Daa and Matt Mahowald

Checkmates? The Twin Cities’ first couple of chess discuss its benefits, its stereotypes, and why more women aren’t in chess clubs.

THE WORLD OF Matt and Daa (pronounced “day”) Mahowald is populated with rooks, pawns, kings, queens—and kids. The Robbinsdale couple lead chess clubs at seven Twin Cities elementary and middle schools. They also host Chess Spectaculars (statewide events aimed at introducing kids to chess) and the Girlpower! Chess Camp.

Matt, who has earned the title of chess master (one rank below grandmaster), has been known to play 25 students simultaneously; he’s even played blindfolded (and won). Daa, the state’s third-ranked female player, plays chess up to four hours a day and carries a chessboard wherever she goes. The couple (who don’t often play against each other) met in a chess club, and their daughter, Morgan, now 14 and a chess champ herself, “teethed on chess pieces.”

Do you think about chess even when you’re not playing?
Daa: Absolutely. I’ll be driving down the road and think, that knight better get out of my way.

Is chess becoming more popular?
Daa: I think so, with the visibility of computer chess and speed chess tournaments. Also, many kids are interested in chess now because Harry Potter plays chess. Well, wizard chess.
Matt: A lot of parents, too, are looking at chess positively as being anti-TV and anti-video game. We, for instance, don’t have a TV.

What do kids get out of chess, besides a trophy?
Matt: A lot of the faults that people go through life with can be worked on by playing chess. I had a student who was a classic quitter, but he really wanted to get better at chess. I think [quitting] is something he’s now conquered. Chess gives you an immediate consequence to losing concentration—you lose concentration, you lose the game.

Can chess help students academically?
Daa: If you start playing chess in elementary school—making the connections, planning your moves, seeing things in 3-D—you’ll be able to handle geometry at an earlier age. Many of the kids we had in chess clubs in elementary school are now in the honors program or the International Baccalaureate program in middle school.

Why haven’t women been significantly represented at the highest levels of chess?
Daa: Look at any middle school now and you’ll see that girls don’t want to look smart…[they think] the boys won’t like them. If they’re too smart, the boys will feel intimidated, and it extends into chess, too. We had three girls in the middle-school clubs that Matt and I coached who really wanted to be in chess clubs but did not tell any of their friends. They were very, very careful that nobody knew they were in chess clubs.

Do stereotypes hold true, though, of chess players as nerds?
Daa: The students we have are just as loudmouthed and brash and egotistical as any other teenagers. The biggest problem we have, actually, is the chess bullies who laugh at their opponents after a win.
Matt: A number of the kids could be considered nerd types. Though I think a reason some of the kids joined up is that we’re meeting in the same room where they meet for detention.