Striking a Chord with Cherie Blair:
Louise Macnab – in profile
Louise Macnab of Aberdeen was featured on the cover and in interview in the February issue of Chess magazine. The interview was conducted by IM Craig Pritchett in September 2003.
Earlier this year, Louise Macnab, a 15 year-old Aberdeen schoolgirl, wrote to Cherie Blair extolling the merits of chess for children, especially girls. She stressed the educative and wider social benefits of chess and drew attention to the particular issue of maintaining the interest of girls in the game. The result – an invitation to a reception with the Prime Minister’s wife on the occasion, on June 18, of a visit to Westminster by a Scottish Youth Team to play a team of MPs in the House of Commons.
Not many teenagers can demonstrate such enterprise and PR success in the name of the Royal Game. When the organisers mooted the possibility of a Downing Street reception in connection with the match, the No 10 Press Office encouraged Louise to write to put the case for greater recognition for chess directly to Mrs Blair. Louise’s letter clearly struck a chord, ensuring that an already high profile friendly match would be boosted by the very public accolade of a No 10 reception. All six members of the Scottish Youth Team attended.
Louise Macnab, who celebrated her 16th birthday in August 2003, is a pupil at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen. Last year, aged 15, Louise became the youngest player to represent Scotland at senior international level, with a fourth board place in the Scottish Women’s Team in the 2002 Chess Olympiad, in Bled. This article, based on an enjoyable, informal chat with Louise in September, profiles a fine chess player and a young person with notable non-chess attainments and wide interests.
Q: Louise, you learned to play chess at 10, a relatively late age these days. Do you feel in any way disadvantaged because of this?
A: I don’t particularly, though I have been told I was a quick learner. I learned to play during my Summer school holiday. My mother initially taught me to play draughts with a view to me progressing on to the basic moves of chess, so that we could play the game, although at a very basic level, as a family at home. I did, however, get excellent opportunities to play and develop at school and at Quarryhill Junior Chess Club very quickly, and I think that was invaluable in improving my game.
Q: Your mum and dad love the game and accompany you to many events. Are they also strong players?
A: I am an only child and my parents are very supportive. They enjoy the social side in chess and mixing with the people who play the game, both at home and abroad. But they’re not really very strong players. Once I had mastered the basics and started occasionally beating my parents we felt that I would perhaps get more enjoyment playing the game with other children of my age.
Q: Tell me a bit more about Quarryhill Chess Club.
A: This is a junior club in Aberdeen set up and run by David Leslie, who now manages a very successful chess teaching project at primary schools in Aberdeen . The club met once a week in the early evening, and I soon began to have a lot of fun playing against and competing with other juniors. I was also fortunate to be able to play in organised chess in my last two primary school years at Robert Gordon’s College. Increasingly the idea of competing and playing a game where I had the possibility of representing my school really appealed to me.
Q: Looking back, would you change anything in your early chess development?
A: Not really. I think I gained a great deal from the chances I had to play chess with my peers. More generally, I’d perhaps like to see more adults involved in teaching or coaching children starting out in chess at club level. I think this would help many more juniors to stick with and enjoy playing chess as a hobby. I would also like to see more done to counter the unfortunate impression still held by some that chess is only for the “intellectually” able. Where that view persists, young players can all too often feel daunted and give up the game. You don’t have to be a budding Tiger Woods to enjoy golf, and the same goes for chess, a game that brings young and old together at any level. And you don’t need to spend a lot of money on equipment unlike most sports! I think more efforts to introduce a young player to chess at an early stage at school – similar to hockey, football or gymnastics - would give a young person a much better understanding of the game and a more informed basis to decide whether to pursue the game further or reject it.
Q: You stress the value of adult encouragement, good club organisation, competition and coaching …
A: … Recognition counts, too. Robert Gordon’s College, for example, awards colours for chess at senior school level, giving the game the same profile as hockey, swimming, rugby or music. Having just received colours for chess, as I have just done at the end of my fourth year in the senior school, I can really say that recognition like this makes chess a very attractive extra curricular activity for most students. I was also thrilled when I was first picked to represent my school at chess. It did not bother me that I was the only girl in the team, as the team represented the school’s best players and I felt it an honour to be picked.
Stepping up to junior international grade
Q: Your early progress was remarkably fast, so that by 13 you were selected to play in your first junior international event for Scotland, in the under-14 section of the World Youth Championships in 2001 in Spain. How did you come to the attention of the selectors so quickly? A: That is right, but by this time I had already represented Scotland in the home internationals against Wales and Ireland. I was, of course, very excited about the prospect of competing internationally. In addition to playing regularly at school and locally, my parents had helped me enter the lower tournaments in some of the excellent Scottish Weekend Congresses. In these, I was able to play adults. I started in the Minor sections and was beginning to make an impact in Majors about this time. The selectors had apparently noticed that I was not only playing a lot, but that my results and grading were increasingly improving.
Q: What do you recall most fondly about your first venture into international chess?
A: This was a major landmark in my chess career and an unforgettable experience. I played in the under 14 section. Players from 110 other countries participated. Making new friends and having fun after each day’s play with my team-mates all added to the enjoyment of the event. My teammates and the parents who were around were all incredibly supportive, with words of encouragement and advice. The occasion would have been even more daunting had it not been for my team mates - four boys, three of whom still continue to compete. I will also remember with respect my very first opponent, an experienced player from the host country. In my first game, due to my nervousness, I picked up the wrong pawn to make my first move with. Knowing that I had made a mistake, her response was to smile and indicate that I should “take back” my move. What an ambassador for her country!
Q: How satisfied were you with the sporting outcome in Spain? A: I finished in a lower, mid-field position and was satisfied that I had competed well. At this stage, I still had a long way to go in strengthening my openings and opening repertoire. However, before the event, I was lucky enough to obtain help from the only other junior girl in the Scottish team, Elaine Rutherford. Elaine was older, stronger and far more experienced than me. Extremely supportive and encouraging, she helped me overcome several problem areas in my chess and this strengthened my play. This type of peer help especially for girl chess players, as there are so few of them, is vital.
Q: How have you fared in junior international events since then?
A: I have played in two European and one further World Youth Championships, achieving my first FIDE rating last year. I am due to play in this year’s World Youth Championships, in Greece, in November. I was lucky at the age of 14 when I was competing for the first time in Greece at the European Championships, to meet my future coach, top Scottish grandmaster Paul Motwani. At these Championships, Paul was a coach with the English juniors. With Paul’s help, I have begun to play in more adult competitions, strengthened my openings and mental attitude and feel that I am continuing to grow in ability and strength. This summer in the Czech republic, I became the first girl ever to be selected for the Scottish team in the 50 year history of the Glorney Cup. This event began as an annual contest for junior teams from the four British Home Countries. It now takes in several other Western and Central European countries.
Representing Scotland at the Bled Olympiad
Q: Aged 15 you became the youngest Scot to compete at senior international level at the Bled Olympiad last year. How big a challenge was this?
A: This was a huge step up. I knew I would miss the company and support of my junior peers. But the encouragement of the selectors and with the benefit of Paul Motwani’s coaching, I felt I could and should take this chance. It was indeed a great honour to be competing for Scotland in such a breathtakingly beautiful place and to be in the midst of so many of the world’s greatest players, such as Peter Leko, Viktor Korchnoi and, of course, Garry Kasparov. It was fantastic simply to be able to put faces to the great names in chess that I had so far only read about or whose games I had studied.
Q: You had an interesting meeting and photo shot taken with long-time world number one, Garry Kasparov …
A: Meeting Kasparov was my main highlight. We bumped into him by chance and my dad took the opportunity to say that I would be delighted if he would consent to having his photo taken with me. He was entirely friendly. Indeed, he showed a touchingly diffident side, by suggesting that he should be better dressed for a photo. He arranged to meet us the following day, and true to his word, turned up immaculately groomed and beaming.
Q: You and the Scotland Youth Team also once had a similarly uplifting encounter with world number two, Vladimir Kramnik …
A: Yes, indeed. On the flight back from the 2001 European Junior Championships, we traveled in the same plane (en route to London) as Kramnik. This was a remarkable coincidence, as Kramnik had taken no part in the Junior event and and had been in Spain on a private holday. Even more surprisingly, Kramnik had booked a seat next to one of our team members, Christopher Macdonald. Noting that Christopher was engaged with a chessboard and bulletins from the European Championships, Kramnik offered to take part in his analyses. Soon he had met all of the Scots and was setting us all puzzles and chatting away to us for the whole of the journey.
Achieving a chess-life balance and the future
Q: How do you relax off the board?
A: Out of school, I love meeting up with my friends and going into town or listening to music. I play hockey four times a week and also play tennis and netball for my school. I also play golf with my family. I feel it is important not to let chess dominate your life and to have some fun. In chess, too, I try to have fun along with the hard work over the board. I have made many friends among the younger chess players and I keep in regular touch with them. At international or home events, I always enjoy meeting up with my friends and having a relaxing evening out after a tiring or challenging game.
Q: As you move into your fifth year in senior school, how do you cope with the increasing demand on your time for academic study?
A: This past year in particular has been quite demanding, as I had to prepare for my Standard Grade exams as well as compete at various competitions. Likewise this year will be equally if not more challenging, as I sit my Higher exams next May. At present my goal in chess is to work as hard as I can and to produce the best results within my ability at fewer competitions thereby allowing myself time to devote to my schoolwork. However, I need to work even harder at my chess to do this! Looking further ahead, I am thinking about pursuing a career in Law. My favourite subjects are French, Physics and History.
Q: Has your work at chess helped you academically?
A: I am sure that chess helps your powers of concentration and ability to cope with time pressures, and makes you more competitive. It has certainly helped me to improve my concentration and academic focus. My coach has given me a set of guidelines to work to and these are useful disciplines, to which I apply myself as much as I can. Chess has also taught me how hard it is to reach the top and that if you want to climb that ladder, you have to miss out on other enjoyable interests.
Q: Does chess teach any other life skills?
A: I would say that young players keen on chess are likely quickly to discover that dedication and hard work are absolutely essential to improvement and, if applied, will in the end produce results. Chess also helps build up mental toughness, as it is so important not to be negative no matter how good the opposition. And we all know that to be able to accept defeat gracefully, especially in lengthy games, is a useful discipline. Perhaps on a more practical basis, serious players tend to develop useful computer skills, as the omnipresent laptop becomes ever more important as a data source.
Q: Do you think an education along the lines of the famous Polgar sisters, whereby they were taught at home, with an accent on chess, would have been helpful to you?
A: I don’t think so. The Polgar sisters’ education, was unusual and directed at three very gifted players, whose dedication and commitment to chess was total. It worked for all three of them, and the youngest sister Judit Polgar has, of course, become far and away the strongest woman in the world and a true “Top Ten” player, who holds her own with the best of the men. But I can’t see that this would necessarily be suitable for all young persons.
Q: Why do so many girls give up chess?
A: It no longer bothers me to be one of only two or three females at a chess event or even to be a lone female competitor. But it certainly wasn’t easy when I was new to chess. I remember several girls at my school and at my first club, starting at chess at the same time as me. Today none of these girls still play. There are several reasons why a girl gives up chess but I believe the main reason is that they find themselves being an exception in a game perceived to be the preserve of males.
Q: How can that perception be changed?
A: This mind set does not appear to exist in Eastern Europe, India or China. These countries have produced some of the best female chess players. Even in Western Europe, countries like Holland and France encourage and produce very good female chess players. I believe Claire Summerscale of England is currently thinking of a scheme whereby a stronger female acts as a “buddy” to a newcomer or weaker player. This I am sure is a step in the right direction to encouraging more girls to stay in the game. Also at training or congress events, having more mixed activities like perhaps quiz games, discos or mixed sports like volleyball instead of just football could help!
Q: And in the meantime?
A: We need to retain women’s only chess and increasingly find more ways to change the club, congress and top-class environment. While Garry Kasparov and a few other men are likely to continue to dominate the game for a few years yet, there are signs that more Judit Polgars are on the horizon. There are a number of very talented young Chinese and Georgian women players. However, 13 year-old Kateryna Lahno from the Ukraine, who recently achieved an extraordinary 2600 tournament rating and first grandmaster norm in a tournament in the Ukraine, could be a red-hot talent.
Q: Thank you, Louise. If you were to try to sum up in a few words what chess has given you, what would you say? A: I enjoy playing chess for the challenge and the enjoyment that it gives me. Chess has enabled me to travel and meet many young people at home and all over the world. And in the last year, chess has also brought me into contact with internationally recognised personalities like Cherie Blair at 10 Downing Street and the very friendly and fascinating MSPs and MPs who sportingly took on Scottish Youth Teams in separate “friendlies” to raise the profile of chess in the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments. Being presented by Cherie Blair with a silver salver, for a new Cherie Booth Award, for the Best Scottish Girl Player of the Year, who will be decided annually by Chess Scotland, was a great moment for me.