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A chess grandmaster takes on 30 opponents in a simultaneous exhibition


Today in Saint Louis, Mo., one woman will take on 30 opponents in a simultaneous chess exhibition.

DORSA DERAKHSHANI: I'm supposed to get white, which white starts first in chess. So I already know what I'm going to do for the most part.

MARTIN: Dorsa Derakhshani is the one to beat. She is a chess grandmaster, premed student and captain of the women's chess team at Saint Louis University. Today's exhibition is being hosted by the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in Saint Louis.

DERAKHSHANI: This is more of a fun environment. I've been at the both sides of it. When I was a kid, I attended a few simultaneous exhibitions by, like, other people - other grandmasters. And I remember it was fun, but it would always take so long. So we decided to kind of make it 30 people so it wouldn't have to take a whole evening.

MARTIN: Yeah, well, if you say so. Derakhshani was born in Tehran in 1998. Her father started teaching her the game when she was just 2 years old. As a teenager, she went on to dominate her opponents, representing her country as part of the Iranian National Women's Chess Team.

DERAKHSHANI: I was the second-highest girl in the world by the time I was 18. I had a lot of opportunities for different countries that offered me to go and play for them. So in 2016, I chose to accept staying in Spain for a year and see if I'm the right fit for them, they're the right fit for me. And while I was there, the whole stuff with the public Iranian ban happened.

MARTIN: The ban Derakhshani is referring to was directed at her. At a competition in Gibraltar in 2017, Derakhshani did not wear a headscarf or hijab. She'd stopped wearing a hijab since leaving Iran the year before. But this time, the Iranian Chess Federation reacted, and they barred her from ever playing chess in Iran.

DERAKHSHANI: It wasn't more of a, hey, you made a mistake. You want to apologize? Or like, hey, let's have a talk about it. It was more of a, all right, so we saw she's not wearing hijab. So, OK, let's ban her without even telling her or sending an email or anything. Because if I'm in the country, they have a certain dress code that if you don't do, you'll be jailed. So you kind of have to do it. But when you're out of the country, they're not supposed to have any control over you because you, I mean, you're not in the country.

MARTIN: Derakhshani hasn't been back to Iran since and she's not sure what would happen if she did go.

DERAKHSHANI: If I were in Iran when the news broke out, I would probably still be in jail. So I got lucky that I chose to not go back when I left because I don't know what's going to happen to me if I do go back. I don't know if there is like, hey, if she comes, we're going to ask her gently to answer questions or, hey, we're going to jail her and no one's going to ever hear from her again. So because - or it could all be fine. They could have just, you know, made a media hit at the moment, and they might not mind right now.

MARTIN: For now, she is using her training in chess to help her think through her next move.

DERAKHSHANI: You know, in chess, sometimes the best defense is offense. And that's true. And - but I feel like in life. That's not necessarily the case all the time.

MARTIN: That was Dorsa Derakhshani. Today she takes on 30 competitors in a simultaneous chess match. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.