Genesis Potini – Kia ora tautini tonu te kingi!

7/27/2015 – That's Maori for "Long live da king!" The Dark Horse is a heart-warming drama about the struggles and failures, the triumphs and successes of the life of New Zealander Gen “da man” Potini. But doing a film review of the movie wasn’t enough for Desmond Rooplal: he researched the man himself and the people around him. His follow-up article contains unique images and narrative.

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Genesis Potini (5 September 1963 – 15 August 2011)

By Desmond Rooplal

The Dark Horse (inspired by a true story) is a heart-warming, emotionally intense roller coaster drama
about the struggles and failures, the triumphs and successes of the life of New Zealander Genesis Potini.
Part one: The Dark Horse: A Tribute to the unsuspecting hero

Genesis Potini had a remarkable impact through chess on those around him, and this legacy was so great that it merited making a movie to tell his story. With this in mind, I decided to research more about Potini, as a result I got in touch with Noble Keelan, via the Gisborne Eastern Knights President Colin Albert. Keelan it turns out, was Potini’s right hand man.

Gen “da man” Potini (as he is lovingly referred to by his colleagues from Eastern Knights Chess Club) in real life was not academically inclined. However he was highly intelligent and knowledgeable on a wide variety of subjects, along with being trilingual (Maori, English and Chinese).

Genesis Potini during a coaching session

Keelan, co-founder of Eastern Knights, on how he met Genesis: “I remember Gen from my childhood. We grew up in the same neighbourhood but didn't really know each other. He was someone to fear. He was known then as Tonto. I met Gen, properly when I was 16. After meeting him, he politely excused himself and walked over and beat someone up. I headed off in the other direction deciding I never wanted to know this person.“

Some 15 years later. Guided by a mutual friend to Keelan, Genesis found a chess sparring partner. Keelan: “He had stayed locked away from society for a year from what he told me. The state he came to me in: was a very down and depressed man, but wanting a game of chess. From there he wouldn't go away (lol). We would play chess from 5 a.m. to about 1 a.m. (yes from 5 a.m. right through the entire day) the next morning. Sometimes even later, sometimes all night. He loved chess with a passion.” Talking to Keelan, I had to ask if this was an exaggeration in the movie, when Genesis shows up at 4:30 in the morning, to which Keelan replied after a short moment of silence: “all the bloody time Des!” and laughed.

Genesis Potini "Gen da Man" talks about the transferable skills learnt from chess

Promo of the 2003 documentary Dark Horse

Keelan on how it started:

“At first it was for selfish reasons and he admitted this on many occasions. He believed the only way for him to get better at chess was to teach people to play, become as good as him so that his game could get better. You could only get stronger if you had strong opponents.
When we started teaching kids, at first our target was Maori kids only, to show that Maori are brilliant too. He started to see the passion in the kids for the game. Gen saw the achievements and success in their education. Now he became passionate to teach not only Maori, but any child who was willing to and wanted to learn about and how to play chess. He marvelled over it.

He then saw that the kids with ADHD, dyslexia or problem children would just settle in and play this game, because it is just a game to kids. They started to benefit from it. He decided to target those kids as well. Teachers and principals to this day don't understand or believe that we want to have these kids in our classes. And after seeing it with their own eyes, they still find it hard to believe.“

The collateral effect of chess helping children improve their academic performance isn’t depicted in The Dark Horse, but this was in reality one of the major effects that Genesis and Jedi had with children that performed poorly in school. In this way The Dark Horse does not exaggerate that Potini had a life-changing impact on children he reached out to, and as such is not merely a text book example of a coach/hero leading a bunch of misfits to a championship.

Genesis Potini was the real deal (Keelan: “We didn't call him ‘Gen Da Man’ for nothing.”) Potini did train Michael Manihera (who in the movie burnt down the school) and three other children, and Manihera (who was already a good club player) did win the Youth Championship with only several weeks of training. I asked Keelan whether this was an exaggeration and whether Michael burnt the school down, Keelan replied:

“I can't remember how long their training was, but it wasn't long... a matter of weeks. And that would have been after school and weekends. And you have to remember with Gen being bipolar, he didn’t do things by halves! He near on expected perfection, and a lot of what he did was spare of the moment stuff. In real life you would look at him and see that he was the only one that didn't know it was unrealistic. You know it Des: Mike really did!” (burn down the school, accidently while playing a prank when he was eight).

As his character is portrayed in The Dark Horse, Potini did use Maori mythology to teach chess, along with many other analogies from life.

Genesis was sensitive to the mood of the children, and took them outside for
a march in the fresh air when he noticed their concentration lapsing

Keelan on Cliff Curtis taking the role of Potini:

“What Cliff had to work with, where Gen was concerned, was near on absolutely nothing. So we all salute him for what he did. Cliff told us that there was no way he could do Gen justice. He believed Gen was bigger than life. But said he would play a version of Gen he thought he knew. What Cliff did was amazing, but it was a quiet Genesis. His transformation into Gen was mind blowing. To the extent it was invasive for me. It was more than the transformation. It's like Gen was there guiding Cliff. Things Cliff did, Gen did. There was no way on earth Cliff should of known those things. Personal things that no one knew about, except us. It made the hair on the back of your neck stand. That’s what Cliff gave to us. A second chance to be with Gen. A chance to hug Gen again. A chance to say goodbye. For me, I appreciate that more than what the film gave. Cliff gave more to us than a version of Gen in a film. The film is brilliant, but Cliff is da man! Mauri Ora Cliff!”

Actor Kirk Torrance and Eastern Knights co-founder Noble Keelan

Noble Keelan watches as Cliff Curtis and Kirk Torrance get ready
to play one minute chess, on The Dark Horse set

Akuhata Keelan vs Te Rina Keelan, putting movie set’s props
through a rigorous durability test

Gisborne Eastern Knights

The Eastern Knights was founded in 2000 by Potini and Keelan. When the Gisborne Chess Club (which was over 100 years old) folded in 2008, their equipment was donated to Eastern Knights, which saw an amalgamation of the two clubs. The result was Gisborne Chess Club survived it's over 100 year heritage through Eastern Knights, in the form of Gisborne Eastern Knights.

Gisborne Eastern Knights today

The club meets every Tuesday night from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. ...

... based at "The Church of Christ of the Latter Day Saints", Cochrane Street in Elgin.
The club’s motto: "Whai-Kingi, ahakoa ki hea, mo i a tangata" (Chess anywhere, for anyone).

Gisborne Eastern Knights Captain of Play and reigning club champion,
none other than Gen’s right hand man: Noble Keelan

Gisborne Eastern Knights team at the Upper Hutt Chess Open, with the club’s president Colin Albert seated fourth from the left. The team strategist (aka Mandy): “Ok team talk guys, c5 is the critical square!”

Gisborne Eastern Knights does not charge any membership fees to its members and is open to anyone interested in playing or learning how to play chess. Four of the club’s members put time into coaching the children and teaching basic chess to new members.

When Gisborne Eastern Knights runs a school tournament, they have an amazingly unique entry fee: they don't charge monetary entry fees for the tournaments, the children enter the tournament by “paying” canned food as the entry fee! The tournament organizers then take the collection of canned food to the "Food Bank", which in turn redistributes the food to those who cannot afford it, for free. Keelan said they do this to teach the kids that just as the tournament organizers give their time to chess, they want the children to learn to give back to the community.

"Long live da Eastern Knights!" "Long live da king!"
"Kia ora tautini tonu ko nga Rangatira o te Rawhiti!" "Kia ora tautini tonu te kingi!"

The Dark Horse gets 8.1/10 from 1700 users in IMDB. It will be released by Amazon on DVD
on August 10 in the UK, but no word yet for the US or other countries.

About the author

Desmond Rooplal from Durban, South Africa has been playing tournament chess for almost 20 years and is still only an average club player – OTB peak CC rating 2034 (shortly after reading My System - Quality Chess edition). He has been truly inspired by Robert James Fischer, Emanuel Lasker, Aron Nimzowitsch (and most recently Judit Polgar). Desmond has been President of the Durban Chess Club from 2011 to the present. He is also the webmaster of Glenwood Chess Club, a member of Mensa SA and professionally an IT Administrator.

Desmond in his native habitat in South Africa


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