When Noor Fatima Rashid puts on her green jacket to compete on the world stage, she feels a sense of pride at how far she has come to represent Pakistan. Last year, she became a Women National Master (WNM) at 8th Women National Chess Championship, 2022, and prior to that she represented Pakistan at the Chess Olympiad 2020 and 2021.
Chess was just a family board game for Noor when she learned it, at the age of seven, from her father and played it with her cousins and brothers. However, by the age of 17, she was into professional chess. At 26, the chess champion, belonging to Lahore, has become an inspirational story for women and girls who want to play chess professionally.
She herself is inspired by Judit Polgar, the Hungarian chess grandmaster who is an icon in the world of female chess. Judit is the only woman to have competed in the open Olympiad, and Noor aspires to achieve the same accomplishment in the future.
Although chess in Pakistan enjoys little popularity it has a rich history in the country, with the first-ever international chess tournament being held in Lahore in 1980. Since then, the game has continued to gain traction and has produced several talented players. Some of these players have even represented Pakistan at international competitions and brought glory to the country.
Pakistan has produced talented players like International Master (IM) Mahmood Lodhi earned his IM title in 1988, became the first Pakistani player to achieve the title of Grandmaster, and has since won 14 national and two international chess tournaments. He also won the Asian Chess Championship in Tehran in 2015.
In recent years, chess has grown in popularity, particularly among the youth. This is partly due to the increased online accessibility of the game, as it can be played on the computer or through mobile apps. Furthermore, the pandemic-induced lockdowns provided an opportunity for people to explore new hobbies and interests, and chess became one of the popular choices.
Numerous individuals and organisations are working towards the promotion of chess in Pakistan. The Pakistan Chess Federation (PCF), for example, has been instrumental in organising tournaments and providing coaching to aspiring players. Similarly, several private organisations have established chess clubs and organise tournaments in different parts of the country.
However, despite such efforts, the country currently only has a handful of chess clubs, which are mostly located in major cities. These clubs lack the resources to organise regular tournaments or provide the necessary training to aspiring players. Additionally, the lack of proper equipment, such as chess sets and clocks, makes it difficult to hold matches.
The lack of local media exposure is another hindrance to the promotion of chess. Chess tournaments, particularly at the local level, are hardly covered by mainstream media outlets. This lack of coverage not only robs the players of much-deserved recognition but also makes it difficult to attract sponsors vital for organising and sustaining tournaments.
The sport also suffers from a lack of financial support from the government. While other sports such as cricket and football receive significant funding, chess remains neglected. This lack of support makes it challenging for young players to pursue the game professionally.
Challenges for chess players
Compared to other countries where chess is a popular game and draws the attention of their governments, Pakistani chess players face several challenges that can make it difficult for them to succeed in the sport.
Chess players require access to quality training facilities, equipment and resources in order to develop and refine their talent and techniques. Without these resources, players may find it difficult to keep up with their competitors who have better access to training and equipment.
Limited funding and sponsorships make it difficult for players to participate in tournaments and competitions, as these events often require significant financial resources. Without adequate funding and sponsorships, players often struggle to afford travel expenses, tournament entry fees, and other related costs.
Noor speaks about how a scholarship opportunity helped her career. “I got a scholarship from USAID [United States Agency for International Development Agency] at Webster University which had the best chess-playing team in the US,” she says. “I got mentored by the grandmaster and improved my chess skills.” Upon returning to Pakistan, she started playing chess at clubs without any intention of playing it professionally for the national team.
To gain the necessary experience to participate in international competitions, chess players need to practice in local and national competitions. But fewer competitions mean fewer opportunities of exposure for players. Without regular opportunities to compete against strong opponents, players fail to develop and refine their strategies and techniques.
The reason for fewer competitions and funding can be associated with the lack of media attention that makes it difficult for players to gain recognition and support from the wider public. Chess players require public recognition and support in order to attract sponsors and funding, and without this support, they may struggle to continue playing and improving in the sport.
Gender stereotypes and societal norms have led to fewer females taking up the sport in Pakistan. Moreover, the lack of resources, facilities, and support for female chess players is also an issue. The PCF, along with some of the key chess players, are trying to break gender stereotypes and bring more female players to this game.
The PCF organises national championships for both men and women, and female players are also selected to represent Pakistan in the Women's Chess Olympiad and other international events. In recent years, there has also been a push to promote chess in schools, and this has opened up more opportunities for young girls to learn and play the game.
When she started playing at national chess clubs, Noor observed the gender disparity that existed in the sport in Pakistan; only a handful of girls were playing chess at that time. “That was the time I decided to fill this gap and bring more female players to this sport,” she says. “I started by participating in the national championships and then internationally.”
When Noor represented Pakistan at the International Geography Olympiad in 2016, it was the first batch to represent Pakistan at the event. In 2023, she won her second WNM title at the National Chess Championship and was selected for the Pakistan team for World Chess Olympiad and visited Oman for the Asian Championship as well.
She believes that the strides she has made in her professional chess career would not be possible without her family’s support, especially her father who encourages her by being her cheerleader at every chess tournament. Now that she is married, her partner also supports her.
The importance of women taking up chess cannot be understated. Often dubbed a game for kings, chess is not just a game; it has numerous benefits, including improving cognitive abilities, problem-solving skills, and mental agility. By encouraging more girls and women to take up chess, we can bridge the gender gap in the sport and promote gender equality.
However, there are very few women's chess clubs in the country, and female players often have to compete against male players in tournaments. This can be intimidating for women who belong to a society with a social stigma associated with women participating in sports, particularly in conservative communities. At the same time, this makes it difficult for women to access training facilities, hence impacting their participation in tournaments.
Yet, despite this backdrop, it is heartening to have several Pakistani women chess players like Noor who have made notable contributions to the game. Woman International Master (WIM) Laila Masood is the first Pakistani woman to earn the WIM title and has represented Pakistan in several international tournaments. Woman FIDE Master (WFM) Ghazal Hakimyar is a two-time National Women's Chess Champion of Pakistan and has represented Pakistan in several international tournaments. WFM Nida Mishraz has won several national and international chess tournaments and has represented Pakistan in the Women's Chess Olympiad.
WFM Mehak Gul is a two-time National Women's Chess Champion of Pakistan and has represented Pakistan in several international tournaments. WIM Saba Aziz has won several national and international chess tournaments and has represented Pakistan in the Women's Chess Olympiad.
Promoting the game
The Pakistan Chess Federation (PCF) has been actively playing its role for the promotion of the game. They have been making developments in the infrastructure and creating more opportunities for the men and female player to take part in local and international competitions.
In 2022, under a new management , the PCF held a National Championship of Open and Women categories combined. It has also been working on making various clubs for training in the major cities across the country. Chess associations of all the cities are also holding tournaments at local level.
The national and international chess tournaments in Pakistan organised by PCF attract players from all over the world and provide local players with opportunities to compete with some of the best players in the world.
The PCF has set up chess academies across the country to promote the game at the grassroots level. It has affiliated clubs and associations in all provinces of Pakistan, and it recognises more than 100 clubs across the country. These clubs provide training, coaching and opportunities for players to participate in local, national and international tournaments.
In addition to the clubs affiliated with the PCF, there are also a number of independent chess clubs and organisations that operate in different cities and regions of Pakistan which are typically run by passionate chess players and enthusiasts.
The PCF has also been working to introduce chess in schools across the country. They believe that by introducing the game at an early age, they can help develop critical thinking skills and improve cognitive development among children.
Since the pandemic hit, the PCF has started to hold online chess tournaments to increase access. These tournaments have allowed players to compete from the safety of their homes and have helped keep the game alive during these challenging times. At the same time, this also provides a forum for female chess players to compete.
For Noor, although online events have helped female players, she personally prefers physical events. “[When playing in person] you get to see the expression of the opponent, which makes this more tough and fun,” she says.
As chess is still a developing sport in Pakistan, the earning opportunities for chess players are limited. However, there are still some opportunities available for talented players like winning prize money from tournaments. The amount of prize money varies depending on the tournament's level and sponsor, but it can range from a few thousand to several hundred thousand rupees.
Some experienced chess players earn money by coaching other players. This includes private coaching sessions or coaching at chess academies. Some universities and educational institutions in Pakistan offer scholarships to chess players. These scholarships cover tuition fees and other expenses.
Apart from this, players can earn money by competing in online chess tournaments and leagues. Websites like Chess.com and Lichess.org offer cash prizes to players who perform well in their tournaments.
However, the available earning opportunities are insufficient to have chess as the sole income source. Even the top Pakistani players have to work for a living and cannot fully focus on the required chess training.
Chess players require a combination of mental and physical training to compete at a high level. Some of the key types of training that are commonly used by chess players include:
Opening preparation Chess players need to have a deep understanding of different openings and the strategies and tactics associated with them. This requires studying and analysing different openings, as well as developing an understanding of how to counter different opening variations.
Endgame training for developing the ability to convert winning positions into wins, as well as defending against opponents. Endgame training involves studying different endgame positions and practising the techniques required to win or draw in each situation.
Tactic training involves studying and practising different tactical motifs and learning to recognise them in actual games.
Positional training is focused on developing a deep understanding of the principles of chess strategy, such as the importance of controlling the centre of the board, developing pieces effectively, and creating pawn structures that support long-term strategic goals.
Mental training involves developing the ability to focus for long periods of time, managing emotions and stress, and developing a strong competitive mindset.
Physical training: While chess may be a mental game, physical fitness is still important as it helps players to maintain their stamina, concentration, and mental sharpness during long games. While chess is often seen as a sedentary activity, it is important for players to stay active in order to maintain their overall health and well-being.