The inspiring story of Karelle Bolon (1/2)

by Sagar Shah
1/22/2015 – Several months ago, we published an article on a young woman's fundraiser project to teach chess in Cambodia. To understand how remote that is in chess, FIDE lists exactly five players, of whom four are unrated. Karelle Bolon, a former top French junior, now working as a designer, decided to spread the word in a bush school, but needed help. The reader response was heartwarming.

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Chess has spread to such an extent in the world that it is hard to imagine a country that has absolutely no rated players in it; especially in Asia where powerhouses like India and China reside. However, there is a country in South East Asia that is completely lagging when it comes to the development of international chess and that nation is Cambodia.

With a population of 15 million people, Cambodia lies in the southern portion of the Indochina
peninsula and is flanked by Thailand on the west and Vietnam on the east

A search on FIDE reveals that there are only five players registered with FIDE out of which
four are unrated. The only rated player is FM Paul Truong who is married to GM Susan Polgar,
and now resides in America.

Cambodia has a local form of chess called Ouk Chatrang which is quite popular in the country. It is similar to the international form of chess but has its differences. In this country where absolutely no one plays the international form of chess one can only imagine how difficult it would be for an individual to spread the game, but there are people who never let the difficulty of the goal deter them from trying their best to achieve it, and one such person is Karelle Bolon.

WFM Karelle Bolon, rated 2009, emigrated from France to Cambodia
about a year and half ago on a work project

Karelle’s attempt to spread chess in Cambodia was covered in an article on ChessBase a few months ago, but let me briefly take you through the entire story from the start.

Karelle is a pretty strong chess player and this is attested by the fact that she is not only a WFM but also a four-time national champion of France in various age categories. Karelle studied fashion design and chess gradually became more of a hobby. Around a year and half ago she received an opportunity to work as an assistant fashion designer in a company called Onyx tlc in the Siem Reap region of Cambodia. One afternoon she played a game of chess with her friend in a café and could see a lot of children peeping through the glass windows, showing interest in the game.

It was after this episode that Karelle decided to work for the development of chess in the region of Siem Reap. As she says, “Chess could be an opportunity for the children to open themselves up to the rest of the world, to learn the value of hard work, fair play, and about winning and losing.”

Karelle identified a bush school in the Thnall village in Siem Reap region. It was started by a local villager called Nimol along with Matt Silverback. The school had around 40 students and Karelle decided to make them the starting point of her ambitious project. The idea was to teach the game of chess to Nimol in English who would in turn teach the children in their local language.

Nimol, The village school teacher

The start of any project is always the most difficult and Karelle had her doubts about the idea, “I am alone. There is a lack of infrastructure for chess here. Also the expat life is not easy. You feel sometimes homesick, and it’s not obvious whether one should launch a project on such a scale, when you have to live one day at a time. But waiting does not help. Then one day you think, Why not?”

In order to set her project into motion Karelle needed funds. She decided to start a Ulule crowdfunding page in September 2014.

The requirement was a modest sum of €430 in order
to buy chess sets, books, demo boards, etc.

ChessBase News decided to help Karelle achieve her dream of raising the funds by immediately
publishing an article

The response from the readers was excellent and
the goal was achieved not only within the day but
it exceeded the required amount by €390!

Karelle had the necessary funds 80 minutes after our publication went live! "This is so crazy!!" she wrote, "I cannot believe that I have already the sum! It saves me 21 days of waiting!”

The illustration above is from Pauline De Langre, who is Karelle’s friend
and a graphic designer and illustrator in Siem Reap. These postcards are
for the donors of the project.

The funds had been collected, but now the responsibility on Karelle’s shoulders had increased. It was no longer an individual undertaking: A lot of people from around the world had contributed to this project. In October, she went to the IWICA chess centre in Bangkok to buy the fifteen chess sets. It was an 18-hour trip to and back, but Karelle had to take this long journey as the costs of shipping were too high.

Visit to the village

Before starting her assignment at the bush school Karelle decided to pay a visit to the village in which her prospective students lived. She thought it would be valuable to see them in their home environment. She went to the Thnall village with Nimol on a motorcycle. Suddenly it started to rain heavily, and though both were drenched it didn’t stop them from capturing the essence of the village and the settings in which the children stayed.

Fourteen-year-old Meng Srooam washing the utensils

Von Rovith, eight years old, with his grandmother

A little girl with her father

Leading a herd of cows back home

Three-year-old Chrek Chem

Another three-year-old named Pan Vichika showing the victory sign

The little fishermen soon to be chess champions!

Continued in part two



Sagar Shah is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He is also a chartered accountant and would like to become the first CA+GM of India. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder of the ChessBase India website.
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hasayin5 hasayin5 1/23/2015 07:55
good luck! let us know if you need any help.
samvils samvils 1/23/2015 01:53
wow,, goodluck, hope cambodia will produce its first chess grandmaster soon.
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