Ghana's Maud Benson: The New Queen Of African Chess?
Two years into her chess career, Maud Benson is headed to the Olympiad. | Photo: Phillip Ameku/Ghana Chess Association.

Ghana's Maud Benson: The New Queen Of African Chess?

Ghanaian chess players know her as "the prodigy." At age 16, Maud Benson went from zero to hero in local chess tournaments and quickly made her way into the female national team for the upcoming Olympiad which will take place in Batumi, Georgia, between the September 23 and October 6.

Maud played chess for less than two years. "When I was 14," she explains, "I loved joking and adored languages. It was quite ironic that it was my French teacher literally forcing me to join the chess club. It was perfect for my schematic and strategic mind."

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Maud Benson parlayed her French lessons into chess lessons. | Photo: Phillip Ameku/Ghana Chess Association.

Things took an unexpected turn when Maud swiftly made her way into national competitions and scored a surprising 6/9 at the African Junior U20 Chess Championship in Togo, last December. In February, she secured her spot in the Ghanaian Olympic team, getting the better of far a more experienced field.

Maud's next target is the Batumi Olympiad. "I train literally every day with the team," she says, "because though everyone says it isn't about winning, no one likes to lose. I'm also excited for this opportunity and this is going to teach me sportsmanship and other cultures, and I will also gain a deeper understanding of the game."

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Benson at the African Junior Championship in Togo. | Photo: Phillip Ameku/Ghana Chess Association.

The Ghanaian prodigy has high hopes for her future: "I want to be the first female grandmaster in Ghana. Yes, yes, chess will be a constant feature and, so far, it has taken me here. God only knows where next! I believe that chess will give me the platform to help in creating awareness for female chess in Ghana and Africa as a whole. But I also like other sports - I play basketball and soccer especially well - and I want to be an aeronautic engineer."

A relatively small country on the West African coast, Ghana is a hub of cultural innovation in the continent and a stronghold of education and women's rights. Chess is a growing reality in the country, with the Ghana Chess Association nurturing several young talents such as Anthony Ajaavon (22) and Rohan Karamchandani (16). Among the top female players, national champion Tobi Felix (18) and Audrey Ayiku (16) are stacking up local and international achievements. The Ghanaian female team played its first Olympiads in 2014 in Tromsø.

Here's one of Benson's best games from the Olympiad qualifier tournament:

Ghana Chess Association president Philip Elikem Ameku proudly describes the development of female chess in the federation: "Since 2014 The Ghana Chess Association introduced women-only section tournament and award National Women Title and this has continued till date. During our inter club events we have made it compulsory for clubs to field female players in their squad, this is to ensure female chess is also being improved at the club level."

Ameku also believes that chess is a fundamental tool for women empowerment in the African continent, ridden by violations of human rights and diffuse gender inequalities: "It's not a secret that men dominate in most sporting avenues because of this natural instinct for competition men have. But I believe chess, being a brain game, provides a unique opportunity for women. Ghanaian female players such as Maud Benson and Tobi Felix have proven that gender of your opponent hardly matters. They are never intimidated by male opponents and the players in general have the same mutual respect for any gender when it comes to chess. I will say chess is a big opportunity to be explored by the Ghana government as well as other women's right groups when it comes to women empowerment in Ghana."

nullGhana: A proud chess country that is now making an effort to include more women. | Phillip Ameku/Ghana Chess Association.

Maud's story reminds of another African girl, Phiona Mutesi, whose life conquered the masses in the popular movie "Queen of Katwe." Despite the heart warming narrative of social ransom and personal empowerment, the young talents of Africa still struggle to match the standards of their peers in the other continents. Chess in Sub-Saharan Africa has not yet produced world class stars and hardly features 2400+ players.
"In order for talent to become star", Says Ameku, "I believe we need to give them the right environment to thrive or to improve. I know of scouts that come all the way from Europe to Africa just to find talents (not for chess of course). Chess talents are not able to live to their full potential because African countries especially are not able to afford services of qualified coaches and also there is low financial reward from playing locally which is why sometimes discouraging and may kill the potential."

nullPhillip Ameku with GM Maurice Ashley. | Phillip Ameku/Ghana Chess Association.

However, West Africa is a growing reality in chess: "We can boast of quite a number of international players, majority of whom are from Nigeria, followed by Ghana and Ivory Coast. In 2015 Ghana Chess Association hosted the Zone 4.4 Individual Chess Championships which saw participation from 7 West African countries which included Sierra Leone and Cameroon." 

Editor's note: For more on burgeoning chess talents in Africa, check out GM Hikaru Nakamura's recent trip to South Africa and the two young stars that impressed him there.

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