University of Missouri student to compete in U.S. Women's Chess Championship

Roger McKinney
Columbia Daily Tribune
Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova, a junior at the University of Missouri, has been a Woman Grandmaster chess player since she was 16 years old. She is one of 12 female chess players who qualified for the 2021 U.S. Women's Chess Championship this month in St. Louis.

Begim Tokhirjonova is a chess Woman Grandmaster, but she has higher ambitions.

She's aiming for the highest title: Grandmaster.

A junior at the University of Missouri, she is a business major.

Although Woman Grandmaster can be achieved only by women, Grandmaster is the highest ranking, she explained.

"One day I will have it," she said.

Her next step toward that goal may come in the next few weeks. She is one of 12 female chess players who have qualified to compete in the 2021 U.S. Women's Chess Championship set for Oct. 5 to 19 at the St. Louis Chess Club.

"I'm very excited and nervous, too," Tokhirjonova said. "It's my first experience as a U.S. chess player."

She came to MU in 2019 from her native Uzbekistan, joining the fledgling chess team. Coach Cristian Chirila recruited her. She's at MU on a chess scholarship

Tokhirjonova has been playing chess competitively since age 5 and became a chess Woman Grandmaster at 16. In 2009, she won triple gold at the Asian Girls Championship, earning gold medals in Classical, Rapid and Blitz.

"I'm always proud of that," she said.

She won bronze at the World Youth Championship in her category. She won the Asian Girls Championship in 2015 in her category. She won the 2018 Uzbekistan Women Chess Championship. She played for Uzbekistan in two Women's Chess Olympiads in 2016 and 2018.

She said she was pleased with her performance in a 2018 Women's World Chess Championship tournament in Russia, where she came in eighth.

"I won against very, very strong players," she said.

At MU, she was part of the team's International Chess Federation Tournament win last year.

The upcoming tournament is a big one, she said.

"It's personally very, very important," she said. "I want to play for the national team. It's a new challenge. I would like to have a good result."

It was very challenging to move to Columbia in 2019 from Uzbekistan, where she lived with her parents, she said. Here, she was totally independent for the first time.

"I was 20 years old," she said. "Trying to handle everything myself was hard. I didn't have any friends. I didn't know anyone."

Adding to the isolation was the pandemic and the 10-hour time difference from her family in Uzbekistan.

The chess team members had each other, she said. Things have become much better.

"It's my home," Tokhirjonova said.

She practices 10 to 12 hours a week with her team and individually, she said.

"It's a little challenging to keep up with school," she said.

It will get more challenging when she misses 2 1/2 weeks of school for the upcoming tournament.

"It's going to be a semester of catching up," she said.

Her professors are understanding, Tokhirjonova said.

There's $100,000 in prize money at the St. Louis tournament, but Tokhirjonova said that's secondary to her.

"I play chess because I love it," she said. "My main goal is to become a better chess player. My individual growth is more important."

The Netflix series The Queen's Gambit increased interest in chess, she said. It came during the pandemic shutdown, so people stuck at home could learn chess if they were motivated.

It caused parents to want to see their daughters as chess players, she said.

"It was a very beautiful example of the chess player's life," though fictional, she said. "I think it impacted a chess boom."

She's surprised by how little Americans know about Uzbekistan, she said.

It has been an independent country for just 31 years, after being part of the former Soviet Union. It's in central Asia. Pilaf is a traditional dish, she said.

"Most people don't know about my country," she said. "I would like them to visit. Our people are very friendly. We have a rich history."

rmckinney@columbiatribune.com

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