It’s hard enough being the best chess player on your block, let alone all of Indonesia. Irene Kharisma Sukandar was named Indonesia’s first female grandmaster when she was just 16 years old. We challenged her to a game and learned that she can beat you blindfolded in less than 10 moves.
Today, Irene, who is ranked first in Indonesia and ninth in Asia, talks about what it takes to be the best, why being at the top of the game is still possible at 40, and how college studies can be balanced with a career that takes her across the globe, from Ukraine to the Philippines.
When I look at the chess board I see black and white pieces and a bunch of squares, what do you see?
The board is something familiar to me, so first, I wonder what my opening move will be. Chess is all about calculation. Players tend to memorize the first 12 or 15 moves in a game.
When you get back home from tournaments, do you take a break from chess?
I’m 18 now, but I’ve been traveling since I was nine. When I get home, all I want to do is sleep. During tournaments, we are not only using our brains. It’s also psychologically draining. So all I can feel after the tournament is exhaustion.
Do you have a ritual before matches, like something you do for good luck?
Not a specific ritual, but I always pray.
Who was the most challenging opponent you ever faced?
I played once with the former woman world champion [China’s Zhu Chen] in 2009. I beat her. It became big news in Indonesia.
How many countries have you traveled to?
How do you train?
I train with the national team and at home, using computer and books. Now, chess is very dynamic, and there’s lots of software you can install in your computer — like a record of other games — so you can learn from the best chess players.
What’s the longest game you’ve ever played?
I played for six hours. It was in France, in 2006. Unfortunately I lost that game.
What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without playing chess?
Maybe less than a week. But chess is my lifeline, so I cannot leave it for any longer.
Other players are training very hard, so if I just keep resting, I don’t think I can catch up with them.
How were you introduced to the game?
My dad taught me to play chess. He was a national athlete for table tennis, and he wanted me and my brother to try some activities like sports.
First, I played table tennis, but then I stopped because I thought it was boring.
I also tried running, swimming and playing badminton but finally I ended up with chess.
When I was a child, I was hyperactive. But I enjoy thinking logically and chess is just like a puzzle to me, it’s a game that cannot be solved in easy ways.
My dad got me some positional puzzles and I solved them. Then, I said “I want more, I want more!” After that I moved to this chess school and got some lessons.
How do you deal with other opponents?
I’ve competed against many players and so I know what their character is like, and how they think. Playing chess makes you understand better what people are like.
What is a sure-fire way to win?
Don’t give away your pieces.
In Jakarta, do you ever just go out and find a chess game?
I really dream of that. When I was in the Ukraine, in every park, old people gathered to play chess, and they really enjoyed it. But here in Indonesia, we can hardly find parks like this.
Do you see chess as a lifelong career?
If you are the best, I think you can [have a lifelong career]. But for me, besides playing chess, I’m also very concerned about my education, so in case I retire someday, I can use it.
I study at Gunadarma University. I got a scholarship from all universities in Indonesia. I also got a scholarship from the University of Texas.
Why didn’t you go there?
I think I’m not ready yet. Maybe for my next level of studies.
How did you get a scholarship from the University of Texas?
Because of my titles. I got my [national] title when I was 16, so they wanted me to study at their university.
I got a scholarship, but if I have to play for the university, I have to [commit to chess]. But there’s also a lot of stuff in Indonesia I have to do.
When’s your next tournament?
In Switzerland, next month.
When you tell people that you’re the No. 1 chess player in Indonesia, how do they react?
In class, sometimes I hide that part of myself. I don’t want people to know who I am.
What does it mean to retire from chess?
I’m a woman, so when I retire it will probably be when I get married, or have kids. But in chess, our age of achievement is long. At the age of 40, you can still achieve a lot.
Now there is a chess player who is around 60 or 70 and he is still playing.
Who’s your favorite chess player?
Judith Polgar. She’s from Hungary. I adore her. Now, she’s a mom. After she had kids, she was not so active in chess anymore.
At a very young age, she made it into the top 10 alongside male players. It was just incredible.
Do you know where we can find a chess game in Jakarta?
Jakarta has some chess clubs, and they organize tournaments.