After years of watching others participate in the Kenya National Chess League (also known as Kenya Chess Premier League or more confusingly Kenya National Chess Premier League), my opportunity to play in it finally came last year as the captain of Anchor Chess Club. (It’s a whole other story that in 2016 when my club had begun preparing for that year’s edition in earnest, the tournament didn’t even happen due to wrangles within the federation.)
I’m saddened to inform you, though, that my experience of the tournament was anything but premier. Now before any of you call me an armchair critic or something along those lines, know that I have organised and officiated in several tournaments myself and so I am well aware of the challenges that come with this territory. Challenges should be seen and used as opportunities to improve standards, not as excuses to justify why the quality was and might continue to remain the same (or improve only marginally) in the future.
So, based on my observations as a non-playing captain (for a few matches) and a player of the 2017 KNCL, here are 9 reasons why the league needs to evolve to truly deserve the title of ‘premier’:
All editions of the league since 2010 (that I know of) have been played as a single round robin with all teams in one pool. When the number of teams is very small (4 to 6), the double round robin format is ideal as it gives teams enough matches and a second chance against their opponents if they lose the first time. With a larger number (7 to 14), the single round robin format is the most practical as it allows all teams to face each other at least once and the eventual winner is truly deserving of the title. Beyond 15 teams though, using the single round robin format just doesn’t make sense for several reasons: it stretches out the duration much longer than necessary, increases operational costs (venue hire, arbitration fees, equipment hire fees, etc.) and makes very weak teams play against very strong teams which helps neither and dilutes the overall prestige of the tournament. Using the Swiss system would rob teams the opportunity to face all of their opponents and the eventual winners could possibly not be as deserving of the title because of this.
To remedy this problem, having several divisions with manageable pools would make the league more competitive with the added incentive of promotion for teams in lower divisions and a disincentive of relegation for teams in the upper divisions.
Another advantage of having divisions is that there could be 2-3 distinct seasons throughout the calendar year where exam and holiday months (for school and university students) would be transition periods between them so no players have to miss important matches. Illustrative example: I’m a big fan of cricket and the big three nations of that sport—India, Australia and England—all have their most popular Twenty20 leagues played during their summer seasons lasting about 2-3 months each (April-May for the Indian Premier League, May-July for the NatWest T20 Blast and December-January for the Big Bash League) which allows some talented international stars to play in all 3 tournaments.
2. Time Control:
Related to the issue above, the time control also needs to change to cater to the varying strengths that would be found in different divisions. It wouldn’t make sense to subject the lowermost division where players would be in the sub-1600 Elo rating bracket to very long time controls such as 90m + 30sipm when most games would end within 90 to 120 minutes from the start of the round.
In the same vein, the country’s top players deserve to play at the time control that is most common in zonal, continental and world events (90m/40 + 30m/r + 30sipm) so that they are better prepared to represent Kenya internationally. (As an arbiter at several international tournaments where the Olympiad time control was used, I witnessed many inexperienced players lose their first few games on time because they couldn’t complete the first 40 moves in 90 minutes.)
If the top division would be restricted to just 8 teams, a 7-round single round robin tournament could easily be completed in 3 months with one round played every alternate Saturday/Sunday afternoon. It might surprise some of you to know that our neighbours to the west—Uganda—who tend not to have the same resources as we do in Kenya have been organising their national league at Olympiad time controls for several years now and with many more teams and players than us. Is it any wonder then that even their unrated players are able to come to Kenya and win tournaments with little difficulty? Adopting the Ugandans’ approach would even enable the top division of our league to play a 14-round double round robin tournament in just 3 months!
This issue caused quite a bit of controversy last year when the secretary of the league committee resigned mid-way and his replacement couldn’t do the job as well. Many of the problems of communicating fixtures to all team captains in good time (especially when unforeseen circumstances disrupt proceedings) could have been resolved simply by having a properly functioning website that displayed all the information that was otherwise being sent out via email and/or WhatsApp and/or social media.
When all match fixtures are available in one place at any time of day or night, any changes to them can be quickly uploaded and the affected teams’ captains informed a lot more easily than by sending different versions of Excel spreadsheets every time something has changed. Not just the captains, but even team members would be able to see who they were playing and when and prepare accordingly.
Other important information useful for members of the press (history of the league, prize structure, members of the organising committee and their contacts, etc) should also be available on such a dedicated website.
I will cut the league committee some slack with this issue as they aren’t the only ones who need to style up. Discipline is a Kenya wide problem and not just within the chess community.
The most common causes of indiscipline during the last league were: arbiters and/or equipment arriving late at the venue thus delaying the start of the round and some players repeatedly missing their games and giving walkovers without their teams having to face any penalty.
It’s extremely unfair to players who have spent time and considerable nervous energy preparing for games when they have to just sit at the table and wait to win by default instead of having the result decided over the board. One way to curb this menace would be by levying a fine or suspension on repeat offenders or the teams they belong to. Of course, for this to work, the enforcers would themselves have to be disciplined and firm, to begin with.
A tournament as prestigious and large (in terms of numbers of players) as the national chess league should have no difficulty in attracting a sponsorship amount of 1 million Kenyan shillings (~USD 10,000) from a conglomerate of major and minor corporate sponsors but alas we seem to be stuck in a loop where the major corporate teams that participate in the league are also sponsors and prize winners (since they have the financial muscle required to recruit strong non-Kenyan titled players).
For the league to become an event worthy of having ‘premier’ in its title, it’s time for the federation to pull up its socks and get to work knocking on corporate doors and calling up favours from their most influential contacts. With a sizable chunk of money available to the league committee, the next three issues on my list can also be resolved more easily.
Of all its failings, this is the area where the biggest opportunity was lost not just for the league but also for the promotion of chess as a competitive sport in Kenya. Where results of every top football match are reported with great fervour in every major newspaper and on every major television station in Kenya, only some results from the chess league made it to either.
A paid Public Relations Officer who can write well about chess and is popular with sports journalists would be key to resolving this in future editions.
Larger prizes that are more evenly spread out amongst the various categories of players participating in the league will give everyone something to fight for ensuring that the quality of chess goes up and cases of indiscipline through walkovers come down. It’s even possible that players from strong federations further than Uganda (such as Egypt or Zambia) would begin to show an interest and make the league even more attractive to corporate sponsors with their actual participation.
With a tournament like the national league, I would expect a standard whereby DGT e-boards for the top 2 teams facing each other in every round, tables with the same dimensions and covered with a tablecloth, a playing hall where a consistent environment can be maintained throughout the duration of the league, professional photographers present to capture the action, etc would be common. Instead, we had to put up with chess boards of varying dimensions, venues where the noise level would go up or down depending on whether games were played on a Sunday morning or in the afternoon, inadequate arbiters during some rounds, arbiters who didn’t do their jobs well (like updating results immediately after a round ends) and more. An increase in the overall budget and a more professional organising team could solve many of these issues.
As an unrated player awaiting his/her initial standard FIDE rating, the most frustrating thing about last year’s league was how the fixtures were put together in relation to the published pairings on chess-results thereby affecting how the matches would be rated. Instead of making sure that all matches from an earlier round were completed before those from later rounds took place, we had cases where the Ratings Officer (me) had to wait until October for the last remaining match of Round 2 (scheduled to happen in February-March) to be completed before results from the entire round could be submitted for rating. It must have been worse for the players who did really well and were expecting to see their ratings jump every time a new FRL was published only to realise that results hadn’t been submitted yet. In fact, as I type this, only Rounds 1, 3, 4 and 5 have been rated and the remaining rounds (2 & 6-19) were submitted only at the end of January, though the league had ended in November itself.
Were you a player, captain or manager in the 2017 Kenya National Chess League? If so, what areas do you feel need to be worked on for the 2018 edition? What did you like most about last year’s edition? You can comment on this entry or send me an email via the form on the Contact page with your thoughts.
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