Chess has a Me Too Moment
February 16, 2023 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Former two time US Women's Chess Champion Jen Shahade revealed that Grand Master Alejandro Ramirez is under investigation by the Saint Louis Chess Club and others over allegations of sexual assault, harassment of female chess players, his students and children As part of this Jen revealed that she was one of his victims. Many of his actions appear to be centered around his involvement with the Saint Louis Chess Club. Since her tweet yesterday more victims have come forward. Popular chess Twitch streamer Alexandra Botez has also tweeted about her own experiences (although not with Ramirez) as a woman in chess facing sexual harassment and assault. Chicago base Chess Coach Misha Vilenchuk has tweeted that he was aware of allegations of groping players at chess camps back in 2011. Ramirez is a Grand Master in residence at the Saint Louis Chess Club (one of the main hubs of chess -- more below). He is also the head Coach of the Saint Louis University Chess Team. In these roles he's had a lot of access to many rising female players and the impact of his behavior maybe a huge setback for attempts to increase women's participation in the sport.

With the backing of a wealthy patron, Rex Sinquefield, The Saint Louis Chess Club has brought in top players to lectures, sponsored the US Championships and other premiere events, created the World Chess Hall of Fame, and has helped establish a minor in "Chess in Education" at nearby Webster University, and created a broadcast studio with live coverage of major tournaments and lectures from top players streamed to its YouTube channel Recently the US Chess Federation moved its headquarters to Saint Louis as another sign of how Saint Louis and its Club have become the major center of US Chess.
posted by interogative mood (28 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
An earnest "don't read the comments" warning for the article; it's not 100% tropey misogyny and victim blaming down there, but it's a solid tirefire's worth.
posted by cortex at 10:29 AM on February 16 [8 favorites]

Here's Anna Cramling, daughter of former world women's champion Pia Cramling, talking about her own experiences to Gothamchess, who was featured recently.

"Wait Anna, I'm not a mathematician but if you stopped playing in 2019 doesn't that mean that literally every one of these stories you weren't even of age?"
posted by flamewise at 11:08 AM on February 16 [9 favorites]

but it's a solid tirefire's worth.

Ditto for the replies to Alexandra Botez's tweet. There are similar trash fires in the live chat of any chess event featuring women as commentators or women and girls as players.

I can only imagine that Ramirez has a good relationship with billionaire Sinquefield. Certainly Ramirez's on-camera interviews of Sinquefield during various events that Sinquefield has sponsored have been perfectly polished and respectful, the way someone talks who knows on which side their bread is buttered.

Sinquefield has not been shy about throwing his money around Missouri. If he decides to take Ramirez's side on this behind the scenes, it could be a very tough fight.
posted by clawsoon at 11:33 AM on February 16 [6 favorites]

it's a solid tirefire's worth.

This is an excellent metric, thank you.
posted by mhoye at 11:52 AM on February 16 [4 favorites]

"I just didn't know better in 2011..." is such maddening shit to read. Even if he was fourteen in '11 he should have known to say or do something about that. jfc.
posted by opsin at 12:19 PM on February 16

I am a Saint Louis University alumnus (hence the user name), and I noticed an article in the most recent alumni magazine about the SLU chess team. I was like "oh that's cool, I know how to play chess" but that was about it. But in light of this post, I hope the university steps up and cleans house.

Considering it's a wealthy Catholic university, however, I'd bet on sweeping it under the rug instead.

Changing my user name in 3...2...1...
posted by Billiken at 12:19 PM on February 16 [5 favorites]

GM Ben Finegold and his wife Karen who know everyone involved have put up a video on their YouTube channel. FD Ben was my coach for a while, but he denies it.
posted by interogative mood at 12:47 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

GM Ben Finegold and his wife Karen yt who know everyone involved have put up a video on their YouTube channel. FD Ben was my coach for a while, but he denies it.

Listening now... Ben is the last person I expect to approach a situation with tact and sensitivity, but hopefully he's not a complete idiot on this one.

At 4:45, did Karen say "Yifan", as in Hou Yifan, multiple-time women's world champion? I think I remember Anish saying that he and Yifan had come up together but at some point she had faded away and he wasn't sure why. Hopefully they'll say more as I listen more.

Karen's description of Alejandro as someone she'd never want to leave a girl alone with makes this sound like a giant missing stair situation.
posted by clawsoon at 1:22 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]

It’s stunning & sad to read some of the dumbest excuses. Some are saying that if @JenShahade didn’t report right away then it’s not true; the girls must have provoked it; it wasn’t that bad; it’ll teach girls to be stronger; girls/women made things up to get desperate attention..

When things were reported immediately, not only some chess officials covered things up, protected the perpetrators (and each other) & went after the victims… Yes, I know first hand because I spoke up about a convicted felon who went after underage girls (one of them was me)…

he was protected and I was humiliated, blacklisted, lost gigs, and money… Nothing happened to him and others who were reported. NOTHING! This is why today I mostly travel with personal security. I no longer feel safe at various chess events.
...and of course there's an idiotic reply to it. [sigh]
posted by clawsoon at 1:53 PM on February 16 [7 favorites]

It's hard not to think that things like this help explain why there are so many fewer women than men at the top of the chess world.
posted by HiddenInput at 3:41 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

Of course! The more subtle forms of discrimination also contribute to pushing women out of male-dominated fields such as chess, but people keep being surprised about how much actual direct sexual harassment and assault happens in male-dominated spaces (women I know who consider themselves feminist, even!) and how much that is still a factor in maintaining such spaces as male-dominated. I think maybe part of it is wanting to defend that the not-assault stuff is also still harmful to women’s careers or participation in activities - and it absolutely is. And also the subtext of the possibility of sexual harassment and assault heightens the impact of other forms of discrimination and implicit or structural bias.
posted by eviemath at 3:53 PM on February 16 [7 favorites]

I’m certain it is. There are people fighting to change and improve the vibe at tournaments and in clubs but when Nigel Short is FIDE’s director of Chess Development it shows that we’ve got a long long way to go.
posted by interogative mood at 3:55 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

Male-dominated anything usually boils down to "any woman who tries to play with the boys get sexually harassed." No matter WHAT industry. Chess? Games? Academia? Politics? Church? WINE? Literally anything.

Meanwhile, if you're a guy in a mostly-female anything, odds are fairly high you'll be treated like royalty or at least fairly well supported.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:56 PM on February 16 [12 favorites]

At 4:45, did Karen say "Yifan", as in Hou Yifan, multiple-time women's world champion? I think I remember Anish saying that he and Yifan had come up together but at some point she had faded away and he wasn't sure why. Hopefully they'll say more as I listen more.

She has largely retired from chess, which is usually framed in terms of her deciding to have a life and a real job (she’s a university professor now) which is something she’d always emphasized. But the treatment of women in chess is certainly a very plausible factor in her (and other talented female players*) not wanting it to be her life.

* Hou was at her peak the second highest-rated woman ever by a considerable margin. The highest being Judit Polgar, who was probably a decade older when she retired to have a real life but still young relative to comparable male players.
posted by atoxyl at 5:25 PM on February 16 [6 favorites]

Currently there's an investigation by a couple of organizations into an individual, but at some point it needs to turn into an independent third party investigation of those organizations. You don't get an abuser lasting over a decade in a organization without reports of abuse reaching the organization and then being ignored or actively suppressed. Organizations - especially small ones where everybody knows everybody - are generally bad at honestly assessing why they failed to prevent abuse and what changes they need to make to stop it from happening again.
posted by clawsoon at 7:15 PM on February 16 [4 favorites]

I don’t think they’ve actually investigated anything. I think they told the victims they would investigate and then circled the wagons and hoped it would go away. As long as it wasn’t public the problem was solved as far as they were concerned. I feel like this is the same bs that happened in churches, scouting, etc. Tell the victims whatever it takes so they don’t go public. That goes on for years and the cases and number of victims increase. Then when it eventually comes out it is always so much worse. Unfortunately organizations seem to be unable to learn from the mistakes of others.
posted by interogative mood at 9:28 PM on February 16 [3 favorites]

I don’t think they’ve actually investigated anything. I think they told the victims they would investigate and then circled the wagons and hoped it would go away.

Someone in a Reddit discussion made the suggestion that Shahade's use of "time's up" and her statement that she's been working on this for two years may indicate that she gave the organizations a timeline to do something before she went public, and they didn't do anything so now she's going public. No idea if that's what actually happened, but it's plausible.
posted by clawsoon at 3:47 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]

My nerdy 14F is starting to run up against this, and it's endlessly frustrating. She's into tech and science and engineering (and musical theatre: she has layers) and there's always some sort of gatekeeping by boys, but up until recently it was mostly "girls drool boys rule" nonsense. Now, it's started to turn sexual and it's really gross. I'd like to take this moment to say fuck Andrew Tate with a rusty chainsaw. The school administration was at first largely unresponsive to this: we actually got "boys will be boys" until I was like "yes, I was, but it was 40 years ago and things should be different now", and now that they've seen I'm not going to let my kid get abused like that, they've been better, but they'll only call out an individual kid, not the overall culture.

As a father of daughters only, something that's been clear since preschool is that while we've changed tremendously here in the USA about how we raise girls, entirely for the better, we haven't done a got-damn thing about how we raise boys: it's exactly the same as when I was a kid, and it seems so much worse by contrast. Boys still only get to like violence, cars, sports, dinosaurs, the worst sort of sex, domination, video games and gross body "humor", and any deviancy from that will be severely sanctioned by the other boys. Though it is okay to be gay now, as long as it's a certain very masculine-presenting sort of gay. So, that's nice? And all this is enforced by women as much as it is by men: the "boy moms" are the absolute WORST.

Anyway, I hope these chess women get some form of justice.
posted by outgrown_hobnail at 6:19 AM on February 17 [8 favorites]

St. Louis Today has an article. Looks like Ramirez has retained a lawyer who has no hesitations about aggressively going after victims. I wonder who gave him guidance and advice on picking a lawyer.
posted by clawsoon at 7:02 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]

I doubt that Rex is involved. My understanding is that he doesn't get involved in the day to day running of the club. He writes the checks and attends the events to rub elbows and have dinners with people like Garry Kasparov, the Mayor and other local St Louis elite. It would not surprise me if the first he heard about it was this week. The club has a lot of kids and their parents who participate in events. I'm sure that after being the GM in residence since 2015 Alejandro has an address book full of lawyers, doctors, and other professionals who have either taken lessons themselves or had him giving lessons to their kids.

The after school, in school and other educational programs do make me wonder if the if the club has complied with mandatory reporting laws and what action the police / prosecutors are taking. I suspect they haven't because that is also unfortunately extremely typical.
posted by interogative mood at 8:32 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]

Ugh, Watkins, of course. I read/edited a profile of him back in the day by one of the local women writers who do their best to uphold patriarchy at every turn, and I recall how spritely and delightful he was in her depiction. What a funny man, tee-hee. The thing I only realized later on was how she essentially wrote the same profile of every allegedly difficult man she interviewed "humanizing" him as a completely lovely person.
posted by limeonaire at 11:05 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]

Still nothing from the major chess Youtubers, as far as I've seen. I guess - despite their usually good intentions - that they want to keep things "fun" to promote the growth of chess and keep their view counts up, and this story isn't very "fun".

And that's one reason why stories like this get buried so often, because there's some "greater good" that will be threatened if there's too much talk about the bad things that people in the organization have done. Less people will come to Jesus if we talk about church abuse, less people will trust the police if we talk about police abuse, less people will play chess if we talk about chess abuse. So let's not talk about it.
posted by clawsoon at 2:42 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]

Fabi’s C-Squared podcast /YouTube had a short comment but nothing significant. The Wall Street Journal (archive link) has a story today and it seems to have triggered Alejandro’s resignation. Trigger warning article contains detailed descriptions of sexual assault of minors in the final paragraphs.

The allegations are damning for US Chess and the Saint Louis Chess Club. From the article:

Another woman, who was underage at the time of her alleged incident around eight years ago, said that she was warned as early as 2016 by St. Louis Chess Club officials not to be alone with Ramirez after a party. A player’s mother, who is also involved in the sport, said she alerted the top U.S. Chess official to Ramirez’s behavior in 2017. The mother added that she was also present in 2017 when top executives at St. Louis Chess Club joked about Ramirez’s interest in young women.

Despite this the Club sent Jen a letter in 2021 saying they were unaware of any allegations of inappropriate conduct. Jesus wept.
posted by interogative mood at 9:59 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

“Superimposing today’s mores on erroneous recitals of acts of yesteryear is a recipe for disaster for both the accused and the accuser,” Mr. Ramirez’s attorney, Albert Watkins, said.

"Today's mores", because 2011 was, like, a totally different time.
posted by clawsoon at 10:41 AM on March 7 [4 favorites]

A comment from Reddit, of which I have confirmed nothing:
The chess community loves Sinquefield for his patronage, but he spends the rest of his time spending millions to get ultra-conservative candidates elected in MO trying to do away with public schools, limits on political contributions, and the state income tax.

Two of the candidates he's spent a fortune electing have resigned because of inappropriate sexual conduct. He's also the guy who stepped up with $800,000 for Akin after his "legitimate rape" interview.
posted by clawsoon at 12:20 PM on March 8

Rex is a billionaire and like every billionaire he’s problematic. He has done great things for chess in the US though, especially women’s chess where he’s made sure the US Women’s championship has a big prize and also sponsored the Cairnes Cup event that brings in top female players around the world.

He isn’t on Twitter or social media. It wouldn’t surprise me if he found out about the Alejandro situation when it got in the Wall Street Journal and that’s why Alejandro resigned. My understanding os that the club staff insulates Rex from day to day stuff and mostly live in fear he’ll stop writing checks.
posted by interogative mood at 5:11 PM on March 8

Hikaru read the WSJ article on stream and commented on it. He didn't have much to add, but at least he said something, given that abusers take advantage of the fact that it's an uncomfortable topic that people want to avoid.
posted by clawsoon at 8:45 AM on March 11

At least 3 more women accuse St. Louis chess coach of sexual assault

This story from the St. Louis Dispatch covers many of the details from the WSJ article linked above, but adds:
Two of the women told the Post-Dispatch they were recently contacted by a private investigator who was hired by Ramirez, even though one of the women said she never reported her assault to any chess organization or authority. The private investigator declined to comment.
posted by clawsoon at 12:29 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]

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