Player Profile: Robyn van Niekerk
Robyn van Niekerk at the 2014 World Chess Olympiad in Norway

Player Profile: Robyn van Niekerk

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Robyn van Niekerk caught everyone’s attention as she stormed to the lead in the 2019 South African Women’s Closed Chess Championships, and she maintained her lead convincingly right up until the final rounds where she narrowly missed her first national championship title. Even though she missed the title, her performance was good enough to earn her second place and an automatic place in South Africa’s 2020 Olympiad team.

As part of the strong MRL club (a club created by father, Lourenzo, and named after the three sisters: Megan, Robyn, and Lauren) and as a past-Olympiad player, Robyn is no stranger on the South African chess scene. I caught up with her to find out more about her amazing SA Closed performance, her chess career, and her experience being part of a chess family.

Robyn with her family after the SA Closed prize-giving.

Quick Bio:

Name:                                              Robyn van Niekerk

Age:                                                  24

Occupation:                                      Postgraduate student (Political Science) 

Chess rating (FIDE / National):         1687 (FIDE) / 1802 (CHESSA)

SA rank (women):                             9th (FIDE) / 8th (CHESSA)

Number of Olympiads played:          1 (2014)

Note: the following interview is edited for clarity and length

At what age did you start playing chess, and who introduced you to it?

I think I played my first tournament when I was around 8 years old, but a year or two before that my Dad introduced me and my sisters to chess: he was a lover of the game, and still is.

What’s your earliest chess memory?

My very first memory is of my Dad coaching me and my two sisters. We would sit in our braai area in a line in front of a big magnetic board, and each of us would have our special chair that we would sit in. That’s my earliest memory, but also one of my favourite chess memories.

You come from a chess-playing family (older sister WFM Lauren is an ex-Olympiad player, and younger sister WIM-elect Megan won African Zonals (4.3) in 2018) – do you think you would have gotten as far as you have in chess if you’d been the only one in your family who played?

I don’t think I would still be playing if I didn’t have the support of my two sisters and my Dad. It’s nice to know your family is by you at every tournament, or at home supporting you. They also know how long and hard you have to practice. Also, my sisters keep me motivated with healthy competition: when Megan won Zonals I thought ‘Jinne, now I have to do that, now I need to push myself’.

What chess material/method has led to your biggest chess improvement?

From when I was young, my Dad would go through world champions’ games with us. My sisters and I would each have a player that my Dad assigned to us that suited our personality, and mine was Alekhine. So when I was younger I played attacking chess, and I recently started doing that again, and it really improved my game. My Dad also has a collection of Russian puzzle books, and when I went back to those, they really helped me.

Some of the Russian puzzle books.

How did you prepare for the South African Closed Chess Championships?

I started my preparation with my Dad, of course: he’s been my lifelong coach. We went through a lot of Bobby Fischer’s games, and then of course I did tactics: my Dad would always say ‘Robbie, you need to do your tactics’ and this time I listened to him - I don’t usually, but this time I did!

I also trained or practised quite a bit with Calvin [ed: Calvin Klaasen, the 2017 SA Closed co-champion, whom Robyn is dating]. And something I started doing this time that was different to last time, was I started exercising and eating well, so I think that was a big change in my play as well – I was more focussed and was able to push more.

In the 2019 SA Closed, you lead the field right up until the last round – how did you cope with the pressure?

Before every tournament I feel super nervous, and for this tournament I was even more nervous. When I was leading, I did feel like I needed to stay on top – I was in good form – but the people around me were so supportive and would tell me ‘don’t stress, it’s okay; if you draw now you can still win the next game’. They really helped calm me.

Who is your favourite South African chess player or personality?

I would have to say FM Calvin Klaasen, no bias [laughs]. It’s because I see first-hand how hard he works at his chess and how many hours he puts in, and he’s also such a humble winner. It inspires me to do better as well – when we go to tournaments and he’s sitting on the stage and I’m at the bottom, it motivates me to move up in the chess world.

What is your favourite local or international tournament to play?

International is the Olympiad because you meet a lot of people, and it’s where you want to be if you’re a chess player. And locally, I would say the Western Province League – I like playing the league because it’s a team event and I enjoy the team dynamic and team spirit, and it’s exciting! But also, I like the longer time control.

Robyn and some of the MRL club members at the Western Province Chess Awards.

What is your favourite chess game (of your own, or of others)?

I think my favourite chess game would be my win against (now-WGM) Shahenda Wafa. It was a big deal for me because it was my first Olympiad and her rating was so much higher than mine at the time.

What is the highlight of your chess career?

Definitely making the Olympiad team for the first time in 2014 in Tromso, Norway.

What are your personal chess goals?

I’ve actually reached one of my short-term chess goals, which was to make the Olympiad team for the second time – so I’ve ticked that off. My long-term goal would be to get my rating up and to get a title, since I’m currently title-less, and both my sisters have a title!

How will you prepare for the 2020 Olympiad, and what are your goals?

I haven’t figured that out yet, even though I know it’s around the corner. But I’ll definitely look at my opening theory and my endgames – I haven’t done that in a while. In terms of goals, I’d hope to score 50%. The first time I played there I only got 3.5, and I’d definitely like to improve on that.

What would you do if you were CHESSA president?

I think I would try hash out inner politics and try focus more on the players, and try ensure transparency between all parties. I’d also want it to be compulsory for tournament organisers to advertise prize money beforehand, and I’d try access more funding, because I think that’s what we’re lacking. I’d also try expand the number of players that are sponsored to represent South Africa in African events, since it’s currently only the champion; it should be at least top 2.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing South African chess?

Definitely politics and funding.

What do you think needs to be done in South Africa to promote women’s chess?

We definitely need more women’s tournaments with bigger prize money – there’s currently nothing for us. Role models are also important – one player who I really like is IM Sopiko Guramishvili; I always watch her on Chess24, and I love the way she explains things.

You’ve worked as a team captain for your club (MRL) in the Western Province League in recent years. How do you enjoy the administrative aspect, and do you ever see yourself being a team manager for national teams, or do you prefer to focus on your playing?

I both like it and don’t – I don’t like the messaging back and forth and waiting for people to respond, but I do like it when all of us come together and play and practise. But as for becoming the manager for international teams, I don’t quite see that happening unless it’s maybe for a young girls’ team.

Robyn playing for MRL in the Western Province league.

What is your favourite/least favourite thing about chess?

I obviously love travelling and meeting new people. The worst thing is losing – it’s not a good feeling, especially if you were winning. It’s also terrible when you’ve been practising and practising and you get a bad result – anyone can have a bad tournament.

What advice do you have for aspiring SA Olympiad team members?

Practising is good, you must practise, practise, but what I’ve also recently found out is you must be eating well and be physically and emotionally fit. It’s not just about feeding the mind, it’s about feeding the body and soul.

What interests do you have outside of chess?

I love watching series and I like reading romance books, and I also like colouring in – it destresses me, and makes me calm.

Thank you to Robyn for taking the time to be interviewed. You can message me on Chess.com to be put in contact with Robyn or her chess club, MRL.