I recently caught up with the newly-crowned 2019 South African Women’s Chess Champion, WIM Jesse February, to find out her future chess plans, her chess training and advice, and her thoughts on South African chess. As top finisher at the SA closed, she automatically qualifies for the 2020 SA Olympiad team. Over the next few months, I’ll try interview the other confirmed team members as they become available. Enjoy!
Name: Jesse February
Occupation: Student / Coach / Freelance writer
Rating (Jan 2020): 1889 (FIDE) / 1886 (CHESSA)
SA rank (women): 2nd (FIDE & CHESSA)
Title: Woman International Master (WIM)
Previous Olympiads: 2 (2016, 2018)
[Note: the following interview is edited for clarity and length]
At what age did you start playing chess, and who introduced you to it?
I started at 8, and my mom taught me the moves. I was a very busy kid – I think she just wanted me to calm down and sit and play! And then I started at school, and there were so many incentives for getting answers right that I just wanted to get better at chess.
What’s your earliest chess memory?
It was the nationals in 2010; I was under-14, and I was the last one playing in my team – I think I was board 5 or 6, and they really needed a win. I was completely winning as well – I was a queen and a rook up, maybe a bishop as well, but I got really cocky and I decided to queen again. And it ended up being stalemate. I walked out of there and for the rest of the tournament my nickname was stalemate!
What is the highlight of your chess career?
In 2015, winning my first junior closed with 11/11. Also 2016 when I won the zonal in Mauritius with 8/9 (two draws), where I got my WIM title.
What is your favourite local or international tournament to play?
The Olympiad. It’s by far the best tournament– for two years you look forward to it, and then the countdown begins, and it’s just the best!
What are your personal chess goals?
My short-term goal is to reach 2000 rating. Long term, of course, WGM is on the table.
What is your favourite chess game (of your own)?
It was a game played in the 2014 World Youth. I had a terrible tournament, but this was in the first round, against a 2100 rated player. I played a scotch gambit, she blundered her queen, and it was a beautiful game.
What does your usual training schedule look like? And do you work alone, or with a coach?
I try to fit in training between the other things I need to be doing during the day, like studying and coaching and organising my academy. I try to do at least an hour of tactics daily and then I try to do an hour of endgames when I have the time. Sometimes I work with someone, but mostly I work alone.
How did you prepare for the 2019 South African Closed Chess Championships, which you won?
I think I was pretty rusty – I hadn’t played in a couple of months, so I knew tactics were top of the list. Also, it was nice that they released the players list so early, since it meant I could prepare for the games and for my opponent’s weaknesses.
How will you prepare for the 2020 Olympiad, and what do you hope to achieve?
I need to work on my physical fitness; my chess endurance is really lacking. I also need to play quite a lot before the Olympiad. In general, theory, tactics and endgames are what I’ll be working on. I hope to play Board 1 again, and I hope to bond well with the team, because generally a team that bonds well together does well. I also hope CHESSA recruits a coach again, because that worked well in 2018.
Who is your favourite South African chess player or personality?
The person I admire the most is IM Watu Kobese. He knows so much, he has so many stories and is a great story-teller. He’s one of the main reasons I’ve been working on my chess.
I remember in January 2015 I beat Dr FM Shabier Bhawoodien (a big win for me, as he was a 2100, and I was only a 1600) in inter-regionals. I was walking outside with my mom and Watu was there chatting with two top players, and he just stopped mid-sentence when he saw me and said ‘Jesse. That was a great game, you have a lot of talent. You should keep working. Ja, ja… Keep on working’. I didn’t even know he knew me, and that recognition was overwhelming, so I thought ‘let’s work on my chess, and maybe we can get more heads turning’.
What would you do if you were CHESSA president?
I would create more of a focus on adult chess, because I don’t think adult chess currently gets that much attention or support, which is why a lot of juniors stop playing once they become adults. I would also make sure the money CHESSA receives is used properly, and try access additional funding in order to support the national teams. I’d also try grow chess in schools and women’s chess.
What do you think needs to be done in South Africa to promote women’s chess?
You can’t just throw money at it, but money doesn’t hurt. Big events celebrating women’s chess, and also more awareness that chess isn’t just for men can go a long way. It’s also important for there to be female role models for young girls – I’ve seen first-hand how much this helps.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing South African chess?
Politics. It seems like the people in charge fight for power rather than for what’s best for the players or for chess. The leaders need to be there for the right reasons.
What is your favourite (and least favourite) thing about chess?
I love the respect you get from others through chess, which you get over the board, without saying a word. I also love meeting people, travelling, and the mental benefits. My least favourite thing is the heartbreak that you get from losing a game. Especially those games where you were winning.
What advice do you have for aspiring national champions or SA Olympiad team members?
If you’re working really hard, you don’t always get results immediately. But you will improve, no doubt about it. So, don’t give up or stop working if tournaments aren’t going your way.
What chess material/method has led to your biggest chess improvement?
Working with Watu Kobese has taught me the most – he included stories, which made it fun, but after working with him in Cape Town for two weeks at a time, I would leave feeling like a better player – seeing more, understanding more, especially in the middlegame, which we would focus on. You can have perfect opening preparation, but knowing how to proceed in the middlegame is so important.
What interests do you have outside of playing chess?
I love writing, photography, reading, meeting people, and travelling. I also really love coaching, although initially it wasn’t a passion of mine. But it’s really grown on me and I love seeing the smiles on my kids faces when they’ve won a game, or being there for them in the tough moments.
Thank you to Jesse for taking the time to be interviewed. You can follow her on social media via the links below:
Twitch: HashtagChess (Jesse and I have started a Twitch channel, and our first stream will be Saturday, 25 Jan from 19:00-21:00 (GMT+2) / 9:00 A.M.-11:00 A.M. (PST). Follow our channel to be notified when we go live!)