For South African chess wizard Cora Mak, chess is about far more than moving a cluster of figurines about a board: it is a complicated yet strategic game that involves hours of preparation and enormous concentration, yet equally immense joy.
Of Chinese heritage but South African born, Cora was influenced by her older brother at a young age to pick up chess, playing regularly through primary school while receiving coaching as well, only to stop upon reaching high school.
“That’s when I decided to stop playing to focus on my studies,” she reflects, before admitting, “To be honest that’s probably just an excuse – I was lazy to study chess and did not have enough passion to get me to the ‘next level’. In addition, this was the period when many of my peers stopped playing chess, including my brother, so I guess that influenced my decision to stop.”
After enrolling in the University of Pretoria to further her studies in 2017, Cora merely “inquired” about chess, and has been playing regularly ever since, taking part in mainly university tournaments.
After placing 3rd at the University Sport South Africa (USSA) national university championships in 2017 and 6th the following year, Cora once again represented her university in the same competition in December last year, this time surpassing all her previous performances by claiming gold among the 134 ladies and 23 different institutions present in the 2019 edition. The tournament proved historic for the University of Pretoria, who claimed an unbelievable 35 of the 36 medals on offer overall, earning the highest amount of points in both the men’s and women’s events, scoring the highest points overall while all five female competitors from the university finished in the top 10.
“People that know how to pack a board and have the knowledge of how the pieces move think that they can play chess!”
– Cora Mak
“I was looking forward to the USSA championships, but mainly as a team event and not individual,” she notes. “My goal was to get points for my university and place top 10. With that said, I still aimed to win my games.”
Cora insists she owes her tournament success to her teammates, who assisted in her match preparation while also calming her nerves.
“I must thank my teammates for helping me with ‘openings’ and preparation against some of my opponents,” she says. “Although the games did not all play out as prepped, the additional help before the games really helped with my stress and confidence.
“I really needed that encouragement from my friends which I got and that really made the experience all the better. I am extremely proud of my performance.”
Following her success at the national tournament, Cora qualified for a closed chess tournament taking place later in the year, which will decide the team selection for this year’s 16th edition of the FISU World University Chess Championships, taking place in Bydgoszcz, Poland in September alongside Bridge, combining for the first-ever FISU Mind Sports Championships.
Only four male and four female South African students will be selected for the tournament, yet Cora, who recently double majored in Biochemistry and Chemistry and is currently studying her Honours in Chemistry, has played down her FISU tournament ambitions, admitting that it might also clash with her busy academic schedule.
“To be honest, I think I am too rusty to be competing at such a level,” she says of this year’s Chess Championship. “If I do get to go, I’ll enjoy the memories and experiences I’ll have there. I am however concerned about the timing of the tournament, as I will be preoccupied with my research projects.”
For now, though, Cora is remaining focused on her studies while also looking to promote the sport at her university, hoping the same joy she receives from the game can be experienced by others.
“I enjoy the thought process that happens in a game, the fact that I can find a tactic or a brilliant sacrifice in a game makes the hard work pay off,” she says. “I love how I can visualise and calculate many moves ahead and come up with strategies that ultimately direct the position to a winning one.
“I love how in a game of chess, I can better my position and scrutinize my opponents’ weaknesses. Overall I love how it’s a mental game and not a physical one, and it’s one of very few things that I’m good at and it really helped my self-esteem.
“As a very reserved person, chess has helped me socialize and open up. Improving at chess has helped my confidence immensely and I guess that’s why I am still attached and attracted to it.”
And while many dismiss chess as a sport and view the game as merely black and white, Cora is a firm activist against this misconception.
“I get that chess is not a physical game, but rather a mental one, but it sucks to be looked down on – at least that is how I think people think about it,” she states. “People that know how to pack a board and have the knowledge of how the pieces move think that they can play chess! They don’t know how complicated chess can get and just how much thought should go into every move.
“There’s just so much to chess that people don’t know, for example, openings and tactics. People don’t know that there are tournaments held on a regular basis just like any other sport. It just bothers me that people ‘know how to play’ and think that that’s all there is to it, there’s so much more to chess than just learning the rules of it.”
Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University professor of neurology and neurosurgery, recently claimed that a chess player can burn up to 6 000 calories a day while playing in a tournament – which is up to three times as much as the average person consumes per day!
Meticulous preparation, strategic tactics, calculated openings, complicated plays and thousands of calories burned … there’s no doubt much more than just ‘check-mate’ to look forward to at this year’s FISU World University Chess Championships!