Jessica Lauser hails from Northern California’s San Francisco Bay Area, and has been an avid participant in tournament chess, both there and elsewhere, for a number of years, playing 175 rated events throughout the country, so far.
A graduate, in History, from San Francisco State University, Jessica worked for the Internal Revenue Service—last year—and now for a nonprofit organization servicing contract(s) for the U.S. Marine Corps.
Being legally-blind since birth, chess has provided her a means to attain equality and achieve success, hopefully inspiring others, along the way.
It has not been easy, but Jessica has qualified, several times now, to represent the U.S. in various competitions, overseas. These include World Blind Olympiads, the IBCA Women’s World Championship, and, most recently, the IBCA Men’s/Overall World Championship.
Jessica’s goal is to become the first blind women’s master in the United States, and to achieve a solid ranking among the top blind players in the world.
As always, Jessica appreciates the encouragement and support of the chess community, and she looks forward to making her own contribution to the ongoing improvement of others, as well.
How old were you when you first learned how to play chess? Who taught you?
I was seven, when I first learned to play chess, although it would be a few years—by about age twelve or so—before I fully understood such things as en passant. I learned from the principal of my elementary school, who was teaching only a few students at the time, since I came along well ahead of many of the chess programs that later formed in the schools, which became popular, throughout the country.
How has chess effected your decision making process off the board?
While chess has certainly helped me consider cause-and-effect relationships, there are countless aspects to decision-making—besides pure logic—that an understanding of chess doesn’t begin to help unravel. Alas, Life is infinitely more complex. Emotional, moral, and ethical, considerations, for example, can go into any number of decisions one may face, as an adult, and chess, it would seem, really requires much of the emotions and other elements to be absent from the process, to be effective.
How did your earlier career choices lead you to where you are now?
As for career choices, I’m afraid I’m still working on that. Having a lifelong and permanent disability—moderate blindness, in my case—has significantly delayed things, in terms of both my education and career. Though I’ve always worked, or tried to be employed while also attending college, most of my jobs were part-time and student-oriented (campus IT, Library, etc.), until I finally graduated, in 2016. After doing so, I, eventually, spent time working for the IRS, before hiring on as a civilian contractor under a nonprofit agency assisting the U.S. Marine Corps.
How would you define your chess style?
Concerning chess style, I would have to say I’m very tactical, but have been known to find positional weaknesses I occasionally exploit. Perhaps for this reason, I tend towards a much stronger performance with far less time, than with more, resulting in an incredible disparity between my speed and slow ratings: a peak of 2048 (Blitz), as opposed to that of 1700 (Regular). Of course, it’s especially fun to beat not only male, but also fully-sighted, opponents.
Does your chess style transfer over into your business decisions as well?
I would say that my chess style probably influences other areas of my life, including work, in that, more than once, I’ve made major decisions—like moving across the country to take a job, and even changing states again, several months later—for the potential future benefits that doing so could afford. A big motivator, for example, has involved student loan forgiveness.
What has been your worst chess mistake which has given you the biggest lesson?
My worst chess mistake was probably not becoming the 2011 Alaska State Champion. Despite having a much higher-rated opponent on the ropes, I allowed my fear that he had some hidden resource I simply couldn’t see, to cause me to make a more passive, defending move. Instead of playing more aggressively in the endgame, which I would have done had this match taken place on the streets of San Francisco, this mistake netted me second place, down from clear first. What I learned, however, was, should I find myself playing for a title—whether state or national—when I reach the critical position of not only the game, but quite possibly the whole event, to just stop and re-evaluate whatever it is I’m seeing. Thankfully, I used this technique to great effect, in both the 2018 Kentucky Closed Women’s State Championship and the 2018 U.S. Blind Championship. I outright won both events, and even made history, becoming the first-ever female U.S. Blind Champion.
What has been your worst career mistake that has given you the biggest lesson?
As for my worst career mistake, I can’t say that I’ve made one, so much as I’ve had mostly jobs and no career, so far. Even so, I’m still making continued efforts at finding a career, as there exists a huge unemployment rate among folks with blindness—anywhere from 70-90% of us do not work and most cannot support themselves without assistance—so it feels good to be among a very few who are “making it”, living independently. The biggest lesson, I suppose, involves never giving up, always having a goal to pursue. While I’m currently employed, for instance, my job is contract-based, so it will end, I just don’t know when that will be. Meanwhile, I’m inching towards my second BA, in hopes of transitioning into work that uses my ears—something involving Russian—so I can enjoy greater confidence, in the future, should I experience further vision-loss.
Do you think chess has helped you to become more resilient in life?
While chess has definitely helped me be more resilient in life, it is my strong Christian faith that has sustained me during the most difficult times I have known. Likewise, the support of family and encouragement from others I have met has made the journey more bearable.
What do you hope to achieve professionally during the next couple of years?
As for professional achievements in the next couple years, I’d have to say to GET a profession would be nice. (For now, I’m simply working, but given a number of difficult challenges I am facing, currently—lack of transportation where I live/work, the astronomical cost of Lyft/Uber twice a day, if not averaging more, and, being essentially isolated as a result—morale and budget, aren’t exactly up to par.) It would be nice to not only be well-paid for what I do, but also to not have every dime I bring in essentially eaten up with what it takes to survive and get to/from work.
What is the biggest challenge to achieving that goal?
The biggest challenge, of course, is the stigma of blindness that follows me into every job, school/housing situation I encounter, and even interpersonal relationships. Physically incapable of perceiving nonverbal communication when interacting with others—and being largely uncomfortable socializing outside of chess, anyway—has created marked difficulty for me, in making friends and participating socially, in general. For this reason, I experience a reality quite similar to those with Autism, and it has actually been suggested that I am on the Spectrum.
How would you relate these goals and challenges to the chessboard?
Relating my goals and challenges to the chessboard would be to simplify them, ridiculously, making resulting analogies inadequate, at best. For example, a large part of decisions I have made, over the years, were dependent on things was told, by others, causing all kinds of problems, if and when these facts were either inaccurate, or simply untrue. Most recently, myself and other employees were told there were buses to get around the area we each relocated to, from other states, for our jobs. This statement couldn’t be further from the truth, costing us a tremendous amount of time, or hundreds of dollars extra, each month, making us wonder if moving all this way was worth it, given how we are out all kinds of money, just for the pleasure of working.
Could you please leave us with a favorite piece of chess wisdom to conclude this interview?
For my favorite piece of chess wisdom, I would have to say, no matter what, be sure to keep chess in the proper perspective. While we LOVE this game, and we derive immense pleasure from practicing and playing it, ultimately it is not our devotion to the 64 squares that defines us, but rather what we do, outside of chess—in Real Life—since our Great Game is only part of all we do along the way. There are far more important things to consider, like faith and family, friends and the future. In this respect, I think the saddest thing is when we take the chess out of the player, and there is literally nothing left of that person. This is why it’s important to cultivate one’s life, in a number of different areas of interest, not only to broaden one’s horizons, but also to allow for personal growth beyond what is either familiar or comfortable.