Chess prodigy: 'Jessie hated her father, but not enough to kill herself'

Friends of chess prodigy who fell to her death from a hotel window dismiss suicide theory, despite rape allegations against her father
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Friends and coaches of Jessie Gilbert, the chess prodigy who plunged to her death from an eighth-floor hotel window last week, spoke yesterday of their shock at learning that her father is accused of raping her.

Jessie, 19, was remembered at the Weald Chess Congress in Crawley, where a minute's silence was held before around 100 players from across Sussex, Kent and Surrey - Jessie's home county - began the first round of the competition. Jessie was supposed to have been playing in the top section of the tournament, and many here knew the teenager and her family well.

It emerged yesterday that Jessie's father, Ian Gilbert, a 48-year-old City banker, had been charged with seven counts of rape and two indecent assaults. Surrey police confirmed that Mr Gilbert was awaiting trial at Guildford Crown Court on 21 August.

Members of Jessie's chess club, Wood Green in Surrey, were particularly saddened by claims that she had jumped from her hotel window in the Czech Republic, where she was staying during an international chess tournament. Early reports had suggested that her death was the result of sleepwalking, which Jessie was known to suffer from.

Chess players from Jessie's area were largely unaware of the troubles she had been facing in her home life, and were stunned by the accusations against her father. Susan Lalic, 40, a grandmaster who played against Jessie in a tournament last year, said:

"I don't believe that it could have been suicide. Even if the claims are true, there is no way it is something Jessie would do.

"She had her whole life before her. Jessie was a real fighter. She was bubbly, clever and considerate. I don't think she would have done this to her family on purpose.''

Another friend, who did not wish to be named, said: "We all knew that Jessie's mum and dad had split up, but that was years ago. She didn't see her dad. She hated him. They moved recently because of him, but she wouldn't kill herself over it.''

Jessie, who came to prominence at the age of 11 when she won the Women's World Amateur Championship, the youngest player ever to do so, was sharing the hotel room with her best friend Amisha Parmar, 14. It is believed the girls had been drinking heavily on the night of Jessie's death.

Jessie's mother, a research scientist, and her three sisters, were heavily involved in the chess world, but it was Jessie who showed the most talent from a young age. Jonathan Tuck, who had coached Jessie at the world championships, said:

"Jessie's mum was keen for her to do well. She encouraged her a lot. It is important for young players to dedicate a lot of time and effort to it, and that is what I remember about Jessie. She focused 100 per cent. Her concentration level was exceptional - she would sit for hours taking in the board.''

Sue Maguire, whose son plays chess at Jessie's club said: "Nobody likes to speculate whether Jessie jumped or was sleepwalking. It is just so sad that the chess world has lost such a bright spark.''

Jessie was known by friends to have self-harmed on several occasions. One said: "I think she did cut herself from time to time, but I don't think it was a big problem for her.''

Jessie was in the middle of the tournament, which consisted of five rounds, and was doing well. She was taking a gap year and had planned to go to Oxford University to study medicine.

Jessie's sleepwalking was often serious. One friend at yesterday's tournament said: "Jessie once told me that she had jumped out of a first-floor window when she was sleepwalking. When she woke up she told her mum that she had been trying to fly. I am 90 per cent sure that is what happened."

Her friend added that Jessie "phoned home a lot when she was away, as she was very close to her mum and sisters''.

The pressure: A brutal, competitive world

The tragic case of Jessie Gilbert has shed new light on the world of competitive chess, which, far from the genteel, intellectual pastime many consider it, can often be brutal, exhausting and fiercely competitive.

Just last month, at the Chess Olympiad in Turin, two grandmasters - England's Danny Gormally and Armenia's Levon Aronian - took their rivalry to a new level when Gormally, 30, reportedly punched Aronian in the face. The dispute, thought to be sparked by rivalry over female grandmaster Arianne Caoili, demonstrated the pressure-cooker atmosphere of major chess tournaments.

Chess prodigies can run an increased risk of emotional or social problems as they grow up, says Linda Blair, clinical psychologist at the University of Bath. She said it was not their high spatial ability that was the problem, but the way people, particularly parents, responded to and focused on that ability. Too often, this resulted in the best players being seen as eccentric or "loners". JT