Check Mates: The DIG Chess Team’s Stars in the Making

left: Adaora Enu with her DIG chess coach, Jithu Sajeevan. middle: Adaora Enu, with one of her many chess tournament trophies. right: Mehek Kaira, plotting her next move.

Move over Bobby Fischer; the face of chess is shifting. In The Queen’s Gambit, an orphaned girl is the chess prodigy. Disney’s Queen of Katwe recounts the true story of a girl from the Ugandan ghetto who becomes an international chess champion. And right here in Connecticut, girls are excelling at the game, notably Adaora Enu, who is ranked #1 in the state among 9-year-old girls, and Mehek Kaira, #1 in the state among 8-year-old girls. Both are from Wilton and play on the DIG Chess team—a program that is in ten Connecticut towns, including Wilton, Westport and Weston.

“I used to see maybe 5 of every 100 players were girls. Now it’s more like 25 or 30 per 100,” says Jithu Sajeevan, DIG chess coach. “My partner, Dan Starbuck Pelletier, started DIG ten years ago with a variety of programs. We formed DIG Chess last year because the chess program was really taking off.” DIG stands for: Determination, Integrity, Growth.

Adaora came to a Tuesday class in 2022 and Sajeevan had her play in a tournament that same weekend. “I did that with Mehek, too,” he says. “Players are given a ranking. I’ve seen that competing motivates players to improve their ranking. They practice more.” The strategy worked.

“Adaora plays five or six hours a week and does chess puzzles daily,” says her dad, Emeka, who is a chess enthusiast. He chuckles when he recounts how it was his son he expected to take to the game: “I was trying to get Adaora’s younger brother to play chess. He plays but he’s not crazy about it. My wife said, ‘We are in 2022! What is wrong with you? Maybe your daughter is interested.’ That’s how it started.”

Mehek began playing at age 7. “I saw my sister and dad playing chess. That inspired me,” says Mehek, who plays four to five hours per week. Everyone in her family plays. “My biggest goal is to become a National Master,” she says.

Sajeevan highlights parental support as a key factor in the girls’ success. “Adaora’s dad plays with her every day. With Mehek, it’s the same.” He adds, “You gotta love the game. Chess is brutal. In soccer, if you’re 9-0, there is no coming back. But in chess you can be winning by so many pieces, and with one mistake the game turns around so quickly.”

“Adaora and Mehek are learning so many critical skills from chess: to work hard, to be graceful when losing, to look deeper into situations, to figure things out,” says Pelletier. “I’m proud of what they’ve done so far and excited for what they’re going to achieve in the future.”

Emeka comments, “Adaora concentrates better at school. She is part of the Wilton Wahoos swim team, which was tough at first. She might have quit if she didn’t have a chess background. She’s not scared of losing or working hard.” Adaora hopes to play in the nationals. “My long-term goal is to teach chess to kids that look like me,” she adds.

Sajeevan says, “I think both girls could be top players in the nation.”

Group classes, private lessons, tournaments and chess parties: digchessteam.com

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