It was a picturesque morning as I stood, a fresh coffee cup in hand, looking out at the soft mist blanket completely enveloping the peacefully sleeping riverbank. Soft music was playing My Cherie Amor over the speakers as I was standing below a sign that said Toilettes pointing past the vineyards and Winery over in the direction of the quaint village shops with names like Boulangerie, and Belle Foi La Boutique. Behind me chess players were braving the slight chill, heads bent mulling over their boards in the fresh open air. No, we were not in France and this was was not on the French Riviera. This was at a place called the Pont De Val in the Free State province of South Africa, right on the banks of the Vaal River, perhaps the greatest river in the country. Chess players in this tournament were treated to one of the best VIP chess experiences to grace us in a long while perhaps the best ever.
The tournament was the Le Chevalier, the brain child of Danie Murray, a visionary, who saw how this setting was best suited for the game of Kings and Queens and he thus put together a talented team to realize the dream. For this tournament he had Karmien Roux and the branding guru and creative director Allister Cousins who made all the beautifully polished graphics and videos. Chief Arbiter for the event was Eric Phakathi assisted by Sanele Mnthombeni with Etienne on the Technical side.
This Hybrid tournament held a prior qualification phase online and the top 20 players who qualified had to physically meet over the board at the Pont De Val venue. The qualified players were now not in isolated comfort playing online but were COVID masked up staring each other down in intense mental chess battle. The participation was very strong in terms of chess strength and popular SA Twitch streamer and participant Andrew Horne was both playing and streaming the event live on his channel Chess Heroes. The top 2 boards could be followed live on DGT.
The Opening and closing ceremonies were done by Danie Murray, remotely. He unfortunately was unable to attend the event due to health reasons but was there all along as a virtual all-seeing laptop android.
The first 4 rounds were an emotionally tumultuous affair. Kulasande Mafanya who qualified in the online phase did not pitch up and was not answering his phone so the first round ended up with his paired opponent Kaden Muller not getting to play.
He was replaced in subsequent rounds by the Under 8 Sports Achiever of the Year as well as Sports Athlete of the Year achiever Kajol Naidoo who was graciously allowed to play by the organizers even thou she came 14th in the qualifiers. The only other female participant was Under 14 talent Chloe Badenhorst.
Ireon Louw (1406) was on NM Corne Klaver’s (2020) throat in the first round until he agreed to a peace treaty and Christiaan De Wet (1158) upset Ockert De Villiers (1823) in that same round. Christiaan then went on to lose to Ireon in the second round. Ockert, angered by the loss to Christiaan took it out on NM Klaver who was not having a good day at the office.
The terrible 3 Keith, Banele and Vusi came prepared to do damage in their matching Law Of Attraction branded hoodies and Tees, complete with Russian or Scandinavian-country versions of their names.
One of the terrible three, Vusumuzi Mlahleki (Vusky) had to stop the madness by subduing Ireon, the iron born, in the third round on board 3. Vusumuzi, who was having a great tournament then surpised me by decapitating IM Rodwell Makoto in the 4th round. It is here that I need to mention that this strong tournament line-up had the upcoming Chess World Cup player and Africa representative, the Zimbabwean International Master Rodwell Makoto in attendance. Also of note was the participation of International Master Providence Oatlhotse of Botswana.
As the dust settled after round 4 with no clear lead, there was a lunch break and the VIP participants could use the vouchers they received to purchase lunch and refreshments from the restaurants. Oh, I failed to mention this earlier, each of the 20 participants received a R400 voucher to buy themselves refreshments at the venue! This is practically unheard of in the usual chess events! Who pays R100 to play an online qualifying event and is then credited with R400 in the final OTB event?
In round 5 FM Banele survived a scary Q vs B+R ending against Bonisani Nsibande and the underrated Ireon Louw (1410) caused another upset by punishing Johan Wasserman (1916) in the 6th. By the last round Banele smoked the peace pipe with Providence to end their tournament on 5 points each and Keith knocked on IM Makoto’s skull from the inside and got the full point to end up on 5.5 points while Vusi tripped up Simphiwe Buthelezi and also got the full point to end up on 5.5 joint lead.
Positions 3rd and 4th shared their prize but Keith and Vusi decided to go with an Armageddon match which then clarified things at the top. Keith won the encounter to be crowned the Le Chevalier Championship winner!
This is a story of how passion transcends established norms. The inevitable change. The welcome change.
I will upload more images on our Africa Chess Media Facebook page. A huge Thanks to the Organizers of this event, Le Chevalier may it grow the game of chess in leaps and bounds!