“الفائز هو الحالم الذي لا يستسلم أبداً.” ~ نيلسون مانديلا
“A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.” ~Nelson Mandela
It is an unusually cool quiet evening in Tanta, Egypt. The date is September 09th 1988 and a very special boy has just been born. The earth does not tremble or shake and the quiet statues of the Pharaohs remain staring nonchalantly ahead, as they have for millennia.
Yet this was the day when the current best chess player on the African continent and arguably the best the continent has yet produced, was born.
His parents named him Bassem Amin, meaning the one who smiled. His chess playing accolades are too many to mention and he most recently successfully defended his African crown against a strong and talented lineup of the best the continent has to offer by winning the Africa Individual Chess Championship just a few days ago.
He performs c-sections and brain surgery on the chessboard using the precision tools of the chess personality type “surgeon“, that leaves opponents awake on the operating table we just refer to as “the board”. Most of them are fully aware of the impending doom but their chess army is rendered hapless to fight back as if heavily dosed with a local anesthetic!
He does this all the the while remaining humble, courteous and grounded with no trace of arrogance…
I caught up with Grandmaster Dr. Bassem Amin (he is a real-life medical professional) to get some idea of who he is, where he comes from and how he has managed to become the dominant force over African chess he is today.
Here begins our interview below:
Image credit | Prochessleague.com
Childhood and development
Which hospital in Egypt were you born in?
I have no idea!
Was there chess being taught in any of the schools you attended?
You have previously mentioned that your father taught you the game of chess, where did the hunger and curiosity to then know more of it and keep going come from?
All came from my father I was only a five-year-old kid who just liked to play the game but he noticed I have a talent and he started to get chess coaches for me and throughout the way he was always motivating me to become better and better.
Do you have any siblings and do they play? Or are you unique in your family with this?
I only have one brother who is one year older than me, but he doesn’t like playing chess (so boring for him because it takes so much time!). And yes, no one else in my family plays chess at tournament level except a cousin of mine, Dr. Marco, who played for couple of years during his high school (maybe he was quite inspired by me), but later stopped when he started college. He still likes the game and follows my games live sometimes.
When you were a child, what was it like beating everyone (adults, other kids) at the game and how did the people around you treat you?
For me of course, it was feeling great because I was almost six (6) years old and I could beat people 50 years older than me, also for my family it was impressive.
Knowing the right materials to consume when getting better is important. Who guided your rise?
When I first started playing I was so young so of course I was helped by so many Egyptian coaches and they all helped me to improve but the two who made the biggest difference in my chess level are Magdy George and Hassan Khaled.
Who were your chess role models as a child?
Alexander Alekhine, Robert Fischer and Garry Kasparov.
Personal life and career
Bassem Amin: From left, taking the selfie is: My Brother, Dr. Amin, then my mom, Dr. Salwa, then my father-in-law, Mr. Akram, holding our baby Lara, is my wife Dr. Christine and I, behind us is Dr. Samir, my father and in front of us is my brother’s wife Mrs. Gina.
Was chess in any way involved when you met your real life Queen?
Not really we go to the same church that’s how I knew her.
How does she view chess?
Well she is trying to learn more about the game but she was quite busy since we got married as she was still studying her final year of medicine and then she finished last January and we got our baby Lara in February so now she is even more busy, also, she is starting one year training in hospital before she officially graduates as doctor, but she is always supporting me when I’m playing tournaments and she follows my games live for hours even if she doesn’t get everything happening but these days you can always see computer evaluations of the positions.
How has fatherhood impacted on your outlook in life and on your chess?
Of course becoming a father is a huge change in my life and it increases the responsibilities I have but of course it’s a great feeling as well to hold your own baby and it’s a great motivation as well!
Are you practicing in your medical profession currently and, with chess being so challenging, why did you decide to take on such a difficult profession?
For almost two years now (since I finished army service March 2016), I have been playing chess professionally. There were many things that encouraged me to join the faculty of medicine: first was that I got very high grades in high school, so it was possible for me to study whatever I liked.
Secondly, all my family members are working in the medical field. My grandfather was a cardiologist and so is my father, my brother back then was also studying medicine. He had just finished his first year when I started, so of course he could always help me with the studies. Also, in Egypt, chess is not really sufficient as a job, because the support we get from the ministry of sports is so little, so I had to have a plan B for anytime I feel that chess isn’t enough for me anymore.
How hard was it juggling chess and your studies?
It was really hard of course, medical studies are quite hard and need a lot of study, so does chess, and I was still playing quite a lot of chess tournaments during college, so I missed a lot of lectures and so on, but luckily, I was able to put in some extra efforts to study after the tournaments, and before exams; and luckily I managed to finish the seven (7) years of medicine and at the same time, still improve my chess level and rating!
Is a career in medicine not a more stable way to make a living than chess? Have you chosen one over the other?
Of course medicine is more stable than chess but for me if I work as a doctor I will be only starting my career while in chess I have already achieved quite a lot if I may say. Also, I been playing chess for almost twenty (25) years and I really enjoy it, so having it as a job was clearly an option I preferred, even if it’s quite different now when you have more responsibilities and of course you can’t always win, so it puts extra pressure on me when playing.
Opinions and experiences
In your opinion what needs to happen for more African players to be in the elite levels of play?
First of all, we need to get chess more popular on our continent and promote it in schools especially. That’s how we can get many people playing the game and this is what will encourage sponsors to organize strong Chess tournaments in Africa, and to also sponsor national teams and countries’ top players. That way, players will automatically improve.
How can we get more African women involved and competitive in the game?
Same as I said above, chess in schools – more tournaments, high prizes and there should be something special happening for the top players in each country’s Top ten (10). I would say men and women should be receiving the same fixed salary depending on their rating and the achievements they have. That should motivate other players to work hard to get in the top ten and will keep the top players also working hard to save their spot!
What advice(s) can you give young players who look up to you?
Well, I would advise them to work hard on chess. I’ve always believed that if u practice, you improve. The more you work the better you get. Also, nowadays things are becoming much easier, with so much chess data and courses available online, you just have to study it!
You came to the Hyena cave some time ago and left undefeated, how was the experience and atmosphere like there?
I was so happy when I was there. I was accompanied by my friend Jackie (Ngubeni) and I was really impressed to see so many strong players in the park with a real passion for the game and I definitely would love to come back again one day!
The gods’ view of Joubert Park, Johannesburg | Image by Ofentse Mwase (@unclescrooch)
I have observed you several times give a slight smile before flaying an opponent over the board. Is this your trademark, the smiling assassin?
(Laughing) I don’t think I do that, maybe you only saw that in friendly blitz games when we are just having fun but in real games I don’t smile when I win, even if I am so happy to win. (Serious) I try to show respect to my opponents.
Does smiling have anything to do with your name?
Yes, my name is Bassem, which in Arabic means smiley!
How many African countries have you been to so far and are you planning on visiting more in the future?
Only nine countries so far (out of 40 I’ve been told in total). I definitely hope to visit more new countries in Africa!
About the Pro Chess league, why did you decide to participate? What has the experience been like? Do you see it as a natural progression to connect the world’s best players virtually?
I think the idea to organize the Prochess league is simply genius. It’s one of the best things happening in chess lately and I think it’s great for bringing the whole world to compete in one tournament and see the world best players competing online. I myself enjoy it a lot, just watching the games with the commentators all day and of course playing and being part of such cool events is always good.
What in your opinion was your best game and why?
I’m not so sure, but there is one game that I like a lot. It was against Cuban GM Vera Gonzalez, in the Cappelle la Grande tournament.
What was your worst and why?
I’m sure there are so many in the list, but for now, the first that came to my mind was my second classical game at the last World Cup in Georgia, when I was completely winning, (rook + two pawns against rook), where I blundered in one move to draw the game and instead of qualifying to second round, I immediately had to play tie breaks, but of course after such blunder it was so hard to recover in one night!
Who would you vote for in the upcoming continental elections and FIDE?
I am not really interested in FIDE elections as I can do nothing about it. I would have been more interested if players could actually vote! Only this would make candidates really care about players and not about other officials!
Caruana or Carlsen for World Chess Championship 2018?
I think it will be a really interesting match and the result will be so close. Carlsen is still the favorite, just because of his super strength in tiebreak rapid and blitz, which isn’t Fabi’s favorite!
Your most recent win at the Africa Individual Championships 2018, how did that make you feel and what did you most enjoy about Zambia?
It feels great to win the strongest tournament in our continent for a record five times also this time I scored my best result ever with eight and a half (8.5) points out of the possible nine (9), and what made it extra special is that it’s the first big win after my baby Lara was born..
The tournament was organized in Livingstone, and during the rest day, we went to Victoria Falls, which was a really amazing experience.
Bassem Amin enjoying the rest day at the Victoria Falls.
Who is your chess role model now?
Bassem Amin 😉
There were no abnormal celestial activities recorded on that day in 1988, except that according to in-the-sky.org, if you looked to the eastern horizon, you would have seen the effects of the Piscid meteor shower which was at maximum activity and it would have invariably led to an observation of some shooting stars.
Did someone make a wish on a star back then? I’m inclined to believe someone did…