Chess player banned by Iran gets a new start in St. Louis

A 19-year-old Iranian woman banned from competing in the name of her country after attending an international competition without an Islamic headscarf has taken her game to St. Louis University.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Dorsa Derakhshani is now at a freshman at the Missouri school, which has a new but highly ranked chess team of top international players. The biology major decided to accept a full scholarship to play for the university this spring, in the wake of the controversy.

Issues arose when Derakhshani wore a simple headband during a February competition in Gibraltar. She was competing under the oversight of the Iranian Chess Federation, an affiliation that allowed her to enter several championship-cycle tournaments. Iranian law requires women to wear head scarves in public, but she didn't think it would be a problem.

"I don't know why some people have enough free time to worry about what I wear," Derakhshani said.

She was 18 when she moved to Barcelona, Spain, and recruited by a chess club. She declined to be on Iran's national team sponsored by the government because she didn't want to be controlled by the rules of the team, including wearing a head scarf even while outside Iran.

But days after the Gibraltar tournament, the head of the Iranian Chess Federation said Derakhshani and her 14-year-old brother could no longer play in the country or under Iran's name. He cited Derakhshani's refusal to wear a head scarf and said her brother had played against an Israeli player. Iran doesn't recognize Israel and has a policy of not competing against Israeli athletes.

Derakhshani said her brother was paired by a computer and didn't know the player's nationality before the match.

"It was just cruel," she said. "He was just a kid. He didn't know what to do."

Her arrival in St. Louis comes as the city becomes a major player in the chess community. The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, founded by Republican millionaire activist Rex Sinquefield, hosts several national competitions.

Derakhshani said she wants to become a grandmaster, the top designation for a chess player.