Interview with Marisa van der Merwe, Founder and Owner of MiniChess, and Founder/Trustee of Moves for Life

Marisa van Der Merwe,Founder/Owner and Manager of MiniChess CC and a Founder/Trustee of the non-profit PBO Moves for Life
Marisa van Der Merwe, Founder/Owner and Manager of MiniChess CC and a Founder/Trustee of the non-profit PBO Moves for Life

Your Name: Marisa van der Merwe

Company/ Name of Business:
I am the Founder/Owner and Manager of MiniChess CC and a Founder/Trustee of the non-profit PBO Moves for Life, of which Pres. Zuma is the patron. MiniChess is an educational program targeting 5-9 year-olds using chess as an educational tool to develop mental capacity from the early years.

President Zuma and the team at Moves for Life
President Zuma and the team at Moves for Life

What do you do [profession]?
After completing a B.Sc degree at UP, I focused for 20+years on (part time) chess coaching at junior level, producing 28 junior national players. I am currently the Manager at the Waterkloof Chess Centre of Excellence (with co-worker FM Nicholas van der Nat) at H/S Waterkloof in Pretoria, apart from my responsibilities as Manager at MiniChess (with 8 full time employees) and Trustee at Moves for Life.

Much of my time is spent organizing and teaching at the Waterkloof Chess Centre, training MiniChess Teachers & Trainers, travelling to all corners of South Africa – making presentations and marketing MiniChess & Moves for Life. There are currently 26,500+ youngsters around all provinces of SA doing the MiniChess program on a weekly basis (in school-time), involving 400+ teachers at about 80 schools. The MiniChess computer-based game is under construction, being endorsed by Garry Kasparov.

When did you start playing chess and how well did you play?
I grew up in a chess family, with well-known chess champions Piet Robbertse and Wynie Robbertse as parents. I played chess at provincial level but eventually found my niche/interest in junior chess coaching, organizing and management. Currently playing at average club-level … I do not have much time to play, apart from enjoying some friendlies on the internet. In 2010 I was awarded FIDE National Coach Title and in 2011 FIDE Arbiter Title. I was awarded Gauteng North provincial colours and SA National colours for Chess.

What do you regard as your 3 greatest achievements in chess?
First: without a doubt, the fact that I was the first South African (maybe African?) to play Garry Kasparov, by invitation in Belgium in 2011, and lasted 3 hours (40 moves)!

Second: the fact that the MiniChess program won the Shoprite Checkers Women of the Year 2012 award (category: Education) was an honour; inspiring and encouraging (especially also because I was nominated by MiniChess teachers), thereby fuelling the batteries to work even harder towards impacting the children of SA – enhancing their maths, science and life skills ability though MiniChess/Moves for Life-programs…

Current headmaster feedback and ANA-results show tremendous improvement in numeracy- and literacy levels in youngsters doing the MiniChess program (for example: Hotazel/Kuruman schools sponsored by BHP Manganese, Mamelodi/Eersterust schools sponsored by Uitkyk Vleismark, Bejane PS in Richards Bay sponsored by BHP Alluminium, and many others)!

Joint third: I treasure all the memories of the many wonderful students I was honoured to have coached through the years (like WGM Melissa Greeff and many more), the many times I was Manager or Coach of Provincial-, National- and Schools champion-teams… representing SA at the World Olympiad or Inter-Continental Youth Chess Championships, etc. – it was at the same time humbling and exiting to work closely with the top chess talent of my country! ALSO looking forward to represent SA on a different kind of stage in 2013: being invited to participate in the Women in the World Summit in New York (April 2013) as well as the Unesco Education Conference in Paris (June 2013), taking the MiniChess program to international forums.

Who is your favourite chess player and why?
Amongst many true masters of the game, like Bobby Fischer, Paul Morphy, Magnus Carlsen, etc. my all-time favourite has to be GM Garry Kasparov. I really enjoyed and admired his creativity, aggression and tenacity at the board, when he was still playing – being able to top the charts for 21+ years uninterrupted, is truly amazing! On top of that, he is still actively promoting THE GAME, after retiring from professional chess, through his Kasparov Chess Foundations …not only in far-away countries but also in Africa and South Africa. He is a staunch supporter of, and makes time to promote, chess as an educational tool! One of his most notable games for me was the Karpov-Kasparov game, Linares 1993.

Name 2 chess players you admire in Africa and why?
My SA favourites are IM Watu Kobese and WGM Melissa Greeff.

1. Watu grabbed the opportunity when he got a bursary at age 14 to study at the Pachmann Chess School in Germany. It surely could not have been easy for him to stand his own at such a young age, far away from home, on a different continent with a different language of learning and a different culture. He made it, matriculated in German and achieved his International Master title. He speaks 13 languages. He represented SA successfully at many occasions and even beat both Peter Leko and Judit Polgar while they were amongst the Top 10 in the world.

2. Melissa achieved her Women Grandmaster title at age 15 to become SA first chess Grandmaster, while she was still at school, AND doing very well academically: she got 9 distinctions in matric and was the top performer of her class right through high school. She is a hard worker, studies medical engineering now and was the 1st to proof that South Africa can perform in chess at world class level.

What do you think is the right age to start playing chess and why?
I think the pre-school year (± 5 years) is a very good age to start with chess, but it has to be in a fun/playful way: children that age are very creative, fearless, and love to play with the different chess characters on the chess board. This has also been proven by the fact that many world chess champions started playing chess around this age. On the other hand, chess is a game for all ages – you never retire from chess like you would do with many physical sports. Once a chess player – always a chess player.

Garry Kasparov plays a simultaneous chess exhibition against several kids
Garry Kasparov plays a simultaneous chess exhibition against several kids

 Do you still take part in tournaments and if so, how often?
I still participate in tournaments regularly, but as organizer and/or arbiter – which I enjoy tremendously. The next BIG tournament is taking place this coming weekend: the Waterkloof International open Chess Tournament, 27 Feb – 2 March. It is an enormous event, where players can participate in 5 categories from u/9 to the FIDE-rated Prestige section. We are expecting 400+ players and many more supporters. Please see entry form attached

Why would you encourage anyone to take up chess?
Chess is fun/creative/complex/universal/has endless options… Chess is an age-old game, yet links-up with modern thinking, computers, internet and social media. It exceeds all barriers of age, gender, culture, language, time and even physical disability. Playing a game of chess is like a total escape – almost like taking a journey to some fun exciting place, even if it is just a 5-minute game. You can play chess anywhere, anytime, even on the internet! On top of that: chess is cheap and keeps your mind active.

In your opinion should Chess be made an Olympic sport and why?
Chess has a long history of organized competition as it was the first sport to host a world championship (in 1866). Currently, the World Chess Federation (FIDE) hosts a World Chess Olympiad every 2 years – which is an enormous event, with FIDE having 174 member countries. I guess there would be more sponsorships, status and visibility for chess if it is an Olympic sport…

How would you best describe your chess style?
I think my chess-playing style is creative and definitely more tactical that positional, though I like endgames more than the other stages of the game.

How do you keep sharp in chess?
I am now no more than an enthusiastic internet chess player, playing a few games every day/evening. As I don’t really play competitively, I do not spend much time studying chess and openings any more. I do, however, enjoy following top world class competitions and games on the internet.

What do you think about the impact of computers on chess in Africa?
Computers in Africa can be a wonderful tool to introduce youngsters to modern technology through the game of chess. Computer chess training programs and internet chess can also help to breach the gap of distance for many chess players living in far-away places. Africa must however solve some problems to make computers really useful: dependable electricity supply, internet and broadband availability, etc. My honest opinion is that a computer can be a very useful teaching tool, but can never substitute a good teacher.

What do you think it will take for Africa to have a world chess champion?
I do believe that Africa can have a world Chess Champion – if we can achieve some critical milestones:

1. Make chess very popular, thereby building a base of LARGE numbers of chess players at grassroots level, allowing to identify talent at a young age – which MiniChess and Moves for Life are currently starting to do very successfully.
2. Create strong admin and management structure in chess
3. Support excellence through well-structured differentiated coaching and training centres
4. Build a culture of strong competition from the early ages
5. Make chess professional and instill a hard-working culture
6. Interest sponsors
7. Support international exposure

 You can also read about Marissa in the Chessbase Article - Marisa van der Merwe, Women of the Year 2012
Read more about Moves for Life in the Chess Article - 
The official launch of the Moves for Life programme

Chess clocks Marisa with Chess Board Pta-News-23-7-2012

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One thought on “Interview with Marisa van der Merwe, Founder and Owner of MiniChess, and Founder/Trustee of Moves for Life”

  1. I was really touched by wat i read abt wat ir doing for chess, especially dat it is coming from a woman in africa. i am a zambian aged 40, i hv played chess all my life. I hv played in da chess olympiads, the world junior championship and other events including da SA open in 1993 in Durban wer i finished secound. i wud lik to come up with sumthing lik wat ur doing, so da i can start helping kids in my country zambia. How do i go abt it and how can u help?

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