Why Chess is thriving in Kenya despite Covid-19 pandemic

Krishi Shah competes in the World Chess Online Olympiad at a Nairobi hotel on July 31, 2020. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Youths take up the rank as Chess Kenya goes virtual with virus restrictions

Premier League, World Chess Olympiad suspended in March due to Covid-19

Turns out the 2020 season was a very busy year as youth turn to chess to beat boredom occasioned by Covid-19 protocols.

The year 2020 will go down as one of the darkest in the history of human existence after it was largely overshadowed by the global coronavirus pandemic which claimed lives of over a million people around the world.

Just like other things, sports also suffered the wrath of the virus, with tournaments like Tokyo Olympics 2020, Euro 2020 and T20 World Cup getting delayed by a year.

In Kenya, Chess, one of the fastest developing indoor games in the country was not spared.

With social distancing norms becoming the need of the hour, it became impossible to play or to have tournaments, the local league and international chess games.

The government categorised chess as among the high-risk sports meaning players cannot traditionally meet physically to battle it out on the board.

Why Chess is thriving in Kenya despite Covid-19 pandemic

Woman Candidate Master (WCM) Janki Shah (right) in action during a past match. [Washington Onyango,Standard]

However, thanks to technology, 2020 was a very busy year for local players who have been busy battling it out in the mind game via virtual tournaments.

Since the International Chess Federation (Fide) suspended in-person competitions due to the pandemic in March, virtual matches have been taking place across the globe thanks to leading online chess websites; lichess.org, chess.com and Internet Chess Club.

These online games saw the rise of youthful players taking to the stage to represent and win gold medals for Kenya in local and international championships.

This is after the 2020 Kenya Chess Premier League (KCPL) which was one-week old was canceled due to the pandemic thus barring defending champions KCB, Equity, Anchor Chess Clubs among others from playing.

Most recently, on December 12, over 100 Kenyan chess players faced-off with their Ugandan counterparts in the second edition of the East Africa Youth Online Chess Championships.

Kenya’s Naiya Gorsani and Joe Mutua won all their matches to emerge top in the Under-16 girls and boys category respectively.

Gosrani, 15, also became the only Kenyan who qualified for the World Youth and Cadets Chess Championship after finishing third out of 15 contestants in the Under-16 category of the Africa qualifiers that ended on November 30.

Why Chess is thriving in Kenya despite Covid-19 pandemic

Viraj Shah during a past match. [Courtesy]

Another player who rose to the top is Viraj Shah who is confident of finishing in the medal bracket when he represents Kenya at the World Youth Chess Championship next year.

Shah, 15, will not only be representing Kenya but also the African content after finishing top during the African School Online Individual Youth Chess Championship played last week.

Rated 1377 in the world and top seed in Africa U15, he won seven, drawing and losing one out of the nine rounds of matches of the qualifiers to qualify for the world games.

Elizabeth Cassidy (2020 Africa Schools Individual Chess champion), Adrian Kelly Nyaoke and Liz Gacheri (Riara Virtual Chess Tournament) are other winners.

Chess Kenya President Bernard Wanjala said he never imagined local players shining in major online events.

“After the suspension of all sports, I couldn’t see chess, a sport that was now picking up the momentum surviving. I’m happy to see that not only our esteemed players but youth took up the challenge and did well for Kenya not locally but internationally,” said Wanjala.

Wanjala said embracing the virtual tournaments immediately Covid-19 brought in-person competitions to a grind was the best thing local players did. This is because they continue to take part in several global contests.

Waridi Chess Club, Prox Chess House and Black Knight Chess Club are some of the local clubs that have been at the forefront in organising local online chess matches, in partnership with the federation, Chess Kenya.

According to Anthony Kionga, the chairman of Black Knight Chess Club, since July, they have been holding three online tournaments weekly, and at no time have they cancelled any due to lack of participants.

“At the beginning, we would register only 20 players at most for the events. Nowadays, we register over 100 players for our online tournaments, an indication that the chess community has adopted online chess to keep its activities going,” he said.

Sadam Ali was the first to represent Kenya in a global virtual contest when he competed in the Online Chess Cup for People with Disability in March.

Ali, who is the reigning champion of Kenya National Chess Championship for People with Disability emerged 26th in the invitational five-round tournament that featured 36 players from around the globe.

The second major tournament for Kenyan players was the inaugural Online chess Olympiad held in August to help keep active teams that were supposed to compete in the delayed 44th World Chess Olympiad in Russia.

The Peter Long-coached team did not make it past the group stage, as they finished sixth on eight points in Division Four.

Kenya emerged top in Africa out of the six nations that participated in the Online Chess Olympiad for People Living with Disability from November 21 to December 3.

The Kenyan team of four players, who included Ali, garnered 10 points, one more than Zimbabwe.

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