Chess tournament honors girl’s memory

Posted: 9/23/2004
By Marc Ingber
Sun Newspapers

Kids of all ages will honor the memory of a Minnetonka girl this weekend by playing the game she loved.

The Priyanka Memorial Chess Tournament will be held Sept. 25 and 26 at Eisenhower Elementary School in Hopkins.

Priyanka Bhakta was a member of the West Suburban Chess Club who died of leukemia in the summer of 2003, when she was 8 years old.

“It’s very uncommon that you come across a girl like Priyanka,” said Brian Molohon, executive director of the HB Foundation, which promotes the benefits of chess for children and provides chess scholarships to students. “She was pretty amazing.”

Molohon said most girls stop playing competitive chess when they hit the pre-puberty age because it is a male-dominated sport, but Priyanka was an exception.

“They don’t really lose interest, but it’s hard to walk into a chess club when it’s all boys,” he said.

But that never affected Priyanka, he said.

“Little kids were scared to play her. She had a reputation,” he said.

Priyanka started attending local chess tournaments when she was 2 years old to watch her older brother, Nihal, compete. Nihal taught her how to play when she was 4 and her interest in the game steadily grew.

Every Friday she would practice with the Glen Lake Elementary chess team in Minnetonka and on Monday and Tuesday nights she would practice with the West Suburban Chess Club.

Priyanka loved to win, but was never deterred by a loss, her mother, Leela, said.

Priyanka was diagnosed with leukemia at age 4 and entered treatment for 26 months. After being in complete remission for 13 months, she relapsed in January 2003.

In between her hospital stays, Priyanka entered her final competition in April 2003, playing in the kindergarten-to-third-grade section of the Minnesota State Chess Tournament. She won five of seven games and a trophy. In June of that year she received a bone marrow transplant and died from complications related to the treatment.

Proceeds from the tournament will go to the HB Foundation and the Cancer Kids Fund, which provides support, care and hope to kids and families coping with cancer or blood disorders.

Molohon hopes the tournament will draw between 150 and 200 children to compete and will raise between $1,500 and $2,000 for the organizations.

The age range of the children will be quite wide – kindergarten through high school, he said. And the players will be matched by ability.

“You could have a kid in kindergarten taking on a kid in junior high,” Molohon said.

One of the goals for the tournament is to promote chess for girls, he said.

He said Priyanka’s family thought the tournament was a good way to honor her and helped set it up.

“They love the idea,” he said. “It’s been very emotional. It’s still very raw and very hard, but they don’t see a better way of how to honor her.”

Pat LaVone, president of the West Suburban Chess Club, who came up with the idea for the tournament, said Priyanka would have loved the idea too.

“She loved the game,” he said. “She was such a little spitfire in terms of loving challenges, so I’m sure she would think this is a great event.”