Chess player, age 11, is a Romani talent from Slovakia who is defeating adult competitors
News server Dobrénoviny.sk reports 11-year-old chess player Agáta Berková is achieving unprecedented success in competition and has even played Russian chess grandmaster Anatoly Karpov to a draw after being trained by her father who, along with his chess team called "Hrochotskské jezdci" ("The Hrochoť Riders"), has broken the stereotypical belief that Roma cannot play chess. Berková is a native of the Slovak town of Poltár, and her love of chess reportedly dates to the first time she sat behind a chessboard at the age of a year and a half.
Berková is being trained by her father Milan Berko, who is a single parent. He also shares his chess skills with other local children learning chess.
Most of the children Berko teaches are Romani. The skill gives them the prospect of a better future than they would most likely expect in life.
Even though the sport is dominated by majority-society players (not just in Slovakia, but also in the Czech Republic), Berko has proved that his Romani charges also have something to show the world. "Chess is about silence, everywhere. Suddenly a gang of Roma comes to the competition, and the competitors are not used to it. When we showed up at the door, you should have seen all the heads turned toward us. I even saw that there were ladies grabbing their handbags and checking to see if things were in place. It was unpleasant, the children even noticed it," Berko wrote about his first experience with competition for the Dobrénoviny.sk news server.
Berko learned the basics of chess from his cousin - he was 25 at the time, and it never would have occurred to him in his wildest dreams that he would also play on the black-and-white chessboard professionally, but when an opportunity arose to start teaching chess in the community center near the village of Zvolen-Hrochoť, he did not hesitate for a second. Initially, they had zero support from the community.
There were just three chessboards for training, which was a desperately small amount given the number of children who went to the community center. If the chess club from Banská Bystrica had not helped them with their requests for equipment, it would have been difficult for them to take care of the children to the extent they have.
Mr. Berko evaluates his cooperation with the ŠK Junior Banská Bystrica club at CVČ, where coach Zdeněk Gregor and the coach of the Regional Chess Academy Mr. Milan Michalička have been working, as a turning point. "They welcomed us, explained the conditions of the competition and the functioning of the club itself," Berko said.
When the Hrochoť Riders are mentioned today, everyone in the chess community knows who they are. Even though Berko has struggled with children who were having problems at school, showing symptoms of hyperactivity or signs of recreational drug use, chess is said to have calmed down all of those situations.
"When the children started playing chess, after half a year I found that they were looking at the world and at their own futures with different eyes. Every single child who attended ended up in high school," the chess coach boasted, adding that good grades were a condition of attendance.
In the end, the Hrochoť Riders made it to the Slovak Championships and the EU Championships. "We were also in Moscow to show them that the Roma are not as stupid as they say. We were part of a delegation of Roma from Slovakia from various fields and professions, representing the Roma intelligentsia and led by Maroš Balog and Alexandr Dask," the proud coach explained to Dobrénoviny.sk - and he is also leading his daughter Agáta to success.
In addition to being Romani, Agáta has to deal with the fact that she is a girl in the chess world, but thanks to her participation in tournaments, she has traveled all over Slovakia with her father. She did not go to Russia, but she did manage to meet Russian chess grandmaster Karpov twice to play with him.
During an exhibition performance, the chess master played her on multiple chessboards simultaneously - and ultimately, it was a draw. Agáta has also played champion Tomáš Krňan of Canada to a draw.
When Agáta was even younger, she frequently competed in tournaments with adult players. Berko remembers one adult competitor who, according to him, could have scored as high as 1800 on the Elo skill-rating system, but when the contestant realized he was losing to a girl - and a Romani girl at that - he angrily threw the pieces away after his loss.
For her part, Agáta has said she would like to attain a good education in addition to winning great chess results. "I would either like to become a divorce lawyer, or a scientist to invent a cure for my brothers who suffer from autism," the promising chess player, who also gets good grades at school, told the Dobrénoviny.sk server.
In the GPX competition, Agáta was the Slovak champion in the eight-year-old and younger category. At the European Championships she finished in fifth place.
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