Marie Faustine Shimwa’s Chess journey has been swift. Just last month, the 21-year-old won an earlier postponed 2014 female national chess championship.
When in her first year at the University of Rwanda College of Science and Technology (formerly Kigali Institute of Science and Technology), around February 2014, she was introduced to the two-player strategy board game by friends but she doesn’t remember exactly when she fell in love with the game.
“I would say that it was by accident,” she admits. After classes, when her friends stayed behind to have fun, she would accompany them, only to watch.
Six months later, she was on the female team that would represent Rwanda at the 2014 Chess Olympiad from August 1-14 in Tromso, Norway, which featured almost 2000 players from 180 countries.
Boarding the connecting flight, Kigali-Nairobi-Amsterdam-Oslo-Tromsø, to Europe – her first ever – was a delight to commit to memory, she says. “I was not only happy because I was going to the Olympiad. I was also going to learn and meet players from other countries!
Despite being a novice during the 10-round tournament, she won three games.
“At campus, we often play. Playing regularly also helps one to develop reflexes and improve. I love Chess 100 percent. It doesn’t hinder my studies and I don’t intend to stop playing any time soon.”
However, Shimwa is disappointed that fewer girls seem interested in a game widely considered to be an incredibly beneficial pastime, especially as research has shown that playing chess results in better brain function, improved memory and cognitive abilities, strategic thinking and attention improvement.
“But the good thing is that some girls are picking interest. I am sure that slowly, many more will.”
Scientists also claim that playing chess can improve mental age by up to 14 years, and have gone as far as showing that, among others, chess helps keep Alzheimer’s disease at bay, which is directly related to the loss of memory.
If girls believe in themselves “they will achieve a lot” Shimwa notes, before adding that, “it is a matter of time.”
“In general, girls don’t love many games but chess is different from other games. And I believe that chess being an exceptional game, they will gradually love it.”
Apart from the fun of travelling to play in competitions in different parts of the globe, she says, her colleagues are missing out especially as “Chess first of all helps in thinking big.”
Like every woman in the chess world, the second year Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering student, is indeed against those who think that girls don’t have the brains to play chess.
“I don’t think that the game is for only men because chess only requires the ability to think and analyze. Chess only requires the ability to use the brain and everyone in this world has that ability! I absolutely believe that both women and men have the brains to play chess!”
British chess grandmaster Nigel Short, 49, who won his first grandmaster title when he was 19, recently incurred the wrath of the female chess community when he claimed that men are “hardwired” to be better at chess than women.
His comments were ridiculed as sexist by many, including Judith Polgar, a Hungarian chess grandmaster and former women’s world champion.
The world’s best female player for 26 years and the only woman to qualify for a World Chess Championship tournament, has in the past beaten British grandmaster, Short, eight games to three in total with five draws.
“It’s not a matter of gender, it’s a matter of being smart,” says Polgar who became a chess prodigy along with her two sisters and broke Bobby Fischer’s record to become the youngest grandmaster at age 15, in 1991. In 2002, Polgar defeated the finest chess player in history, Russia’s Garry Kasparov.
Polgar, whose Chess Foundation is using chess as an education tool, says fewer girls pursue chess later on, in part because they do not get the same encouragement from parents, teachers and others around them.
“I grew up in what was a male dominated sport, but my parents raised me and my sisters [to believe] that women are able to reach the same result as our male competitors if they get the right and the same possibilities,” Polgar is quoted saying.
And back home, Shimwa says: “I’m planning to encourage other girls especially here on campus. All I need to tell them is to have confidence in themselves since chess only requires the ability to use one’s brains.”
Currently, there is an estimated 30 active female chess players in Rwanda and the national chess federation has plans to increase that number to at least 100 by end this year.