Check mates: Meet the teenage chess queen
Diana Mirza’s dad has nurtured her talent but many of our gifted children need more support
Chrissie Russell – 22 July 2013
Like many 13-year-olds Diana Mirza is a big Rihanna fan. The Limerick schoolgirl is also a devotee of top teen fiction writer Jacqueline Wilson and has been engrossed in her hit Queenie.
So far, so standard but Diana’s third idol is a little unusual. “Bobby Fischer,” she says proudly, “he’s my absolute favourite.”
There aren’t many teenage girls who could tell you the name of the deceased American chess grandmaster (let alone list him as a hero) but Diana Mirza isn’t just any teenager.
The pretty, quietly spoken girl has just been crowned Irish Women’s Chess Champion, is the only Irish chess player to win silver and bronze medals at the European Union Youth Chess Championships and, when she entered the World Youth Chess Championships last year, she was ranked 36th in the world.
Today, she is competing with the Irish Chess Union’s national team against the cream of young chess talent from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales in the Glorney Cup in Cardiff.
Her father, Gabriel Mirza (47), knew he had a prodigy on his hands when his daughter picked up the complicated board game at the tender age of five and, spurred on by his promise of a one-off €100 cash prize, beat him in a game aged just 11.
The Romanian-born chess coach, who runs a chess club at Limerick’s St Michael’s sports club, now tries to support his daughter’s talent by bringing her to tournaments where she can improve by competing against more demanding opposition.
But perhaps the biggest challenge Diana faces is the lack of support – financial or otherwise – for young talent in the chess world.
“In 2011 I almost didn’t go to the World Youth Chess Championship in Brazil because it was so expensive,” she explains.
“My school helped me raise some money but this year I have the same problem with going to the EU Youth Championships in Austria in a few weeks. I think this year I could win gold but flights and accommodation are expensive and I need funding.”
While typically attending a tournament can run to around €1,000 a pop – and Diana tries to enter more than 20 a year – chess prize money is meagre.
Today’s Glorney Cup is for a trophy and title only while even the larger events on the Irish circuit only run to a top prize of a few hundred euro.
This hopeful future grandmaster’s only means of honing her skills is competing against her eight-year-old brother, reading books and practising two hours daily on the laptop she bought with her winnings.
Unfortunately as a child prodigy or gifted child, Diana is far from alone in lacking support to hone her skill.
While America, Russia, China and other densely populated countries can afford to set up centres of excellence for their skilled youngsters, Ireland lags behind.
Perhaps as far as prodigies go – children who excel in one area and require hours of dedication to their discipline – they’re rare and it’s understandable that Ireland might not have a dedicated facilities to cater to each niche skill.
But the fact is that ‘gifted’ students – children who display a learning capability and potential beyond that of their peers – are often likewise lacking in support.
Peter Lydon specialises in working with gifted and talented youths (giftedandtalented.ie) and estimates that some 2.5pc of the population under 19, around 2,500 children, could be classed as gifted.
“The problem is, in mixed-ability classrooms, the curriculum is targeted at the middle, meaning students at either end of the spectrum tend to miss out,” he explains. “There’s a lot of support at the ‘lower’ end – which is right and important – but most classrooms don’t tend to have support for the highly capable and teachers aren’t getting the training they need to identify and challenge these students.”
He adds: “Most other countries are streets ahead in providing for children with huge potential and I think we’re doing down that part of the population by not doing more.”
Any support available tends to be extra-curricular, such as the summer programmes run at Dublin’s Centre for Talented Youth Ireland (CTYI).
It doesn’t help that as a self-deprecating nation we tend to shy away from being perceived as pushy parents.
“As a liberal society we want the kids to be driving their ambition themselves,” says Dr Colm O’Reilly, director of CTYI.
“In China or Russia a child might be identified as excelling at maths or a sport at five or six and then pushed academically in that area because there’s a culture of identifying exceptional students and it’s seen as positive to have them excel at a national and international level.
“In Ireland, if a child displays a talent and is hungry to peruse it, it’s generally down to the parents to find them opportunities.”
He adds: “At extreme levels of performance it’s been well documented that some parents can be ‘pushy’ but often they’re put in a difficult situation.
“They have to decide: Is it right to push their child who is hungry to pursue their interest but maybe too young to make their own decisions or do you turn round and tell them you can’t support them, get a different interest and perhaps never let them achieve the level they’re capable of?”
At the moment Diana, who also plays basketball, camogie and enjoys swimming, insists she wants to keep competing and would love to turn her talent into a professional pursuit.
But her father says he accepts that when she starts secondary school, she might chose to leave the game, and her favourite Simpsons chess set, behind.
“I honestly would be happy if she said ‘Dad, no more chess’,” he insists. “I think perhaps she spends too much time on it and it’s important to have balance.”
He adds: “I’ve never pushed her to play, but as long as she wants to and it makes her happy I want to support her as much as I can.”