The Best In - The Bahamas

by Arne Kaehler
8/9/2020 – We started our "The Best In..." series in Armenia and now move on to the Bahamas. Polina Karelina, one of the best players and the best female player of the Bahamas, talks about her passion for chess, the Polgar sisters, and the chess scene on the Bahamas. | Photo: Paul Truong

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Chess on the Bahamas

Situated below Miami and above Cuba, the Bahamas are an archipelagic state that consists of of a bit less than 700 islands, of which only about 30 are inhabited. The Bahamas are the 178th largest country in the world by population and reach place 155 by size. The national sport is cricket but chess is become more and more popular.

We had the chance to interview WCM Polina Karelina, the best female player of the Bahamas. Polina was also kind enough to annotate some of her games.

Polina Karelina vs. Valentine Cox

Arne Kaehler: Dear Polina, you are the best female player of the Bahamas. Tell us a bit about yourself, and when and how you started to play chess.

Polina Karelina: I learned the rules of the game when I was four years old. About a year after that, I started to participate in Bahamian tournaments. When I was six I won the U10 championship, and at the age of eight I became the overall U18 scholastic champion. In the following years, I showed a lot of potential, becoming the youngest Bahamas junior champion, and I started to win games against the adult players, including the national champion at that time.

When I was 11, I encountered some health problems. My mother and I moved to Ukraine for my medical treatment. I continued to play chess, winning the U12 girls Kyiv championship that same year. However, a couple of months later, I decided to quit chess due to chronic spinal pain.

It was only at the end of 2015, when I was 14, that I finally decided to study chess again. It was very difficult. My results were extremely inconsistent. I played in my first tournament since my return to chess in January 2016. To my surprise, I managed to draw against a 2000 rated player in that tournament, but there were a lot of ups and downs throughout the year.

AK: Where in the Bahamas did you grow up and how did you feel growing up in this country?

PK: When I was little, I grew up on Paradise Island, a small island that is connected to New Providence, which is where the national capital city of Nassau is located. Most tournaments are held in Nassau, with an exception of a few that are played in the Old Fort Bay Club and the Atlantis hotel on Paradise Island.
The Bahamas is made up of about 700 islands and cays, most of which are referred to as the "family islands". Although it is common to travel to other islands by boat, it's often easier to travel by airplane because a lot of them are quite far away.
The distance makes it difficult to organize tournaments with chess players from all the islands but sometimes players come to visit Nassau to play in tournaments. I know that the Bahamas Chess Federation has been making a great effort in promoting chess by training chess teachers on the family islands, and is hoping to soon host bigger tournaments with players from all over the Bahamas.

AK: Since when are you a titled player and how did you achieve your title?

PK: In May 2016, I participated in the female section of the 2.3.5 sub-zonal. My results were extremely inconsistent in that tournament, I had a very difficult start. However, I managed to come back mid-tournament, and going into the final round against a WCM, I only needed a draw to get the WCM title myself. I managed to score a win and only 5 months after starting to play again, I had achieved the WCM title.

 

Throughout the year, however, I still struggled a lot, and I felt like I was not playing at the level I should be at. I decided to continue trying, and by the end of the year, and early 2017, I finally started scoring some wins against the strongest Bahamian players. The following game is from the 2017 National championship. My opponent, NM Frank Gibson, is a seven-time national champion and has been the highest-rated Bahamian player for many years. He does not play very often now, but I am happy to have scored some nice wins against him, including the following game.

 

With anything I do, I always believe that I should set high goals for myself and push myself to take on challenges. In 2017, I received an invitation to a tournament in Barbados, which had two two sections and I decided to register for the section that primarily consisted of 2100+ players. I was by far the lowest-rated player in that section and to my surprise, I managed to get 1.5 points, including a win against an IM. I also had a number of close games against other players.

 

This experience helped me a lot, and in 2018 I started winning Bahamian tournaments consistently, qualifying to the 2018 Bahamas Olympiad absolute team. The Olympiad was a great experience. I played all 11 rounds on board one, which was very challenging, but I learned a lot, and the team did well, with one of our top players, CM Byron Small, gaining another CM title for the country.

The following game is from round 1 of the 2019 Bahamas national championship. My opponent, NM Valentine Cox, is one of the strongest players in the country. I often find it difficult to play against him, so this game was very important to me. After this, I went on to win the next six rounds and shared the lead together with the current national champion, CM Kendrick Knowles. I ended up losing my last two games and finished second but because Knowles had already qualified for the Olympic team in the 2018 National Championship, the qualification spot went to me. I am really looking forward to once again being part of the absolute team that will be representing the Bahamas in the next Olympiad in Moscow!

 

AK: Does your country support you and other chess players?

PK: Our federation is very small, and chess is only starting to grow as a sport in the Bahamas. We have a lot of talented players, but with a lack of opportunities to play internationally, it is a bit more challenging for us to improve than it is for players in other countries were the chess scene is more developed. That said, our local tournaments have gained some sponsors, and this has tremendously helped to promote chess in the country. Thanks to the hard work of BCF president CM Elton Joseph and FM Cecil Moncur more talented juniors than ever before play tournaments, and it is very exciting to see how chess will continue to grow in the country.

The team from the Bahamas at the Chess Olympiad 2018

AK: What are you doing when you do not play chess?

PK: I am studying computer science online, and starting this autumn I will also be studying business in Austria. I am looking forward to participating in more tournaments while I am studying in Europe.

AK: Your name doesn't sound typically Bahamian.

PK: I have family in Ukraine and Russia. My stepfather was Bahamian, so I have some relatives here as well.

AK: Last year in September 2019, Hurricane Dorian struck parts of the Bahamas. Are the Bahamas a dangerous place to live in or is it more the paradise you imagine it to be?

PK: Of course, especially with global warming, hurricanes are a threat to the Caribbean, and we all need to do our part to preserve our environment. However, the Bahamas remains to be one of the most beautiful places in the world.

A swimming pig in Pig Beach - Major Cay

AK: You mentioned health problems you had when you were 11? Do you feel better now?

PK: Yes. I am doing fine now. I had surgery in 2015, and after that I started playing chess again.

AK: You even played against Magnus Carlsen once. How did that happen?

PK: When I started to play chess again, I used the PlayMagnus app, and every year, they invite about 10-12 players to take part in a simul against Magnus. I was really surprised when I found out that I was invited in 2016. The simul was played in New York. Of course, I knew the result would be clear, but I still wanted to play a good game, although I was quite nervous and ended up making a ton of mistakes right in the opening. It was a really cool experience though.

Magnus Carlsen vs. Polina Karelina (Analysis)

AK: Do you have a favourite chess player? And a favourite chess book?

PK: The Polgar sisters! Susan, Sofia, and Judit have been my inspiration since I started playing chess. When I just started playing, I followed the book "Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations and Games" that was written by their father László Polgár. That was my favorite book when I was little.

AK: Are you planning to stay in Europe after studying, or will you move back to the Bahamas?

PK: I have no idea, right now I am just planning to study there. But either way, the Bahamas will always be my main home.

AK: Thank you very much for the interview!

PK: Thank you for having me and your support!

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Arne Kaehler, a creative thinker who is passionate about board games in general was born in Hamburg and learned how to play chess at a very young age. Through teaching chess to youth teams and creating chess content on YouTube, Arne was able to extend this passion onto others and has even made an online chess course for anyone who wants to learn how to play this game. Currently, Arne blogs for the English news page of ChessBase and focuses on creating promotional and entertaining articles.

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