Seen and heard

Master candidate

Darrian Robinson, AB’16, is always looking for the game—in chess and life.

Laura Adamczyk

When Darrian Robinson, AB’16 (public policy and environmental studies), was in fourth grade, she saw a photograph of a diamond crown in a magazine—a prize for a chess tournament. “I said, ‘I want it.’ And about a year after that, I was invited to play for the World Youth Chess Team,” she says.

Now, at 21, Robinson is one of the highest-rated African American female chess players in the country. If she reaches a US Chess Federation rating of 2,200, she’ll become the first black woman to hold the title of chess master.

Robinson has held a White House internship, studied at the London School of Economics, and worked at Hillary Clinton’s Iowa campaign headquarters in Des Moines. After serving as financial manager of Cobb Coffee Shop this past academic year, she switched her focus from politics to finance. At the time of this interview in the spring, Robinson was applying for jobs and planning to play in more tournaments in hopes of getting that (figurative) chess crown.

Interview has been edited and adapted.

How important is it to you to become a master?

It’s pretty important, because why wouldn’t I? I’m basically already there. Why not get the number and prove it?

I normally don’t tell [people at the University] that I play chess. The instinct of a chess player is to just do and not really show.

Why keep chess separate?

I want to be good for the sake of being good, not so that people know I’m the person who plays chess. I think I’m pretty hard on myself, but if I take my mother’s advice, I shouldn’t be. Everyone that you saw today, everyone you saw in the last week, I can probably beat them in chess. But I don’t talk about that.

How long did it take you to figure out how good you were?

The other girls on the World Youth Chess Team had been playing since they were in kindergarten. I was a late bloomer. I started playing when I was 10.

And that made you stand out?

Definitely, because I accelerated so quickly. I also had an interesting personality. Chess people—they’re not the people you’ll see at the party every weekend, right? Some of the boys from the chess team [in the College] had this thing at their house, and I was the only girl invited. I really like those nerdy boy environments. It’s not because I like them [the nerdy boys]; it’s because on the inside I am them.

How much of your success is natural talent versus hard work?

I’m not sure. I went into a game shop the other day, and I was playing one game. You had to move the pieces so that it produced an end result 10 moves down the road. I stared at it, thought about the end picture, and then just saw the moves in between.

If you become a master, will you still play chess?

I guess we’ll see. I have no idea.

Do you enjoy playing?

In my behavioral economics class we talk about loss aversion—feeling the effect of a loss more than you would an equal-sized win. If you asked me to play chess, I would say no. Because although there’s a very small chance I’d lose, if I do, that loss will break my heart. But if I win, I won’t even care.

Is that why you’re interested in finance?

I need some sense of winning and losing. Where’s the game? I’m always looking for the game.


Left: Chess board close-up. Below: Darrian Robinson. (Photography by Joel Wintermantle)