I remember lying on my bed in a three men room in the prestigious Post Graduate Hall of Obafemi Awolowo University. Don’t get that twisted, I was still an undergraduate at this time, I only had the space because I bought it from the PG student it was allocated to.
Whilst on that bed, a thought that had been on my mind crystallized. What will I do with my chess life? At that time I was playing a lot of chess for fun and I was getting quite good at it. On that bed I decided that I would make a mark in chess as one of my life achievements.
Not long after that momentous decision, Bimbo Ogunnowo – OAU’s then strongest player – told me that the year 2000 edition of the sports festival was set to hold in Bauchi and he was considering leaving school to participate. I realized then and there that this was my opportunity to make a mark. I then decided that I would attend too and get a gold medal. Little did I know what was in store for me.
I was at my department receiving classes in engineering, when during a break, I met Tolu Afolabi at the pavilion. Tolu Afolabi is WFM Tobi Olatunji’s uncle and coach at the time. He said to me that he was going to Bauchi in a few minutes and hoped to assist Tobi at the festival tagged Bauchi 2000, which had started.
That was how I hurriedly left for the hostel to pack my small load to travel to Bauchi. I was alone and didn’t know the road. I left for Mayfair motor park, which was the closest national motor park to the school. I told the drivers there that I wanted to get to Bauchi. They replied that I couldn’t get a direct bus to Bauchi from there. They offered to take me to Ilorin where they said I would get Bauchi easily. Little did I know I was going in an off direction from Ife to Bauchi. I eventually got to Ilorin at night when there was no more moving bus at the park. This left me having to look for somewhere to sleep.
I decided to go to the University of Ilorin and sleep with a chess player there. I got to their old campus and met the student sports head instead. He treated me well and allowed me to sleep in his dorm.
The morning I was off to the park. This was business hour. We passed through cold Jos, the journey taking the whole day before I got to Bauchi at night. I needed a place to sleep again so I could be fresh for my festival the next morning. I looked for the Ogun State camp attending the sports festival in Bauchi. I found their main camp, the chess team wasn’t there. They had lodged in a hotel. I looked for the Ogun camp because two of my schoolmates were in their chess team: Bimbo Ogunnowo and Olamide Ajibowo. That first night in Bauchi I slept in a bus at the main camp, but I had an auspicious dream promising that the future was bright.
The next day, I found the Ogun chess team. I met my school mates and other players I had seen in different tournaments. I relaxed and was happy. They made me feel at home. From then on, I camped with the Ogun chess team eating and sleeping with them but at this point, I didn’t have a team of my own.
On getting to the venue of the chess event of the Bauchi 2000 sports festival. I met a milieu of chess players. The chess crowd was friendly, encouraging and engaged during events.
I was able to locate team Anambra as the only team that needed a player. I met up with its coach, an ageing man not too well known to the chess crowd. He was glad to have me on his team and he took one crucial decision which I didn’t know at the time would help me achieve my ambition. He fielded me for the morning game on the same day I appeared. What I didn’t know was that two games had been played and even though I was registered on board six, I needed to play all remaining seven games to stand a chance to win a medal on board six.
I began to win game after game. I was determined to win not just to play chess. Certain things aided me. I was in a weak team that was on the lower rank of the table. I therefore met weak opposition.
However, by the time we reached the final round, we had to play a seasoned team. I realized that my gold medal dream was in jeopardy. We met team Bendel but that was not the only problem. There was another player in team Rivers who had a chance to get a gold medal. Tamuno Williams, younger brother of Abiye Williams, the top national master. He was a fine player by his own right. He had 7 ½ out of 8 and was sure of winning the last round to get 8 ½ out of 9. I had six out of six and a half in the last round meant gold medal would elude me. This was how I was introduced to the sports festival culture of arranging games.
I thought I was going to play my game so I began to psych myself up even though I was tenser than usual. The coach of Rivers wanted his boy to pick the gold medal so he approached team Bendel to beat me. They didn’t agree for some reason but one of their hangers on duped him that he was in their team and he would do the job.
When the round started, I sat down to play my game and pressed the clock after making my first move. My coach was still outside pleading and trying to match Rivers’moves. Then the assassin came to the board and played the Sicilian defense. After a while, he secured pressure leaving me faced with a need to win in a position I had to defend. My coach came through. He came with a national master playing for the Bendelites, who told off the assassin.
The master said he was the one registered on my board and the assassin was an impostor. He also said he was not interested in a game. All he wanted was a bottle of beer since my state was poor. My coach provided him with a cold one and he gave me my final game.
That was how I became Bauchi 2000 sports festival chess gold medalist on board six. After the games were concluded there in Bauchi, Tolu Afolabi came to meet me. He told me that when he arrived, he was begged to play for team Anambra in the slot that I eventually filled but he refused because they didn’t offer him any money. He said I was destined to get that gold that was why I got it and that I should go for the real gold. I became confused. All I wanted at that time was the gold medal. What was the gold medal that was real? Later, I decided it was a greater ambition the story of which we would leave for another day.
Tolulope Ogunwobi the organizer of Chessheights monthly writes from Lagos, Nigeria.