she felt “retraumatized” because it could have been her.

She said if the morality police drag someone away, they can’t defend themselves or fight back.

“They’re animals, and they will hit you. They will kill you … Don’t fight it, don’t say anything,” she said.

Derakhshani said she believes that it is a woman’s choice on whether she wants to cover her hair and should dress however she wants.

“It’s your choice to wear that and nobody should tell you anything else,” she said. “You shouldn’t do it because someone is trying to control you, you should do it because you believe this is the right choice between you and your God.”

‘I can dance with my pieces’

Derakhshani discovered her love for chess at a young age. Her dad had a chess set at home, and she would play around with the pieces. One day, she and her mom discovered a chess class was being held right next to her painting class. Her mom thought it was interesting, so they checked it out.

She initially found the game interesting and thought of it as a hobby, but she ended up really enjoying it and wanted to go professional.

She says she enjoys chess because it’s a mind game — it’s a game of trying to trick and counteract the other player.

“I can dance with my pieces,” she said.

Derakhshani’s mother viewed chess as a “nice, protective bubble” for her, away from all the problems happening in Iran regarding women’s rights and clothing. Derakhshani said she didn’t have time to digest how messed up the country was.

“I knew what was happening in society, but I wasn’t any part of it because I was too busy (and) focused on chess growing up,” she said. “I was too busy, focused on my next tournaments.”

She won her first national championship at seven years old and wore a pink princess gown with her own tiara in the closing ceremony. She said it was the first time that she ever won something big related to chess, and she felt like a “princess.”

She won gold medals at the 2012, 2013 and 2014 Asian Youth Championships while representing Iran’s national team and achieved every possible women’s chess title.

She said that she would like to see chess become more of a female-dominated field.

“I started to play internationally and the higher I climbed, the more I realized that it is a chess world problem too, that there are not many women playing,” she said.

Derakhshani praised the television show “The Queen’s Gambit” for getting more women and girls to enter the chess world, and she said she wants another season. Despite more girls playing, she said it can always get better.

‘I’m not going to go back until the regime has changed’

As she became a top chess player, a chess club in Spain offered her residency if she played for them. She wanted to leave Iran and become more independent because she didn’t want to live in an oppressive environment anymore.

She left Iran in 2016 with six suitcases, her passport and her SAT preparation book.

She lived between Madrid and Barcelona in Airbnb’s. While the language barrier was challenging for her, she found the country beautiful and loved the culture and people. She chose not to wear a hijab in tournaments and matches. In February 2017, while living and competing in Spain, she learned the Iranian Chess Federation banned her from playing for their national team for not wearing a hijab during an international competition the month before.

She said she believes the move was a political statement and was a “juicy story for them,” where Iran could get publicity.

“In their eyes, I stood up against their beliefs, their religion and their country,” she said.

She said Iranian culture is still active and present in her life. She speaks her native tongue, Farsi, with her mother. She named her cat Pishi, the Persian word for kitten. She enjoys Persian food and has found Persian friends in Missouri. But, if she ever went back to Iran, she would run the risk of being jailed.

“I have love for the country, but I’m not going to go back until the regime has changed…” she said. “(If) I go back, they’re going to jail me somewhere, and nobody’s going hear from me again.”

Move to medical school

Derakhshani said universities in the United States began to express interest in her playing for their chess teams and offered her scholarships.

She picked St. Louis University because they offered her a full-ride scholarship and St. Louis’ reputation as a chess hub provided her an opportunity to build on her chess career.

“I wanted to play for a (chess) federation that I would be proud of,” she said. “I wanted to play in the chess capital of the world.”

She joined St. Louis University’s chess team in 2017 while studying health science and biology.

She said their team was in many international and national tournaments including winning gold in the 2022 Pan-American intercollegiate team championships, and winning bronze in the 2019 world prestigious chess invitational tournament in China.

“The team was great…” she said. “We were constantly in the top four U.S. collegiate chess teams.”

She picked MU for medical school because she liked the curriculum and wanted to be near St. Louis where she was teaching private chess classes to students.

She is a member of the chess team at MU, but playing chess professionally is not her end goal anymore. Her focus right now is medical school because she wants to actively help people.

She said chess is very individualistic and involves traveling, tournaments, and practicing.

“You’re not doing any good for society. Yes, you are bringing joy to people, but you’re not actually fixing any problem, she said “As a doctor, I have the option to actually do something.”

Through her time at MU, she said she’s built a good support system of friends who are there for her through hard times.

“Whatever happens, I always felt like I could rely on my friends,” she said.

Mehamed Abdi, one of Derakhshani’s close friends from MU, said he values her ambition for wanting to be successful in life. He describes her as “very caring.”

During their friendship, he said there were a lot of times when she would go the “extra miles,” spending two to three hours to help him study or driving him to St. Louis from Columbia to see his family because he did not have his car with him.

“Knowing that if you need something, she would be willing to do everything in her ability to make sure that you are taken care of in terms of resources and all that,” he said. “You can depend on her.”

Michaela Thomson, another close friend of Derakhshani, said she admires how “strong” and “resilient” she is for being able to balance medical school while teaching chess and taking care of her mother.

“Patients aren’t going to know her complete background when she’s practicing,” Thomson said. “But as other students, it’s really admirable to know how far she’s come and how hard she’s worked to get to where she is.”

She said one of her favorite memories with her was watching the Barbie film together. The experience was “so empowering.”

“It was really impactful watching that movie together and sharing in (that) strong female friendship with each other,” she said. “I love having other strong women in my life that I can rely on, and we look out for each other.”

Hopes and aspirations

Derakhshani said a big hope for the future is to make her mother more comfortable in the U.S. It’s been a challenge for her with the language barrier and new culture.

Her mother has a green card and currently lives with her. She said her mother was the biggest influence on her life because she focused much of her life on her chess career instead of thinking about herself.

“She barely did anything for herself. She lived through me. She wasn’t planning a vacation. She was planning tournaments for me,” she said.

Derakhshani expects to graduate in 2026, but for now, she wants to “survive med school and keep my sanity.”


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