Two-time national champ at just 17
At the age of 10, Refilwe Gabatshwarwe turned her hand to chess, picking up the pieces for the first time as a Standard Four pupil.
Three years later, the Moshupa native was a national champion, becoming the youngest player to lift the coveted Metropolitan National Chess Championship.
Honing her skills at the Moroka Chess Academy under the guidance of Moroka Motlogelwa, the 17-year-old Woman Candidate Master (WCM) has since cemented her early promise, collecting several gold medals on the way and establishing herself as a regular member of the junior national team.
Following a slight dip in performance, last month Gabatshwarwe once again brought her A-game to the national championships, sweeping all before her to be crowned queen of Botswana for the second time.
Here the talented teen talks tactics and titles.
First of all, who is Refilwe Gabatshwarwe?
I am a full time student-athlete who is looking forward to playing at the highest level of chess.
I am 17 years old and I am from Moshupa.
You are also a two-time winner of the Metropolitan National Championships, how does that feel?
I am excited and proud of myself because I didn’t expect to win a tournament of this magnitude for the second time, especially considering I didn’t play very well at national team selections recently.
All along I felt like my training that I had prior to the tournament was not enough but still I conquered.
Indeed you did, becoming a double national champion at the age of 17, with your first success coming as a 13-year-old! How do you do it?
This is just the beginning, me winning this championship for the second time has shown me that I have a lot of potential and it has motivated me to strive higher and achieve more in my chess career.
Self-belief is what helped me to win.
I long wanted to be part of the senior team and winning the national championship is what gave me the desire to beat the ladies.
How did your love affair with chess begin?
I can’t really say I started playing chess for the love of it.
I just got introduced to it by one of my primary school teachers, Ms Molefhe and later on developed the love for it as I started participating in national and international tournaments.
What impact has the sport had on your life?
Playing chess has opened many doors for me.
It has taken me to some places that I never expected I would go to.
I have visited several countries because of chess: Albania, Morocco and Turkey to name a few.
Also financially it helped me to afford things that my family could not afford to buy for me.
Apart from seeing the world and winning money, what other highlights have you experienced in your career so far?
I am the first teen to win the national championship at 13, a record breaking moment in the history of Botswana chess.
That record still stands thus far and still I managed to win the title once more at 17.
And what challenges have you faced?
There was a point in my career where I felt like I was losing and things were not going well.
There were some days where I couldn’t play some tournaments because financially it was hard.
Who is your toughest opponent?
WIM Onkemetse Francis, I have never beaten her in my chess career – the best overall result that I got against her is a draw.
Can you attest to the notion that chess has a positive impact on academics?
It really does; chess has helped me to improve academically, looking at the fact that it helps me improve my calculation skills, which I use in subjects such as mathematics and additional mathematics.
It was noticeable that you were absent from the chess scene for much of last year, why was that?
Last year I participated in few tournaments because I was writing my Junior Certificate Examinations, which I attained very good results.
So basically books kept me away from the chess board.
You travel a lot as a sport person, how do you juggle schoolwork and playing chess?
I always try to balance the two; whenever I am at a tournament I make sure I carry my books from school and study at the same time.
So it’s safe to say my academics do not suffer due to sports.
How supportive are your parents when it comes to your chess career?
I’m very much grateful to have parents like mine.
The support they have given me played a role in my achievements.
I will like to thank the glory of God in my life, my parents: Tshepho Gabatshwarwe, Thapelo Pitso, Coach Moroka Motlogelwa, Motlhokomedi Tlhabano, Botswana Chess Federation and Mater Spei College for the support they have given me thus far.
Although you have been a mainstay in the national team set-up for several years, this year you failed to make it into the top five and ultimately missed out on a place in Botswana’s squad for the upcoming Olympiad in India [28 July – 10 August]. That must have hurt?
I am very much disappointed in myself because I long wanted to be part of the team which will participate at the Olympiad.
But at the same time it is a lesson learnt that I will not always win all my tournaments.
What are your future ambitions in chess?
I want to take my rating back to 1800 where it was [currently it’s at 1645].
By doing that I have to participate and win international tournaments.
I want to win the national title every year.
You have been holding the WCM title for quite some time; don’t you fancy dreams of getting WFM title?
I want to become WGM but to achieve a WFM title I should have a rating of 1900, so I am looking forward to improve my rating.
How difficult is it to acquire a title in chess?
It is not easy because you have to be strong and be among medalists in international competitions, which is extremely difficult.
At global level we play tough opponents from Egypt, Russia and so forth and they are strong because their chess is advanced.
Individual sports like chess come with prize monies but sometimes athletes don’t use their winnings wisely during their peak time, which leads to them struggling financially once they retire. Who helps you manage your winnings?
My mother does not only support me but also teaches me to spend money wisely.
In a nutshell, she got my purse (chuckles).
Which title do you badly want to win?
I want to win the Africa Individual Chess Championships, even if it’s not a gold medal.
I just have to take pride in my achievements and also inspire young athletes.
Away from chess, how do you spend your free time?
Socializing with my siblings when I am at home but now because I am in a boarding school, I dedicate my free time to books.
Who inspires you?
Magnus Carlsen [Norwegian grandmaster, five times World Champion] he has been winning the World Championship over and over.
Just like him I want to win the national title for many years to come without losing to anyone.
And finally, Thank God It’s Friday, what are your plans for the weekend?
I solve chess puzzles and analyse my games to help myself because the training I have now is not enough compared to the one I had before coming to boarding school.