What’s common to a traffic policeman in Djibouti, a healthcare worker in Malta, a manager at a Sports City in Jordan and a computer engineering student in Iraq? They’re all now in Mahabalipuram, near Chennai, playing in the 44th Chess Olympiad.
The major headlines in chess usually deal with Russia, Norway, India, the USA and several other major global powers, but the charm of the Olympiad lies in meeting participants from non-traditional chess countries who’ve made it here to pit their wits. And, with 187 teams in the open section and 164 teams in the women’s section, Mahabalipuram is a global village.
Abdallah Hussein Ali, who turns 30 next year, has made his first trip away from home. He introduces himself with a polite bow and says he’s from Djibouti. He wants to share his story but says something you’d never hear anywhere else during a sporting event: “I’m actually playing a game right now. I quickly sneaked out for a bathroom break. Can I speak to you after my match?”
Off he strides, in his pistachio green overalls. True to his word, he shares his story after his game. “I trained very hard, for two years, for the Olympiad. I was getting stronger and was among the best in my country but when you come here you see…[the level of competition] but all is well,” he says with a hearty laugh.
“The Japanese player [Kojima Shinya, his opponent] was so strong, wow. He was too good. He made the kill move when I came back from the bathroom break. I lost focus and he closed out the game,” he laments while adding that he would have preferred to have started with white pieces.
Ali, whose day job is as a traffic policeman, works for close to 20 hours a stretch and then has the next 20 hours off, before repeating the cycle. His free time goes in chess. “My wife gets annoyed with me because I play chess in whatever free time I get. She calls me and I say I am busy, I will call you back…I am with my other wife [chess!],” he says with a belly laugh.
“Meeting so many new people, trying out new food, the competition here…it’s really opened my eyes. I’m so happy to be here,” he says. He’s planned a week-long vacation in Ethiopia with his wife and eight-month-old son to rejuvenate after the Olympiad.
Mansour Sameer (57), has played chess for the better part of 30 years, and is a Chess Olympiad veteran. And he’s had a long-standing love affair with India.
“I am thrilled to finally be in the birthplace of chess. I’m convinced chess was founded in India because I’ve read about how the Indian military was set up back in the day – the cavalry, infantry, elephantry, and chariotry. Chess was called chaturanga in Sanskrit, while we called it shatranj in Arabic,” he says.
“In fact, we don’t even call it chess…we refer to chess as laeibah al hindi (the Indian game) back at home,” he adds. Mansour is one of six International Masters from Jordan. His son, Loay Sameer, is also on the list, making it two International Masters in the same house.
“I’ve read so much about the civilisations in India and have studied about the great Ramanujan [Srinivas Ramanujan, the maths genius]. In fact, many people who study maths in Jordan know about Ramanujan. Is there a museum of his I can visit in Chennai?” he asks. He perhaps would have driven past the Ramanujan IT Park on his way to Mahabalipuram and is on the lookout for a museum now.
Uranchimeg Psaila, a Woman Candidate Master from Malta, isn’t playing today. She’s come to the venue to soak in the vibes and meet new people, she says. Uranchimeg, or Urna as she likes to be called, is Mongolian by birth and adopted Maltese citizenship after marrying Clarence Psaila, a FIDE Master from Malta.
She didn’t know a move on the chessboard until she met Clarence, who convinced her to pick up the sport. “I picked up chess from my husband around 15 years ago, but I’m not very good at it,” she says with a sheepish smile.
“Malta is a very small country, you can’t just play chess you know. I work as a caretaker in an old people’s home. I really like it, I like helping people,” she says as Viswanathan Anand walks by. “I haven’t met him but I’ve heard a lot about him.”
Urna also knows of Andre Schembri, the former Maltese football captain who played for Chennaiyin FC in the Indian Super League two years ago. Malta’s population is less than half of Chennai’s population. Yet sport, being the true uniter it is, has somehow brought her to the shores of Chennai.
A little further away from Urna is Rabeea Sabah Nori, a 20-year-old from Iraq. He’s the youngest player in his team by a good 15 years and enjoyed a win over Thomas Larry of Dominica. Rabeea, whose name means spring in Arabic, is a football savant – his favourite club is Barcelona. “Yeah, Messi has left but has to leave at some point,” he says before he can be quizzed about it. He points to his tucked-in t-shirt and says “I picked that up from Karim Benzema.” We proceed to speak about Benzema’s stellar campaign last year and how Rabeea had a terrible Fantasy Premier League [FPL] season.
Rabeea, who is pursuing a course in computer engineering, hopes chess can be as popular as football in Iraq one day. “People are warming up to the sport, but of course, football is the most popular sport. There are a few more young players around my age, coming up now and that could help popularise chess,” he says.
From Malta, Djibouti and Iraq, the Chess Olympiad has brought the global family to the board.