Watching the movie 90 MINUTES AT ENTEBBE, as a 5 year old at my father’s feet, the sight of the tall Ugandan soldiers remained impressed in my heart. I was too young to understand the politics behind the plot, but many years later, when I saw the tall Ugandan chess player, FM Harold Wanyama, at the 2016 Baku Chess Olympiad, flashes of the movie played in my mind. As his mighty Rooks paraded in the back rank of his opponent’s position, I imagined him as a Ugandan soldier poised for the assault.
Growing up in the middle class township of Bugoloobi in Kampala City, where hobbies like playing plastic paper football, marble, and watching action movies were common among boys, FM Harold Wanyama had nothing to do with the chess board until he was about 13 years old, when he was introduced to the royal game by his cousin Mafabi Goeffrey.
He immediately took interest in the game, and certainly guided by destiny, four (4) years later, he started participating in tournaments. Little did he know the move would take him to places and earn him a name as one of the most formidable chess players in East Africa, not even mentioning other fantasies like being featured in newspapers, television programs and magazines.
As he narrated his maiden tournament experience of 1998, I imagined a tall slim boy sitting on the other side of the board intoxicated with the anxiety of his first tournament experience. Religious as he is now, he may have debated to himself if it was worthy to be participating in The Vision Easter Chess Tournament or to attend Easter prayers. But Wanyama says he was encouraged by his parents to participate, proving the fact that parents have a huge role to play in the development of a child’s chess.
Though he says he was just playing for fun, but as he narrated the game he lost to one of the most dangerous players of the tournament, Bob Bibasa, in the early rounds, it revealed he meant business. As he narrated, I imagined him uncomfortably change his posture each time Bibasa made his moves, because, as he put it: “Bibasa played almost immediately each time I made my move”. He emphasized “ It was a tragic loss, and it was the only thing I remember about the tournament”, and that sounds like somebody who meant business and was frustrated.
Despite participating and winning some tournaments in between, Harold, the Eastern star, did not shine brightest until 2006, when he won the East Africa Open, an achievement that gave him the right to be called the King of East African Chess. Harold says the achievement injected him with so much boldness, that he went on to defend the championship in 2007 ahead of formidable players like Patrick Kawuma and Elijah Emojong.
In the same year 2006, he qualified for the Uganda Olympiad team for the first time in Turin, Italy, but was unable to join the team to the glamorous event, due to lack of funding. The story remained the same going to the 2008 Olympiad in Dresden, Germany, which he describes as one of the most discouraging moments in his chess career. “I felt very bad, but I told myself things will get better one day, and my Olympiad breakthrough was coming”, he said.
But during this period Harold made sure he battered people on the chess boards back home in Uganda, even winning the prestigious Rwabushenyi Memorial which was a tournament of national significance in 2008.
As his style of play became more defined, he became more balanced, which tends toward risk taking (even breathtaking risks), the dawn finally fell on Harold in 2010, when he got his first Olympiad breakthrough in Khanty Mansisky, Russia, an event somebody remembered him for his heavy sweater, sitting on the first board of the Ugandan team. Though his performance was not that impressive, the event gave him good insight about chess.
Little wonder in 2012, when he made an impressive come back to the Olympiad, which held in Istanbul Turkey. He got a straight Fide Master (FM) title after winning 60 percent of his games. At this event, Harold cherished his wins over IM Shanmugan of Singapore rated over ELO 2400 and Jose Daniel Gomy of Bolivia rated ELO 2345. “Against Daniel, I sacrificed my Queen and the game played itself”, he said while trying to hide his pride in the smoothness of his win and tone.
Apart from these games, Harold, who is currently the 3rd highest rated player in Uganda, also points at his win over Egyptian Grandmaster, GM Essam Elgindy, at the Zone 4.2 Individual Chess Championship in 2015 as one of his most memorable wins.
In the years to come Harold was going to qualify for the 2014 and 2016 Olympiads in Tromso and Baku respectively, where he played a pivotal role, leading the young Ugandan team where it mattered most. In Baku, Azerbaijan, he was one of the hot contenders for board 2 award, finishing 9th, ahead of the American chess cyborg, Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura.
Without being to Harold Wanyama’s home in Uganda, I can guess he has a big shelf, where he puts his trophies for safe keeping. Apart from qualifying for the Olympiad, other major achievements include:
- Winning the Rwabushenyi Memorial in 2008, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2016
- Malgo open in 2012
- Kauma open 2016
- Kireka open 2017
And has also enjoyed a good national league success, being best board one in the 2016 season with Makerere, Mulagodmark and Kireka Chess Clubs, making his trophy shelf one of the most loaded in Eastern Africa.
Though his Sicilian was crushed at the actual event, qualifying for the Millionaire chess in Las vegas in 2015 was also one of his stand out achievements, putting into consideration the players he had to go through to get the ticket.
As most people were thinking that the star may not shine as bright anymore, he won the KCB Kenya Open in 2018, an achievement which caused Kenyan cartoonist Francis Kinyanjuyi to do a ridiculously brilliant cartoon of Harold beating Kenyan players with a baton.
Though in recent times, he has been talking of retiring from the mental sport, many people believe that if he can shelf the retiring idea, he can still win great things on the chessboard and maybe go on to get the Grandmaster title that has eluded him all these while.
Outside of chess, Harold also enjoys playing social football and works as a Business Intelligence developer with Compuscan CRB of Uganda.
Kenya Chess Masala: https://kenyachessmasala.com/2017/06/battle-of-titans.html
Francis Kenyanjui: The Cartoonist