Our own queen of chess


The strength of a woman is not measured by the impact that all her hardships in life have had on her; but the strength of a woman is measured by the extent of her refusal to allow those hardships to dictate her and who she becomes.

—C. Joy Bell C.

Women, in the journey of life, face a little extra hurdles, challenges, and obstacles than a man does. This is because the society we live in is mainly a male-dominant one and our political, social, and economic aspects are dominantly shaped by this thinking.

Therefore, to climb to the highest of the ladder, a woman must put in a little extra effort, pushing harder against all the obstacles and winning the many challenges. The story of chess champion Suneetha Wijesuriya is one such story of a woman who despite all odds, stood strong to win great awards and achievements and was able to mark her name as one of the best chess champions, nationally and internationally. She is also a rare champion who has worked greatly to coach and create new players and winners, and not stopping to keep all the glory only to herself.

 Suneetha who is a Gold medallist at the 30th FIDE World Chess Olympiad 1992, was awarded the Outstanding Game Changer of Chess in Asia by the FIDE recently.  The International Chess Federation named 2022 as the year of Women’s Chess, and this awards ceremony was held to recognise the strength of Women Chess players and related activists.  Suneetha is also the first international-rated chess player – women, in Sri Lanka and the first woman FIDE master in Sri Lanka.

This is why we present her story today. Her story is also not only about chess or winning at the international level, but also a story of courage and enthusiasm and most importantly it is also a story of a mother’s dedication and hard work to make her children’s dreams come true. Suneetha’s story also is about the importance of extracurricular activities in School education, and about a dedicated school teacher.

Joining us today to share her success story, Suneetha said that it was her mother, K.T. Rosalin, one of the strongest pillars behind her success today. Born on 18 June 1963 in Megoda, Kolonnawa, she fondly remembered her father Simon Singho Wijesuriya, and Mother Rosalin. She was the second child of a family of four. Her younger sister Vineetha Wijesuriya, and brothers Shelton Wijesuriya and Lakshman Wijesuriya are also notable national-level chess players.

Her journey

Her first school was the Gotatuwa Maha Vidyalaya and for Advance Level, she entered the Kudabuthgamuwa Sri Rajasinghe Maha Vidyalaya and chose science stream subjects.

“At this school our English Teacher W.A.D. Zoyza would bring chess boards from the Mt.Lavinia Chess club and teach us chess. It was then I saw a chess board for the first time. I was doing my A Levels then.”

She also said that today, in schools teachers don’t even have time to teach the syllabus, but those days were different.

“This teacher would teach us the Russian language, German language, mathematical games in the card pack, and chess.

“Whenever I had free time I would practice sitting in a corridor.”

Then for the first time in Sri Lanka, the Women’s National Chess Championship was started in the year 1979. English teacher Zoyza applied for this and that was how Suneetha participated in a chess competition for the first time.

“In 1980, I became the National Women’s Champion. And then from 82 to 87, I won the National Championship, and again from 92 to 97, I was the National Champion. Accordingly, ten years I won the National championship.”

She also said that, when the Soviet Cultural Centre organised the Maya Chiburadanidse Challenge Trophy Chess Tournament conducted by Soviet Cultural House, which was an all island competition, she won the challenge trophy for three years, in 82, 83, and 84.

From National champion to International champion

It was in the year 1992 that Suneetha created history. She won the 1992 World Chess Olympiad gold medal in this world competition. It was the first time a Sri Lankan woman achieved such an acclaimed award in Chess. She won Sri Lanka’s first-ever gold medal at a World Chess Olympiad when she achieved it during the 30th Chess Olympiad which was held in Manila in 1992.

She was the only Sri Lankan player to win a gold medal at this event. All the other 19 gold medals were won by Russian countries. She said that 862 players from 102 countries participated in this event.

Although she won such a prestigious medal, when she arrived in Sri Lanka, there had been no one to welcome her and her team at the airport. Up to date, Suneetha remains the only chess player to have won a gold medal at a World Chess Olympiad for Sri Lanka. She has also won the Sri Lankan Women’s National Chess Championship title ten times (1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1995, and 1997).

 “I was not discouraged, but I thought that I must do something to develop this game in the country and that no future winner will face what I faced.”

As she explained, chess was not popular in Sri Lanka by this time, among the masses.

However, till 1994 the Sri Lanka Chess Federation was not active. With the intention of activating the federation, Suneetha organised a chess exhibition at the BMICH and invited the former president J.R. Jayawardene. This was called a Simultaneous Exhibition Chess Tournament and she played 15 games at this event. Suneetha was also able to gather about 250 chess enthusiasts at this event.

“I became the secretary of the federation and then we started working a lot.”

However, although the federation was active, as she explained, this was not supporting her vision. Her vision was to make chess a popular game in Sri Lanka and train more and more players and create national and international champions. Therefore, the next year, she left the federation.

As a further step to make her vision come true, Suneetha next contacted the Russian Centre. Buddhapriya Ramanayake was the Chief Executive Officer there. He and the director board supported her and then she was able to form the Anatoly Karpov Chess Club in the year 1998. Anatoly Karpov is a world-renowned Russian Chess Champion.

“We started with 25 members. Next year we will be celebrating 25 years of success. Today, we were successful in conducting more than 500 chess coaching programmes and gathering more than a thousand chess players. These coaching programmes are held not only for school children but for army and navy officers and those who are at Ranaviru Sevanas and at the Deaf School.”

 She also said that they were able to bring International Chess Masters for Advance Chess Coaching Camps and to organise provincial and all-island tournaments.

“For these Advance Coaching Camps, India’s first international master Manuel Aaron visited Sri Lanka a couple of times,” she said.

She also said that under this Chess Club they have distributed chess boards and chess handbooks and also sent Sri Lankan players to International competitions in Russia and India.

You should be unstoppable

“Many women who played with us at the National level stopped playing because of their jobs and then after getting married or after having children”, she said.

She further said that some students stop or take a break from chess due to exams. But what happens is that during these breaks, their journey towards becoming a chess champion takes a great downfall.

“So, one must not stop or take breaks”, she said.

A supporting family

Suneetha fondly remembered how courageous her mother was. After her father’s sudden death, her mother, with four children did not let her children let go of their dreams.

“My mother took care of four children and encouraged us to pursue our dreams. She never became weak after my father died.”

Suneetha’s mother would accompany her during all her tournaments. “In those very early days, everything was in English. Participants and all administrative work were done in English. So, I would tell my mother to sit where she can see me playing. I would tell her that we did not come here for an English exam so there is nothing to worry about.”

She also said that later, when she won National Championship, things would change. People would say that this is ‘Suneetha’s mother’ and would nicely speak in Sinhala.

“You see, we did not feel discouraged when such things happen. We never let such things make us feel embarrassed.”

Suneetha’s sister Vineetha is also a chess champion and when Suneetha won the National level, Vineetha was the sub champion. When Suneetha stopped participating in competitions, Vineetha won the National Championship for ten years.

Her husband, Bandula Withanage, was a great strength pillar in her life. When Suneetha would travel around the country for programmes it was her mother who took care of her two children, Nishantha and Chamika.

A legacy to be happy about

“For me, the most important thing was not winning, but developing chess in the country and creating more and more chess champions in the country.”

Ranidu Liyanage, a student of Ananda College is one bright Chess champion we have and Suneetha has taught him chess at Ananda College. He participated in the 44th Olympiad Chess Tournament. Sri Lanka’s best women player Sachini Ranasinghe is another champion that Suneetha has coached at the Russian Centre. Suneetha remembered their names proudly.

“Today, we have about 400 – 500 international raters and international title holders and I am very happy about this. It is important that we pave the path for many others to win like us. I am happy about this more than me winning. This way it is not just me but our whole chess family that is winning. We have a generation of great chess players now.”

Suneetha said that challenges are a part of life. She also emphasised that it is important to win and after you win, to think about the country and the future of the game or field you represent and one must contribute to help create more and more winners.

Talking about the current situation she said that today, the situation of Chess in Sri Lanka is really good. Her brother Laxman Wijesuriya is the president of the Sri Lanka Chess Federation today and the federation is doing a great job in promoting, and developing chess and encouraging players.

Honours and accolades Suneetha has received 

  • – She was awarded the Women FIDE Master title in 2012
  • – She received the FIDE instructor’s title in 2014
  • – She received the SLT Silk Award for Outstanding Dedication and Contribution to Promote Sports at the inaugural edition of the SLT Silk Sports Awards in 2017
  • – She was awarded the SLT Silk Award exactly on her 25th anniversary since winning the gold medal at the 1992 World Chess Olympiad
  • – She was awarded the title of Kreeda Ratna at the 2019 Presidential Awards

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy