Female students are advancing in the game of chess, a realm traditionally held by men. We talk with two experts ‒ a Women’s FIDE Master and a Woman International Master ‒ who emphasize the surge in support for female players.

The Hart House Chess Club is one of the University of Toronto’s oldest and most popular clubs. It offers a fun and casual gathering place for chess lovers of all skill levels at U of T and across the Greater Toronto Area. It also shapes the trajectory of female players, whose participation is slowly rising.

In fact, the Club hosted the All4chess & Chess4All: Toronto Chess Festival for Women & Girls on May 14, 2023 at Hart House, a special event supported by the Canadian Chess Federation, Ontario Chess Association and the FIDE Commission for Women’s Chess.  

Hart House Chess Club

Victor Zheng, Secretary and President of the Club, says the number of women in the Club is growing. “Approximately 15 per cent of the 500 official members of the Club are women. For the first time in our history, two female players attended the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Championship last year, making up 20 per cent of the team. Also, 25 per cent of players who attended the Canadian University Chess Championship in Ottawa were women for the first time in history. This year, 33 per cent of our Executive is female identifying, too. These are historic numbers never seen before.”

Experiences of the Club’s Top Female Players

A Women’s FIDE Master ‒ one of the official titles a player can receive from the International Chess Federation ‒ Cindy Qiao is a second-year student studying computer science. She has been a member of the Chess Club for two years, but was introduced much earlier.

Cindy Qiao

"I've known about the Club since I was a little girl,” she says. “I would come to their casual plays on Friday. There were tournaments in different rooms at Hart House, so my friends and I would explore the building. We basically know all the rooms by now,” she says, adding, “The House is a really nostalgic place to me where I recall my childhood memories with chess, but it's also an exciting place where I continue to experience new things.”

Woman International Master Yunshan Li, the current highest-rated player at U of T, is double majoring in psychology and anthropology. The second-year St. Michael’s College student has been playing at the Club for two years. She actually transferred from Scarborough campus to St. George to be closer to Hart House.

Yunshan Li

"The House is a very inclusive place,” Yunshan emphasizes. “Female players are treated the same as male players. And if we play well enough, we can have an important role on the team. It's about your chess strength and this is nice. I feel relaxed playing in such an environment.”

She elaborates, “People here are very friendly. I have a lot of good friends here and, because of chess, we have a very deep tie.”


“Never easy walking into a room full of male players”

The ratio of men:women players is an historic challenge. Cindy describes this: “I go to the Club often and see three to four female players in a room full of male players, which sounds like a terrible number, but I've been to tournaments where it's all men. Not a single female player.”

“The ratio is not very high,” Yunshan also admits. “We hope in the future there can be more female players.”

Cindy explains what it feels like to be in the minority at the chess board: “As a female player, it has never been easy walking into a room full of male players, but Hart House has done a really good job of making the Club a welcoming community. In all the tournaments I've played at the House, they've always provided a top women's prize to encourage female participation.”

Yunshan also says these prizes inspire female players. “This is a really good thing to encourage more female players to enjoy chess.”

Cindy describes another boost to female players: “In March 2023, to celebrate International Women's Day, Hart House hosted the Women's Simultaneous Exhibition. I was lucky enough to be part of that.”

Both Cindy and Yunshan underscore the strength of the female players in the Club. Cindy says, “We have a strong showing … and I hope that continues to grow.”

Best Memories about Friendship as Much as Chess

When asked about a favourite memory, Yunshan says hers was at the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Championship in Seattle, in January 2023. “This was my first in-person event representing the Hart House team and we had a really good time,” she explains. “We had the true spirit of a team. We are united and we support each other. It doesn't matter if you win or lose.”

The team at the Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Championship. Members from left to right: Tanner McNamara, Nicholas Vettese, Victor Zheng, Matthew Shih, Tanraj Sohal, Derek Ma, Yunshan Li, Cindy Qiao and Wenzhi Dai.

Cindy also has many wonderful memories made at the Club. “Every Friday, I really enjoyed playing, and maybe afterwards we would get dinner or celebrate someone's birthday … We would bond over a shared passion for chess, but also just as people. My favourite thing about the Club is the people and the memories I’ve made with them.”


Advice to Students: “You should really join!”

Yunshan encourages people: “Don't hesitate, just come. Hart House welcomes all players. People are very friendly, and always glad to play with you.”

“The biggest thing is joining a chess club as a girl,” Cindy emphasizes. “When you walk in, it's thinking that you have no one to talk to or your skill level is not enough to play against other players. But all players are there because they really enjoy chess and sharing the fun of the game. So, you should really join! You'll definitely have a good time,” she says, adding, “I hope to see more female chess players in the Club and playing on the team. That would be very nice.”

Learn more about the Hart House Chess Club.