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South Africa’s Chess Program Crisis Cuts to Core of Rainbow Nation's Issues

For the estimated 600 million chess players around the world, the ancient sport is taught as a game of skill and savage elegance, played out on a board where both sides are equal.

But in South Africa, one of the world’s most unequal societies, which is still deeply divided along color lines, the business of chess is not so black and white. And in many ways, the sport’s struggles mirror the Rainbow Nation’s own three-decade journey to build a fair society.

For three years, the national federation, Chess SA, has been embroiled in expensive lawsuits that have thrown the sport into confusion — and, Parliament argues, kept deserving, underprivileged players from representing the nation in vital tournaments. As a result, the government has suspended critical chess funding — about $120,000, per year — until they break the impasse.

The nation’s continuing inequality — and how to address it — seems to be the crux of the problem here. The national federation has two dueling executive boards, with two very different visions. Both claim that they are the rightful board, and both have spent tens of thousands of dollars in court to try to get control. The two sides were called to Parliament in November to account for themselves, leading them to agree to start arbitration.

While many of the nation’s young players don’t know what’s going on in the back ranks of the organization — players like 12-year-old Lulu Myaka say they see the effects.

For Lulu, who attends a government school in a middle-income area near Johannesburg, she sees the effects every weekend, when she goes to a tournament or plays online — and sees only well-off players like herself. Tournament fees start around $10 — and that doesn’t include transportation or meals, and sponsorships are hard to come by as chess is not a heavily sponsored sport. That small sum is out of reach for many families: the government’s statistics agency says the median household in South Africa is about $225 per month, and those funds are usually expected to support 3.5 people.

“I would really like for them probably to make it cheaper so that the less fortunate kids can also play,” said Lulu, who is ranked 52nd nationally, in her age group. “But for me, I do play a lot. But I don't see the less fortunate kids because they made it very expensive just to join a tournament, which they can't go into.”

VOA wanted to fairly represent the two men who claim the top spot at Chess SA. So we flipped a coin to decide who got to speak first, and asked them: what’s the main issue here?

“Our focus should be on leveling the playing field,” Chess SA President Joe Mahomole told VOA. “Bring everybody on board. And remember, for the children, this is also part of socialization and education. That's why it's very important. That’s why transformation is actually very important…. It's about building a society that believes in equality and everything done good for everyone, irrespective of your income irrespective of where you live, irrespective of your gender, irrespective of your disability.”

His rival, Hendrik Du Toit—who also claims to be president of Chess SA —countered that opening.

“The transformation narrative is abused to score political points and to create an emotional agenda,” he said. “And it also has the side effect — and in my mind — one of the worst side effects that you can have is that it gets rid of competence. In other words, where we say we do not choose our boards on competence, but rather on race. And I believe that that is very, very dangerous.”

The government appears to side with Mahomole, but the international chess body, FIDE, has vowed neutrality — a situation that has left everyone pinned in place.

Lulu’s mother, Thuli Myaka, a self-described “chess mom,” — though, she notes, her son plays soccer, also making her a “soccer mom” — doesn’t play either sport. But she offered an elegant solution to both warring presidents: resign.

”I would say that if they merge and just choose another president, you know, someone who's actually not biased or would just be the president for the game and just take it on from there, to give the kids and other kids the opportunity to just play the game, and know the game and grow the game,” she said. “So I think the two guys should step down, on my position, on my take, for everything so that we don't have fights. We're not here to fight. We're here to play.”

Will they take that advice, and bow out elegantly? VOA asked the two dueling presidents if they’d agree to a draw. Both refused.

But for Lulu, who said she badly misses in-person tournaments, this drama won’t get in the way of her dreams. She has been playing since she was six, and says her math scores and other grades are better for it.

“I probably want to travel around the world and also get to see how others play, just not just in Africa, but other continents as well,” she said.

She sees the chess board taking her far in life, beyond the one international tournament she attended in Kenya, where, her mother acidly noted, she had to pay for every little thing, including Lulu’s “Chess SA” team t-shirts — whereas with her son’s soccer activities, she pays a lump sum at the beginning of the term and everything is covered.

Her mother, who watched proudly as her daughter checkmated our producer in 37 moves, said she just wishes every child could be exposed to the mind-opening game.

“There's no opportunity,” she said. ”There's not even an opportunity where there's coaches going to schools to teach underprivileged kids You know, I've seen a lot of difference with her math and some other subjects — and also just mentally, it makes you think differently in life when you play the chess game. … Even if they don't go broader, or even if they don't go further with travelling and playing tournaments outside of this country, if they can get an opportunity, it would be great.”

VOA reconstructed the game Lulu played against VOA producer and chess coach Alessandro Parodi. Here is his reconstructed notation, with commentary.

The notation “$2” means “poor move or mistake;” $5 means “speculative or interesting move;” $6 means “questionable or dubious move.”

White: Parodi, Alessandro (rating: 2,029)
Black: Myaka, Silungile (rating: 1,105)

1. d4 e6

2. c4 Bb4+

3. Bd2 Bxd2+

4. Nxd2 The start of the Bogo-Indian Defense Nf6

5. g3 d5

6. Bg2 Nc6

7. Ngf3 b6 A dangerous choice. The text move exposes the vulnerable Ra8 to the white Bishop's X-Ray attack.

8. O-O O-O

9. Rc1 Ng4 $2

10. cxd5 exd5 Black is still in time to save the Knight with 10... Ne7 (and endure a difficult middlegame).

11. Rxc6 Bb7

12. Rc1 Qf6

13. Nb3 c5 Trying to react in the center, but at the cost of another pawn. Better was 13... Rac8 (preparing the breakthrough.)

14. dxc5 bxc5

15. Nxc5 Rac8 $2: This drops another piece.

16. b4 $2: Nxb7 is clearly winning for White. d4

17. Qd3 Bxf3

18. Bxf3 Nh6

19. a4 From this point, White starts underestimating Black's chances on the Kingside. It would have been more accurate to bring the last piece into the center with 19. Rfd1 Rb8 $6: 19... Rfd8

20. b5 $2: Nd7 would win additional material. Rfe8

21. Rc2 Nf5

22. a5 Re5

23. Ne4 Qg6

24. Rfc1 with the threat of Rc8#. h5

25. Rc8+ Rxc8

26. Rxc8+ Kh7

27. a6 h4

28. Ra8 hxg3

29. Nxg3 hxg3 keeps the defenses around the white King intact. f6

30. Qc4 Be4 would have been a knockout move, with unstoppable pressure along the b1-h7

diagonal. Ne7 $5: preventing the powerful threat of Qg8+

31. Qc7 $2: Slow and ineffective. Qg5

32. Qxa7 Ng6 Black correctly regroups her pieces towards the white King, which is left with insufficient defenses.

33. b6 $2: at last allowing Black's attack to materialize. Nh4

34. b7 Qc1+

35. Nf1 Rg5+

36. Bg2 Rxg2+

37. Kh1 Qxf1#