As an eight-year-old girl growing up in a small coal mining town in the southern part of Poland, Patrycja Łabędź (“Cja”) (pronounced See-ya) had no idea that watching her sister play chess would take her on an endless adventure; an adventure that would span over 15 years and take her to over 30 countries. FIDE Master and Chicago Chess Foundation Board Member, Cja, 25, reflects on a path that has brought her to Chicago where she currently works as a project manager at a local software development company.
Cja sees chess as more than just a board game but as a way to learn about life’s lessons that she still carries today. She explains, “Chess is a game where little girls can beat old men. Age, gender, and race do not matter. You play on the same board where anything can happen and anybody can beat anyone. Just because someone is older and bigger than you doesn’t mean that they are better and wiser than you are at chess.”
She continues, “Chess teaches you to be persistent, patient, and it helps you anticipate what is going to happen. If you play on a team, it helps you become a team player. Through chess, I also realized that I didn’t think that there was anything that I couldn’t do. I feel like I carried that with me as I explored the world.”
Cja grew up in a small coal mining town in the southern part of Poland; her town Jastrzębie-Zdrój, has a population of about 100,000 people. She didn’t start playing chess until she was eight years old. Her sister, who is two years older than she is, saw someone playing chess and her sister asked her father to take her to the local chess club. Cja looked up to her sister and wanted to be like her. So, she asked her father if she could go, too. Chess really clicked for her and she stuck with it. Cja recalls, “It did not take very long for me to beat my sister. She only played for a couple of months.” Her sister soon gave up chess and went into swimming.
It took Cja a little longer to beat her father. She says, “My dad used to play in school. He just knew the moves and he was learning as I was learning.” They both improved at the same time and by the time she was 12 he could no longer help her.
She put in a lot of hours during the week but it didn’t seem like work to her. “I would train at the local chess club, work on puzzles and maybe spend two to four hours a week on private lessons. I played a lot because it was fun,” Cja recalls.
Because she did not like losing, it motivated her to practice and play more. She realized that the more she practiced the better she got. However, she did pay a small price for her success. She had to learn to make sacrifices early on in life. She laments, “I missed a lot of activities that kids normally do but I do not regret it. I clearly remember making a choice between going to a birthday party or staying home to practice. I chose to practice because I did not like losing.”
Playing chess was a great way for her and her family to see the world. As her chess playing ability began to improve she had to find more challenging tournaments. When she was around nine years old, she began playing chess internationally. There was a big tournament in Russia and her family made a family vacation out of it. She remembers, “It was a journey to get there. We travelled for two days on the train. Chess allowed my parents to explore places they normally would not visit.”
Despite being only 25 years old, Cja has visited over 30 countries. She estimates that 90% of those visits were chess related. Some of the places where she has been to are Norway, Italy, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, and the Czech Republic. Her favorite places were Italy and Turkey.
She accumulated plenty of accolades during her playing days. In 2009, Cja won the gold medal in the European Team Championship U18 and a year later, she won the gold medal in the Polish Women’s Team Blitz Chess Championship. She reached a personal best FIDE rating of 2146 in 2011.
Chess truly has empowered her. She recalls a time when her parents could not afford to send her to the World Chess Championships in Turkey because it was too expensive. She was very resourceful and covered one-half of the costs by herself and had sought the help of the local chess club to pay for the other half. This taught her a valuable life lesson in that if you want something important you can work hard to achieve your goal and not to be afraid to ask for help.
Cja parlayed her exceptional chess playing ability into a full ride chess scholarship at the University of Texas at Dallas – a chess powerhouse. She studied information technology and systems and marketing in college.
Thanks to chess she has traveled throughout the world, earned a college scholarship, and was independent by age 19. She proudly exclaims, “I am pretty sure all the jobs I got after college were because of chess. It stands out on a resume. Additionally, I gained a lot of friends from all over the world. I can reach out to someone who lives anywhere in the world and ask them a question or have someone to visit if I am going to be nearby.”
While she hasn’t played competitive chess in a while, she does give private lessons. If you are one of her students, don’t expect her to take it easy on you as she plays you. She explains, “As a coach I never let kids win and when they lose I don’t want them to take it personally.” She wants to make sure they learn good sportsmanship. She also stresses the importance of hard work, “You should not teach them that this game is easy. They have to put in the work in order to get a positive outcome.”
Before she finishes off her students in a game she turns the board around and lets her student try to figure out the best move. “I set up a situation that they can do. I flip the board and they have to find the best move such as a checkmate in two or a discovered attack. I do a little cheer when they find it. I know that they can obviously get better the more they play.”
Cja understands that not everyone can afford a chess coach. “You can do anything if you have a passion for it. In chess, you need very little money to get started and there are plenty of free online chess resources. While it is nice to have a one-on-one setting, it is not needed to get started. I know so many amateurs who did not have a coach but excelled because they had a passion for the game and learned to get better any way they could.”
Be sure to say hi to Cja the next time you see her at one of the CCF tournaments. Feel free to challenge her to a game but don’t expect her to take it easy on you. Expect a fight, expect to be knocked down but be prepared to get back up, just as you would deal with life’s struggles. Like Cja, if you are talented and have a great work ethic chess could be your ticket to see the world, too.
About the Author
Ben Wong is the current President of the Board of Directors for Chicago Chess Foundation.