A challenge to take up a sport to “keep busy” was the primary reason Fort Hare chess queen Zandi Ncokotwane took up the strategic board game as a grade sixer.
Back then, her elementary school in Mthatha insisted on each learner playing a sport to expose them to healthy pursuits while keeping them off the streets.
“I’m not really into strenuous activities, so there wasn’t a sport that appealed to me,” confessed the 21-year-old.
“But, when I learnt about chess, it was kind of interesting. It meant using your mind.”
When she joined the university’s chess club in her second year, she found that the members were incredibly focused and determined to improve.
“They loved chess even more than I did. That actually motivated me to learn more about the game.”
And that she did.
At the highly rated University of Fort Hare Chess Open in March, she placed a credible sixth overall in the section for advanced players, among whom were some of the best in the country.
The tournament is recognised by the Chess RSA Federation (CHESSA) and International Chess Federation (FIDE), which means participants can accrue national and international ranking points.
Ncokotwane also remains undefeated in the Eastern Cape student league this year as she continues her advance against opponents that need to be outthought and outmanoeuvred before they can topple the king she is defending.
“I must admit, this year there’s a lot of competition, but then I’ve managed to win most of my games during tournaments,” she said.
The transport and economics honours student has a relatively simple approach to her game – practice makes perfect. That means she does not get side-tracked with any special prep – like planning or developing specific strategies – ahead of a big game.
“I just practise as usual,” she maintained.
Ncokotwane felt that Fort Hare’s chess programme was “special” as the members loved the game and were willing to do just about “anything for it”.
She has found like-minded individuals who cherish the opportunity to gain an upper hand on the board in a contest that is all about brains and nothing about brawn.
Coach Xhanti Mafongosi, who assists her with positioning and general game play, praised his young charge for displaying a determination that he had rarely seen among her peers.
“She has the drive. She puts in the effort and is now one of the top female players at tertiary level. I am very proud of her.”
Ncokotwane is also secretary of the club, a leadership position her coach believed had helped her game.
Fort Hare has won considerable praise for its chess offering this year. No less a figure than UFH Chess Open champion Brighton Mthunzi, of Johannesburg, described it as one of the most well-organised tournaments he had competed in.