Irish chess champ follows in father's footsteps to win title

Popularity of chess growing in Ireland thanks to Netflix series and lockdowns

Chess is having a moment. Many discovered – or rediscovered – this most intellectually demanding of board games during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This coincided with the release of Netflix's successful miniseries, The Queen's Gambit, based on the story of chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon.

"Chess is the art of the science of logic," the former world champion Mikhail Botvinnik once declared, yet it can seem impossibly arcane to the casual observer.

The Queen’s Gambit, thanks to a masterful performance by actress Anya Taylor-Joy, has made chess accessible and exciting in a way that many had never envisaged.


Coláiste Éanna, in Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, was the venue for the 100th Irish chess championship, which was won by Mark Heidenfeld (53), an IT consultant based in Germany.

Therein hangs an extraordinary story. His father, Wolfgang Heidenfeld, was a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany for South Africa in the 1930s.

By a circuitous route he came to Ireland in 1957, became fascinated, and finally moved his family here in 1961. Mr Heidenfeld senior won the Irish championship six times.

Mark was born in Ireland, but moved to Germany as a child. He remains affiliated to Ireland in chess and qualifies to play in the Irish championship.

He last won the Irish championship in 2000, and last participated in 2001. The pandemic gave him time and space at home in Ulm, southern Germany, to practice.

His father died in 1981, when Mark was 13, but he bequeathed him a chess library of 1,000 books.

Very strong

“I was quite fortunate in a number of games. I didn’t quite believe it until it happened,” he said of his win.

“It’s been a long time since I won a big tournament. I’m really happy that it went this way.”

The Irish championship is run by the Irish Chess Union (ICU). Its chairman Desmond Beatty says that chess in Ireland is "very strong, but not big". There are 1,000 players affiliated to the ICU across the island of Ireland, out of a population of almost seven million. Armenia has 300,000 players, out of a population of three million.

Mr Beatty is ambitious for Irish chess, saying that he would like to get to Armenian-levels of participation.

Ireland has one grandmaster, Alexander Baburin, who learned chess in the old Soviet Union, the powerhouse of the game worldwide. The ICU wants to have five Irish grandmasters and 5,000 players on a regular basis.

The portents are good. Mr Heidenfeld succeeds Tom O’Gorman, who was just 18 when he won the championship last year.

“The amount of young people playing by right in this tournament is satisfying. It is very good to see the range of ages of the people winning this event,” Mr Beatty said.

He credits The Queen’s Gambit with an upsurge in interest in chess, especially among women. “I am delighted with the response and the level of interest,” he said.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times