Kenyan Chess Prodigy Otieno Isiah Dream of Becoming a Grand Master


Isiah Otieno, 15, a form one student at Mang’u High school displays his medals and trophies during an interview at their home in Tena Estate in Nairobi on July 22, 2020. His chess skills have helped him and his family get support from Swedish chess grand master Pontus Carlsson who relocated them from Mukuru Kwa Njenga slums to Tena estate.

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At 15 years, Isiah Otieno should be depending on his parents for his well-being.

But because of his love for chess, the slender boy has transformed the life of his family for the better.

It is on a Tuesday, about 3pm and the teenager is busy preparing to compete in an online chess tournament on his laptop.


For maximum concentration, he has locked himself in the sitting room of their two-bedroomed house on the first floor of a seven-storey building at Tena Estate, Nairobi. This is a stark opposite of the kind life that he has lived together with his family at the Mukuru Kwa Njenga slums in Nairobi.

“Living in such a place is a whole different experience for me,” beamed Otieno.

The teenager’s life and that of his family took a turn for the better in June thanks to Swedish Grand Master (GM) Pontus Carlsson who is his mentor.

Carlsson who has been following Otieno’s progress in chess since his 2017 visit in Kenya says that he opted to uplift the family to help the teenager achieve his dream of being a GM.

“To become one of the best chess players in his age while living in Mukuru Kwa Njenga shows big potential in him. A potential that is hard to fulfill under those living conditions,” Carlsson told Nation Sport from his base in Sweden.

“Thus the family needed better living conditions so that Isaiah and his family can continue to fight hard to fulflil their potential.”

GM is the most coveted title in chess and Carlsson attained his in 2007.
Kenya has never had a GM.

Apart from paying the monthly Sh20,000 rent for the family, Carlsson also caters for their basic needs. He plans to relocate the family of eight to a three-bedroomed house.

The transformation has seen the teenager’s parents change their perspective on him playing chess.

“At first when he (Otieno) started playing chess, I did not accept it because chess was new to me. Again here in Kenya, it is difficult for one to make it in life through sports, so I kept on telling him to stop playing chess and concentrate on his studies,” said the teenager’s father Peter Oluoch who is a casual labourer.

His mother Ruth Achieng’ said: “We are very happy as a family. We give him enough time to train, sometimes providing him with bus fare to honour tournaments.”

At Mukuru Kwa Njenga slums, life was tough for the family of eight.

They lived in a single-roomed iron sheet structure with no running water and shared one bathroom and toilet with several other households. In February, their house was flooded by rain water and Otieno lost some of his items including the trophies.


He was introduced to chess in 2015, then at class four by Sports Outreach Ministry, a non-governmental organisation that was sponsoring his education, together with several other pupils from humble backgrounds.

He emerged fourth in the first tournament he competed at and since then, he has never looked back in the sport, the 16 medals hanging on the sitting room wall and a trophy on a wooden table being the testament of his prowess in the game.

“I was playing for fun until when I attended my first tournament. With continued training, I have mastered the game and enjoys it so much,” said the form one student at Mang’u High School in Kiambu County.

He estimates the number of tournaments that he has competed at to be about 100, his major achievement being on June 20 when he beat Swedish GM Nils Grandelius in an online competition.

Carlsson says Otieno’s potential reminds him of the days when he was young, as he is “very logical and smart.”

He has also connected the house with the internet and holds weekly sessions with the boy virtually. He believes with this transformation, Otieno will achieve his dream to be a GM.

“It is very possible (to be a GM)! Of course he needs to work very hard, and he needs to be able to travel but now he has a computer and the same chess program as the one I am using. All this is totally new to him and gives him the chance to improve his game,” said the 37-year-old.

Locally, Otieno who plays for the Nairobi Chess Academy is trained by former Chess Kenya chairman and Coach Githinji Hinga.

The form one student is so committed to chess that he has with him several books for reference. He has set a target of being Kenya’s national champion in 2021.

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