Lehigh student who's an international chess champion prodigy hopes to help other girls learn
BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Besa Masaiti remembers the moment well.
She was in sixth grade when the former Botswana Chess Federation president walked into her class and asked, “Who wants to learn how to play chess?”
Masaiti said her hand, as well those of several other of her classmates, shot into the air.
She said that when she and her younger brother went home later and recounted the day’s events to their father, he told them to, “Go for it.”
It was the catalyst for what has become a decades-long chess career.
“Chess has the potential to change lives. Not just playing it for fun, but you can make a living just if you’re given opportunities and the right resources."Lehigh University student Besa Masaiti
Masaiti, now a Lehigh University graduate student, is the highest-ranked women’s chess player in her home country, Botswana.
And to help female chess players in her country, she recently established a chess tournament there — the Besa Masaiti WIM Norm Chess Championship.
“Chess has the potential to change lives," Masaiti said. "Not just playing it for fun, but you can make a living just if you’re given opportunities and the right resources."
Becoming a champion
Chess has played a paramount role in Masaiti’s life since she learned to play at 11, when the former Botswana Chess Federation president looked to gauge interest in the school’s chess club.
For a time, Masaiti said, she was the only girl in her school's chess club. She said she learned and practiced the game for just a few short months before earning a bronze medal at the Mater Spei Chess Festival, her first tournament.
After that, she said, her father, inspired by the story of tennis players Venus and Serena Williams, worked to make her and her brother chess prodigies.
“I wanted to be known by my own name."Lehigh University student Besa Masaiti
Her brother, Gideon, who is two years younger, was the 2019 Botswana Junior Chess Champion.
Growing up, she said, she was known as “Gideon’s sister,” which bothered her.
“I wanted to be known by my own name,” Masaiti said.
When she told her mother how she felt, she said her mother told her that if she wanted to be known by her name, then she needed to make a name for herself.
In 2019, she was chosen Botswana Junior Sports Woman of the Year. In 2020, she became the first professional chess player to earn a Merit Based Elite Scholarship from the Botswana National Sports Commission.
That same year, Masaiti became the Botswana Women’s National Chess Champion.
Masaiti said there's a healthy debate between her and her brother over who is the better chess player. Although they might never agree, Masaiti said she currently holds more international titles and recognition.
'She's very empathetic'
Her scholarship took her to Texas Tech University, where she studied economics, with minors in mathematics and actuarial science.
There, she competed on the university’s chess team while continuing to represent her country in international tournaments.
She said traveling has been one of her favorite parts of playing chess. She attended her first tournament outside of Africa at 15.
Traveling "showed me that there was more to life than what I grew up in."Lehigh University student Besa Masaiti
Traveling "showed me that there was more to life than what I grew up in,” Masaiti said.
She said that in her hometown, Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana, it was not unusual to see kids “derailed” by distractions or obstacles such as drugs, alcohol or teen pregnancy.
She attributes her family, her Christian faith and chess to helping her stay focused and successful.
In addition to working toward a master’s degree in financial engineering, Masaiti works as a graduate teaching assistant for Lehigh’s International Center for Academic and Professional English (ICAPE).
Patrick Zoro, Lehigh’s program manager for the MS in financial engineering, said that degree is especially challenging because of its interdisciplinary structure.
“It’s a program that sits on three colleges — the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Business and the engineering college,” Zoro said. “So you need someone who is able to master all three disciplines.”
ICAPE’s assistant director, Ashley Murphy, said she was impressed with Masaiti’s drive to give back to the world, which she thinks is evident in the chess tournament she helped establish.
“She’s very empathetic,” Murphy said. “Students really love meeting with her.”
A tournament to help others
Masaiti said she started the Besa Masaiti WIM Norm Chess Championship, in part, to bring an international chess competition to Botswana.
A lack of resources can make it difficult for female chess players in southern Africa to travel to tournaments abroad, she said.
“When kids are occupied with sport, it means they’re less likely to end up on the streets and making mistakes that they shouldn’t have made in the first place."Lehigh University student Besa Masaiti
“If we bring an international tournament to our very doors, this shuts down a lot of barriers preventing women and chess in Botswana and Africa from growing,” Masaiti said.
In 2019, school sports stopped in Botswana. Masaiti said she believes that stunted chess’s growth throughout the country.
Without school sports, Masaiti said, children are more likely to fall victim to drugs, alcohol and negative forms of peer pressure.
“When kids are occupied with sport, it means they’re less likely to end up on the streets and making mistakes that they shouldn’t have made in the first place,” Masaiti said.
She wants to make more people aware of the opportunities chess can offer.
As an undergrad, she would tell people that she played chess for a living.
The Besa Masaiti WIM Norm Chess Championship brought together 10 female chess masters from all around the world.
Masaiti placed eighth in her tournament.
In addition, there was a junior division in which both boys and girls played.
In the future, Masaiti said, she hopes to establish a non-governmental organization that can help manage and grow the tournament.