Blog: A Chess Weekend in Kampala

I have learnt chess since March this year and I took to it like a duck takes to water. I love the way the pieces interact and solving puzzles until, finally, CHECKMATE! The game ends when the King is captured.

So my love for chess is what took me across the boarder to our neighboring country- the land of matoke and groundnut sauce- Uganda for the Pre-League Rapid and Chess Tournament held on 26th and 27th May 2018.

I chose to take the bus, so I could enjoy the scenery on the way, and of course, a bus ticket is a tenth the price of a return plane ticket, but, never again will I travel by road!

Don’t get me wrong, the scenery is beautiful on the way but it was my first bus trip out of the country and in fact my first time going west of Limuru and so I was excited at the adventure.

Unfortunately, that is the day there was a tanker accident on the Nairobi-Nakuru highway which stalled traffic for over 6 hours! I had carried some snacks to bite on along the way thinking by the time we get to Nakuru I would have a nice warm meal. I was done with the snacks before we were even out of greater Nairobi and my tummy helped me keep track of the time- now supper time, now breakfast and how can I miss my usual mid-morning snack? A fellow passenger who looked like a seasoned traveler had some food and as she took it out I must have drooled visibly because she was about to offer me some but I turned away. I would have wolfed down whatever it was but a friend told me never to accept food or drink from a stranger on the bus and therein lied my dilemma- should I die of starvation or of potential poisoning and God knows what else? I decided to brave the hunger.

Thankfully the traffic cleared, and we were on our way.

Western Kenya countryside is beautiful! We went through the border seamlessly and as soon as we got to the Ugandan side we stopped along the way to buy chicken on a stick. This was also my first time to have chicken that way (it WAS chicken wasn’t it?) and my hunger plus the umami taste of the juicy roasted chicken gave me a sensation of heaven on earth!

My hotel room at the Acacia City Residence in Kampala was a fully furnished apartment with a kitchenette, big bathtub and even a sofa! And at 30USD per night it was very good value for money. The staff were wonderful and treated me with such kindness I really felt spoilt.

Getting to the venue of the chess tournament was not easy the first day as the location was changed unbeknownst to me and I went around in circles on a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) in this new town until I found it (getting lost is finding one’s way as the Swahili saying goes).

The venue was spacious and there were about 150 participants. What amazed me is that 95% of them were male! If you discounted the junior girls, then I was one of only 3 or so ladies of my age in the tournament! I would think that Uganda having developed their chess much further than Kenya and with role models like Phiona Mutesi and Christine Namaganda they would have more ladies playing in the open. I was surprised to find they had the same challenge that Kenya has of encouraging ladies to pursue chess into adulthood.

The guest of honor was Grandmaster Nigel Short, the English GM who was once challenger to World Champion Gary Kasparov and is now contending for the Presidency of FIDE- The World Chess Federation. This is what he had to say when I asked him why he didn’t visit Kenya on his tour of African countries this time:

“I was in Kenya back in 2015 and there are many more strong players in Uganda than in Kenya and as you can see they have quite a number of juniors playing in an open tournament. I won’t be visiting Kenya in this tour but I am willing to support talented players in the future.”

He went on to make a clean sweep of the top players in blitz and nobody claimed the 500,000 USH prize on offer for anyone beating the GM.

That’s another thing about Uganda that I found new to me, when I changed the currency from Kenya shillings to Uganda shillings I ended up carrying a bucket load of notes! 1 KSH Is equivalent to 37 USH so that bounty prize was a little more than 13,000 KSH so it was not as shocking as half a million!

The tournament was a rapid and blitz event and having had no experience with fast chess I expected to come out with 0 points but I surprised even myself by getting 3 out of 8 points in that strong field of top Ugandan players! I was ranked 101 and the only Kenyan. Apart from myself and James Panchol, a south Sudanese who plays in Kenya and was second in this tournament with 7 points all the other players were Ugandans.

I asked how come chess in Uganda seems to be more developed than in Kenya and the reason I was told is that in Uganda, chess was introduced in schools a long time ago and several schools have it as part of the core curriculum.

My last game was very interesting, I was paired against Simon Gonza who is rated 2057 and is one of the strong Ugandan players. He deliberately sacrificed his queen in the opening so that he can play a queen down and he still beat me! I think I was just scared. Give me a few more months and you won’t get a win that easily!

Another interesting experience I had is that in this tournament the players were not separated into different categories. All played in one pool. That means the juniors and ladies would play whoever they were paired against. Unlike in Kenya in the one tournament I have attended The Lighthouse Machakos Open we were set in a lady’s category and the open had no ladies participating.

My trip back was uneventful and I am grateful to Lighthouse Chess Club, my coach Brian Kidula and my fellow Lighthouse Queens for encouraging me and supporting me to learn chess. I thank the Uganda Chess Federation for hosting me and have fond memories of all the new friends I made in Kampala.

[Story and Images Provided By by Dr. Elizabeth Itotia]

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