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Ireland's queen of chess likes to keep life in check

'I think you have to be slightly mad." Una O Boyle is talking about what makes a really good chess player and she reckons eccentricity helps. "I think I'm a bit bonkers and there's a part of my brain that just connects with chess, whatever that is."

She should know. Today Una is competing for Ireland in the biennial Chess Olympiad, which is taking place in Dresden, Germany, until November 25.

"It's good to represent your country at something," she says. "And I'm glad to be representing women as well, because chess tends to be male dominated."

Una, from Duleek, Co Meath, is 42 but looks at least 10 years younger. "I hate talking about my age," she says, "because people are always judged on it."

She has been playing chess since she was eight. "My father taught me how to play it and I was hooked," she says. "It's a brilliant exercise in sharpening your concentration."

A product designer by trade, she has made her hobby pay dividends financially in recent years: she teaches chess through Irish in a plethora of Gaelscoileanna around Dublin and is about to publish an Irish-language book, Ficheall (the Gaelic word for chess), which explains the rules of chess to youngsters.

"The great thing about chess is that often the slower kids or the dyslexic ones can be much better at it than the so-called sharper ones," she says. "And it's great when they find an activity like this that challenges them in a way they haven't been challenged before."

Her own talent for chess had manifested itself by the time she was "11 or 12, and able to beat people much older".

From then on, she started competing in chess events, although she admits that she could have excelled at an earlier age had she been more diligent.

"You need to be able to keep your concentration after two or three hours, but that's when I start getting fidgety and want to do something else."

Unlike many of the big names of chess, she says she is not obsessed with the game. "Obviously, there is a danger if you are obsessed with one thing that you won't lead a balanced life. If you play chess for six hours a day, you're not going to be as rounded as you probably should be."

She cites the example of Bobby Fischer -- the US chess prodigy of the 1970s -- who became obsessed with cults and made frequent anti-American and anti-Semitic comments. He died a recluse in Iceland earlier this year.

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Her hero is Garry Kasparov, who is generally seen as the greatest chess player of all time, and she is listed among his 'friends' on his MySpace site. "Now, he's a rounded individual!"

Kasparov retired from chess three years ago and was a contender against Vladimir Putin for the Russian presidential election earlier this year but subsequently withdrew his nomination.

For some, Una O Boyle is better known for her music and she cites it, chess and the Irish language as the three loves of her life.

It's not easy to describe her style of music although an online review captures her style well: "Kate Bush meets Enya -- but with a sense of humour."

She's certainly not a conventional singer-songwriter: the subject of one of her first songs was venereal diseases, not the sort of topic that budding Carole Kings would touch.

Her compositions have recently been turned into a musical called Opening Nights by teachers at Our Lady's College, Drogheda, one of the schools she has taught at. "They have done such a good job with the songs," she says, clearly moved. "I'm very flattered."

And she has been a member of the now defunct cult Celtic act Hyper[borea] -- a band that combined moody electronic music with Irish vocals.

"I think the Irish can work so much better with electronic music like that -- words 'as Gaeilge' sound better, more mysterious than English ones for atmospheric music."

Her own compositions are sung in English, rather than Irish. She plays piano and keyboard and picked up the basics from her father Enda, a jazz pianist.

Although she has spent many years working on her craft, she's hardly a household name. "I've no interest in being famous," she says. "I just want to write songs on my own terms and if people like them, great. If not, it's not the end of the world. I'm happy when people come along to see me perform or hear my songs on my website and leave a nice message. I don't think the stuff I write is the sort of music to appeal to everyone anyway."

Una -- a member of the Rathmines Chess Club in Dublin -- knuckled down to practice sessions for the Olympiad. Training for chess involves studying classic games from the past and playing strong opponents online.

"The internet has made chess really interesting because you get to compete against people from all over the world that really test you. Like anything, if you want to get better, you've got to play against people that are slightly better than you -- that can improve your game no end."

She says she will do as well as she can, but admits that the competition -- especially from the former Eastern Bloc -- is fierce. "I'll be up against some serious players, but you never know your luck."

Her appearance at her first Olympiad is tinged with sadness. Her father, to whom she was especially close, died last year.

"He was a wonderful, inspirational man and I'm sure he will be looking down at me. I miss him so much."

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