Nelson Mandela - a man for the ages

by Albert Silver
12/6/2013 – Last night, Africa’s greatest son passed away, and while it might seem strange for us to do a tribute to Nelson Mandela, considering the very specific focus of our news site, but chess surrounded him and he played it. If ever there was a leader whose strategic planning rivaled even the deepest plans of the chess world champions, it was him. We pay homage to Nelson Mandela and his legacy.

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Nelson Mandela - a man for the ages

This portrait done in keyboard keys is the work of Australian artist "WorkByKnight"

Last night, Africa’s greatest son passed away, and as stated by US President Barack Obama, “He no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages.” It might seem strange for us to do a tribute to Nelson Mandela, considering the very specific focus of our news site, chess surrounded him, and if ever there was a leader whose strategic planning rivaled even the deepest plans of the chess world champions, it was him.

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

- Nelson Mandela

Another portrait by WBK. It is part of a series dedicated to Mandela.

Nelson Mandela and chess

Neville Alexander, a fellow detainee and political activist, arrived on Robben Island in 1964, the same year as Mandela. He was imprisoned there for ten years. In an interview he revealed Mandela's "war of attrition" approach to chess.

Chess. Mandela played chess. Tell me about how Mandela played chess.

Well, chess and draughts were the two games which were the oldest on the island in a way. Draughts partly because we could play them without a board. Chess, eventually, when we did get a board. It became a favorite game, and he was one of those who knew the game quite well. My personal recollection is that in both draughts and chess Nelson's attitude was that of really attrition. That was his stance. He would take his time with every move, he would consider it very carefully. He would sort of mislead the other person by pointing things, this way, that way, the other and then making the move that wasn't expected and so on.

This graffiti portrait of Nelson Mandela is from the Mandela favela (a cross between
shantytown and slum) in Rio de Janeiro, which was thus renamed in 1990 to celebrate
his release from prison. The sign reads "Welcome Nelson Mandela".

But more than that, when he did make a really good move, then he would really crow and make the other person feel really small. I recall this particularly because of our late comrade, Don Davis, who eventually also joined the ANC incidentally. Don Davis used to think he was a really good draughts player, and Nelson and Andrew Mlangeni were his only two rivals ... He normally beat Nelson, but he tended not to beat Mlangeni. Mlangeni was very good. But the point is that Nelson would ... torture Don, that Don would sometimes just throw the board in the air, with pieces flying all over the place, getting really irritated. But [Mandela] had that way of, as I say, it was a war of attrition, and he tended therefore to be victorious in most cases.

He was excruciatingly slow in getting around to making his moves ...

Ja, it was deliberate you see. This is a point that with Nelson, again, you can't always be 100% sure, but it was largely deliberate because he knew that psychologically he was getting at the other person. By the way, I never played chess or draughts with them, because I just don't know the game well enough.

Click for full interview

Just last July, our globetrotting correspondent Alina l’Ami, passed through South Africa in honor of a tournament, and was flabbergasted to find herself greeted by the present President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. President Zuma, who had also suffered the many hardships of imprisonment on Robben Island, explained the relationship with chess and those there.

South African President Jacob Zuma playing a friendly 20-minute game against
the youngest participant, the five-year-old boy Keagan Rowe. The fighting
game ended in a stalemate.

"On Robben Island, chess provided a solace to us that we needed in those conditions of isolation and deprivation. It propelled our minds beyond the confines of the prison walls and allowed us to reflect and to position our thoughts strategically to fight the regime. [...] Many comrades made chess sets out of soap and driftwood that allowed us to continue to play this noble and great game. We improvised with makeshift chess boards and we enjoyed the fullness of the game."

- South African president Zuma in his speech during the closing ceremony.

At the end of her report, posted on Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday, the country was celebrating it as 'Nelson Mandela Day'. The declared motto is "Take Action; Inspire Change; Make Every Day a Mandela Day!" Words to live by.

There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.

- Nelson Mandela

This portrait by Peter Engels was displayed on the biggest billboard of the world on
Times Square, New York, when Nelson Mandela turned 90

Over the years, we have seen chess blossom in South Africa, and as firm believers in its educational value, we look forward to seeing it continue to do so.

Nelson Mandela on video


Nelson Mandela's first interview. This was in 1961 before his 27-year prison term.


Nelson Mandela's life story: a short excellent documentary hosted by the United Nations

Nelson Mandela speech delivered at the Nelson Mandela: An International tribute to Free
South Africa concert on 16/4/1990, at Wembley stadium, two months after his release from
prison on 11/2/1990. (speech starts at 5:36)

The world mourns


US President Barack Obama pays his respects and describes the profound impact Mandela
had on him

The news sources reacted incredibly fast

The New York Times has a wealth of resources


Within an hour, every international news outlet had dedicated their pages to him

ChessBase and South Africa

Here are a few articles posted over the years regarding chess in South Africa:

South Africa in Black and White by Alina l'Ami

Happy Nelson Mandela Day! by Alina l'Ami

A chess tournament in South Africa - part 1 by Alexander Ipatov

A chess tournament in South Africa – part 2 by Alexander Ipatov

Susan Polgar in South Africa by Susan Polgar

Once upon a time in South Africa by Elisabeth Paehtz

Chess in South Africa – filling the gaps by Elisabeth Paehtz

Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications, and the content creator of the YouTube channel, Chess & Tech.


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