Moroccan Chess: Tales from exile

by Diana Mihajlova
12/17/2017 – In 2005, a Moroccan online chess magazine was created: ‘Maroc–Echecs’. It grew into a very popular chess news site in French and Arabic, and a platform where everybody could express their opinion about matters related to chess with a Moroccan focus. But its very existence imperilled the livelihood of Moroccan players who criticised their federation's management. Part one looked at some of the allegations of corruption and mismanagement. In part two we focus on the testimony of some of those, in the Moroccan chess community, who suffered the consequences. | Pictured (L to R): Mohamed Tissir, Ismael Karim, Ali Sebbar, Abdelaziz Onkoud | Photo: maroc-echecs.com

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Maroc-Echecs' founders were the designer and webmaster Tarik Rrhioua, and international masters Abdelaziz Onkoud, Ismael Karim and Mohammed Tissir. IM/IA Abdelhafid Elamri currently serves as editor-in-chief. Since its inception, the site has created a special section in which the Fédération Royale Marocaine des Échecs (hereafter, FRME) and its president, Mustapha Amazzal, were openly criticized. (For an overview, see part one.)

Among other outcasts, Onkoud, Karim, Tissir and Elamri were swiftly dealt with by Amazzal with suspension orders of various lengths and for various, unfounded reasons. These are their stories.


The suspended ones

IM Ismael Karim today runs a successful Chess Academy in Oman. Being a realist, he points out that the players scattered across the Persion Gulf region in favorable chess positions are not necessarily a result of the chess hardship they have been subjected to in their  own country. The reasons are also economic; even in the best chess conditions, they might have still opted to relocate for steady pay in their profession. He does object, however, to the close ties the chess federation’s president has with the Ministry of Youth and Sports:

Ismael Karim"I believe that FIDE should make a rule that a president of a chess federation must not come from the ranks of an official government institution like the Ministry for Sports because that carries a conflict of interest.

It is also very important that chess players should be more involved in the election process of their leaders. With the arrival of Internet, players are not involved in their Chess Club life like before; they just come on weekends to play in different leagues. We live in a new era and we need to rethink the modus operandi of our institutions and structures. It is obvious that Amazzal and his FMRE team that have been in power over the past seventeen years must step down and give an opportunity to a new, fresh chess federation with a progressive and transparent leadership."

(Above) Ismael Karim | Photo: via Facebook

In the neighboring Gulf country, Bahrain, another Moroccan IM, Mohamed Tissir, is running the Bahrain Academy of Chess. The two compatriots, away from their homeland, sharing the same destiny as victims to Amazzal’s wrath, cooperate in whatever way they can to promote chess within the region, concentrating on training younger generations. Once a promising Moroccan international master, three-time national champion, Tissir deplores the chess climate in Morocco.

The main reason for his suspension was his part as a founding member of Maroc-Echecs, but, he says he was also the target of ill-judged acts by some of the very protagonists who today, ironically, are fierce opponents of Amazzal.

In 2005, Tisser's Elo was 2480 with one GM norm under his belt, and so probably no one’s progress has been as badly stunted by Amazzal as his. Sad, disillusioned and angered, Tissir has become resigned to his and his colleagues’ indefinitely damaged chess career. Today his motto is: "I can talk about chess and chess development but politics does not interest me."

IM Abdelaziz Onkoud, IM Ali Sebbar, IM Mohamed Tissir, IM Rachid Hifad

Defending the national pride at the Arab Chess Club Championship in Marrakech, 2014 (From left, in green uniforms) IM Abdelaziz Onkoud, IM Ali Sebbar, IM Mohamed Tissir, IM Rachid Hifad | Photo: Mohamed Tissir on Facebook

The rage felt by IM Abdelaziz Onkoud against Amazzal and FRME has not abated all these years. He lives in France but closely follows events in chess life in Morocco, contributing now and then to his brainchild, Maroc–Echecs. He uses some strong metaphors to describe the chess reality in Morocco under Amazzal’s reign:

"I will summarize the situation of Moroccan Chess in two words: The Plague and the Cholera!!

Initially, there was only one gang, Amazzal & Co. Since 2001, this gang has been shaping the fate of the Moroccan Chess, making decisions as it suited them. Their course of action has been cheating, falsification, injustice, treason and so on. Then, they split in two. His former lieutenants, assisted by the hordes of suspended and discontented, now try to bring the fatal blow to Amazzal to eliminate him definitively. Everything that was beautiful in the Moroccan Chess has been destroyed.

Suddenly a whole generation got rotten. The wound is very deep. Moroccan Chess has lost all its substance. Mustapha Amazzal is the most hated Moroccan chess figure because during his reign he was allowed to do anything, and to tarnish everything with repeated scandals. Many hate him to death and no longer distinguish between the good and the bad. A blind and devastating hatred because, to bring down this disaster that is Amazzal, sometimes, some are ready to associate with the Plague in order to chase the Cholera.

Moroccan Chess deserves a new start; that is why I will not stop asking for the resignation of the entire office of the FRME in order to give way to a new generation for a new start. We deserve it."

Abdelaziz Onkoud onkoud.com

IM Abdelaziz Onkoud | Photo: onkoud.com

"Finally, I would like to mention two people who gave so much to the site Maroc-Echecs and who left us suddenly: Tarik Rrhioua (FM) (25/08/1981 - 23/11/2008), webmaster and Boujemâ Kariouch (02/11/1956 - 03/09/2011), one of the four historic editors-in-chief of Maroc-Echecs.’ Maroc-Echecs continues and our current Editor-in-Chief is Abdelhafid Elamri who is still serving his 25-year suspension (2005-2030!)."

Yes, you read well: 25-year suspension order! It is still in force, until 2030, but the current Maroc-Echecs editor-in-chief, IA Abdelhafid Elamri, accepts it stoically, going on with his business as respected international arbiter at events independent of the FRME, writing chess books and articles, organizing tournaments, training young hopes, presiding over chess clubs and associations — in short, dedicating his life to chess with his three daughters, Nawal, Sanae et Laila who are all at the top of Moroccan women’s chess, each of them having earned champion titles.

Elamri vents his displeasure at FIDE:

"I do not understand how FIDE could have accepted the return of Amazzal at the head of the Moroccan chess federation after being charged in the case of the arbiter titles falsifications?! If his federation has reinstated him, for reasons very well known in the third world countries, FIDE should have refused to allow a falsifier to sit next to other presidents of federations. That is how FIDE should serve chess."

IA Abdelhafid Elamri and his daughters

IA Abdelhafid Elamri and his middle and youngest daughters, Sanae and Laila | Photo: Maroc-echecs / A. Elamri

A special pawn in Amazzal’s court has been IM Ali Sebbar. Sebbar rose to a kind of a cult figure in the fight against Amazzal and FRME. In Maroc-Echecs, a whole section is dedicated exclusively to him. It contains numerous letters, statements, legal documents, articles, opinions and various write-ups that chronicle many years of animosity in the fight between Amazzal and Sebbar.

Sebbar was a talented and feted young hope in Moroccan chess. Among his accolades: Junior national championship, national blitz champion, winner of several national and international tournaments, a member of both youth and adult national teams having represented his country at the 2004 Chess Olympiad, played first board in the first division at the national team competitions, a trainer of the junior and women national teams. 

However, he unwittingly made a cardinal mistake in 2004, when he expressed a desire to move out of Amazzal’s club and register for another club of his choice. Oops! Such audacious behavior was not allowed in Amazzal’s chess kingdom! Sebbar had no obligations towards Amazzal’s club — he was not paid, nor did he have a contract. He was simply ‘borrowed’. Nevertheless, it was a move that Amazzal punished severely. He launched a personal vendetta against the young player — Sebbar was 23 years old at the time.

Sebbar with Anand

IM Ali Sebbar with Viswanathan Anand at the 5th International Marathon of Rapid Chess in Rabat, Morocco, 2014 | Photo: Ali Sebbar on Facebook

Amazzal managed to work out a pretence for disciplinary action against Sebbar applying unbelievable, manipulative tactics and accusations. By the following year, 2005, Sebbar was banned from playing at any chess event in the FRME domain, for two years. Sebbar wrote to the relevant authorities including the Ministry for Youth and Sports defending his position and appealing for due process under the law. Some club presidents and other chess personalities tried to intervene demanding a revocation of the suspension, but to no avail. Indeed, after Sebbar’s appeal against such an unjust suspension, the sanction was extended to four and a half years, with his return after that time conditional upon the submission of written excuses! Otherwise, the sanction would continue indefinitely.    

According to several of the people I spoke to, Amazzal would boast openly: "If Sebbar will not play for me, then he will not play for anyone." 

In one of many writings and explanations that Sebbar sent to the press, he issued the following statement:

"Little by little, the president is destroying the good chess players of Morocco, and by doing so, he  is destroying chess itself; however, the real disaster is that everyone is watching but no one has the courage to speak up. We must realize that the first victim of all of this is the national flag, which is of no importance to this president who seeks to satisfy only his own, personal needs."

Comments and letters expressing dismay and support for Sebbar poured in the chess press. In a heartfelt letter, his friend, Ismael Karim, wrote the following:

"Salam Ali, I have just read this article and I am with you with all my heart. You must hold on. It won’t be for very long because this so called ’president’ who will be marked in the history of the federation by his lack of competence and his great ability for falsifications will soon crumble together with his castle of cards that is standing on a match! I watched the weather forecast and a big storm is announced! Too bad for him and his little puppets. Too bad also that he doesn’t know how to play chess, because if he did, he would have known that it is necessary to attack his opponent where he is the weakest, but he has hit one of the kingdom’s most respected and strongest players. We are all with you, Ali. If you need anything, I'm here."

Only few months later, Karim would suffer the same fate: suspended with the other founders of Maroc-Echecs. His forecast was correct; however, it had the opposite effect from his expectations. A storm did sweep through the Moroccan chess but Amazzal’s castle of cards remained standing to this day while players, clubs and genuine chess workers were seriously damaged or completely perished. 

Sebbar has continued to assert his independence, but observes that his actions have been misinterpreted.

"What really hurts me is not 'Amazzal', but my friends who betrayed me, the Moroccan chess players  who failed to understand why I have been militating all these years."

(Sebbar's full written account of the events surrounding his suspension, may be read here, translated into English (PDF).

Amazzal and Sebbar

(Right) Sebbar, Moroccan Champion 2013, flanked by Amazzal | Photo: marrakech-echecs.com

Amazzal seemed deeply annoyed by Sebbar’s firm resistance towards him. Anyone associated with Sebbar — particularly clubs that welcomed him — would be put on Amazzal’s blacklist and, sooner or later, would suffer extinction. 

However, independently of Sebbar, clubs with potential to overshadow his own club, ’Raja’, were thorns in his side. As Onkoud would say, "One of Mustapha Amazzal’s deadly sins was his readiness to apply any treacherous means in order to weaken the best Moroccan clubs so that his club may reign supreme at club championships".

The chess club to which Sebbar desired to transfer was Tihad Sportif Club (TSF), whose president was IA Youssef Boukdeir. Boukdeir’s involvement with Amazzal is twofold. Initially, he was implicated in the arbiter titles falsification scandal as, at the time, he was FMRE’s Technical Director. He successfully defended his role proving that he had never presented applications to FIDE for the title of IA nor has he ever presented such a request to the Moroccan Chess Federation. He had actually resigned as the federation’s technical director already in 2005, after he had observed that, without his knowledge, the names of arbiters often changed before or after the end of a tournament.

(Left) Youssef Boukdeir | Photo: Y. Boukdeir on Facebook

Boukdeir

Writes Boukdeir:

“My official, hand-written resignation from the FRME, on 30/12/2005, was a consequence of my disapproval of the chaotic management of the Federation, the systematic and flagrant violation of procedures and regulations and the immoral behaviour of the President Amazzal who, through falsifications and dictatorial ruling, had strongly deviated from the noble values that should characterize any sport”.

Today Boukdeir is retired, and, after having spent most of his life in Casablanca, has returned to live in his native village in the Anti Atlas region of Taroudant, in an idyllic setting, together with his wife and a herd of goats.  

He remembers with nostalgia and sadness the time when he was actively involved in chess as international arbiter and presiding over one of the strongest chess clubs at the time:

"TSC (Tihad Sportif Club), created in 1936, was one of the oldest and biggest in Morocco, composed of several sport sections. The chess section, of which I was one of the founding members, was created in 1980. It lasted until 2013, when my club who had earned the greatest number of titles in the Kingdom, 16 team medals and 12 individual, had to close down due to the reelection of Amazzal as the federation’s president, who imposed a dictatorial rule,  supported by the Ministry. We had a strong team, composed of some of the best players including IM Tissir, IM Onkoud, FM Kamous, the late FM Rrhioua, WFM Zahira Elghabi…and, in 2013, regretfully, the chess section of TSC was  forced to dissolve under Amazzal’s pressure and aggression against my club, coupled by the passivity of the Ministry."

Boukdeir corroborate's Sebbar's account:

"In order to eliminate our club and ease the competition so that his own club ‘Raja’ may flourish, Amazzal began by suspending our two best players, Tissir, for an indefinite period and Onkoud, for five years and that's how his club won his first champion title.

Also, he stopped IM Ali Sebbar from becoming our member. Ali played, on an unofficial basis, for the president’s club, but he wished to join our club. However, Amazzal rejected the transfer request filed by Ali despite being validated by the transfer commission. He took revenge on Ali by suspending him for two years.

Amazal was in great need of a champion title for his club in order to secure subsidy. He would use all possible aggressive stratagems to eliminate the stronger clubs so that his club may climb at the top.

One of the usual Amazzal’s tactics was to send circulars allowing exceedingly short deadline for a reply. It was in 2005 that our club, which depended on a big Moroccan company, could confirm our participation at the national team championship only 24 hours after the deadline. Amazzal used it as an opportunity to eliminate us, whereas other, weaker clubs, responded to the circular much later but were admitted to participate. And it was in 2005 that the President’s club, Raja, had its first title."

Boukdeir and goats

Youssef Boukdeir enjoying his retirement with his goats | Photo: Y. Boukdeir on Facebook

The same 'deadly sin' was replicated in 2015, when Amazzal eliminated the club 'Fortress Alqods' of Casablanca whose members included the Moroccan international masters Mokhliss El Adnani and Ali Sebbar but also elite foreign grandmasters including Spain's Vallejo Pons, Bassem Amin of Egypt and Mohamed Haddouche from Algeria. Its members were obliged to look for other clubs if they wished to play chess.

The Alqods Fortress Club’s president, Soufian Moumtaz, provided us with a written statement about the ‘illegal and unreasonable suspension of the ‘Alqods Fortress’ by Amazzal, which can be read here, that he titled, "Story of Aborted Glory and Extreme Injustice". The well known formula that Amazzal applies can be noted from the following excerpt:

"Fortress Alqods placed second at the national Club Cup in November 2014, just behind the Raja Club, thus becoming a serious threat to the absolute domination of Raja. Because of the conflicts of interest generated by this situation, the Club Fortress Alqods became the victim of an abusive and illegal suspension administered by Mr. Mustapha Amazzal. He created a plot and used his power as the head of the Moroccan Royal Chess Federation by assuming responsibility of a disciplinary commission and adopting a series of decisions against our club, as his rival, in order to eliminate us and to ensure the domination of his own club at national club championships in Morocco…The decision for suspension issued by the ‘disciplinary commission’ was not approved by the Chess Federation’s directorate, therefore the president could not enforced it…In an abusive manner, the club Fortress Alqods has been denied its legitimate right to appeal, despite the timely lodged request with the Royal Moroccan Chess Federation…"

The Alqods club

The members of Alqods Fortress club in happier times, just a few months before its suspension. From left: Yassine Madidi, the club’s secretary, Mouin Bensaid, CM Arbi Benyahya, CM Mouhcine Benaddi, IM Ali Sebbar, Noureddine Messala, Jamal Messala and Soufiane Moumtaz, the club’s president (click or tap to expand) | Photo: Fortress Alqods Facebook page

Onkoud, was anxious to mention another club which, "stands out among the militants against Amazzal":

"Alwane Fannia of Chefchaouen, in northern Morocco, has been many times champion in the 80s, thanks to, among others, the brothers Mohamed Mubarak Ryan and Kacem Ryan, the first two Moroccan international masters. It is renowned for organizing the famous international Festival of Chefchaouen, which takes place every year around July. In the climate in which clubs and players would succumb under Amazzal’s pressure, the Alwane Fannia of Chefchaouen kept its ground and independence. This valiant club, from 2005, braved the taboos and welcomed with open arms the ‘suspended’, disregarding Amazzal’s orders. As in 2006, when Ali Sebbar was allowed to participate at the Chefchaouen cup, in spite of the fact that he was officially suspended. It is our ‘Gaulish village’ that defied the federal tyranny. This club suffered many federal attacks aimed at sabotaging its international festival, without success."

The 2017 edition of the Festival of Chefchaouen marked Amazzal’s most recent attempt at slyly boycotting it. The organizer, Jad Azzouz, had sent a request to the federation to register the festival with FIDE. As he received no reply, he asked IA Zoheir Slami to help. Only upon Slami’s intervention with FIDE, which needed the help of the AIDEF (the Francophonie Chess Association) as intermediary, the festival was registered. That battle won, another hurdle followed at the end of the festival: Amazzal had sent a letter to the FIDE, listing five accusations against the organizer and advising them not to rate the festival's games. Once again, Slami intervened and, upon proving that the accusations were false, FIDE rated the results.

Jad Azzouz

Jad Azzouz, the President of Alwane Fannia Club and Organizer of the Chefchaouen Festival with the poster of this year’s, 16th edition | Photo: Jad Azzouz on Facebook

GM Hichem Hamdouchi, the only Moroccan grandmaster, lives and works in Qatar with his young family. He has escaped the fate of being ‘suspended’, but has been in a self-imposed chess exile ever since the first troubles dented chess life in Morocco. True to his status and obligation, Hamdouchi maintains a professional relationship with Amazzal and plays for his club at international competitions where the national prestige is at stake. Obviously, he is not indifferent to the chess shambles in his native country:

"It is difficult to summarize in a few words a situation that has been lasting for more than a decade, but let us just state a few facts. Since 2007, how many Moroccan players have participated in the continental championships? How many times has Morocco participated in the world championships by age categories? And more to the point, how many times has Morocco been represented at the Olympiads by mixed and women teams?

It is the players to be pitied because they have been  the main victims of the catastrophic chess management throughout all this time. However, it's easy to blame one person for all these ills, but I do not think that the situation would have lasted for such a long time if that was the case. There are, in my opinion, complicities on many levels and it is a whole system that is corrupt.

It is now necessary to go ahead and I am convinced that there are, in Morocco, competent personalities and eager to work for the good of chess. We, Moroccan players residing abroad, had the chance to continue our journey outside this unhealthy climate. We have accumulated experience whether in the field of training, competition or organization. We are all ready to make our modest contribution to the cause of chess in Morocco."

The Hamdouchis

The Hamdouchis: Hichem, Adina (WGM), Adam and Lina | Photo: Adina Hamdouchi on Facebook


Moving forward

One thing that transpires from the statements and talks with the afflicted Moroccan chess players is their powerlessness. They were forced into submission to a despot who had a position of President of their federation, a body whose duty should be to create and improve grounds for the progress of the game and the players. They had nowhere to turn to seek justice because Amazzal held the strings of everyone involved including the Ministry for Youth and Sports. How such an unhealthy chess atmosphere in Morocco could have prevailed unchecked, undeterred and more or less hidden from the larger international chess community for such a long time?!

Currently, more than a half of the governing body of the Moroccan Chess Federation has resigned, yet Amazzal would not budge. When finally, the President could not resist and dipped into the federation’s funds as well, his opposition found a sustainable ground to mount a legal challenge. Because of the importance money plays in civil society, financial infractions more readily stir up attention and warrant redress. The investigation opened up by the Moroccan Financial Crimes Brigade regarding the misappropriated funds by Amazzal has been ongoing for several months.

But, to my mind, the financial wrongdoing fades in comparison to the damage that Amazzal has inflicted upon the players and Moroccan chess in general: the career of a whole generation of talented hopes has been cut short because of inexplicable, unbridled arbitrariness perpetrated by a single person in a position of power.

IM Mokhliss El Adnani, probably the most active and successful player currently, remained in Marocco and maintained professional ties with FRME, as much as possible, with the threat of being suspended by Amazzal hanging constantly over his head. But he decided and managed to temporize in order to safeguard the livelihood of his young family. He hopes that change is forthcoming:

"If Amazzal succeeds in coming out of this new crisis, it will burn everything, green and dry ... but, I am very optimistic that fate will play differently this time …"

Moroccan chess players and the majority of the governing body of the FMRE want Amazzal to step down from his post and to open the way for Moroccan chess towards a fruitful and progressive future.

Sebbar and El Adnani in 2010

Mokhliss El Adnani and Ali Sebbar, united in the face of adversity, at the ‘Royal Chess Club’ in Marrakech, 2010 | Photo: maroc-echecs.com

Author's note:

"Sometime towards the end of October, I was contacted by some of my Moroccan chess friends with a plea to expose the actual chess situation in Morocco in the international press. My friendship with them goes back to the 2005 when we enjoyed company at the GibTelecom Festival in Gibraltar. My account and comments are based on written statements and verbal and written conversations by various communication means with several players and protagonist in the chess life of Morocco." —Diana Mihajlova

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and interviewees, and do not necessarily reflect ChessBase's editorial policy.

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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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Fianshetto Fianshetto 12/17/2017 08:19
Corruption breads more corruption that's why it's not surprising FIDE did nothing to address the widespread corruption in the form of Mr. Mustapha Amazzal time and time again. The main victims here are the players who continue to suffer a painful blow to any hopes or ambitions of one day climbing the chess success ladder. The Status Quo will not change as long as individuals such as Amazzal and his like remain in charge of the faith of chess players and organization of the game whether internationally or at the national levels.
Tingitain Tingitain 12/17/2017 02:34
What a tremendous loss for Morrocan chess, this once emerging chess country which was one of the more promising Arab and African chess nations! It's heartbreaking to see how all these gifted and inspiring autodidact players kept struggling on their own to find a way out to live for and from their passion. They not only did not get the deserved support and encouragement, but many of them were persistently persecuted and psychologically ruined. With them, a whole generation of young talented players was also sacrificed. Is there still any hope? Not as long as the Ministry of Sports has not ceased its blind support of their protected fellow, the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named gravedigger of Morrocan Chess Federation!
algorithmy algorithmy 12/17/2017 08:56
A very decent article and a thorough coverage of the case. Thank you!
ketchuplover ketchuplover 12/17/2017 02:42
Happy holidays to Morocco :)
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