Player Profile: WIM Charlize van Zyl
Credit: Reint Dykema

Player Profile: WIM Charlize van Zyl

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Even though the Olympiad has been postponed to 2021, I’ve decided to continue interviewing the members of South Africa’s team, so everyone can continue getting to know our top players better. This was the first interview to take place after the announcement was made regarding the postponement.

WIM Charlize van Zyl is one of the younger players among the top South African women, but she has been competing alongside the seniors for longer than her age would suggest. Hailing from Port Elizabeth, Charlize is another player who was introduced to chess through her family – her father was an active chess player and administrator for a number of years, while her older sister and uncle were also active chess players while she was growing up.

Charlize’s great performances in tournaments during the selection cycle earned her a spot in the Olympiad team through the SA Grand Prix system (the sum of a player’s 5 highest performance ratings), meaning that she will be playing her second Olympiad in 2021. I spoke to Charlize to find out more about her experience at last year’s Closed, her chess career and her thoughts on South African chess.

Charlize in Batumi in 2018.

Quick Bio:

Name:                                               Charlize van Zyl

Age:                                                  20

Occupation:                                      Student (BA Media, Communications and Culture)

Rating:                                              1686 (FIDE) / 1801 (CHESSA)

SA rank:                                             9th (FIDE) / 7th (CHESSA)

Title:                                                  Woman International Master (WIM)

Number of Olympiads played:           1 (2018)

Note: The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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

My Dad taught my sister and me when I was about 7 – he tried earlier, but we just weren’t into it. I started playing tournaments at 8, and when I was 9, I went overseas.

What’s your earliest chess memory?

My memory’s not that good, but I remember in one of my first tournaments, the only point I got was against my sister. We had both lost all our games, so we played in the last round. No one was watching us, and we ended up playing with just our kings until someone came and told us it was a draw!

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

I did a lot of tactics in the days leading up to the closed. I did a bit on the opening, because I wanted to experiment a bit and change my lines, but not much. So, it was mainly hours and hours of tactics, and Puzzle Rush too. I’m addicted to Puzzle Rush – I don’t know if it was really training, but I couldn’t stop playing!

How did you feel about your performance at the closed?

I just lost games I shouldn’t have. Some games I played horrifically, and some games I played so well – it was such a contrast. After my game against Jesse, I think I got a bit overconfident or relaxed, because I’d just beaten the number one seed. Right after that I lost to Michelle horribly. In my last game I needed win to place higher (I think I would’ve come second), but I drew – it was just a one move difference, and it was my own line played against me in the London! So it was just horrible.

Charlize at the 2019 South African Closed Chess Championship.

You made a big change by switching from 1.d4 to 1.e4 at the Closed, and you also switched up your black repertoire. What motivated this decision, and do you regret the change before such a big event?

From the beginning of last year, I decided I had to change my repertoire, because my openings were too slow for me. I’m trying to change my style to be more tactical, since I love tactics so much now! My opening knowledge was not the greatest – I knew my openings, but not much else – so I’ve been trying to get used to lines in other openings, even if I don’t play them.

I think I made the right decision to switch, I just wish I’d learnt them more properly before the time. I didn’t prep specifically before the closed, so I did a lot of prep before each game to get my base in all the lines. But overall, I had a lot of fun playing the new repertoire, and learning it at the Closed was a hands-on experience.

What does your usual training schedule look like? And do you work alone, or with a coach?

I work with Sahaj [Ed – Charlize is dating GM Sahaj Grover] a bit, but we both do our own coaching and we’re super busy studying at the same time. When it comes to a tournament, he does help me with opening prep though. Other than that I try to do tactics all the time, although I’ve recently started to focus more on my openings and neglect my tactics a bit – I’m still trying to find a balance. 

What is the highlight of your chess career?

When I was 13 I won the African Zonals, which is when I won my WIM title. And I broke a record for being the youngest South African to get the title.

Charlize being interviewed after winning the 2013 African Zonals. Photo: Dejan Bojkov.

How has studying at university affected your chess?

I think it’s been a lot easier compared to high school, because in high school I never had free time. But something I’ve battled with is that things always seem to be due at the same time as a big tournament, which has been very stressful and definitely affected my chess.

What are your personal chess goals?

Short term I’d like to break 2000. Long term, I want to be an IM, not just a WGM. As another goal, I think the highest-ever rated South African female is 2150 (WGM Melissa Greef), which is actually quite attainable with hard work.

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

My game against Jesse in December. It was 18 moves, in an hour, and it was prep until e4. I sacrificed three pieces, and I don’t think I’ve ever done that at such an important tournament before. That’s where my tactics really showed!

What is your favourite local or international tournament to play?

International is obviously the Olympiad, although I’ve only played that once, so I don’t know the full experience. My favourite local tournament is the Capablanca – it’s round robins based on rating, so it’s really tough! I’d even say it’s tougher than the closed, because everyone is the same level as you, and there are no easy games.

Charlize at the Capablanca Festival in 2019. Photo: Reint Dykema
How do you feel about the postponement of the 2020 Olympiad?

It’s sad, but it was kind of expected. I wish it had been postponed to the end of this year, not to next year, but I guess it’s more time to prepare! We’ll be a stronger team.

How will you prepare for the Olympiad next year, and do you have any personal or team goals?

I will definitely work on my openings; I need to strengthen my repertoire and actually know what I’m playing by then. I’ll need to balance it with tactical training as well, and I’ve already discussed some ‘hardcore training’ with my “coach”.

For our women’s team, last time we were close to getting first in Africa, so I think we can aim for that, especially if we’re more confident and stronger. Also, some of us will be more experienced this time!

The next Olympiad will be your second one – how did you find the first Olympiad, and how do you think your experience will differ the second time around?

It was quite scary seeing so many of the best players in the world in one place, but it was also really cool seeing the GMs in person. I remember when the US team was standing next to us in line, waiting to go in, and it was just ‘wow’. And I walked past Karjakin on the way to the bathroom in one of my games.

So there was definitely an “awe” factor, which will still be there next time because I respect the players, but it’s different going in and knowing what you’re getting into. And I’ll be older, so I’ll be more mature. I don’t think I focused as much as I should have on the chess in 2018, but this time it’ll be just chess. I’ll be showing why I should be there, not just enjoying it.

Charlize and GM Sahaj Grover.

What would you do if you were CHESSA president?

I would definitely prioritise the players – it shouldn’t be about the parents or the politics, it should be about our chess and the quality of our chess. I would focus on our up-and-coming players, and give them more opportunities.

We also need more international experience – I would get Grandmasters to come here, not just once a year at nationals for the ‘awe factor’ – they should come here to actually help us and introduce us to that level of chess.

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

Our politics. Us older players are at least familiar with the people who are in charge, but I have students who are new to chess, and they have no idea what’s going on. It’s so confusing for them – they don’t know who to follow. And when no one knows what’s going on, it affects the chess.

What needs to be done to improve Women’s chess in SA?

We need more tournaments for women. Our top women only play against each other once a year at the closed. Why don’t we have more closed women’s events, so that we can familiarise ourselves with the competition? Look at the international Grand Prixs – they play against each other in regular, strong events all the time, and their chess is improving!

I think if women’s chess got additional funding, it shouldn’t necessarily go towards increasing existing prize funds, but rather towards hosting more tournaments, or towards camps – get a grandmaster (or strong IM), and have chess camps for the top females in the country, even if it takes place remotely via Zoom. Work with them, and don’t just see them as the counterpart to the male chess – they need coaching and attention too.

I think we also need to find a way to stop our teenage girls from leaving chess in high school because ‘chess isn’t cool’ – maybe that’s our role now, to act as role models for the younger female players and try to keep them playing.

Who is your favourite South African chess player or personality?

IM Daniel Cawdery – he’s our strongest player. I like his style, his confidence, and he knows that different level of chess that most of us don’t.

Charlize is an active chess coach – here she is pictured with student Samuel Driscoll, who is currently the highest-ranked u8 in the country.

In South African chess, Western Province and Gauteng typically dominate events. How did coming from a smaller region affect your chess career and development, and what advice do you have for chess players in smaller or less active regions?

Port Elizabeth has a lot of strong players, but a lot of them are dormant – even I stopped playing in high school. When I was growing up, though, PE chess was thriving – we had a lot of tournaments, a lot of strong players, we had the adults playing, and then it quietened down. This year (before the lockdown), we did start having a lot more tournaments, though.

When I was younger there was the chance to move to Pretoria for my chess, and maybe I would’ve been a much better player if I’d done that, but right now I don’t think we can really think provincially, because we’re playing on a national level, and then versus the rest of the world. So I don’t think your chess should be geographically constricted – there are so many opportunities online to watch and learn from stronger players, even if you have to work alone because you’re in a region where there aren’t a lot of active chess player.

What is your favourite/least favourite thing about chess?

I think same as everyone – I hate losing; it’s the worst part about chess! Right now, I suppose the politics too. My favourite thing is winning, but also the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been. There’s nothing else out there like chess, in my opinion!

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

Age is definitely not a factor – you can be young, you can be old, you just have to work hard. Put your all into chess, work by yourself or with a coach, and see it as an attainable goal.

Charlize also plays for the Nelson Mandela University chess team.

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

Watching Grandmaster and other peoples’ games to see ideas, because chess is full of patterns. It also helps with getting used to openings – the ideas will form part of your memory, in a way, so when they happen in the game they’re there and you just have to unlock them.

Commentary is really fun to watch, but when you watch the games go back to the beginning to see the ideas in the opening – don’t just take it from the position that they’re on and go on your engine and say ‘oh wow, Ding just blundered, how could he not see this?’. You’re not going to have an engine in your game, so put yourself in their position and think as though you were playing that game yourself.

What interests do you have outside of chess?

A lot of things related to my degree (like design and writing), but I also spend a lot of time coaching. I used to like reading a lot, but I don’t always have time now – it was great when I had English modules in my first two years.

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Thank you to Charlize for taking the time to be interviewed. You can follow her or contact her for coaching via one of the following methods:

Chess.com: @Charlizevz

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Twitch (ChessNerds – follow them on Facebook here)