International Chess Day: Lessons from the board

20 July 2022 | Story Helen Swingler. Read time 8 min.
Chess has been an enduring passion – and teacher – for UCT Chess Club’s Lilitha Hempe. He won the South African Chess Championship Open in Cape Town at age 16.
Chess has been an enduring passion – and teacher – for UCT Chess Club’s Lilitha Hempe. He won the South African Chess Championship Open in Cape Town at age 16.

When the chess board came out at home, Lilitha Hempe’s challenge to his father was always direct. “I’m gonna beat you, right?” It was a showdown of youth and wisdom; his audacious nine-year-old self and Thembekile Hempe’s quiet magnanimity, lest he douse his son’s spirit too soon.

That competitiveness honed young has been a great life lesson, Hempe said. The BBusSc Finance honours student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is vice-chairperson of the UCT Chess Club – with some impressive chess titles in his credit column.

Hempe started taking chess seriously at age 13. In Grade 8 he was in the chess first team at Muir College Boys’ High School in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape, the small fry among bigger fish. By Grade 9 he was part of the Eastern Cape provincial team, which saw him compete in tournaments around the country. In Grade 10, at only 16, he won the South African Chess Championship Open in Cape Town. He made newspaper headlines.

UCT Chess
UCT Chess Club’s Lilitha Hempe (in blue) and Sim Dlamini ponder their moves. Photo Lerato Maduna.

By matric Hempe was playing for the South African team and participated in the Commonwealth Games in India in 2019. 

His late father’s investment had matured to become a champion.

Chess epicentre

It was also chess that brought Hempe to Cape Town, the country’s chess epicentre, and to UCT where he started a BSc in computer science. It wasn’t a good fit; he pursued a BBusSc Finance and Accounting instead.

He also joined the UCT Chess Club and is enjoying a second term as vice-president. The club, with 97 active members, competes in the provincial club league. The club’s top players compete as individuals in the South African Chess Championships Open.

UCT Chess
UCT’s Chess Club has 97 active members. The chess board is a meeting place and common ground. Photo Lerato Maduna.

Competitiveness is one of the three Cs of chess that hooked him.

“It’s competitiveness, culture and common sense,” Hempe said.

Competitiveness builds confidence.

“You’re not just competing against other people; you’re competing against yourself.”

At the chess board as a child, the intense mind engagement channelled his energies. And just as well.

 “I was a naughty kid,” he said. “But chess kept me away from trouble; it kept me grounded.”

He took chess as an extramural activity at school and recalls being shepherded off the soccer field and back to chess practice by a teacher determined to let nothing go to waste in her young protégé. He’s grateful for that dedication.

UCT Chess
Chess players speak the same language. In picture are Tanya Dlamini and India Babb. Photo Lerato Maduna.

Hempe is immersed in culture too. No matter players’ gender, age, colour, language or ethnicity, they speak the same language. Chess is a leveller – and a meeting place at common ground; a square chequered board.


“The game is very logical but at the same time you need to know how to manage your feelings.”

“We won’t even know one another’s names, but we can sit for an hour discussing one position because there are just so many possibilities. Everything gets forgotten because we’re brought together by this one game.”

People like to believe the stereotype that players are just nerds, he said. But it’s far from that. Neither are they introverts. Chess is about harnessing mental energy and concentrating, strategising, and playing against a clock.

And then there’s the third C: common sense.

“The game is very logical but at the same time you need to know how to manage your feelings. It takes just one move to lose. And you can feel loss, sadness, disappointment – even anger. So, while you’re playing, you must remain level-headed, even though you may have all these emotions running through you.”

Mental relaxation: Third-year MBChB students Hanna Essop and Aya Agboola play chess at the UCT Neuroscience Institute during their lunch break. Photo Lerato Maduna.

Ancient game

The age of artificial intelligence and machine learning has propelled chess into a new era. Games are played online, and computers are formidable opponents. But chess has its own rich history. It is thought to have been played first in India over 1 500 years ago, its predecessor known as chaturanga.

From India the game spread to Persia and after the Arab conquest of that country, it was taken up by the Muslim world and spread to southern Europe. The first World Chess Championships were held in 1886.

Chess also has an archaeological history. The oldest chess pieces known were discovered in 1831 on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, Scotland. An incomplete set, they’re known as the Lewis chessmen. Most are carved from walrus ivory. The discovery harks to the dark, long nights of the northern winter and life lived close to the sea and its resources.

UCT Chess
The oldest chess pieces known (not in picture) were discovered in 1831 on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, Scotland. Most were carved from walrus ivory. Photo Lerato Maduna.

Wood is now a preferred and more easily obtained raw material. There is something special about a beautifully crafted wooden chess board, usually associated with top-level chess, said Hempe.

“It gives you this feeling, okay, I’m playing with the big guys.”

The white chess pieces and parts are made of light woods such as maple or boxwood, and black pieces of rosewood, ebony or African padauk. But rarer sets can also come in bone, stone and marble.

Chess on campus

During term time, you can find the UCT Chess Club playing in the RW James Building or the UCT Sports Centre, Hall 3, where the club usually meets. The club has been active for many years, except for the forced hiatus during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Hempe’s responsibilities as club vice-president include updating their website, posting league news, scouting new chess resources such as books, and the latest news on chess tactics.

The UCT Chess Club participates in the women’s and men’s provincial leagues. During the past few years, UCT has enjoyed being in the top three in the province’s league.

They cater for all levels of experience and beginners are welcome.

UCT Chess Club Welcome Festival
The UCT Chess Club punted their club earlier this year at the UCT Welcome Festival for students. Photo UCT Centre for Film and Media Studies.

Hempe is also the chess coach at Bishops Preparatory School, teaching the same lessons he learnt as a youngster: the disciplines of mental quietness and learning to think without speaking.

“Research suggests that children who play chess have faster cognitive development,” he said. “You have to retain so much information and you have to be a good decision-maker. It also promotes leadership. Because at the end of the day you have your pieces, you are the chief in command, and you must dictate what happens.

“I’m a strong believer that chess improves so many aspects of a child’s development. It did that for me.”

The UCT Chess Club chairperson is Austin Teffo and Shingai Mushonga is club secretary. To get in touch with the club, contact Teffo at

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