to - Nairobi Chess Club

Nairobbery, or the adventures of a mzungu in Kenyan chess circles
(Originally written in 2008 in Dutch and published in Matten, No. 5, 2009)
I have lost against a toddler and have been beaten by a multi-tasking old lady who was
knitting a warm, woollen scarf for her great-grandchild during the game. I love the game
although my dedication is disproportional to my talent. I do have dear memories about
chess in the USA though. During the more than 20 years in California and the Atlantic
Coast states did I get to know tournament chess and at the same time, partly through
playing chess, the American mind set.
Nothing is impossible as long as you believe in yourself. “The sky is the limit.” That is
the typical mentality, based on a deep-rooted optimism often mixed with an advanced
case of lack of sophistication. This mentality shows also in chess; the agreed draw is
universally frowned upon, but it is most clearly revealed by the lower class player who
never will resign. I happen to shake hands rather quickly when a piece down, sometimes
together with a compliment on a rather strong move while the perplexed opponent often
glances at the board to see if he has not accidentally mated me. My resignation is even
seen as unsportsmanlike behaviour and is in their eyes characteristic for the suspiciously
pessimistic, socialistic, or even communistic attitude of Europeans. They are true
followers of Tartakower’s dictum: “No game is ever won by resigning.”
I admire all that, but not when I find myself in a completely won position. I have played
with a handful of material against the king alone. IN such cases I cannot, sometimes,
refrain from stretching the game to inflict maximum suffering; a character trait of which I
am not proud. This type of nonsense has come to hurt me recently, but on that topic later.
Over a year ago I exchanged my comfortable life in the US for the uncertainties of
entrepreneurship in Kenya. With my savings I started a small company producing insect
viruses. These viruses, being completely safe for mankind and their livestock, can be
used to control caterpillars on food crops. Especially small farmers, the majority over
here, combat these caterpillars with gross chemical means, often without success. More
pesticide sprays follow with predictable consequences for the quality of food, drinking
water and the environment in general. It is my ambition to leave a beneficial and
profitable company in Kenyan hands. I am through the opening phase and I am now
facing the complications of an economy based on corruption and kick-backs. The
competition, mostly Kenyan and Indian distributors, are grandmasters in befriending,
influencing and if needed, corrupting government agencies and business relations.
Summarizing my position in simple terms; I play in the main draw here, while not even
being clear about the rules of the game.
Life is good on the Kenyan plains. Chess life, however, turns out to be less developed
than I would have liked. Professor Euwe, during his time as FIDE President has travelled
the world to gather new member states. He succeeded with Kenya but that is the long
and short of it. Recently I called a Kenyan player whose name I found on the web. He is
known as Ben Chess and I asked for a little chat about chess in Kenya. He ordered me to
show up in Nairobi within the hour with 1000 Kenyan shillings on me. I protested
timidly that I was working, that I certainly could not be in Nairobi on such short notice
and that I thought his fee a bit high. He struck back with: “That’s peanuts for talking
with the number one player of Kenya.” I must admit, ashamed, that he might have been
right, but I had just looked up his FIDE rating (2119) and thought this also peanuts for a
national topper.
Mehul Gohil, one of the better Kenyan players, told me that the national chess federation
had been a spectacular wreck lately and runs the risk of being expelled from international
competitions as has been the case already for their national football team. In a country
with more than 30 million people and forty serious chess players this is not a hot topic
Twenty years ago it seemed that Kenya was on the way to become one of the better chess
nations in Africa. The federation was growing fast, especially through enthusiastic youth
members. It must be pointed out that a large portion of those were of Indian-Kenyan
heritage and stimulated by their parents as a high national ranking gave access to the best
schools. Mehul Gohil stems from this generation.
During the last fifteen years the federation has had a series of chairmen whose drive was
based largely on financial gain and whose knowledge of chess was particularly meagre.
This was illustrated when Nigel Short visited some African countries a few years ago.
He saw the mandatory big five, but in all likelihood he does not look back at his trip with
satisfaction. The English newspaper “the Guardian” reports that, according to GM Short,
he had come to propagate chess. When it turned out that his main aim was to lobby for
Bessel Kok as future FIDE president it was explained to him in Zambia that they were
not in the least interested in his opinions concerning the FIDE presidency. In Kenya it
was even worse. Nigel Short stayed in the 680 Hotel and that news spread as wildfire.
Soon all Nairobi chess players were present, including the chairman of the federation. He
proceeded to clarify his knowledge of chess history to a stupefied audience by revealing
that GM Short was unknown to him. By the way, Kenyan chess players do have good
feelings regarding the integrity and chess historical knowledge of the current chairman.
Mehul Gohil.
Mehul Gohil is very well informed about international and, surprisingly, the Dutch chess
scene. He knows our top players by name and has, among others, read books by Tim
Krabbé and “The King” by Donner. Typical for the interest of Kenyans who are usually
not that well off, he asked me whether it was true that Mr. Timman was multi-millionaire.
He had read that somewhere and thought that I as a fellow Dutchman would be in the
know. I had to disappoint him, but I added that certainly “Mr. Timman” did not seem to
me someone who would follow the stock exchange closely. It was also known to him
that in the eighties Eric Smaling, a student at the University of Wageningen, playing in
one of the lower chess divisions in the Netherlands, had qualified for the Kenyan
Olympiad team.. Fast-track naturalization was offered to him, but Eric kept this from the
Dutch Olympic Committee as he feared to be immediately swapped for a Kenyan middistance runner.
Kenya is a beautiful country with friendly people. Especially the poorer people, the
majority, are open, warm and surprisingly cheerful in view of their circumstances. Once
in a while the more ugly aspects of the tribal culture show up. The most recent
occurrence was during the post mortem of the elections. The Kenyans are also little
reserved and very generous. I was offered a while ago a hectare of land as a present
when I was a guest of the Luhya tribe and witnessed the brutal physical aspects of their
initiation rituals. They hoped that I would build a beautiful hut on that piece of land. A
proud mother also offered her fourteen-year-old daughter as bride. Given these essentials
I could spend the rest of my life in their midst to everyone’s satisfaction. After a short
hesitation I refused both presents politely but emphatically.
Checkmates, the Nairobi chess club gets together in a restaurant, called Downtown and
located in a row of dilapidated grey buildings in Tubman Street. Not easy to find, but
eventually, after climbing a series on unlit stairs I met the elite of Kenyan chess blitzing
with one, two three or five minute per game. I was made to feel welcome and because of
my given name, they suspected to be dealing with an undoubtedly very strong Russian
player. An even stronger Kenyan player was ordered by phone to appear at the club.
After clearing up this misunderstanding, I was put behind a board. They preferred
playing for money, something white man was supposed to have a lot of. This mzungu
managed to swindle a few people though.
Checkmates was founded by Alex Makatia, a colourful fellow who died some years ago,
much too young. He was in the habit to carry a revolver on the hip on club nights, which
was pretty much every night. Not a bad strategy to keep the chess mob under control.
Downtown lies 70 km from my house in Thika, and after a chess evening I stay over in a
hotel because I do not like to drive back in the dark late at night. Roads have improved
dramatically in the last year, but there are still holes in the road surface large enough to
swallow a wheel. There are no streetlights, no painted divider lines, and the road side
may easily be half a meter lower. In addition, the average Kenyan driver does not feel
the urge to dim his randomly pointed headlights for opposing traffic and you will
understand that the change to perish in an accident at night is almost as high as to be
robbed in Nairobi.
Nairobbery is a well-deserved nickname of this city as robberries are daily events. A
short walk may be interesting in the evening when prostitutes are open for business. I
walked once half a kilometer in an involuntary yet tightly embrace from two ladies. They
ensured me that they loved me very much. Their colleague, walking backwards straight
ahead of me showed what she had to offer in case I were to change my mind. My
defense was cramped as I needed one hand to carry my chess set and the other to protect
a wallet in my back pocket. Nairobi at night is certainly not without danger and a British
expat told me that during six years he had never been more than ten meter from his car or
apartment door in the evening. This, however, seems a bit extreme to me.
A note in a well-known hotel in Kenya to the thugs that have given Nairobi its nick name.
Kenyans stay nevertheless polite and generous as you can see.
Often I play against a Frenchman of Algerian descent, Kamel, who after a life of
travelling has started a “boulangerie” in Nairobi. He is a big man, of middle age, with a
bit of a reputation as a lady’s man. His bakery runs smoothly and they fly croissants to
the personnel of the international organizations which from North Kenya tend to the
hungry Sudanese populaton. The thought that pops up in a cynical brain is that these
people obviously need to eat well in order to provide effective help. Kamel has set up his
business so well that there is not a whole lot for him to do anymore, except playing chess
that is. He is in the ban of the game and wants to play every day with me, but
unfortunately I have not been able to organize my business as well as he has.
I have played a tournament in one of the local universities, the Jomo Kenyatta University
for Agriculture and Technology, or JKUAT. By accident I saw the announcement for a
scrabble and chess tournament and registered immediately. Actually, I tried to register,
because that was certainly not the habit. As I was told, I arrived at the day of the
tournament to find about twenty students busy playing scrabble. A handful of chess
players were dawdling around the only chessboard available. Used as I was to bring
board and clock to a tournament, my arrival met with great enthusiasm. The tournament
formula was unusual. Everyone wanted to play me and they were litterally waiting in
line. The other board was hardly used anymore. The level was pitiful, and I quickly won
five games in a row. These Kenyan players, in contrast to their american colleagues,
were fast in laying down their king down in a lost position.
My opponent in the sixth game was a certain Mr. Njoroge, a young man dressed in an
impeccable suit -Urban Kenyans are generally very smartly dressed- sporting a perfectly
shaven head in which I could mirror myself. He played better but eventually he was left
with the king alone against my rook and four pawns. True to my disgusting habit I
decided to find out if resigning was also part of Mr Njoroge’s repertoire. I pushed my
pawns one by one while leaning back, relaxed and obviously pleased with myself. That
is, until all of a sudden my opponent claimed a draw and was supported in his ridiculous
demand by the many spectators. They all had been counting and it turned out that I was a
victim of the much feared 10-move-rule, a local addition to game in favor of the king
alone that was totally unknown to me. Njoroge was very happy and visibly satisfied with
the result. I decided then and there to never again stretch the suffering of other
goodwilling amateurs. Against my good judgement I drove home in the dark and
responded to opposing traffic with my bright headlights.
Business is not made easy here for neither the capitalist entrepreneur with a socially
responsible tinge, nor for the socially responsible entrepreneur with a capitalist tinge, as
in my case. Gouvenrment talks about stimulating the economy but that is where it stops.
The burocracy principally hinders progress and does even that at a snail’s pace. Traffic is
jammed in Nairobbery and the police is voted to be even more corrupt than the politici.
Also, the little chess community here is in the doldrums, but not for a moment do I regret
my decision to stay in Kenya. The people and the ambiance offer more than satisfactory
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