First published in Cinders issue four
Sixteen year old Diana Mirza recently won the World Schools Under-17 Chess Championship.She is Ireland’s first ever world chess champion and has filled Cinders in on openings, tactics, non stop practice, and how it’s never too late to get into chess.
When did you start playing chess?
I started playing when I was five years old, my Dad runs chess classes after school so I used to be around it all of the time. I began playing in competitions when I was nine when I started to improve. As I got better, the more I liked doing it. I suppose it’s like anything, when you discover you’re good at it then you’ll want to stay doing it.
Do you play with a club?
I do, I play for Adare in the Munster League. There is also a UK team who invite me to play with them sometimes but I can only play with them occasionally because of the expenses of travelling to London.
How much practice do you have to do to get to your level?
It is a lot of work. I have to practice a little every day, and it’s not just moving pieces around the board! There’s a huge amount of theory that you have to learn, like you have to learn your openings (opening moves in chess have to be learned, there are thousands of different ones that can be used and are memorized by players). Although I don’t learn as much of the theory as I should- I can be a bit lazy about it! That’s the difficult thing about chess, you have to be self disciplined. I have a coach who does skype lessons with me, but he’s a bit more of a mentor, it’s up to me to keep going, to keep practising.
Do you use books to study and learn?
There are lots of books and I have used some of them but mostly now everything is computerised. I do practice games online. When it comes to preparing for specific opponents you can look up their game play. There’s a huge database in chess. Each player in a tournament has their game moves recorded. So with that you can look up their game play, the openings they like to use and get a sense of their style. It can be really helpful. It goes into helping you prepare for your opponent, it’s a great asset to have. Although sometimes it can work against you if you’re playing someone who hasn’t played many tournament matches. It means that they have less recorded matches and it isn’t as easy to gauge their style. They can catch you by surprise. During the tournament there was a Sri Lankan girl I was drawn against who hadn’t many tournament ranked matches – so there wasn’t a lot of information I was able to take from her match play. But she had lots of information on the way I played! So I had to think about how to get around that. So I memorized a new opening so I might throw her off – and it worked!
There’s a lot of preparation that goes in even when you’re not on the table so if you can force someone into being thrown off by a new opening, something they weren’t expecting then you have an advantage. You just play the board you have.
How far ahead can you memorise in a game of chess?
Really the only thing you can have memorised before you go into a match is your openings and they’re 10 – at most 15 moves in length. You memorise openings and then you memorize responses to openings, so you have to figure out how to evade your opponent’s opening as well. If you don’t recognise an opening, if you’re not prepared for it then that can cost you. A game can be won because of preparation. That happened to me against the Sri Lankan girl I mentioned earlier. Because she didn’t recognise the opening it led to her losing the match. I won that one in 18 moves – an hour and a half – I know that sounds like a fair bit but trust me, in chess it’s nothing!
How did you feel headed into that last round of the competition, of the league?
Well, in the last round I was just half a point ahead of the other players, so I was nervous. There were also other players playing their final rounds all around me. I knew that if I won my round, I had the title. There were two players playing next to me though, Kazakhstan vs Azerbaijan, depending on which of them won, I would have to win or draw my match. As it turned out, all I needed was the draw. It’s not that I didn’t want to win, but sometimes if you try to force a win, you can get caught and end up losing. That happened to me in a round against a Russian girl , I was drawing with her but I was really determined to win, I tried to force it and ended up losing, so I didn’t want to do that in the final round.
That must be massive pressure?
It can feel like a huge amount of pressure when you’re playing in a tournament like that. It can feel like a lot of pressure afterwards too, you keep thinking about the moves you should have made and the mistakes that you could have changed. The rounds are also very long. Games can last up to five hours. I tend to have very long matches as well. My games against Moldova and Sri Lanka I was the last person to finish. You have to keep your concentration for a long time as well.
How do you train for that kind of pressure?
Chess players exercise a lot, it’s important to keep up with it because you need stamina to keep concentrating for that long. I play basketball and some other sports. When I’m playing chess stamina is key, in a single turn you have to plan what they can do, what I can do back, analyse positions, counter attacks. It’s a lot to think about – it’s why chess is so slow! Sometimes that can be what trips up a player in a game – they get into time trouble – that can lead you to miscalculate a variation. It can also be a way to put off your opponent – if you move fast – then they have to move fast. That’s happened to me before, I’ve gotten into time trouble with opposing players and once you’re in trouble, it can lead you to make mistakes. Because of that it’s really important to have the right mindset.
For our readers, who are interested, do you think it’s ever too late to get into chess?
No, you’re never too old to get into chess! That’s the great thing about it, you’re never too old to start. It’s not like with other sports where age is a factor, chess is something you can begin at any age. I think the current world champion only started when he was 18! And he went on to become world champion! My Dad just played in an all ages tournament. If tournaments is something that you’re interested in, then there are tournaments for every different level. The tournament that I won was the School Championship Under 17 Girls.
What are some of the challenges for you as a chess player?
Well, because of a lack of funding for chess in Ireland I often have to pick and choose the tournaments that I attend – they’re almost all outside of Ireland, so travel is required. It has gotten better in recent years but there is still a lack of funding for the Irish Chess Federation. This can cause there to be a lot of wasted talent as people give up playing because they can’t make it to tournaments. It would be great if there was more support. For example in Romania, where the world championships were held, chess is huge. The top three national champions each year get funding from the federation to go to chess camps. There’s a lot of emphasis in Romania on chess because they want to produce good players. One of my best friends from chess is Romanian so I see the difference between how it is treated there and in Ireland.
Do you have a favourite chess player?
I used to say Bobby Fischer, even though he is dead now, he was a genius, an amazing player, just watching him play is fantastic. I don’t really have a current favourite.
Does chess help you much with school?
It does and it doesn’t, it’s helpful for maths for quick calculation but it doesn’t give me a hack for a specific class. I did have a teacher who mentioned that it would be very helpful if I went into politics! Because you have to think tactically, a few moves ahead!
What are the best things you’ve gotten out of playing chess?
Oh, there’s so many things! I love the travelling, the opportunity to go to so many different places around the world, I’ve also made so many friends through chess. I love the game too, there’s so much that can happen in one game. There’s so much that can go on, you need imagination and so many tactics! There’s also chess puzzles that I just get lost in, some variations of the game that are so exciting. Myself and my friends play online games and we joke about variations and puzzles all of the time. Most of my best friends are from chess. It’s just great.
Do you have a favourite opening?
I do actually, the French Opening with the King’s Indian attack is my favourite. It’s not the best opening but I play it well and I just know what it will do. I’m not really a theory player, I like plans and ideas, it makes you a bit more adaptable. But theory is very important, it’s always better to know it – I can just be lazy sometimes! I think it’s important to learn both really.
Do you think there will be many more people interested in playing chess in Ireland after your win?
None of my Irish friends are chess players but my dad runs a chess school and I train two kids myself. I really want there to be more chess out there in the world! I think it’s underdeveloped here in Ireland and I would love it to be more popular!