Hearne sisters to represent Kilkenny and Ireland in international chess championships

TWO KILKENNY sisters will represent their county and country in two different international chess tournaments in the next month.

TWO KILKENNY sisters will represent their county and country in two different international chess tournaments in the next month.

Catherine Hearne (14) will play in the European Youth Chess Championships in Prague this August, while her older sister Sarah Jane (17) will fly to Istanbul to play in the World Chess Olympiad later that month also. The pair, who are from Templeorum near Piltown in South Kilkenny, are currently training for up to four hours a day as they prepare for the events.

Proud parents Anthony and Alice will be each be accompanying one of their daughters; Anthony to Istanbul, with Alice bringing Catherine to Prague. Generally, players play around 10 games in 10 days at the tournaments.

“You kind of get hooked on it, and you get to go all over the place,” says Catherine.

“This time it’s in Prague, before I was in Greece. I’m training hard for it, I want to do really well. Most of these players will be ranked higher than me, so the pressure is not on me – it’s on them.”

Sarah Jane, too, is training hard. The World Chess Olympiad attracts around 1500 competitors from over 170 countries.

She is consuming endless amounts of books available on chess tactics – opening strategies, attacks, defence. Computer programmes too have become an integral part of training for the girls, to enact myriad different end-game scenarios. They practice against one another as well.

The girls have also represented Ireland in the Gilbert Cup competition in the Four Nations Junior Chess Championships, when the duo were part of the first Irish team to beat England at that level in over 100 years.

Both began playing chess in national school, under the tutelage of Croatian coach Darko Polimac. The two girls are also members of Kilkenny Senior Chess Club.

Sarah Jane created a chess club within her school (Scoil Mhuire, Carrick-on-Suir), which has gone from strength to strength, already winning a national title.

“I set it up in December 2009,” she says.

“Competitive people are drawn to it.”

About to begin her Leaving Cert year, she has some concerns as to how the study will impinge upon chess time. However, she says the pastime will not be to the detriment of her exam performance.

“I think the chess will be a positive thing,” says Sarah Jane.

“When you are playing a game, sitting and concentrating for five hours, it makes a two and a half hour exam seem alot easier.”

Her father, Anthony, agrees.

“It is the pinnacle of concentration,” he says.

“But Ireland is still a bit behind in some respects, it’s nearly the only country in Europe that doesn’t recognise chess as a sport. It’s a shame, because some schools that run chess programmes have shown that it is hugely beneficial for the school and child – even in terms of reducing truancy.”

The game remains a male-dominated sport, but the girls say that it doesn’t really faze them in any way. Catherine and Sarah Jane are well used to it by now.

“At a typical tournament of 140 players, you might have just six women,” says Anthony.

“So they have to become resilient and focused. It makes them mentally strong and assertive.”

The European Youth Chess Championship takes place in Prague from August 16-26, while the World Chess Olympiad takes places in Istanbul between August 27 and September 10.