Interviewed and edited by Edinah Masanga
20-year-old Jesse February is an unsung chess whiz who takes joy in overpowering male opponents who approach the board with assumptions of a walk-over because she is female. She has won many chess accolades (we have created a catalogue of her numerous wins at the end of this article) and has taken part in elite chess tournaments like the Commonwealth Chess Championship, World Youth Chess Championship, African Youth Chess Championship and the African Juniors Chess Championship. She hails from Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
Jesse, when did you start playing chess?
My mom taught me chess moves when I was 7 years old. My first competitive tournament was when I was 8.
How has playing chess helped you in life?
Chess has helped me immensely in many aspects of my life. I would begin by saying: if it wasn’t for chess, I wouldn’t have met so many amazing people from all walks of life around the world. Not only has my social circle grown but I have made important connections along the way. Many of the people I have met still mean a great deal and have helped influence the person I am today.
Chess has helped me in the financial sphere with regards to education, from my schooling days right up to my tertiary education. In high school, I received a sponsorship deal which covered most of my fees.
And of course, chess has helped me grow as a person. Intellectually, it has enhanced my ability to solve problems – not only on the chess board but in many aspects of life. This has allowed a lot of my work – a project or a common life situation – to be much easier to manage and, in turn, solve. Through chess, I have been given the opportunity to travel. It is indeed one of my favourite pastimes. With elite chess tournaments happening globally every day, many of which I have had the privilege of being invited to, I plan on playing as many as I possibly can. Many such tournaments beyond our borders give chess players from Southern Africa an opportunity to improve their game drastically.
What does it feel like, playing a game that is considered for smart people and we know by the ‘smart’ people mean boys and men?
Chess, as we all know, is commonly seen as a male-dominated sport. It’s no secret that women tend to lose interest in the game the older they become due to other important and pressing commitments such as marriage, kids, careers etc but even less so for men.
A lot of women stop playing actually, believing they stand alone in an ocean of men who by the way aim to shoot women down on the chess board but I think we can never really succeed when we let too many emotions get involved. Often, male chess players fall into the trap of thinking women are far inferior to men on the chess board, and this is one thing I have strived to prove wrong for as long as I’ve been playing. So far, I have been successful. Yes, fighting in such a male-dominated sport may seem somewhat tedious, but I find a certain thrill in beating a man who already thinks he has won the game before it has even started.
Have you faced any incidences where you were discouraged by people in general or boys/men taking you for ‘not good’ enough?
Yes and no. Of course, this question has swayed in both directions.
When a male plays a female they do not know, often their subconscious (sometimes conscious) impressions are suggesting a quick and painless victory on their part.
Over time, when players start to know each other and how they play, they may become a bit more anxious before the game (regardless of your gender).
I have been discouraged by some attitudes I have faced at the board, but none of which have put me off the game itself. Such attitudes give me the strength I need to prove my opponent otherwise.
Playing chess has always meant more to me than winning and losing. Instead, it’s about the respect that I gain from playing a good game or gracefully learning from the mistakes that I have made. Respect in the chess realm is one of the main reasons I play the game.
What made you start playing chess in the beginning?
I was young when I started playing chess (in third grade). I guess I was really intrigued, as I still am, by the endless possibilities the game presents, and how you could easily fail in a game after one mistake, but continue to return again and again.
At school, most the players in the chess club were much older than I was. I summoned the courage to venture out to beat them all. I always challenged the strongest players in the club, who were at the top of the chess ladder at the time. In the beginning, I had no idea what I was doing, but each time I returned, I started making fewer mistakes and after a year or two, I found myself at the top of the ladder.
The more I played, the more I gained respect from experienced players. Immediately, I was hooked and became hungry for more.
Tell me about your situation at home (if you would like to share that), do you have support, emotionally, and in other ways, to play chess?
Yes. I live with my mum and she has supported me emotionally and financially from the beginning. There wasn’t a tournament I couldn’t attend because I constantly had her help. She believes in my never-ending passion for chess and always pushes me to do great things, even when I’m scared.
Sponsorship in chess has always been of an unfavourable nature. Being a chess player in an environment where there are other seemingly more popular sports, it has been tough attaining any sort of attention regardless of how big my success is.
Of course, such an injustice has been an on-going debacle but I haven’t given up in pursuing my interest in the game. It has motivated me to put chess out there.
Is there anything you wish girls in chess would get in general?
I believe women in chess deserve a lot more support with regards to women’s chess programs for instance (of which I would be glad to be a major part of). Especially promoting chess in schools with a programme which promotes a healthy balance between males and females so that it wouldn’t feel as though it is such a male-dominated sport. Chess should be encouraged amongst females who assume that it is just a male sport.
I wish there was a focus towards women’s chess in South Africa specifically, as I fear that chess isn’t properly conveyed as an interesting and beneficial sporting game.
What advice would you give to other women who want to play chess?
I think the mediocre advice that may stand placid is: believe in yourself.
I know those words don’t mean much because it’s easier said than done but it’s what allows us, underdogs, to overcome the odds. Think big. Often so many women find themselves demotivated because of the generalizations made about female chess players. I say prove them wrong. It was my main obstacle because in my hometown, 1 in 10, sometimes 20 players in a tournament was a woman. It was as though I was constantly drowning in the inevitability that I was being set up not to succeed at all. The odds were against me. But, I took matters into my own hands and studied twice as hard and eventually, I became the best in my age group (both male and female). Nothing is impossible when you set your mind to it.
Talent may only take you so far but skill takes you the distance.
If you were to ask the world for one thing, what would it be?
I would ask the world for the opportunity to become as great a chess player as I possibly can. Chess in South Africa is good but not as great as it could be. At a sub-par strength, we can only take our chess players to a certain level. Furthermore, it is usually up to the individual player to develop themselves by organising their own travel, coaches from abroad and international participation. I haven’t been able to reach the fullness of my potential because of lack of capacity to support my chess ambitions. I should hope that I would be given such an opportunity some day.
I also love writing. I used to be a columnist for a sports newspaper in Port Elizabeth, painting my written piece with the wonders that chess beholds (occasionally showing off the successes of our local stars). I hope to gain such an opportunity once again to showcase my abilities and to place chess on the map of those who know nothing about the secrets of our chess realm.
Tell me about your chess accolades.
My first presentable accolades track back to when I was 10 years of age (2007) when our national team took first position in the SA team national event, Bloemfontein.
South African Junior Closed chess championship, Stellenbosch – 2nd Position (first time receiving springbok colours for chess)
Participated in the Commonwealth Chess Championship held in Glasgow, Scotland, which also happens to be Jesse’s first abroad Championship and her first time representing South Africa as a springbok player.
3rd Place in the African Youth Chess Championship held in Monastir, Tunisia.
Along with this, I was awarded the title of WOMAN FIDE MASTER.
I was the captain and board 1 of the u18 Eastern Province team, consisting of both male and female. We participated in the National Team Championship which took place in Kimberly. Our team came first.
Participated in the South African Junior Closed Chess Championship and placed first in the u18 Girls section. I was awarded a UNION MASTER title. I was also invited to the following tournaments:
- Commonwealth chess championship in India
- World youth chess championship in Greece
- African youth chess championship in Zambia
- African juniors chess championship in Seychelles
Participated in the University closed chess championship held at WITS University. I was placed first in the women’s section. I was then invited to participate in a tournament held in Budapest, Hungary.
Placed first at the Eastern Cape trials u20 with a score of 5/6.
Participated in the Commonwealth Chess championship in New Delhi, India.
Participated in the First Saturday tournament held in Budapest, Hungary.
Played in the Uitenhage Open chess Festival. I placed 3rd in the Open A section and was awarded Eastern Cape Ladies Champion.
Participated in the African Woman’s chess championship held in Johannesburg. I was placed first in the A section and therefore awarded the African Woman’s title.
Placed second in the Steinitz Prestige Section held in Cape Town.
Played in my first Fide Closed. Playing amongst the best: One grand master and several qualified coaches, I gained a rating of 50+ points.
Partook in the Eastern Cape Closed Chess championship where only a selected few from the Eastern Cape (of all ages, both male and female) were chosen to play.
Being the first and only female playing, I was the youngest to ever win the tournament with a convincing 5/7 and was awarded the title of Eastern Cape Chess Champion.
Played in the South African Closed Chess Championship, Ladies section, held in Cape Town. With a slow start, I managed to work my way back up and ended 3rd in the event. By coming 3rd, I earned a place in the Olympiad team to be playing later this year in Azerbaijan (September 2016).
Kick-started with the National Team event in Cape Town, the u/20A team was placed a close second in the country by half a point.
The Lesotho Open took place later in January, after 3 days of constant chess, I was placed tied 2nd.
I played in the South African Junior Closed Chess Championship. The u/18 and u/20 girl sections were combined, forming a section of 25 players. After 11 rounds, I scored 10.5, which played me first by a full point.
With my 2nd consecutive National title I am now selected to participate in:
The Commonwealth Chess Championship – Sri Lanka (August 2016)
World Junior Chess Championship – India
African Junior Chess Championship – Tunisia
Early May I returned from Mauritius where I partook in the 2016 African Zone 4.3 Chess Championship, where after 9 rounds I was placed first with 8/9.
With this victory, I was awarded a ‘Woman International Master’ title, which is an upgrade from the title I attained in Tunisia, December 2014.
Participated in the CUCSA Games. South African Chess team placed first.
I also placed first on my board (board 1)
I participated in the World Chess Olympiad held in Baku, Azerbaijan.
This is the biggest tournament in the world, it was my first time participating in such a tournament.
December – January 2017:
South African junior nationals – SA international player of the year award
Tour in India (Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi) playing triple chess event
Durban Open Tournament – Best female prize
South African Junior Closed chess championship, Johannesburg – First Place (u20 Girls)
Commonwealth chess champs – India, July
World Junior champs – Italy, October
Chess South African awards – Best female u20 Player of the year
Steinitz festival, Cape town – Best female award
#StrongerForGirls #AllWomenAreRoleModels #ChessingAwayStereotypes