10-year-old Israeli Arab Is a Chess Champion, but No One's Pawn

After being crowned Israeli chess champion for girls her age for the past three years, it's just a matter of time before Huda Qasem is the hot name in women’s chess in the country – maybe the world.

Tomer Appelbaum

When Huda Qasem was 7, her father, Haitham, took her to the Israeli chess championships for girls under 8 to see how she would do. It was the first time that Huda, from an obscure chess club in Tira, an Arab city near Kfar Sava, had ever played in a real chess tournament. There were 20 other girls in the competition, all of them Jewish. Huda barely knew Hebrew, as she had just entered the second grade, when Arab children in the country usually begin to learn the language. Despite that, she emerged as the Israeli champion for girls in her age category – the first time an Arab had won a chess championship title of any kind in the country.

“We were not surprised,” says Huda’s mother, Dareen, who is a nurse in a well-baby clinic. “Huda is a quick study in every field, including mathematics and music. She solved geometric series in kindergarten.”

“I felt good,” says Huda, who is now 10, recalling that first tournament. “I thought I would win. I felt that I could take all the rounds, and that’s how it went. It was the first time I ever saw a chess clock. During the games I felt I was going up a level. Afterward, everyone in class got to know I won the cup, so the principal asked me to bring it to school. Everyone in the class was happy and proud.”

One of the shelves in Huda’s cute pink room is crowded with trophies; along with 14 for chess, there are two for her achievements in math. The family has become somewhat blasé about the medals she has also won; they are stored in a drawer.

A year after that first competition, Huda took part in the championship for girls aged 8 to 10, and finished first again. Encouraged by her success, she decided to enter a tournament for girls up to the age of 12 – she was 9 at the time – and came in second. This year, in the championships for children of 8 to 10, she decided to play against the boys in the general competition and reached the finals. Afterward, exhausted, she defended her girls’ title. Her parents were worried that her weariness would affect her game, but she won again, with a perfect score: five victories without a draw or a loss. She has now been Israeli chess champion for girls her age for the past three years. At this rate, Huda Qasem will be the hot name in Israeli women’s chess when she grows up.

Tomer Appelbaum

“I want to be world champion and hold the title from 2016 until 2020,” she explains nonchalantly, as though she wanted a new book or a pair of shoes. Afterward, her parents clarify that she aspires to be the European champion at some point between 2016 and 2020. Her father then returns to earth: “If the investment needed is the same as now, it won’t happen. I am looking to the top ranks of Europe in two years’ time. That’s more realistic than champion.”

It was only after she won that first trophy that Huda signed up for the chess club of nearby Kfar Sava, the leading club for young people in the country. According to Haitham, there is no such group in any Arab city that is active on an ongoing basis and achieves results. Still, her success was a shot in the arm for the Tira club, to her parents’ delight. “The club tripled itself, especially in terms of girls, and more people are now learning chess in the Arab communities,” says Haitham, who is a traffic engineer.

Still, Huda’s parents insist that they prefer not to attach special symbolism to their daughter’s success, but to view it as her own personal achievement.

“We don’t want [people] to coopt Huda for other purposes, to appropriate her,” Dareen explains. “The achievement is completely hers – not her parents’, not the mayor’s or the principal’s or the Arab public’s. We want to protect Huda and let her enjoy her childhood. We want her to be a child, not only a champion.”

Huda, for her part, says she is proud to represent Israel’s Arab population, adding, “It sometimes makes me uptight and I try not to think about it – it’s an extra responsibility and I am afraid to disappoint people.”

At the beginning, her father, who also plays chess, stayed with her at every match to translate the proceedings into Arabic, and afterward to offer moral support. “We didn’t want her to enter competitions too early, because that has a price,” he explains. “If she had started two years earlier, she would be in the European top 10 by now. But we didn’t want to pressure her. Let her go through childhood like a girl, with chess being only a hobby, even if it’s a good hobby that will help her in life.”

Today her father doesn’t stay to watch the games she plays in tournaments: “I don’t want to stress her and I prefer to analyze the moves afterward. I get too anxious when I’m by her side. I try to be there as a father. I want her coach to analyze things more professionally.”

One of the problems Huda faces as an Arab is that the national tournaments are held during the Jewish holidays (all but Yom Kippur) – which are regular school days for the Arab public. “We have to miss school,” Dareen Qasem notes. “Fortunately, the principal is very supportive, because Huda has excellent grades in every subject. When we asked the principal if it would be all right for her to be away for two weeks, he said, ‘Two weeks is alright, so is two months.’”

Israeli ‘with an asterisk’

Huda started to play the game of kings when she was 4; her parents had received a flyer announcing the opening of a chess club in Tira, taught her the basics and sent her off. “We taught her chess like you teach other games, like Taki [an Israeli variant of Crazy Eights],” Dareen says. At the age of 5, the child was already beating her father.

“I am attracted to chess because it is a game of thinking,” Huda says. “I play to enjoy myself, but you also have to take responsibility. The game itself is interesting, but it’s important for me to win. When I win I feel good and enjoy myself more.”

I ask her which player she most admires; her father, she replies. When I explain that I meant a famous player, she mentions Garry Kasparov, whose best-known games she has studied. Asked how she feels after losing, Huda says that if she plays well she is not sad, but her parents relate that she sometimes cries after a defeat; then her mother consoles her by saying it’s only a hobby.

As national champion in her age category, Huda represents Israel at international tournaments, and then, despite all the good will, it sometimes turns out that she is not just another player. This past Yom Kippur, I received a frustrated email from Haitham Qasem from Croatia, where he had accompanied her to the European championships. Things had started well: Even though Huda was ranked 52nd, she obtained a draw with players who were ranked 13th and 15th. But then she was scheduled to play on Yom Kippur. Like others on the Israeli team, she was not allowed to play that day, and her father was led to believe that if she did play she would be suspended from the federation.

Haitham admits that he expected that she would be given the choice of whether to play or not. Before the game set for Yom Kippur, she had risen to 15th place in Europe, but after the technical defeat – for not showing up – she dropped to 30th place.

“From the beginning they [the Israeli federation] didn’t deal with this issue,” her father says. “If we’d known that this was a problem, we would have asked for our day off on Yom Kippur. The European Federation tried to assist by moving up the game scheduled for Yom Kippur eve to 10 o’clock that morning. We also scheduled a game on Yom Kippur itself at 5 P.M., but that turned out to be too early. [The holiday only ends at sundown.] They said they would find an arrangement, though they didn’t promise, but if we couldn’t take advantage of it, it would be a technical defeat. We were forced to announce that we would not be able to play, and we took a loss – meaning getting zero points.”

When asked for a comment, the Israel chess federation made this statement to Haaretz: “The players in the delegation knew they might undergo a technical defeat because of Yom Kippur. The hope was to avert the technical defeat once we came to the site. But all the players signed a document stating that they were aware of this, undertaking not to play on Yom Kippur.”

I ask Haitham whether he feels that Huda represents Israel. “Of course,” he replies immediately, then corrects himself: “Of course with an asterisk. There’s no question that she is from Israel and represents Israel, but she is still viewed differently.”

Qassam vs. Qasem

It’s been clear since Huda was 3 that she is special. Instead of attending preschool, she was educated by her late grandfather, Ibrahim Qasem, an educator. Suddenly, at 3, everyone was startled when she started to speak literary Arabic. The book she’s now reading is also not exactly “Diary of a Geek,” which is popular among her peers; it’s one of the volumes of the Cairo Trilogy by the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Huda’s success prompted her brother, 6-year-old Mohammed, nicknamed Modi, to take up chess, too, and with no little success: He’s already won two trophies. Their 2-year-old sister, Shahad, has also started to take an interest in the game. She can identify the pieces by name though she doesn’t yet know the moves. (In any event, when we visited their home, the little girl seated herself at the chessboard as though in a trance, and when we had to move her to take pictures, she burst into gut-wrenching tears.)

As he did with Huda, Haitham accompanies Modi to the chess club in Kfar Sava, which is some eight kilometers away, and stays to translate for him. “If I lived in Kfar Sava, I would just drop him off and come back two hours later. But we don’t have that. At his age I sit next to him and translate every word. I imagine that Modi will also be Israeli champion in his age group.”

The Qasem children have a fan in Leon Landa, director of the Kfar Sava chess club. “Huda is very talented, serious and nice,” says Landa. “Everyone likes her a lot. And even though she is from the Arab community, even at a time like this, she is accepted as one of our own without any problem. She has great potential, she will be Israeli champion for many years to come and, in my opinion, she will be in the top 10 in Europe, too. There is a difference between women and men from the psychological aspect of chess. When a female player is attacked in the game, it’s sometimes hard for her to cope. But Huda is a fighter. She has no problem if there is chaos on the board.”

Huda’s background is advantageous, says Landa. “There is a different mentality among the Arab population,” he explains. “Their attitude toward chess is completely different – it has a supreme status. In contrast, a Jewish kid who plays chess is dubbed a geek. It’s heartbreaking. There are a huge number of chess players among the Arab population, it’s incredible. The problem is that they don’t like to enter competitions. That’s a downer.”

The Qasems say they have not encountered prejudice at the Kfar Sava chess club, and salute the group’s approach. Nevertheless, notes Dareen, “There are always unpleasant incidents – that is our reality. Last year, during Operation Protective Edge [in the Gaza Strip], we were at a competition in Kiryat Ono and went down to the bomb shelter, and that was not pleasant. Sometimes people mistakenly call her ‘Qassam’ [the name of Hamas’ rockets] instead of Qasem. During a war there is tension.”

The family notes that in the past, Jewish contestants were delighted when they played against Arabs (competitors are decided by drawing lots), who were considered easy rivals. But that is no longer the case. “Girls used to say, ‘Great, we got an Arab girl to play against,’ but now they say sadly, ‘We have to play against the Israeli champion,’” Dareen says.

“People are surprised that I am from Tira,” Huda says. “It’s a city that people in Israel don’t know. But with kids, I feel totally regular.” I ask if she doesn’t sometimes think that it would be preferable for her to have been born in Kfar Sava. “I am satisfied with what I have and I think it’s very good,” she replies.

“People in Kfar Sava know Tira,” Dareen explains, “but people from more distant places get their information from the media. So when they visit here they are amazed that we live in a regular building, because they had the impression that Arabs live only in tents. At first they asked about Huda, ‘What, she’s an Arab?!’ And then some ask whether we’re Muslims or Christians; it’s hard for them to accept that Arab Muslims can be good at chess. There’s this feeling that we landed from a different planet, or that we must be Christians. We always have to prove ourselves. After a trip of two or three weeks abroad to a tournament, strong ties form between the parents in the Israeli delegation, but there’s still this feeling that a barrier exists: We are the ones who have to prove that we are okay.”

Huda is now participating in a national program called The Next Champion, which provides 12 hours of instruction a month to young chess players, but it ends at the end of this month, and the family doesn’t know where to go from here.

“It has been very useful,” says Haitham, but if Huda wants not only to continue but to progress, she will need twice the amount of instruction she was getting, and we have neither the budget for that nor a sponsor. This isn’t soccer, where it’s easy to find a sponsor. And we need help that isn’t a one-time thing. Huda wants to invest and she wants to learn. She is trying to teach herself from online books or games. But it’s more effective to play against an instructor and have someone at your side.”

Even now, the costs of Huda’s career run to tens of thousands of shekels a year. If Modi also starts to bring home trophies regularly, the costs will only rise, and any prize money won will not even come close to offsetting them. In an effort to keep the costs down as much as possible, the family has to decide whether to allow Huda to participate in the world championships or in the European tournament. Recently they chose Europe, where the traumatic technical defeat occurred.

“The world championships means more expenses, and more workdays lost,” Haithem explains. And even though “a professional player needs two tournaments abroad every year, we will have to cut it to one.”

Peace and quiet

I’ve been following Huda’s progress for over half a year, but two months ago, when I asked whether it would be possible to interview her, her parents told me it wasn’t a good time. “We wanted a little peace and quiet after the championships,” they explained, adding, “She’s a child, and it’s important for us that she doesn’t focus just on chess but on other hobbies, too.”

Huda’s parents tell me now about an event held two months ago for gifted children from the Arab community, when their daughter for the first time played simultaneously against a number of other kids who are gifted in chess, some of them a few years older. She defeated all but one of them: Her parents took her home before the game with him ended. Still, she was disappointed. “While I was playing, friends showed me things they did in art and I was jealous,” she says. “And there was nothing for me to learn from that game, anyway. It was a waste of time.”

“The other children [at the event for gifted children] engaged in all kinds of activities, and it was sad for her that she didn’t do things like painting on glass,” Dareen explains. “So, we said, it’s true she’s the Israeli champion and loves to play chess, but she should also have other things. Whenever someone comes to visit, they ask if she wants to play chess. We wanted to put a bit of a hold on the chess.”

And the truth is that, during our visit, Haaretz photographer Tomer Appelbaum disappeared for a while; when he came back he said he’d been defeated after about 30 moves and that Huda had set him straight about the mistakes he’d made. I declined to play, fearing defeat at the hands of a 10-year-old.

Huda tells us that she took part in a psychology workshop for players and their parents. “They explained to us that it’s best to remember a good game that you played before starting,” she explains. “And also to know that the stronger opponents are nervous, because they have to protect their reputations and therefore they can lose.”

I ask her if she has any advice for a young female chess player, and she says: “It’s best to start young, but 10 is good, too. She shouldn’t leap too fast right away, because in the end she’ll fall.”

Huda is also becoming interested in music. She’s taking piano lessons, plays Western and Arab classical music, and says she likes Fairuz, the iconic Lebanese singer. At the gifted-children's day, she represented her school in the realm of space research, stood out, and is now thinking about getting involved in that field in the future.

I visited Huda and her family not long before the recent violent events erupted. Since then there has been at least one report of firebombs being thrown in Tira (no one was hurt). Not long ago, Huda’s parents decided not to send her and Modi to the club in Kfar Sava.

“There is an uneasy feeling,” Haithem says. “Even if the children like her, I was afraid that someone would blurt out something. When I work in Ramat Gan, I park the car and I’m afraid as I walk to the office. We get battered from both sides, whether it’s a terrorist attack or a revenge operation. Huda started to become curious, and she asked why she wasn’t going to the club. We didn’t want to frighten her, but still, she needs to know that something is going on, and anyway, the kids talk in school. I explained to her that there is tension and that the moderate people will bring about quiet. I hope I wasn’t lying.”