In the heart of Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, beneath the imposing arches of the National Stadium, chess masters and players alike gathered for a grand spectacle of intellect and strategy. From the 21st to the 26th of August 2023, the North Central Zonal Chess Championship unfolded an event as captivating as it was monumental. Organised under the aegis of the Nigerian Chess Federation (NCF) and hosted by the BeeCass Chess Foundation, this chess gala aimed not only to determine the best but also to nurture the growth of chess in Nigeria.
The festivities did not begin with the tournament’s official commencement. On the opening day of the event, 21st August, 2023, chess enthusiasts were treated to the BeeCass Chess and Scrabble Fiesta, a delightful prelude to the main event. This fiesta featured a thrilling seven-round Rapid chess event and a ten-round scrabble event, where players showcased their strategic prowess in quickfire battles. While some competitors chose to rest and prepare for the North Central Tournament, others eagerly participated in the fiesta. For these players, it was an opportunity to hone their skills and fine-tune their strategies in the heat of battle, ensuring they were in peak form for the challenging days that lay ahead in the North Central Zonal Chess Championship. It was a dynamic start to an extraordinary week of chess, setting the stage for the intense battles and strategic brilliance that would characterise the main event.
THE MAIN EVENT
The North Central Zonal Chess Championship was conceived with a noble purpose: to make the National Chess Championship more inclusive. A pre-qualifier slot was offered to the winners of various zonal chess tournaments throughout Nigeria. The North Central Zone was the stage for this particular encounter, and it was remarkable to see players from diverse regions coming together to create a sense of unity and belonging in their respective zones. But, as chess is the ultimate equaliser, it was not just a homecoming; it was a battle of wits and the pursuit of excellence.
The tournament boasted an array of categories, each with its own set of luminaries ready to dazzle the chessboard. In the open category, the field was nothing short of star-studded, with titans of the game vying for supremacy. IM Femi Balogun was a notable favourite to win the event. IM Balogun is a former national chess champion who represented Nigeria at the Chess World Cup twice and was the first Nigerian to challenge a reigning world chess champion (GM Magnus Carlsen, 2017) in a classical match. His formidable opponents included FM Bomo Lovet Kigigha, a three-time former national chess champion; FM-elect Denyefa Callistus Eyetonghan, renowned for his Karpov-style play; and Oluwadurotimi Opeoluwa Lapite, one of Nigeria’s highest-rated rapid players. Also, Sasha Winston-Onyiah, who had secured a win against a Grandmaster in the 2019 African Championships and held the advantage of playing on familiar territory, was another contender, alongside Joshua Adejoh, the Abuja Rapid Champion of 2022. The list of favourites continued with Goodness Ekunke, the most decorated under-12 chess player in Nigeria, and Bartholomew Emmanuel Okhipo, who had emerged victorious at the South West Zonal Chess Tournament, widely regarded as one of Nigeria’s toughest competitions in 2023.
The tournament was an eloquent testimony to the thriving chess culture in Nigeria. The top 10 boards of the tournament at each round were streamed on various platforms like lichess.org and chess.com. As a result, spectators and players alike were treated to a mesmerising display of strategic brilliance and a symphony of tactics. Each move was laden with anticipation, and each captured piece symbolised the unwavering spirit of competition. As the rounds progressed, it was apparent that only the most resolute and ingenious minds would prevail in this battle of wits.
In the Open Category, the final results were nothing short of thrilling. FM Bomo Lovet Kigigha and FM-elect Denyefa Callistus Eyetonghan emerged as joint victors, both with a commendable 8 out of 9 points.
FM Bomo Lovet Kigigha clinched the top spot, edging past his adversary in the tiebreak, and the third position was secured by Joy Idara Emmanuel, who finished with 7 out of 9 points.
Joy Idara Emmanuel’s achievement was even more remarkable as it earned him the coveted slot to play in the qualifiers for the Nigerian Chess Championship, considering that the first two players had already qualified through alternative routes.
The tournament also showcased the prowess of female players, with Iyefu Joy Onoja triumphing in the female category via tiebreak over Azumi Ayisha Suleiman, with both having 5.5 out of 9 points.
In the U2000 Category, Goodness Ekunke’s strategic acumen propelled him to the top; leading the pack of six players who tied in joint first in the category. Whereas Femi Iyanda displayed masterful play to conquer the Veteran Category.
As the tournament drew to a close, the National Chess Federation’s president was present to officiate the event’s conclusion. The air was filled with camaraderie and respect among competitors as they realised the true essence of the game—a celebration of intellect, strategy, and sportsmanship. Final Ranking after 9 Rounds of the event can be found HERE.
In retrospect, the North Central Zonal Chess Tournament of 2023 was a grand celebration of chess in Nigeria. It wasn’t just a competition; it was a testament to the nation’s deep-rooted passion for the game. The event illuminated the path for aspiring players, uniting them in the spirit of chess and forging connections that transcended geographical boundaries. The chess masters and rising stars who graced the event did justice to the noble game of chess, enthralling audiences and inspiring the next generation of players.
In the backdrop of the National Stadium, where sweat and toil symbolised sporting excellence in various disciplines, the chess pieces danced to a different tune—one of intellect and finesse. The North Central Zonal Chess Tournament was not just a chess competition; it was a statement, a declaration that the love for chess knows no bounds in Nigeria.
As the chessboard was packed away and the last moves were replayed in the memories of participants, one thing was abundantly clear: the North Central Zonal Chess Tournament had succeeded in its mission to foster chess growth and provide a stage for champions to emerge. It was an ode to the timeless allure of chess, a game where every move is a stroke on the canvas of human ingenuity. And so, as the sun set on the National Stadium in Abuja, Nigeria, it marked not only the end of a tournament but the beginning of a new chapter in the rich chess history of this vibrant nation. The North Central Zonal Chess Tournament of 2023 had indeed sown the seeds for a brighter, more inclusive future for chess in Nigeria, where the chessboard would continue to be a canvas for the nation’s brightest minds to paint their visions of victory.