The author , Makhosi Makhisho Nyirenda is Malawi Chess Federation Publicity Secretary, Chess writer and Chess Coach.
We sat in the mini- hall looking like a bunch of unruly students awaiting a punishment from the headmaster as we waited for the Grandmaster- a title we all treated with reverence and trepidation.
With the boards already set on the wooden tables in a semicircular pattern, the mini-hall looked spic and span, and was nicely decorated with good wall pictures. The figure “12’’ on one of the wall pictures reminded me that Malawi was in her 12th year of democracy. Before the dawn of democracy, Malawi had close to 30 years of subjection to her first leader, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who was called “The Ngwazi”, a title that can literally translate to Chief or, in some common slang, “Grandmaster”. So, subconsciously, Malawians were programmed to revere the Grandmaster title.
Malawi’s first interaction with the outside chess world had only been a year earlier, in 2005, when we dispatched a team of 3 athletes to the Africa Individual Chess Championship in Lusaka, Zambia. So, given how behind we were in the chess evolution chronometer, it was quite an hilarious news that a Chess “Ngwazi” was visiting our country in 2006.
Nobody, save the 3 that had represented us in Zambia, who told us the tale of the likes of African Grandmasters like Slim Belkodja, Ahmed Adly e.t.c, had ever seen a Grandmaster! Though they may have exaggerated the tale, anyway, by adding things like: “Last game I played a grandmaster, he was very big and bald headed” – really? How can one play a grandmaster on the last board in last round? They made sure it should sound they lost to aliens. But thanks to the then Malawi Chess President, Monsieur Kezzie Msukwa, whose links helped facilitate this special Grandmaster visit. At least now we would know how a Grandmaster looks and play like.
Nobody was even rated then, so people could just call themselves masters for winning some local tournament. So, when British Grandmaster Nigel Short landed in the warm heart of Africa in April 2006, it was big news. What was even making it big news was that: one person will be playing simultaneously with so many people. To many, it was a case of “It cannot be done!
Top Nation Newspaper Sports Journalist, Leonard Sharra, also a top chess player, even featured it in his popular column “My Prediction”, where he predicted that the grandmaster will lose one game -to him.
The players in the mini-hall were really excited. They goaded about their preparation for the game as they blitzed over on the extra boards.
“22 boards is too much for him, he won’t be able to concentrate, he will have a night- mare”, shouted one player amidst the noise in the mini-hall.
“Now a player of my level has come, it’s gonna be a death game”, also commented one player.
This other top player, who had had a string of bad tournament results, wanted to use this exhibition as an opportunity to sanctify himself.
“You know what? When you play weaker players, your standard of play goes down. You will see, I will knock down this grandmaster,” he said while going for a bottle of water.
Suddenly, we saw the Chessam President and a tall white man enter the mini-hall.
“Hush! It’s him. Nigel Short”, whispered this other guy, sounding like he is his personal friend.
When the Grandmaster entered the hall, he gave the following gestures: he smiled at us, looked across the room as if searching for a familiar face, then looked at his watch as the president pleaded for order in the room, but there was already order.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Grandmaster Nigel Short from Britain”. There was a round of applause from the audience, before the president turned to Nigel Short and said. “Grandmaster, In front of you are the best chess players in Lilongwe. Over to you Grandmaster”
“Ok. Are we ready? So I will be white in all the games”, said the Grandmaster as he advanced towards the first board with his red neck-tie propelling from side to side.
Then somebody interrupted him by saying “By the way, that is board one”, pointing at a board opposite to where the Grandmaster was going.
A surprised Short rotated his head and responded in queen’s accent “It’s ok. I always go anticlockwise”. So he played his first move on what was supposed to be the last board.
He greeted each player, one by one, as he thudded the e4 pawn on the plastic chess boards to all the 22 players.
Alas! He was very fast. He revolved round and round the 22 player panel without any serious stop overs, well it was only the opening phase .But suddenly the master got transfixed at one board. Akim Mwale, the doyen of Malawi’s chess had given the Grandmaster a puzzle.
“What’s going on there?”, there was a buzz of interest across the room as the grandmaster scratched his lips as he thought for his move in front of the sporadic grizzly Malawi chess giant in a brazier jacket .
‘’It’s a sac! It’s a sac!” There were sporadic whispers across the room. Akim Mwale brandished his thumb towards the other players, as the grandmaster refused the dangerous Knight sacrifice. There was a loud cheer in the room as the grandmaster moved to his next opponent.
Then he was incredibly fast again, rotating around the 22 player panel like nothing. Each of the bent heads, seemed to be occupied with their own problems, some redeemable, some not.
Each time the grandmaster went to the board opposite mine, he would go “Check!” it was a case of King trapped in the middle. The player on that board, Fishern Mwagomba, had the tendency of putting his King in the middle of the board for terribly long. Though he usually walked away with this when playing homies, it was clear today was his punishment day.
Suddenly there was the first death of the exhibition. Somebody had been killed in 8 moves!
The grandmaster laughed as he shook hands with the first victim of the “Nigel fire”.
On most of the boards, the Briton seemed to have recolonized us for real.
There will always be unruly players in the mix of chess players, as somebody cheated by re-fielding a captured piece, but still lost.
There were now only 8 players remaining, and the then budding star , Joseph Mwale was one of them. He seemed to be okay, until the Grandmaster taught him the use of a King as a fighting piece.The Grandmaster’s King managed to capture Mwale’s Knight, Rook and Bishop, before executing the painful checkmate.
Suddenly, another long pause for the “Ngwazi”. This one seemed to be more serious than the first one. Somebody had captured his Queen. Leornard Sharra! A Queen for 3 minor pieces.
“Now the grandmaster is dying”, whispered one guy. But the grandmaster played the game so instructively and won, teaching us how to nullify the powers of a Queen.
“This man is a machine!” shouted the board 2 player, Malama Mwanza, as he dropped down his King.
The board one player , Alfred Chimthere angered the Grandmaster when he continued playing with a rook down.
“Aah! What do you want to achieve now? You are a Rook down”, said the Grandmaster as he sat down after 4 hours of parambulating around 22 boards.
Well, perhaps being the national champion Chimthere, The Great Finisher, wanted to make sure he was the last man standing.
We were walloped 22-0, and the following morning the story in the newspaper was “Grandmaster Conquers All”. The news was all over TV, radio and newpapers. Then the grandmaster embarked on a journey to Southern Malawi, where most of the top players lived.
We were mocked left, right and center in the city.
In the Southern region people were like ,” There are amateurs in Lilongwe , we will deal with him in Blantyre.”
All the top players, including the previous national Champion Kajani Kaunda, James kamowa, Douglas Kamwendo and the Razorblade were there
There was drama when one player cheated by resetting the board to a position that showed he was at a huge advantage. In his heart of hearts he was like : “He will not see. He’s got too many boards to concentrate on”
But when the Grandmaster came to this board, he quickly found out that the guy had cheated, and set the position the way it was supposed to be. People were astonished.
“How the hell did he remember that?”
Razorblade recounts his game against the Grandmaster excellently. He says:
“I had studied the line of one of the games of the 1992 World Championship match between Nigel Short and Garry Kasparov . It was obvious that Nigel was unware of my preparation, until deep in the middle game I played the exact novelty that Kasparov played in 1992. He looked me straight in the eyes, and avoided the response he made in 1992”
At the end of the day the grandmaster won 21.5 to 0.5, with one draw coming from former Malawi’s Champion, Kajani Kaunda.
Image Courtesy of Daily Times Malawi.
The following morning the newspaper carried the title “Kajani Kaunda holds Grandmaster”. The former National Champion was greatly revered for this feat.
We continue to revere the Grandmaster title till date, as we also continue to press forward to getting our first Grandmaster in Malawi.
What is your Grandmaster Story?