FM Daniel Barrish is no stranger to national titles, having won his first u10 SA Championship at the age of seven. Nevertheless, his most recent title is a special one: at the end of last year, Daniel beat out a field of some of South Africa’s top players to achieve victory in the 2019 South African Closed Chess Championships. This victory earned him his first senior national title and a place in South Africa’s 2020 Olympiad team.
A self-motivated and driven player, Daniel’s love for the game is evident, while he remains down-to-earth despite his successes. I spoke to Daniel to find out more about his chess career, his future chess plans, and his thoughts on South African chess. I hope you enjoy getting to know South Africa’s newly-crowned champion.
Name: Daniel Barrish
Occupation: Student (Computer Science/Statistics)
Chess rating: 2306 (FIDE) / 2353 (CHESSA)
SA rank: 5th (FIDE) / 3rd (CHESSA)
Title: Fide Master (FM)
Number of Olympiads played: 0
Note: the following interview is edited for clarity and length
At what age did you start playing chess, and who introduced you to it?
I was born in the Czech Republic; when I was there I saw a board and my grandfather, who passed away last year, taught me how to play when I was 4 or 5. When I moved back to South Africa I played with my Dad, and I started playing tournaments when I was 6.
What’s your earliest chess memory?
I remember playing with my Dad at the dining room table. I also remember my first tournament very clearly – it was Western Province trials at Groote Schuur High, I played in the u10 category (there was no u8 back then) and I ended up winning the bronze medal, so I was very chuffed with my first tournament.
When you were 11, you drew with Kasparov in a simul he held in South Africa. What has this meant to you during your chess career since?
I remember when I came back that night after the game I was super chuffed – even just playing Kasparov was a great honour, and drawing was so special. But looking back it was more of a once-off thing – I just happened to have a good game, and it doesn’t make me a good player or a bad player if I had lost. I’m obviously happy it happened, but I think it was blown out of proportion in the media.
What is your favourite local or international tournament to play?
The one I’ve played the most is the Pardubice Open in the Czech Republic; I think I’ve played it 11 times, although not in the past two years. It’s a massive event, about 1000 players, and in terms of chess it’s probably one of the nicest tournaments to play, along with Gibraltar. In terms of venue, food, location, and beaches, the Palaiochora Open in Greece and the Purtichju Open in Corsica are two other tournaments I really enjoyed. Locally, I’ve enjoyed the SA Open and Commonwealth in the past, but unfortunately we haven’t had tournaments like those since the 2015 SA Open in Cape Town, which was the last one I played.
What is the highlight of your chess career?
Definitely winning the SA Closed. Another highlight would be getting an IM norm in Greece at the 2019 Palaiochora Open.
What are your personal chess goals?
My goal for this year is to try get the IM title; I need two more norms and a higher rating. Long-term, GM is the goal, but it depends – I haven’t decided yet how or when to get there. I’m not strong enough to be a chess professional, so my goal is to just be a strong amateur and see how good I can be while working a normal job.
In the past, you’ve done chess writing and you currently have a number of courses available on Chessable. Do you think you’ll do more writing/courses in the near future, or are you completely focused on playing?
I’m trying to combine them, working on my own chess at the same time that I’m doing work on Chessable. I’m not going to write anything that I won’t play or do myself, so whatever I try to improve I publish there. Overall, I enjoy the work; it’s fun to create something that people can use and enjoy.
How did you prepare for the South African Closed Chess Championships?
Last year I rekindled my motivation for chess in April or May, as I’d been plateauing around 2250 for 4 or 5 years. I started working intensively again: I overhauled my entire repertoire (playing more solid openings and learning them better), I tried to get sharper, I improved my endgame knowledge, and I just tried to improve my game overall. So I’d say I just tried working the whole year, and then around a month before the closed I started prepping openings against specific players.
Going into the 2019 SA Closed, what did you rate your chances to win?
Going in, probably about 40%. A lot of my opponents weren’t full-time in chess, and I was prepared mentally. I also think that if I hadn’t won this closed, I wouldn’t ever win a closed, because I was the best prepared I’ve ever been.
What does your usual training schedule look like? And do you work alone, or with a coach?
One of the biggest things I’ve struggled with, especially when I was younger and in that plateau, was that I didn’t have a regular training schedule – I worked whenever I felt like it, and there wasn’t really a grand plan to it. I tried before the closed to have a fixed schedule, and it worked for a while, but inevitably I fall behind and just give up on it. I haven’t found a way to solve that problem yet, unfortunately! Currently, I just try to follow a general schedule of things I want to do over the next couple of weeks.
As for a coach, I haven’t really worked with a coach before, except a couple of lessons when I was younger. But I recently decided to bite the bullet and get a coach to help accelerate the progress I’ve been making, so I’ve been looking at a Czech coach – I’d like to improve my Czech (I speak it semi-fluently) and my chess simultaneously.
How will you prepare for the 2020 Olympiad, and what are your personal and team goals?
I’d like to get at least an IM norm, but I’m not sure what to expect in terms of team goals, since this is my first Olympiad. In preparation, I don’t have anything specific planned for the event; I’ll just continue working on my overall play.
What is your favourite chess game of your own?
The games that I normally enjoy are the positional squeezes, where I am able to just outplay my opponent. One game that I found aesthetically pleasing was against Richterova last year – it was a stonewall-type game where I was able to get a good knight versus a bad bishop, and I was able to march my king to b2 from the kingside before I opened up the kingside again. My opponent could do nothing.
Who is your favourite South African chess player or personality?
There are so many personalities; from the wildly interesting IM Watu Kobese to the very modest and nice IM Henry Steel, who’s an incredibly smart guy and a very talented player. I try to get on with everyone, to be honest, so I don’t want to say I have a favourite: everyone’s interesting and generally quite nice.
What would you do if you were CHESSA president?
Adult chess in South Africa is really struggling, as there’s no real support. The focus for a long time has been on grassroots development, which is obviously great for building a strong base of young South African chess players, but when the players leave school they inevitably lose interest and stop playing. So I’d focus more on adult chess and on retaining juniors; this could be done by focussing on some of the top players and trying to support them, which would hopefully give juniors more motivation to keep playing because there’d be something to strive for.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing South African chess?
The presidential dispute in 2019 was a major challenge, but it seems to be out of the way now, and I hope it stays that way. Other than that, I’d say the lack of focus and funding for adult chess.
Do you have any thoughts on women’s chess and how to improve it in SA?
I think there’s a lot of potential for women’s chess, since picking a few of South Africa’s women and trying to get them to elite status is probably easier than picking a few men and trying to do the same thing. I think female players shouldn’t limit themselves to female-only events: for up-and-coming female players, the goal should not be to become the best female in their category, but to become the best in their category. And even if they fall short of that, I would still expect them to be one of the best female players; a good example of this is WIM Tshepang Tlale.
What is your favourite/least favourite thing about chess?
My favourite thing is probably winning, and my least favourite thing is probably losing [laughs]. I mean, losses hurt, there’s unfortunately no way around it. But I do enjoy plenty of things about chess; I enjoy the challenge, and the opportunity to compete.
What advice do you have for aspiring national champions or SA Olympiad team members?
Keep a limited repertoire – learn one or two openings and learn them well. Then try become a sharper player, a better calculator, and a better endgame player. I think endgames are vastly underestimated here in South Africa, and players could improve a lot by reading an endgame book. Also spend less time just playing blitz – South Africans should try have more training games against their peers, although that’s currently difficult as players are either too busy with full-time jobs or there aren’t enough ambitious players to train against.
What chess material/method has led to your biggest chess improvement?
I think my biggest improvement was last year in June/July, when I gained around 150 rating points, but at the end of the year I’d been putting in probably the most work I’ve ever done and everything went terribly in Italy and Gibraltar. I think a lot of players would agree with me that when you start playing well it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what lead to the improvement. Therefore, I think working consistently is the best method, and you’ve just got to trust that your results will eventually improve.
You started university last year – has this affected your chess at all?
It actually affected me in a positive way – I’ve got such a ridiculous amount of free time now, if I was going to attribute my improvement last year to something, it probably is the fact that university started! I doubt second and third year will be as relaxed, but during first year I had a lot of free time.
You were the SA u10 champion when you were 7 and have played competitively since then. Do you ever get tired of chess or want to take an extended break from playing?
Regularly. Every time I lose a game, I think of quitting [laughs]. And I ask myself why I’m doing this to myself, it’s just torture. But then after I win a game I remember why I’m suffering: it’s so that I can win again.
However, I haven’t felt like quitting in a while. It’s frustrating when things don’t go your way (like Gibraltar), but this time around I still feel motivated to keep working. I think it’s because I have the Olympiad coming up, which is something to work towards.
What interests do you have outside of chess?
I’m studying computer science because I do enjoy technology and computers, so that’s one major interest. I’m also interested in cryptocurrencies and AI. Otherwise, I enjoy a lot of pop culture things like Star Wars and the Marvel Universe. I was also hooked on gaming when I was younger, which I think was a big reason for my plateau. Sports-wise, I play tennis and squash, which I play at res.