Bernice Wambui is an 11-year-old chess prodigy from Nairobi, Kenya. Wambui first came across chess when she was in the first grade at age five. She had just enrolled at her new school when the various extracurricular activity clubs at the school were showcased. She had to pick one of the many clubs and for some reason, she was drawn to the chess club. When she initially told her mother, Phylis, she was interested in playing chess, Phylis was reluctant. Her mother was not a chess player and had not been familiar with the game. When Phylis was growing, checkers was the game she was aware of. It was largely played by men, and that created the idea that women did not play checkers. Phylis thought Bernice was better off learning the guitar or swimming rather than playing chess. However, when Phylis noticed that Bernice was eager to play chess, she supported her. Bernice started learning the basics of chess at the chess club. She played chess at school and improved with practice. However, Phylis noticed that the coach at the chess club was overwhelmed by the large number of children he had to teach chess. This meant he could not give each student the right amount of attention necessary for improvement. Bernice’s mother hired a coach who could train Bernice on a one-on-one basis, which helped her improve. To continue improving, Bernice joined Lighthouse, which is a private chess club. “They have primary school kids; they have high school kids, they have seniors, university students. She could meet competitive players to keep on advancing,” Phylis said.
Bernice notes she is at the Advanced level as a chess player. What she enjoys most about the game is the way the pieces move. In an exclusive interview with LittleAfrica News, Berniece said, “My favorite piece is the knight. I like how it surprises someone when they are not expecting it.” She said that chess is fun and that the game itself teaches her a lot. Her favorite chess players are Judit and Susan Polgar, chess-playing sisters from Hungary.
She has participated in so many tournaments that, in the interview, she could not recall how many there have been. The tournaments that stand out are those she participated in in Zambia, Ghana, and Georgia. She participated in the World Chess tournament in Georgia in September 2022. At the Africa Youth Chess Championship held in Ghana, Bernice came fourth in the under-10 category. At a tournament in Zambia, Bernice competed in the Under-12 category which faced off against a boy. According to Bernice, the boy’s father warned him that if he lost to a girl, he would punish him. Bernice had the chance to win the match but said she missed a checkmate and lost the match, something her mother jokingly looks at skeptically.
Losing is part of the game and while Bernice said she learns from her losses by analyzing the recordings from her matches, she cries sometimes. “When I lose, I feel terrible,” she said. “But in chess, we don’t say we lose, we learn.”
Bernice has a relationship with Her Move Next and The Gift of Chess. The Gift of Chess is a New York-based non-profit organization looking to change the world through chess. It gives chess boards to people who do not know anything about chess in an effort to have them learn the game. She is The Gift of Chess’s Kenyan youth ambassador and goes to schools in Kenya, giving away chess boards and teaching school children how to play the game. Bernice notes that this is fun for both her and the students. The Gift of Chess has formed an alliance with the Nigerian organization, Chess in Slums, in order to disburse chess boards in poor areas of specific African countries that include Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda.
Her Move Next is also a New York-based organization, looking to empower women through chess. Bernice was introduced to Her Move Next during the COVID-19 lockdowns when face-to-face competitions could not be held. She participated in several tournaments including Her League and also received online training from the organization. She would wake up early in the morning, sometimes at 1 am Kenyan time, in order to participate in Her Move Next activities.
While she has done well in her young career as a chess player, Bernice and her mother have faced challenges. Because Bernice is still so young, her mother needs to accompany her to tournaments. This can be challenging because, in some instances, they have to self-fund their trips. Phylis emphasizes that for Bernice to continue growing and improving as a chess player, she needs to compete against players of a higher caliber. This will be possible if she participates in more international chess tournaments against players from all over the world. Bernice’s future looks bright, and it will only be a matter of time before she graces tournaments against the very best in the world.
*Photos courtesy of Phylis Wambui.