Cape Town - Rows of black-and-white tables fill the sports hall at UCT. There is a low murmuring as children from across the country concentrate on their individual games at the South African Junior Chess Championships. They look up only to stare down their opponents.
Among the 2 052 chess players is 12-year-old Cape Town girl Tiffany Darling. Her opponent is a boy from the East Gauteng team.
They have been playing since 9.30am. Earlier in the day, they were relaxed. But by 1pm, they are the only players left and both are visibly tense. Eventually, an official calls the game a draw. Tiffany shakes her opponent’s hand at the table, before running off to discuss the tournament with her friends.
“I was a bit nervous, but it was only at the end that I started feeling the pressure,” says Tiffany.
Tiffany, who lives near Durbanville, has been playing chess for four years. Her older brothers, aged 14 and 16, also play chess and this spurred her own interest.
Her brothers have their South African colours in the sport and Tiffany has won the SA Junior Closed Championships for three consecutive years.
Tiffany may be only 12 years old, but she already has several accolades to prove her talent and success. They include being named the Most Promising Primary School Player of the Year in 2011 and achieving great results at the African Youth Championships.
But her greatest achievement, says Tiffany, was in 2010. “My highlight was winning at the Commonwealth Games in India,” she says.
Unlike many of the players in the hall, Tiffany does not have a chess coach. Her father, who is not a professional player, helps Tiffany and her brothers along. “It’s nice to have my dad (as my coach). He can help me with everything. He knows my weakness and how I can improve,” she says.
Her mother, René Darling, says the three have always been passionate and competitive, and that it is part of what drives them.
But Tiffany does not focus only on chess. René says part of her daughter’s success is that she takes things in her stride and makes time for other activities – whether it’s other sport and academics, watching television or playing with the dog.
Cape Town executive coach Reinhard Moors says self-judgement during a chess match could put a young player’s game into reverse, disconnect them from the game emotionally, and turn them into their own worst enemy. Instead they should remain totally neutral, calm and objective throughout the challenge and play their own game.
This is exactly what Tiffany did during her game that ended in a draw. Occasionally she would get up from the table, stretch her legs and observe other matches. On the surface, she managed to keep her composure.
“Often in sport people focus so much on the technique that they forget about the emotional side of the game, which is just as significant as the technique,” says Moors.
Tiffany, says her mother, has learned that if she’s had a bad match, she has to see where she went wrong, tell herself to do better next time, then shrug it off. Neither Tiffany nor her brothers wallow in losses, or put themselves down.
“When you put yourself down, you become your own worst enemy,” says Moors.
Marcelle Agulhas, director of Women’s Chess SA, says the sport is still male dominated. Her daughter, Tiffany, 16, and son Keagan, 12, are top players. Tiffany was picked as Best Junior Female Player at the championships at UCT.
Agulhas says few girls are involved in the sport to begin with, and while they do excel, by the time they reach matric, their academic work becomes the focus. But she hopes that both Tiffanys will continue to achieve in chess.
Hannes Pieterse, provincial co-ordinator for the chess organisation Moves for Life, says the sport is growing fast in the city, and across the country. Last year, 400 city candidates were eligible to participate in the tournament. This year, more than 900 city players qualified and 270 were chosen to compete. - Cape Argus