Chess in Blue

by Diana Mihajlova
2/11/2019 – Chefchaouen, a small city in the North-West Morocco, has its houses, doors, pavements and streets partially washed in shades of blue. It is popularly known as the ‘blue city’, or the ‘blue pearl’ of Morocco. DIANA MIHAJLOVA brings you a photo diary of the annual chess activities in this colourful town, with the 18th edition of its chess tournament scheduled for July. All photos: D.M.

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Chefchaouen International Festival

Nestled in the foothills of the Rif mountains, about hundred kilometres from Tangier, it is considered the most enchanting city of Morocco. It captivates with its charm, cleanliness, nature and history. But, more than anything, with the simple beauty of its people always ready to extend their sincere 'welcome’ to visitors to their city.

The name ‘Chefchaouen’ is a toponym of Amazigh (Berber) origin and it means ‘look at the horns’, referring to the mountain peaks that surround the city. Locals call it by its abbreviated form, Chaouen or Chawen.


The blue pearl of Morocco: Chefchaouen, panorama

Tangier is the nearest large city, 111 Km by car to the north

Legends abound as to how Chefchaouen got to be ‘painted in blue’, but probably the most prevalent one is the following: when Arabs and Jews were persecuted in Spain, in the 14th to 16th centuries, Chefchaouen — welcoming then as it is today — opened its doors to the refugees. When the town elders asked the tired, unfortunate people what they have brought with them, they answered: only the bluishness of the vast sky and the endless sea. They gave the newcomers an area in the city, and, in order to ease their adaptation in the new settlement, they collectively painted the houses and streets in blue. This practice spread with time to the rest of the city and remained ever since. It is one of the rare dwellings on earth where, by law and common consent, the blue paint is cleaned and refreshed three times a year. This is usually timed before holidays like Ramadan.

Painting in blue

A Chefchaouen woman repainting the walls with a blue wash | Photo: David Cruickshank

Diana and resident

Welcoming and blue: Diana with Zeinab on a street/stairs, typical of the city’s Old Quarter

Today there is a part of the town called Andalusian quarter that was historically populated by the settlers that came from Spain. These included Arabs and Jews who always lived in harmony with the local Berbers. The connections with Spain in this part of Morocco are very strong. While in the biggest part of Morocco French influence is mainly present, here the historical traces are mainly Spanish. The Spanish architecture, music and language are indelibly interwoven with the Arab and Berber inheritance. The population is more comfortable with the Spanish language even though French is still spoken on a more intellectual level. Streets carry bilingual Arab/Spanish names.

This YouTube montage by Diana Mihajlova provides a taste of the ‘blue pearl’ of Morocco

For seventeen years Chefchaouen has been a host to one of the oldest and most popular chess tournaments in Morocco and on the African continent. Next year’s eighteenth edition of the Chefchaoen Chess Festival is set for July 15th to 21st.

Organized by the local chess club, the Association Alwan Fannia, under the capable hands of its director, IM Moubarek Rian and the chief arbiter IA Zoheir Slami the tournament is hugely popular and respected in Morocco; however, with few exceptions, and apart from the invited titled players, it has remained mainly a local affair. I very much hope this will change and more foreign players will make it their chess destination and be part of this thoroughly enjoyable chess and cultural experience. Here's a taste of what Chefchaouen has to offer from the seventeenth edition held last summer.

El-Ksiba too

While we are reporting/previewing on the Chefchaouen Chess Festival, there are actually two chess events in Morocco to look forward to. The El-Ksiba Open, the second edition, will be taking place from April 8th to 13th, 2019. Set in the rural Morocco, in the heart of the Amazigh land, it is bound to provide both a geographic and chess memorable experience. The Moroccan star GM Hicham Hamdouchi has confirmed his participation along with fourteen international titled players so far.

El Ksiba

Back to Chefchaouen...

Moubarak Rian and Abdelhav Zitane

Organizers IM Moubarak Rian and Abdelhay Zitane in front of the playing venue, the Sport, Art and Culture complex Mohamed VI


The welcome opening party with Moroccan tea and sweets

Playing hall

The spacious and well appointed playing hall

Zoheir Slami

The chief arbiter, IA Zoheir Slami

Mayor first move

The Chefchaouen Mayor, Mohamed Sefiani, performs the ceremonial first move for the highest seed, GM Sergey Tiviakov (NED)


Players gather on the front door stairs before the start of a round

Invited players

Among the fifteen invited international titled players, there were:
(top L-R) IM Oussedik Mahfoud (ALG), IM Nassr Ali (ALG), IM Fawzy Adham (EGY)
(bottom L-R) IM Buscara Sevan (FRA), IM Gomez Ledo Roberto Carlos (CUB), GM Lariño Nieto David (ESP)

Moroccan players included:

El Fezari, Nidal, Rami

(L-R) CM El Fezari Mohamed Amin, Ghanoui Nidal, Mohamed Rami

Khoulti, Benaddi, Zrikem

(L-R) Yasser Haj Khoulti, CM Benaddi Mouhssine, Nassim Zrikem

Driss, Abahchouch, Anwar, Saad

(L-R) Ali Drais, Younes Abahchouch, Tarik Anwar, Rian Saad

Hachim, Chouli, Makhlouf

(L-R) Hadi Hachim, Safia Chouli, WFM Ahlam Makhlouf, African vice-champion U12 (2016) was the best woman player at the Festival

Chaimaa, Yassine, Aya

Chess siblings: (L-R) WFM Chaimaa, Yassine and Aya Alaoui Belghiti

Kenza Chouki

Mother and daughter: Moroccan WCM Kenza Chouki is an U-10 African vice-champion 

Ourouadi Tarik

Ourouadi Tarik, the organizer and sponsor of the 1st El-Ksiba Open found time in his busy schedule and travelled from Rabat to participate as a player

Jad Azzouz

FM Jad Azzouz, a local boy, contributed to the success of the Chefchaouen Chess Festival as its former organizer  

Mina, Imane, Salma

The three smiling, helpful assistants: Mina, Imane and Salma

Moroccan smile

Moroccan smile is contagious: (L-R)Yassine Alaoui Belghiti and Yasser Haj Khoulti

Egyptian grandmaster Abdelrahman Hesham, a former African Chess Champion (2016) is a member of the steadily emerging Egyptian team that won gold in the B-group at the recent Olympiad, annotated his eighth round game against Spanish IM Suarez Uriel Adrian.


Apart from Abdelrahman, another member of the team, IM Adham Fauzy also participated in Chefchaouen.

GM Hesham Abdelrahman gave a marathon open-air simultaneous exhibition with 70 participants on the Old Town’s square, Outa Hammam.

Hesham simul

GM Hesham Abdelrahman at the simul on the main square

Simul view

A view on the Outa Hammam and the simultaneous exhibition from the roof terrace of the popular restaurant ‘Aladin’

Simul montage

The simultaneous attracted many local and foreign visitors that mingled curiously among players

Simul sponsor

Younes Lamarti, the CEO of Bolloré Logisticsthe sponsor of the simultaneous exhibition

GM Hesham Abdelrahman was the winner of the blitz tournament that was part of the Festival. 

Blitz tournament

An evening blitz tournament on the grounds of the Mohamed VI complex

The prize-giving ceremony took place inside the enclosed grounds of the medieval castle called ‘Casbah’ in the centre of the Medina by a pool-fountain and lush vegetation. The castle was built in the middle ages as defence against Spanish and Portuguese invasions.


A tower of the Casbah at twilight with a glimpse at the central Mosque’s minaret

Ceramic trophies

The table is laid with simply designed, handcrafted ceramic trophies painted with chess images in the city’s colour, blue

Moubarak Rian

The organizer IM Moubarak Rian is addressing the present at the prize giving ceremony


GM Sergey Tiviakov (NED) emerged as a winner (8½/9)

Strikovic and Gomez

Second and third places: GM Aleksa Strikovic (SRB) (second from left) and IM Gomez Ledo Roberto Carlos (CUB) (on the far right), both made 7½/9

Yasser Saber

An awesome looking chess player: Yasser Saber, a member of the Moroccan Olympic team

Among the guests at the closing ceremony, there was the local poet, Abdelkrim Tabbal, one of the greatest representatives of the Moroccan and Arab literature. Born in Chaouen, 1931,  Tabbal is known for his ascetic, Sufi lifestyle. In 1965 he founded the first, oldest annual poetry festival held in Chefchaouen.


The poet Abdelkrim Tabbal (a poem adaptation from French by Diana Mihajlova)

Moroccan Hospitality

Moroccan cuisine is ranked among the top national cuisines in the world.  The meals time was a particularly joyful affaire where guests, invited players and festival staff could meet up, rest and sample delicious, typical Moroccan dishes. The ‘restaurant’ was actually a private residence, that Abdennour Ben Hmamou, a chess player and a former President of the Chess Club, today a restaurateur, made it available together with cooks and staff from his actual public restaurant around the corner. The house ‘Caïd Mfadal’ has a noteworthy historic past: it was built in 1954 by Abdennour’s father, Caïd Mfadal Zerouali Ben Hmamou (1908-2004), who was a member of the Moroccan Army ‘MHALA’, fought in the Spanish Civil War and was the first Mayor of Chefchaouen. The house was occupied by the Moroccan Liberation Army, 1954-1956. 

Abdennour Ben Hmamou

The generous host, Abdennour Ben Hmamou with his father’s portrait on the wall


Waiting for lunch to be served: (L-R) The festival’s director, IM Moubarak Rian, his brother, IM Kacem Rian, Khalid Becham‎‎, GM Sergey Tiviakov (NED), GM Vladimir Bourmakin (RUS) and Tarik Ourouadi

Tiviakov and Bourmakin

Sergey and Vladimir dig happily in a Moroccan culinary specialty

Gomez Veiga

Cuban IM Gomez Ledo Roberto Carlos and Portuguese FM Veiga Jose Francisco R P Neves — the delicious meal could deter them from giving just one more check to their games

Moroccan food

Succulent Moroccan dishes: (top row, L-R) Tagine Barkouk, mouton with almonds and dried fruits; Tagine Chtoun, tomato based sauce with anchovies; Tagine Chouia (veal with pineapple, walnuts and dried apricots; (bottom row, L-R) the well known Maghreb specialty, couscous; Bastila, high end delicacy made with almonds, honey, chicken or fish wrapped in caramelized fine pastry; Bissara, thick soup made with dried edamame beans or chickpeas which is traditionally eaten by dipping in it pieces of bread by hand  

Ras El Ma

A walking distance from the city centre is found the natural source Ras el Ma. Its waters flow over the valley of luxurious gardens and orchards. It provides the inhabitants with pure, natural drinking water and irrigates the vegetation. 

Ras el Ma source

The source Ras el Ma


The grounds around the source provide a joyful outing for families and tourists that in hot days can be seen paddling in the refreshing brooks and lakes created by the source.

The self-sustainable eco-economy is of utmost importance in the agenda of the city’s development. A non-governmental organization, ATED (Association Tallassemtane for the Environment and Development) makes a valuable contribution to this end by founding and organizing various agricultural activities and maintaining and encouraging the protection of nature, parks and forests that the Chefchaouen surroundings abound with.


The ATED team with its President, Tazi Labzour Abdelilah  

ATED had also lent their chauffeur to meet invited guests at the airport and train station in Tangier. I had a pleasure of meeting an extraordinary person, Hachim Touhami Alami, the driver who on the road from Tangier to Chefchaouen enlightened me on many aspects of the region’s culture and history.

Hachim Touhami Alami

A lunch break at the coastal fishing village Ksarszer on the way to Chefchaouen: Diana Mihajlova and Hachim Touhami Alami

A chance meeting with wonderful new friends in Chefchaouen, David and Lise Cruickshank, brought up a pleasant surprise. Adventurers and travellers, David, a Scotsman and Lise, a Danish woman, have chosen Chefchaouen as their residence for a part of the year. Zoubs, their Moroccan friend whom they have almost adopted as a son, met me initially, at a midnight concert on the square, and he was adamant to introduce us. The friendly chat over coffee produced a plethora of information about Chefchaouen and Morocco with a number of titles of ‘must read’ books (that I am already well into them) about the rich cultural and historical past and present of the region that David and Lise have been exploring for years.

Outa Hammam

Diana, Lise, David and Zoubs at a coffee shop on Outa Hammam

Among many other of David’s talents and crafts, he has been creating in the past chess sets and boards, by order, as the one he sent me a picture of. The photo is of the pre-digital era, but wonderfully stylized pieces can be discerned.  Designed and made by David, in Delroy and perspex, 60 X 60 cm, it was made for a client in Australia, 12 years ago.

David Cruickshank chess set

Chess set and board by David Cruickshank

Tournament posterAn ongoing feud between the Moroccan Chess Federation’s president and any progressive chess activities in the country marred this beautiful tournament by preventing it from being registered. A timely demand for registration by the organizer has been boycotted by the chess federation's president who has not forwarded it to the FIDE and later claimed it had not been received on time. The organizers have sent proof and numerous letters to the FIDE management demanding the problem to be rectified but they have not provided a satisfactory result. Their hopes are now with the new FIDE management. Now that FIDE's transition has stabilized, the hope is that they might look into the problem more sympathetically and resolve it positively in due course.

Come what may, the organizers have already started the preparations for the next year’s, eighteenth edition and have set up the dates: July 15th to 21st 2019. The tournament enjoys such a following in the country that whatever its fate, players flock to play in Chefchaouen. However, we would hope that FIDE’s responsible entities will leave aside political agendas and adopt a motto ‘players first’. Granting the players their due official rating is the least they could do.

Tiviakov and Diana

 A goodbye with GM Sergey Tiviakov at the Tangier airport, after a wonderful chess sojourn in Chefchaouen


A former university lecturer in Romance philology, she is currently a painter as well as a chess journalist, and reports regularly from the international tournament scene.


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