Up Close and Personal with IM Watu Kobese Part 1

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One of South Africa’s finest chess International Master Watu Kobese was interviewed by Adesewa Oyewole for a BruvsChess Media series “Up, Close and Personal“. 

The South African international master gave amazing insights on chess in Africa, amongst other topics, he talked about racism in chess, problems that the African chess community is facing, his ideas on how to overcome these problems, his most competitive games, and so on. This interview has been divided into three parts and would be released in sequence. 

For this purpose of this article, IM Watu Kobese would be referred to as IM W.K. Please note that this article was transcribed from the original interview video. Some words have been edited for an easy read. Click to watch the full interview. Original interview date: 8/06/2020.

Brief Biography: 

Watu Kobese is a South African International master, FIDE Trainer, a chess coach, and an author. He has won the South African Closed Championship three times, and the South African Open twice. He has also represented South Africa in 12 Olympiads. Still very active, IM Watu Kobese is rated number four amongst South Africa’s chess players. 

Watu Kobese speaks on his achievements, racism in chess, and problems the African chess community faces.

Moderator: Good afternoon (referring to Watu Kobese), thank you so much for taking the time to have this interview with me.

IM W.K.: Thank you Adesewa for having me.

Moderator:  So just out of curiosity, why chess as a career? Why did you choose chess as a career?

IM W.K.: Well, emmm, you know chess is a very fascinating game and a game that you are constantly trying to master. You can never really say that you master it in a way, you could get to different levels and eh, I just find it extremely challenging mentally. When I decided to play professionally that is to go to different tournaments in different countries, I was much younger obviously, and also I liked the idea of the freedom to choose, you know, where to go, the freedom to choose when to go and so on. 

Moderator: Interesting. So you are one of South Africa’s finest chess players, so far, what has been your biggest achievement, and how have you thrived over the years?

IM W.K.:  Well, I will say probably my biggest achievement chess-wise has been tying for first place in ‘The All Africa Championship Individual championship, this was in 2001. Yes, I tied for first with Grandmaster Hamdouchi from Morocco, and that was probably the highlight of my career and I won the South African Championship. We have a closed championship and open championship, I have won it many times, that is the highlight. I have represented South Africa may be on ten different Olympiads. That I would also say it is a highlight and I’ve played in four World Cups Knock-out world cups, which is also a highlight in my career.

Moderator: So.. speaking about achievements, there are so many Grandmasters, both young and old outside Africa. Do you think that the numbers of Grandmasters we have in Africa at the moment are what we should have?

IM W.K.: No, obviously not.

IM W.K.: Well look, the fact of the matter is that you cannot take one thing in isolation from Africa. In Africa, you can look at it as a very unfortunate situation, we have been under a lot of pressure and there’s a reason why we are under this pressure. I would divert a bit. Unfortunately, I think a turning point for us Africans was two very important periods. 

The first period was slavery, trans-Atlantic slavery, and the second one was when the European country decided to colonize Africa. These were two significant turning points in Africa. 

The reason I said this is because, when slavery and colonization of Africa were decided, one of the things that were necessary for the colonizers to make, was first of all to eradicate our history. That was number one, to eradicate our history, to eradicate how we saw ourselves.

I mean before that, we were, were one of the world’s leaders in terms of knowledge if not the world leaders. We had people who would come to study in Africa, we were teaching the Greeks, and all of a sudden, history has discarded us for teaching them. 

They say the Greeks are the fathers of civilization when everybody knows that for these guys to understand anything there to come to Africa.

They had to re-write history and portrayed us as people who didn’t know anything about themselves, people who never contributed anything, people who were running around naked, and had to be saved. 

So, this type of institutionalization was not just in Africa, it is very important to understand, that it was in Europe in the sense that a lot had to be falsified, a lot had to be lied about in the schooling system, in the church and it has gone on historically. So, that never stopped and that has been a continuous timeline that we find ourselves even today. 

So chess is not in isolation, it was just important for me to paint this picture. And since chess is not in isolation, it also explains why we don’t have many grandmasters in Africa. In many cases, the playing fields are not equal. The playing fields are tilted against us and you have an incredible mountain to climb if you are an African wanting to get this title. 

This is because in many cases, we, unfortunately, go abroad to compete. I mean I have played tournaments in Russia for example, and on the train, I was called a monkey, many times. By that, you are not only made to feel that you don’t belong but you know you don’t belong. People are making you aware that you should not be here, and when you go and sit at the board, all of these plays itself out.   

IM W.K.: I’m just painting one part of the issue. The other part is the monetary side. You know you play without support, and at some point, you are running out of money. I’ve played many tournaments where I could not have three meals a day and I had to try to survive. You are playing and in some cases you are hungry. All of these are contributory factors.

All these are things we should start thinking about as Africans and Africans in the diaspora. We obviously should continue playing olympiads, striving the part, and we need to do extra. 

I will give another example of why I am saying this. Around 1992-1994, South Africa was ahead of Egypt as a team. We always scored ahead of Egypt or at least equal and we were ahead of many other countries in the Arab Nations. We were ahead of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and we could beat them easily. 

But what happened was that there was a moment where they moved forward and we stopped. Some of the reasons why they moved forward, I am not saying that it is the only reason but one of the reasons is because they had what we call the Arab league. 

The Arabs had the money to fund many tournaments such that the Arab world; Qatar, Dubai, and so on saw these Arabs from Egypt, from Algeria, from Tunisia, from Morocco, as their blood brothers, and as a sense, they played Arabic championship, they played Arabic team championship, they played these Arab tournaments and you find that they are now having so many grandmasters. So what am I saying, in essence, it is not racist for the African to start thinking about events for African players. It is only the people who don’t want to acknowledge that we are at a disadvantage. Everyone else does their own thing to improve. They pump a lot of money in. 

But when it comes to us, we are not allowed to do it, we should start thinking about how to do things like this. I am not saying only, but we should. People in West Africa should think of how to make Western African Championship, where is it easier to travel. It is easier to travel to Nigeria, it is easier to travel to Ghana. The Eastern African guys should do that, the Southern African guys should do that also and at some point, we come together to play, share ideas, and so on. 

This is what is missing. Each player who tries to get out there is in isolation, you’re just alone, you are just a droplet fighting this machinery. It is a reality and unfortunately one of the reasons stopping us from becoming grandmasters. A grandmaster is not a world champion. I have played against grandmasters that I have beaten but still, I have no chance to become a grandmaster …… (Intercepted)

Moderator: Some people will say ‘because chess is just gaining recognition in Africa, that’s why the process is slow, and that’s why we don’t have so many grandmasters’. Because you know, when you go out and when you ask most people about chess, there is that confusion about the game. So do you think this is the reason? 

IM W.K.: I will come back to chess, but I think that the first problem we are having is the problem is within us. We have been under attack, no doubt about this but at a certain point, we have to self reflect on how we deal with the world today. The issue that we have is that we don’t have these serious conversations about who we put on leadership positions and how to we check them. And when I say leadership, I am not talking about politics, I am talking about every sphere of life that is important to us, including chess. For instance, “who do we elect to be in the Nigerian Chess Federation?’’ And how do we check if they are making progress or not?”

…”chess has a space in a world that wants to be better”

Our leaders are not accountable to anybody. And, since our leaders are not accountable, they do whatever they want and since they do whatever they want, the process of us improving in any sphere becomes slow. We are not putting out checks and balances.

No one is asking questions. For example, no one is saying ‘’oh, but how come we tried in Nigeria for ten years to have a grandmaster. Why haven’t we gotten one?’

These are people who are in the federation are not asking themselves these questions. It is easier for the federation to look for financial support than the individual. It is easy for the federation to make a drive to raise funds, for a strong player to compete in tournaments. So I am saying that chess, is a part and pieces of this reflection. 

The idea that ‘’chess is not popular’’, is not true. Chess is extremely popular. My argument is that chess has a space in a world that wants to be better, in a world that wants to think more, in a world that wants their children to focus, to be able to grow their mental faculties.

I am saying that chess should have space. I’m not saying it should take all the space, but there should be a space for chess, and when an activity like chess has no space we have a problem. That’s all I’m saying.

The second part of the interview will be uploaded soon. Do you have an opinion? Drop it in the comment section below.

Watch the full interview video

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