Interview: Hemed Mlawa, Tanzanian Chess Player

Hemed Mlawa is Tanzania’s fourth-highest rated (1709) player and was his federation’s sole representative at the Africa Zone 4.2 Individual Chess Championships in Cairo. I caught up with him before Round 8 of the championship to discuss the current chess environment in Tanzania, the impact of sponsorship from Spicenet, support from local media and his future ambitions.

Tanzanian chess player Hemed Mlawa at the Zone 4.2 Individual Chess Championships in Cairo
Tanzanian chess player Hemed Mlawa at the Zone 4.2 Individual Chess Championships in Cairo

Who introduced you to chess? How did you start playing?

Yeah, that question actually has always been a mystery to me. The first time I think I saw a chess set was in 1989 but I never knew it was called ‘chess’. When it came to 1998, that’s the first time I actually saw a big glass chess set but I never played chess, we used to play checkers on it. I started playing chess completely in 2007 but I was not really curious about the game. There was this Indian guy who just told me “let’s play” and he would checkmate me in 4 moves and so on.

How old were you then? Were you in school/university?

Yeah, by that time I was in college and I still wasn’t much into chess until 2010 when I had a friend of mine and he claimed he was a Grand Master and I said “if you are a Grand Master let me challenge you” and then I went to YouTube to learn the first opening. My first opening to play was the Sicilian Najdorf. So I watched a couple of videos on the Najdorf and the next time when he came, I managed to get a couple of wins. Of course, he won more than I did but I managed to win like 6 games. He won like 20. The next time he came, after that I beat him up so I said he can’t be a Grand Master. *laughs* That was just my theory that if he is a Grand Master than I shouldn’t be able to beat him.

How popular would you say chess is in Tanzania?

Actually, right now it’s getting more popular since we really have good backup from Tanzania Chess Foundation which is under Vinay Choudary and the sponsorship of Spicenet which is also under Vinay Choudary. Tanzania Chess Association is really working with the sponsor hand-in-hand to make sure that chess is being popularised in Tanzania and we have managed to even start the first Chess in Schools program. We have 2 trainers and 3 schools and Tanzania Chess Foundation has already provided the boards, trainers and it’s good.

Speaking of Spicenet and Vinay Choudary, how much of an impact has sponsorship from both had on Tanzanian chess?

Ya, actually it’s HUGE! Let’s talk about myself as an individual. After 2010, I left playing chess and started playing poker. In 2012 I started playing chess online on and went to my first tournament. I didn’t perform well but that was the time I actually thought I should start playing a little bit well. After that, the next tournament was the Spicenet one so that was actually my major international tournament. After the Spicenet Open, Vinay was concerned about having more tournaments to bring up the game of chess and I thought instead of playing as a casual player I wanted to be a competitive chess player. So, for myself, it developed me and also if you look at all the participants in these chess tournaments they have improved a lot. They are all bringing the efforts into it and we have even gotten trainers from these people. Even coming here to the Africa Zone 4.2 Individual Championship, my ticket has been sponsored by Spicenet. So Spicenet is really doing a good job on that.

Hemed (second from left) with director of Spicenet Vinay Choudary (third from left)
Hemed (second from left) with director of Spicenet Vinay Choudary (third from left)

Since participating in the Spicenet Open, how many international tournaments have you played in?

Until now, I have played in around 3 or 4 international tournaments. I played the East African Open in Nairobi at Kenyatta University, the Olympiad and the Africa Zone 4.2 Individual Chess Championships.

At the Olympiad what board did you play for Tanzania?

I played board 3 and sometimes board 2. That was quite an experience because up to now if you look at our chess experience and our chess skills, we are still way below most countries so we need to gain experience.

Hemed (second from left) playing in the 2014 Chess Olympiad with fellow team members
Hemed (second from left) playing in the 2014 Chess Olympiad with fellow team members

Back in Tanzania, how much support do you get from the local media?

Ah, we do get a lot of support and we really appreciate the media that contribute towards chess because before we left to Olympiad we had so many of them…Spicenet also I remember we had so many media: we had ITV, we had Star TV, we had Channel 10, East African TV…they were all there to show up the game. This has been useful because it has reached the further regions where they haven’t known that chess even exists. So I really appreciate those media and it has played huge impact on the chess game.

What are your personal goals when it comes to chess?

Until now, I’m not satisfied with my playing level so my goal is actually to improve. I don’t have a problem with my openings but my middle game which means I need to study more so that I can improve my technique during middle game stage. I also want to play as many tournaments as possible to get that experience and confidence in myself. I really want to see if I can get into challenging the elite East Africans especially Ugandans and some of the Kenyans because they are way more advanced than Tanzania. So by improving and challenging them, it would get me far. My really goal is to get a title.

What title would that be?

Uh, I would say I have always been fond of getting a FM. It might take a long time to get a FIDE Master title but I feel like it’s going to come soon. I thought maybe it would come more than 10 years before but because we have good support now I feel it will come soon. Two-three years down the line I’m pretty sure I’ll have the FIDE Master title.

What are your interests outside chess?

I usually go and play football. I like to go movies, dinners. Those are the kind of things I like to do. They refresh you, you know. It’s not only about work or chess. Sometimes we need to refresh our minds. It’s important we also involve in social life. I also like to hang out with friends.

(Photo credits: Paras Gudka and courtesy)