GM David Smerdon explores the chess scene in Kenya

by David Smerdon
8/21/2018 – Australian Grandmaster DAVID SMERDON is semi-retired from chess after getting married, returning to his hometown of Brisbane to take up a professorship in the School of Economics at the University of Queensland. He still blogs occasionally and recently published a fascinating two-part story about a trip to Kenya, which we bring you with kind permission of the author. | Pictured: Chess players from Alliance Girls’ High School, Nairobi, who sometimes play against their brother school, and they enjoy playing — and beating — the boys. | Photos: DavidSmerdon.com

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This story originally appeared at DavidSmerdon.com and is republished with permission

Kenya, Part 2

While planning my trip to Kenya to research female genital mutilation, I realised I would have two or three days spare. My days of trying to hit the tourist top-tens are long behind me; in recent years, I’ve found it much more rewarding to seek out the chess community. Not only does it combine travel with my favourite hobby, but it’s a fantastic way to meet locals and experience their culture. Us chess players make up our own weird family of sorts, and I’ve usually found chess communities in dozens of countries to be invariably warm, friendly and hospitable.

And when it came to Kenya, I had an extra reason to combine work and play. I recently heard about MiniChess, a large grass-roots organisation that teaches chess in several African countries to roughly 50,000 children, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. I read up on the program and the reported benefits, which, while anecdotally inspiring, still needs a rigorous evaluation. My interest was instantly sparked and I reached out to the Kenyan coordinator, Githinji Hinga, to learn more. A flurry of Facebook messages resulted ("Chess is my life", he told me) and before I knew it, my spare time had been filled for me — to capacity.

Playing blitz with Githinji at one of the local Nairobi clubs

Githinji is one of those rare types with inexhaustible energy, unrestrained passion,  and no word for “no” in his lexicon. That makes him the perfect person to run a ground-level chess program, which reaches all demographics of the Kenyan chess community: Schools, adult clubs, rural communities and even the slums. My main goal in meeting Githinji was to gather information about the MiniChess program to see whether there might be potential in the future to evaluate its impact. But I soon found myself swept up in his infectious web. I didn’t realise how rare a Grandmaster visit to Kenya was — most chess players there have never met one – and Githinji jumped at the opportunity to maximise every minute. My two and a half ‘free days’ turned into a simul, two club visits, a schools tournament, a television interview on Kenyan national news, a meeting with the Australian High Commissioner to East Africa, hundreds of autographs and even more photos, as well as, somehow, a small safari.

I didn’t mind; quite the opposite. It was a real eye-opener to meet the different chess communities in Kenya. Just like with, well, everything else I experienced in Kenya, chess there is full of contrasts. On the one hand, Kenyan chess is massively underdeveloped compared to the rest of the world. Titles are virtually non-existent; their top player, Peter Gilruth, is a former American national ranked around 33,000 in the world. There is no financial support from the federal government, the top coaches are around Elo-1800 strength, and only the will of volunteers keep tournaments going. Kenya is ranked 120th in the world by FIDE.

Playing Peter Gilruth, who, in his 60’s, is Kenya’s strongest player and still a force to be reckoned with. I managed to swindle a win in our game, but not without some shaky moments. In the background, his son looks on with a drink.

On the other hand, the popularity of chess at the ground level is hugely popular, much more so than in Australia. It’s quite typical for a three-minute chess segment to feature on the national news channel during the sports report every couple of weeks. I even featured in two of them during my brief trip, where I talked about my impressions of Kenyan chess and my thoughts for its future: 

The schools tournaments are remarkably well attended. Even on their weekends, teachers from all over the country bring their students together to MiniChess events. I visited one where many of the students had travelled hours each way to participate, and literally had to be dragged off to the bus at the end of the event because they were still playing social games with the other children. The teachers wouldn’t have minded staying, but driving after dark along the potholed, unlit roads of rural Kenya is, quite literally, putting your life at risk (as I discovered first-hand in West Pokot).

But the most striking impression from the schools tournament was the number of girls playing chess. After returning from West Pokot where women and girls are powerless in many respects, it felt surreal to attend a tournament of 200 school children where two-thirds were girls. 

Moreover, these kids were really good! It was clear that none of them had received any classical chess training, but their enthusiasm and tactical sharpness was clearly on display. This was a theme I noticed in all Kenyan chess players, kids and adults alike: They love to attack and to sacrifice, almost with reckless abandon – and even if it doesn’t work, they’re already setting up for the next game before you can even shake their hands! The school children at the tournament certainly couldn’t get enough chess; between the rounds, the grass outside the hall was covered with chess boards and sets and tiny hands moving plastic pieces.

Kids enjoying their ‘break’ between rounds.

I would have snapped more photos of them, but unfortunately, once word got out that a Grandmaster was in town, I was mobbed. Literally, mobbed. (I realise that’s the second time I’ve used “literally” in this post. It’s an exception.) I had kids jostling and jumping over each other to get to me, autograph sheets and pens flung in my vision from all directions, and hundreds and hundreds of photos. The kids were amazing. They had lots of questions about what it takes to become a Grandmaster, how they can improve their chess, what sort of training I did at their ages, what life’s like in Australia, what it was like to play Carlsen, and, of course, whether I’d play with them.

Selfie at the closing ceremony of the MiniChess schools tournament

I played dozens of games with queen odds and the queue of willing participants seemed endless. They just loved chess. And the parents, too, didn’t waste the opportunity to quiz me about how they could help support their children with their chess. With many of the families unable to afford a computer let alone chess books or lessons, I had a lot of sympathy for the parents. But, fortunately, the network of chess volunteers — organisers, arbiters, teachers and parents — is so strong in Kenya that I’m confident there’s a future for chess in the country. Afterwards, Githinji raved about how I’d inspired the kids, but the truth is, I left feeling it was more the other way around.


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This wasn’t the only two-way transaction of my visit. Githinji and his friend Joseph, both Kenyan Olympiad players of the past, were extremely generous with their time and hospitality. I visited both of their homes for traditional Kenyan dinners, and they even drove me around the national park in Nairobi for a light safari. Seeing the African animals up close was breathtaking, despite me teasing Githinji that we were missing my favourite, the rhinoceros.

On my last full day, we visited the Nairobi Gymkhana, one of the oldest members’ clubs boasting a wide array of sports. I did a simultaneous chess display for local kids, gave a small talk and answered questions. Afterwards, to my great surprise and Githinji’s cheeky laughter, the club’s representatives gave me a magnificent engraved, brass rhino statue to commemorate my visit. It was an incredible gesture that somehow typified the generous hospitality I received from the Kenyans.

With the participants of my simul at the Gymkhana club in Nairobi

On the final morning, Githinji offered to drive me to the airport, but only after one final appointment. We had been invited to the Australian High Commission in Nairobi. It turns out that one of its local employees, Brian, is a chess player and organises Friday afternoon games in the office. It was an honour and quite a surprise to meet the High Commissioner, Alison Chartres, whose impressive mandate also covers  Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania and Uganda, as well as the United Nation’s Environment and Human Settlement programmes. Unfortunately, though perhaps not surprisingly with that workload, Ms Chartres doesn’t play chess. But in a nice coincidence, she’s very interested in women’s issues in East Africa, including FGM, and we had a very interesting chat about the challenges and possible solutions regarding FGM in the region.

And, of course, I had to play a couple of games against Brian. He had me on the ropes, but I managed to pull through, meaning that I miraculously managed to win all of my chess adventures in Kenya. Maybe now they’ll invite me back. I certainly hope so, seeing as I’ve made dozens of promises to return, which I intend to keep. To say that I was sad to leave severely understates my Kenyan experience.

I did get a bit worried that I’d miss my flight, and it wasn’t just from Brian’s resilience over the board or from the famous Nairobi traffic. The High Commission’s heavy security gave me a surprisingly hard time through the checkpoint. They kept talking quickly to each other in Swahili, interposed with baffling cackles of laughter. It was only when the guards called me over to their x-ray monitor that I realised what was causing the consternation. On the screen was a large, transparent outline of my suitcase, except for a glaringly black shape in the middle: a perfectly sharp image of a rhinoceros.

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David is an Australian chess grandmaster and economist. He is the second highest ranked chess player of Australia. Smerdon has played for the Australian team in the Chess Olympiad since 2004.
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yesenadam yesenadam 8/23/2018 03:08
Great story! I enjoyed Part 1 even more, thanks fons3. Well, 'enjoyed', it was disturbing. I've had friends in Kenya for years, but that made me realize how very little I know of the country.
Rod Plant Rod Plant 8/21/2018 03:28
Excellent work Professor Smurf!

Wow, following the Gold Coast report yesterday, that's TWO Australian related stories in two days - more than we normally see on ChessBase in two years. Keep it up Eds!
fons3 fons3 8/21/2018 11:21
Nice feel good story. But you should also read the first part.
goeland goeland 8/21/2018 08:08
Nice to see a chess pro doing a great job for communities.
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