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Arts & Life

How A Blind Kansas City Chess Champion Outmaneuvers Obstacles Like Poverty

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
When playing chess on a screen, Lauser has to hold the device at a particular angle in order to see any information.

In the year since Jessica Lauser moved to Kansas City, she's helped the 39th-seeded U.S. chess team for people with disabilities climb to 10th place — but she's also experienced homelessness.

Chess champion Jessica Lauser is determined to do many things: earn a graduate degree in Slavic languages, reach the rank of national chess master — and hang onto the Kansas City studio apartment she moved into earlier this year after a stint of homelessness.

Lauser is a three-time United States Blind Chess Champion, having won the competition in 2018, 2019, and 2020. And while she can take down just about anyone in chess — particularly in games played in under five minutes — her impaired vision makes other aspects of her life more difficult to handle.

When she was a 7-year-old growing up in Maryland in the 1980s, she says chess interested her after someone told her that, as she put it, “a kid could beat a grownup.”

“There were so many things I couldn’t do because I wasn’t old enough, wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t big enough, wasn’t coordinated enough, wasn’t sighted enough,” Lauser explains. “I wound up getting into chess because of these limitations, but in this game, it didn’t matter.”

In late November, she competed as a member of Team USA in the International Chess Federation’s (FIDE) first online international chess Olympiad for people with disabilities. Of the 61 teams playing, the U.S. was seeded 39th.

Lauser’s coach was national chess master Lior Lapid. He set his sights on finishing 10th place with his team of six.

And though they tied with several other teams, they hit the mark.

"Growing up with this condition of blindness and to have achieved everything she’s achieved in chess, and also with her education, she really is inspirational,” Lapid says of Lauser.

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Kansas City resident Jessica Lauser repeated as champion in the 2020 Blind Chess Championship in October.

However, chronic poverty keeps Lauser, who is 40, from fully realizing some of her goals. She's qualified for several international competitions, only to find she couldn’t afford the travel expenses. She’s also intent on attaining the rank of national master, but anyone going for that needs a coach, and she can’t pay one.

“When I do succeed — I’m determined to do this — at becoming a national master, I’ll be the first woman in the United States to have ever done that having started and been their whole life with blindness,” Lauser says.

Her determination to live as an independent adult has kept Lauser on the move and searching for a job that’s low paying enough so she can continue her federal disability benefits, but high paying enough she can pay for transportation and have a decent quality of life.

“If I’m not extremely careful working, it can become a fast track to poverty, homelessness, and debt. People in my position don’t normally work, they don’t normally have an education, and they don’t normally live independently, because they’re not expected to have a career and need to work in the first place,” Lauser says.

Maintaining that balance has proven difficult, and she recently spent time homeless.

Since completing her second bachelor’s degree in 2016 — the first was in history and the second was in Russian — Lauser has moved from her parents’ home in California to Kentucky to Virginia and then to Kansas City.

She’s worked federal jobs in the hopes that they’d be more compliant with Equal Opportunity Employment regulations than those in the private sector, and sometimes they have been.

Lauser quickly found a job in Kansas City, but a two-month delay in her start date, in combination with a suspension of her disability benefits because she’d earned more than $30,000 the previous year, pushed her out on the streets in her new city just before the pandemic.

A mission gave Lauser shelter, but it also housed everyone else. She found herself surrounded by people with substance abuse issues untreated mental illness. When they learned she had a federal job and knew Russian, they accused her of being a spy.

The pieces on a chess board, which she knows at a touch, are her escape.

“I love chess,” she says. “When I play chess, it allows me to step outside of and away from all the difficulties.”

Only six of the 253 tournaments she’s participated in were for people with disabilities.

Lapid, who owns PALS Chess Academy in Denver, says that competitions geared toward particular groups are not intended to level the playing field; anyone can beat anyone else. Instead, they’re for the comfort of participants.

Open tournaments tend to be made up of 80% to 90% men and boys. Tournaments specifically for girls, women, people with disabilities and other groups offer a social aspect to those players that an open tournament can’t.

“They might make good friends with people from around the world in an event like this, in an Olympiad which is only for people with disabilities,” Lapid says.

He emphasizes that Lauser does typically play against sighted people, usually men. “When it comes to fast chess, she’s a shark, and you don’t want to mess with her,” Lapid says.

The U.S. Chess Federation ranks Lauser in the 90th percentile of the 42,441 players in the general population and the 97th percentile of 6,614 women.

The mission that had sheltered Lauser closed just before the pandemic hit. Fortunately, that was around the time her job began. So, after several nights in an Airbnb, she found the small apartment where she lives now.

Next, she hopes to find a way into the University of Missouri-Columbia. Lauser moved to Kansas City in part to establish residency for future enrollment in Mizzou's Slavonic and Russian Studies graduate program. But she's been told that department is currently limiting applicants.

Lauser envisions herself on a university chess team eventually doing language-related work that relies on her ears rather than her eyes.

With or without meaning to, Lauser is adhering to Lapid’s definition of what it means to have a plan in chess.

Lapid says: “The definition I choose is that it’s the process by which we maximize our advantages and minimize the disadvantages in our position.”

While Lauser focuses on maximizing her advantages, she’ll continue to play chess, which makes her feel right at home anywhere.

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