Just down the street from the ornate Grand Chute water tower, a little cream house with red shutters houses a mantelpiece full of towering chess trophies. Seventeen-year-old Rachel Ulrich lives here, and she just placed sixth out of ten in the U.S. Girl’s Junior Championship, America’s most elite, invitation-only junior chess competition.
“I enjoy the difficulty and complexity of the game,” she says. “I enjoy thinking on my feet, and I enjoy the mental challenge of it.”
U.S. Junior Championship players competed from July 8-17 in St. Louis, the nation’s chess capital. Alongside her luggage, Ulrich brought 10 or 11 years of experience gliding pawns and checkmating opponents to the table.
“There isn’t much of a secret, but like anything else, you can work up to it,” she says. “As someone gets more and more advanced, their games will start taking longer and longer, and then they’ll be able to deal with it.”
Ulrich competes in tournaments around the country, usually within driving distance from home, but as far away as Florida and (once) across national borders into Canada. Game lengths increase as skill does; with the title of a U.S. Chess Federation “National Master,” Rachel has her work cut out for her.
“It’s very stressful, but it’s a lot of fun,” Ulrich says. “I usually play about two games a day, and each of them can last anywhere between one and five or even more hours. In between, I get to spend some time with my friends and do some fun things, and enjoy being in the area.”
While her favorite tournament is the annual Chicago Open, the people are as important as the places for Ulrich, if not more. She has a set of friendships made and maintained through these competitions — forged through shared obstacles, like a field lacking gender equality.
“There are a few all-girls tournament, because chess is a very male-dominated field, and they’re very motivating for girls,” Ulrich says. “Chess is also really good for girls, because it helps with the critical thinking, logical and analytic skills that are important for STEM fields.”
Ulrich’s father, James Ulrich, supports his daughter (and her three siblings) in all aspects of life, from acting as a single parent breadwinner to “driving the bus” to tournaments and activities. He wants to see his daughter follow her passions, including a STEM-heavy interest in a future medical career.
Intellectual strengths like these, however, aren’t the only ingredients for success on the chessboard. “You don’t think about the aspect – physical endurance is a huge part of chess,” James says. “You know, so it’s diet, exercise, eating your vegetables: the same thing as any other activity.”
Ulrich’s father opened the floodgates for his daughter’s now-talent at a young age; he taught the whole brood “the moves” of the game at first. Soon, though, his middle daughter moved on to a local chess club, and now he estimates he has about a 2 percent chance of beating her.
“You gotta have something that you’re good at, and I’m just glad to see Rachel doing well at it,” he says. He wants her to succeed, but doesn’t see chess as her future’s main focus: “I don’t have a problem with people being chess instructors for their life, but that’s not what her calling is. I just want her to get an education and do well, whatever she does.”
She’s not sure she’ll continue with the hobby into college, but schools she’s looking at include the University of Texas at Dallas, because it’s a “good chess school.” Her sights are set on Stanford, though – she’s not sure she’ll be accepted, but as the only female “National Master” in Wisconsin, she’s overcome some odds already.