When Andrew Giblon signed up his young daughters for chess lessons at the local community centre in Thornhill, he had no idea that in just a few short years, both would become national chess champions.
“My cousin had already started playing chess, and my parents thought it’d be nice for us, too – something about wanting the kids out of the house,” Rebecca Giblon said with a smile. She’s 14 years old and the older of the two girls.
Rebecca began playing chess when she was about six years old and was soon followed by her younger sister, Melissa, now 12. Both girls had a bumpy start, but they were determined to improve.
“I was really not good at all, but I wanted to win,” Melissa said of her early days playing.
The sisters practised a lot, undeterred by the steep learning curve of the classic strategy game, until finally, their work began to pay off.
“In Grade 3, something clicked,” Rebecca said. “I’m not really sure how it happened.”
As they improved, Giblon arranged for private chess coaching for his daughters. In 2007, Rebecca became a national champion for girls under 10. In 2009, she won again for girls under 12, and Melissa won for girls under 10. In 2011, Melissa became national champion for girls under 12.
“It got a lot more fun. Now I actually have something to look forward to,” Rebecca said about her success.
Winning the national championships automatically qualified the talented sisters for the World Youth Chess Championships (WYCC). This past November, the girls flew to Brazil with their father, who served as head of the Canadian delegation, and the rest of the Canadian youth chess team to compete at their fourth WYCC. Previously, they had competed at two WYCCs in Turkey and one in Greece.
This year’s championship featured some 1,100 competitors from 80 countries. The girls played their matches in a huge hall alongside hundreds of other players, with each match lasting anywhere from two to five hours.
Rebecca finished with the highest score for a Canadian in her section, while Melissa had the second-highest score for a Canadian in her section.
Although both sisters have impressive track records, the world of competitive chess is not exempt from sibling rivalry.
Rebecca said she refuses to play her younger sister because chess is the kind of game in which a worse player can beat a better player given the right scenario.
“If I lose to someone I should’ve beat, I get upset,” she said.
Melissa, on the other hand, said she’s open to the challenge of a sibling match. “I decided if Rebecca would be good, I’d be better,” she explained matter-of-factly.
Outside of chess, the girls enjoy skiing and reading, and each one was clutching a stack of books they had just borrowed from the library as they arrived for their interview with The CJN.
Rebecca has recently started the gifted program at Thornhill Secondary School, a place where “being a nerd is actually respected,” she said.
Melissa, who celebrated her bat mitzvah this past December, is in Grade 7 in the gifted program at Henderson Public School.
For Melissa, the ultimate goal is to earn a place on the Chess Olympiad team, and for Rebecca, it’s to earn a title from the World Chess Organization, usually referred to by its French acronym, FIDE.
Currently, Rebecca’s FIDE rating is 1720, and Melissa’s is 1572. A chess Grandmaster, the highest title a player can earn, needs a minimum rating of 2500. Melissa is hoping to gain 500 rating points over the next six months.
Giblon said he’s continually impressed by the dedication his daughters have shown to chess, a game that is often overlooked by young people and is not particularly popular among women.
“I was surprised – it’s been a real testament to their skill and their hard work that they’ve gotten this far,” he said.
With their notable titles and the chance to see the world, Giblon is proud of the girls. “Even if they quit chess tomorrow, what they got out of it until now was well worth it,” he said.