The great thing about today’s hyper-connected on-line world is that access to a Grand Master is no longer restricted to an elite few. Demonstrating the wonderful resourcefulness of social media in this decade, I contacted English GM Nigel Short via Facebook for this interview on his African experiences:
Paras: How often have you visited Africa/East Africa in your capacity as a chess player and what were your experiences like each time? What were your objectives/tasks during each visit?
Nigel: I have visited Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Angola, Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi. That is quite a lot of experiences and it is rather difficult to describe them all – particularly as I have visited certain countries, like Angola and South Africa, a number of times and for different reasons. The North African countries I place in a separate category because culturally they are part of the Arab world. Of the sub-Saharan countries I have particularly enjoyed Kenya, South Africa and Malawi.
Paras: What do you think of the overall strength of chess players and the general chess infrastructure in East Africa (from your visits to Kenya and Uganda)?
Nigel: There are some promising players, but obviously things could be improved. Travel costs in Africa are generally quite prohibitive, which makes the domestic environment all that more important. There have to be very regular tournaments for people to obtain the necessary practice. I regularly played 150+ games a year (not counting informal games) when I was young and I am sure that that amount of exposure was hugely beneficial in my own development. I would be very surprised if many people in East Africa play that number of games.
The second issue is the one of study. On the good side, anyone armed with a laptop, database and analysis engine has the same basic tools as the World Champion. However not everyone has these essentials. Furthermore, even when they do, they don’t always know how to use them properly – nor does everyone grasp the level of preparation required to compete successfully on the international scene. I would say there is a lot of work to be done but I have no doubt that significant strides could be made with a little guidance.
Paras: Is FIDE doing enough to support African chess players and help national federations promote the game throughout the continent? Or is it a case of the incumbents donating material in return for votes so they can remain in power?
Nigel: The current FIDE regime has been in power for well over a decade and a half. I honestly don’t think they are terribly serious about promoting chess in Africa. Their main priority is the crude exercise of power. To give a recent example: FIDE has chosen to spend the best part of a million Euros of FIDE money on a court case in Lausanne, this January, defending Kirsan’s appointment of five FIDE Vice Presidents, in 2010, when the statutes state that he can appoint only two “and no more”. Personally I consider that to be a disgraceful waste of money that would be far better spent on Africa (or anywhere else for that matter). If it were essential to have so many extra VPs, Kirsan could simply have appointed two and put a motion before the General Assembly calling for a change in the statutes. The million Euros of our money is being spent solely for the right for Kirsan to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.
Paras: If you were president of FIDE, what would you do to facilitate more IMs and GMs coming from Africa? How would you check rampant corruption at the world chess governing body?
Nigel: I would ensure that we set up programmes so that GMs could visit on a regular basis. Actually I believe I have been the first GM to visit a number of places, such as Malawi and Ethiopia, and that has been on my own initiative – not as a paid employee of the governing body which, as I have said, has done next to nothing in this respect. One of the main problems here is that senior FIDE officials don’t actually like strong chess players. They are at best tolerated and at worst actively despised. Hence FIDE’s obsession with setting up arbiters’ seminars and the like. While, of course, it is important to have properly qualified officials, the primary purpose of the governing body should be to promote the game. After all, the beauty of chess is what inspires us, not the ranks of officialdom. Football fans want to see the top teams play and don’t care two hoots about examinations for referees etc.
As regards corruption: I believe this is a problem everywhere in FIDE and my continent, Europe, also has its not-insubstantial share. I have often heard it said that Africa is the worst place in this respect, but in my opinion, it is not true. Nevertheless certain issues do need to be addressed, such as the regular holding of free and fair elections within federations. I believe this would go some way towards reducing corruption which is often (although by no means exclusively) perpetrated by entrenched and effectively unaccountable individuals.
Paras: You have visited quite a few countries this year including: Gibraltar, Pakistan, Tunisia, Malaysia, Thailand and Japan . How do you deal with time differences, jet lag, being away from family, etc. with such a punishing travel schedule? Does it affect your preparation for major tournaments?
Nigel: I have been a professional chess player for around 30 years now, so it is quite normal for me. I love travelling, but the business of getting there – sitting on planes, undergoing security-checks at airports etc. – I find increasingly wearisome. In May I will notch up my 100th country (Peru). I consider myself very fortunate to have a job which has enabled me to experience so much.
I don’t do a lot of preparation for tournaments these days. The biggest problem is that most events simply don’t pay well enough and I can’t expect to win strong events like Gibraltar all the time. Therefore my tournament income is supplemented by a lot of simuls, commentary and a bit of writing.
Paras: We hear you are a big fan of Kenya’s Tusker beer. When are you visiting East Africa next to get your fill of the beverage?
Nigel: I do enjoy an occasional beer when it is hot, but unfortunately that particular beverage piles on the calories – which I cannot afford at this time in my life. I am actually much more of a wine drinker.
I would love to return to East Africa and Kenya in particular! It is really a great place. Find some sponsorship and I will gladly return, whether to give simuls, do coaching or both 🙂
(Photo credits: Christina Tuorila and courtesy)