The magic of Madagascar (1/2)

by Alina l'Ami
8/17/2015 – Among the many African nations, Madagascar is certainly one that both fascinates and remains elusive, sharing no borders with any of its neighbors. Having barely left Angola, globetrotting photographer and player, WGM Alina L'Ami jumped on the opportunity to play in a tournament made possible thanks to the Madagascar Federation and the Kasparov Chess Foundation Africa.

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Mt. Kilimanjaro, an image I worked quite hard for! Initially I was really happy to have a stop-over in Nairobi, on my way to Madagascar, even though it was a rather long one: seven hours. I knew I would get the chance to see what it is depicted in the photo but I didn't expect I would be unable to get a window seat (Ed: Lacking the technique of Nigel Short?), so I begged, crawled, stepped on other people's feet etc. until I succeeded.

Like in the chicken or the egg dilemma, I sometimes wonder who makes the first move in a recurring "variation" on my life board: is it the adventure that keeps coming along my ways or, on the contrary, am I a daredevil who constantly seeks and craves thrills and new experiences? Perhaps it is the fault of mutual attraction that made us orbit, lobby and send out feelers until the inevitable laws of hazard lighted upon us - we flew into each others' arms.

Rice based diet and its culture has been brought on the island by the Asian travelers

Gorgeous sunrises on the rice paddies

For the locals, it is a part of everyday life, but for the shutterbug, it means great opportunities

Our chess life, with everything it brings along with it, beats the movies in absolutely all possible, imaginable and unimaginable ways! Consider this: What are the odds of making not one, but two chess trips to Africa, in a very short period of time and without any planning and completely by surprise?

In fact, what are the odds that I, a European resident, would already be on the African continent, in Angola more precisely, but having to fly back to Europe and after a one-day break return to mother Africa as fresh as a daisy? It turned out to be “easier” that way, in terms of flying times, costs and connections but it was a very small price to pay for a fabulous (yet too short) trip to Madagascar!

Madagascar is an endless source of breathtaking views begging to be photographed...

...Need I say more?

I guess the locals know the exact train schedule...

I actually had a perfect ticket, all booked and checked in, except the worker in Antananarivo's airport ruined my plans and put the kibosh on my returning flights. It was only at the gate in Paris, where I had my connection to Amsterdam, that I discovered to my astonishment that I was actually checked in on a different flight, according to my “new” ticket! Of course a lot of talks, lost baggage and so forth emerged from it, so do always check those papers you are handed in the airport, especially the connecting flight...

Nature is always close to the inhabitants - washing at the river; in the background you can
see the building site for new homes...

...and a close up of the building site

But all these experiences just spice up my life and I must say I would feel poorer without them. Traveling is a great teacher and even if sometimes being a chess player has its occupational hazards, everything you feel, see and learn on your trips is worth every drop of sweat and effort. Besides, I recently learned to cope being away from home, since home is with me, in me... So off to Madagascar to play its 2015 International Open!

Alina L'Ami - Miloud Mezouaghi (knight sacrifice no.1)

[Event "Madagascar Open"] [Site "?"] [Date "2015.08.09"] [Round "?"] [White "L'Ami, Alina"] [Black "Mezouaghi, Miloud"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A44"] [WhiteElo "2371"] [BlackElo "2039"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "2kr1n1r/pp1n2p1/3p3p/2pPpP2/2P1N1Pq/8/PP1BQ2P/2KR3R b - - 0 19"] [PlyCount "8"] [EventDate "2015.08.12"] {Having played and travelled a lot before this event was of no help when it came to playing double rounds in Madagascar. But even though I was not particularly sharp, these three examples I will present you made me quite happy and I trust you will enjoy them too. There is a leitmotif in all of them, where a certain piece played the major role, the reason why I brought them all together. So no, it is not for narcissistic reasons, especially since in one of them I chickened out and I didn't play what I should have. Still, I believe these examples will illustrate the power of keeping alert and vigilant at all times, and what to do if they happen to be mine? The opening phase of the game went from bad to worse for me, I showed tremendous understanding, but later on I fought back and reached the following position, where Black's last move was: } 19... Nf6 {I remember the smirk painted on my face, since the trap I devilishly set was precisely where my opponent fell into.} 20. Nxd6+ $1 { Although the impression I created during the tournament was of a slow player, a la Karpov style (thank you!), I am far from being calm and cold blooded during the game, taking one step at a time and converting small advantages into a point. Truth be told...I was simply tired and couldn't put myself together to calculate or play complicated positions. So my practical approach was: natural moves and will see what happens, but avoid blunders at all costs! Other than that, in general I like to set the board on fire, so having sacrificed a piece brought a lot of aesthetic pleasure to me.} Rxd6 21. Qxe5 { Black is just lost, unfortunately. There is no way to cope with the very unpleasant Bf4 threat and mating ideas around the corner. My opponent tried} Rd7 ({Perhaps} 21... Kd7 {is more stubborn but fails to save the game in view of} 22. Rhe1 {and it is game over; Qe7+ is coming, Bf4 as well and a devastating domination.} ({But in fact, during the game I was mostly calculating this line} 22. Bf4 Ne8 23. Rhe1 Nh7 (23... Qd8 {doesn't work either because of} 24. Qxe8+ Qxe8 25. Rxe8 Kxe8 26. Bxd6) 24. g5 Kc8 25. gxh6 { And White should be winning with such a massive number of pawns and threats all over the board.} ({Since I never like to take credit for something that it is not mine or something I haven't done, I should be honest with you and say that in the post mortem analysis we were checking} 25. Qe7 $4 {and deep analysis after that; but Black can just take the bishop on f4...?? Just a sample of how halucinations can play a role during a chess game.}))) (21... Ra6 22. Bf4) 22. Bf4 Kd8 23. Rhe1 {With mate or significant material gain.} 1-0

Not an easy job...and I complain about my washing machine that makes too much noise or whatever

Happy to meet happy people!

I got warnings all the time to watch my camera and take care...but life seems to be quite
peaceful on Antananarivo's streets. Just a bit chaotic.

One of my favourite shots from uphill in Antananarivo

Street food

My daily route to the tournament hall

An attempt to keep traffic under control

Another way to transport your stuff

Many of Madagascar's inhabitants are the Indonesian-looking Merina people,...

...with distinct features. However...

... some carry the expected African influence as well.

Frankly speaking, I knew nothing about this stunning island. In my ignorance I assumed it should be warm, similar to other African countries I have visited (perhaps along the lines of Angola or Tanzania), mostly famous for its lemurs and baobabs and only a short chess history. I was wrong on every account. My broad knowledge, acquired through the cartoon “Madagascar” misguided me even further – no, there are no penguins here! Luckily I wised up after Antananarivo taught me some good lessons.

The tournament hall

The organizers FMJE (Chess Federation of Madagascar), supported by the Kasparov Chess
Foundation Africa, did a great job in organizing the event, giving the opportunity to all these
talented players to improve their game, their rating and meet titled players from overseas.

If you ever plan to come to Madagascar, which I highly recommend, get ready to be shocked, obviously in a positive direction, by its people and culture, geography and wildlife, climate, food and daily life. I wish I could have spent at least a month there, to bring you all its vivid and colorful impressions, but the six days I spent in
Antananarivo were lived to the maximum, in an attempt to bring you a slice of this amazing land and share with you the indefinable feeling that followed me throughout the whole experience, including during the games: this is unreal, I just can't believe any of it, I am here! It was like living inside a painting created by both Dali and Monet together – surreal, impressionistic, unique.

Thabo Elisha - Alina L'Ami (knight sacrifice no.2)

[Event "Madagascar Open"] [Site "?"] [Date "2015.08.09"] [Round "?"] [White "Elisha, Thabo"] [Black "L'Ami, Alina"] [Result "0-1"] [WhiteElo "1943"] [BlackElo "2371"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "r3kb1r/pp1b1ppp/1qn1p3/3pPn2/1P1P4/P1N1BN2/5PPP/R2QKB1R b KQkq - 0 10"] [PlyCount "15"] [EventDate "2015.08.12"] {This was my last game in the tournament and the position you must have recognized already: yes, it comes from the French Defense, which I started to love deeply! My opponent's last move was the developing and natural Nc3, where I had another sacrifice prepared...} 10... Nxe3 11. fxe3 Nxb4 $1 {I have heard that the knight is one of the trickiest pieces in chess but somehow this event I kept on sacrificing it. And even more than a clear tactical blow, I like the positional sacrifices, which was the case here.} 12. axb4 Bxb4 13. Qb3 Rc8 14. Rc1 Qa5 15. Kd2 O-O {Bringing the other rook into play; White is a piece up but for two pawns and with a very cramped position: the king, rook and queen have to keep an eye on the c3 knight, while the other pieces lack coordination as well.} 16. Be2 {This moves loses on the spot, since there is no way White can keep defending the c3 knight.} ({More stubborn was} 16. Bd3 Ba4 {perhaps the strongest continuation} ({During my calculation I was planning to go} 16... Rc7 17. Ng1 $1 {the point of Bd3, keeping the e2 square available for the knight; true...making backwards moves is never easy.} Rfc8 18. Nge2 Ba4 19. Qb2 {where there is some sort of status quo in the position: Black can't attack the c3 knight further but White cannot really move either. I believe I would still be better but in practical play is not easy.}) 17. Qb2 f6 $1 {Who needs to rush? White is tied up ayway} 18. exf6 Rxf6 {and if} 19. Ng1 e5 $1 20. dxe5 Rb6 $1 {Isn't chess great?!}) 16... Rc7 17. e4 Rfc8 0-1

What you can see in Antananarivo (and on the tournament poster)

Alina L'Ami - Harison Andriamandimbisoa (knight sacrifice no.3)

[Event "Madagascar Open"] [Site "?"] [Date "2015.08.08"] [Round "?"] [White "L'Ami, Alina"] [Black "Andriamandimbisoa, Harison"] [Result "1-0"] [WhiteElo "2371"] [BlackElo "1955"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "r3rnk1/1bp2p1p/1p1q1bp1/pP1pN3/P2P1P2/1QN1P3/4B1PP/2R2RK1 w - - 0 20"] [PlyCount "1"] [EventDate "2015.08.12"] {And this is the third example, where again the restless knight could have been sacrificed for an immediate win. I was thinking about it, I wanted to do it, but I just didn't trust my brain enough and its acuity level, so I went for the restrained} 20. Bf3 $6 {which keeps White's advantage but is clearly inferior.} ({Instead,} 20. Ne4 $1 {was the way to go!} dxe4 21. Qxf7+ Kh8 22. Bc4 Re6 23. Bxe6 Qxe6 24. Rxc7 Bd5 25. Qxe6 Bxe6 {I calculated until here but the moves and the squares were sort of dancing in front of my eyes and I was not quite sure how to asses it. Looking at the position now...makes me laugh, because White is clearly better.} 26. Rb7 Bd8 27. Nc6 Nd7 28. Rc1 {It is true that Black has two pieces for the rook but White has two extra pawns and massive domination. Shouldn't take so long to convert it into a full point. In any case, this was my Iliad story, where the horse is the key.}) 1-0

The extremely cold weather though, eight degrees Celsius (!!) in the early morning or late evening, was what it took to jolt me out of my day dream. After all, I had a very tough schedule ahead, arriving in the late evening, giving a lecture the next day, followed by the first game, and double rounds each day until the end of the tournament.

Alina is an International Master and a very enthusiastic person in everything she does. She loves travelling to the world's most remote places in order to play chess tournaments and report about them here on ChessBase! As chance would have it Alina is also an excellent photographer.


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