Mark Nyairo, 24, remembers himself as an introvert when he joined Strathmore University in 2013. Until he discovered chess.
“I grew up in an environment where day to day interactions with people were greatly restricted. Chess spoke to me in a different language, it taught me to open up to people because to learn how to play the game, I had to speak to experts and share my insights with them. Slowly, conversations started becoming natural for me,” he says.
Later, he would build on this personal experience to see how much more children could gain from understanding and playing chess from a young age.
“I have taught quite a number of kids and I have seen tremendous growth in their critical thinking and academic work,” he says.
Ronald Bolo, 24, says fellow students played chess in high school, but he did not bother to learn how to because he saw it as a “rich kids game”. His perception changed when he joined university.
“When I joined Strathmore, I had a bit of free time between lessons, and since chess was a commonly played game in the school, I decided to try it out. I downloaded it on a computer at home and started practicing on my own, eventually, I joined the Strathmore Chess Team,” he explains.
This is how Mark and Ronald became big players of Chess.
Today, six years after the duo’s contact with the game, they have participated in a number of national tournaments and have won awards.
“During national tournaments, we met many kids who were interested in chess. We also realised that many of the children that played the game came from Nairobi. Knowing the benefits of chess to the mind, such as being sharp and improved concentration in class, we started to think of ways to spread the game further – the result was the Chess In schools programme, which we initiated in 2016,” Mark says.
Both Ronald and Mark are chess coaches and both confirm the mental clarity and dexterity that comes with playing chess, and how these builds into better academic and overall performance of the children that they teach.
“In private schools, chess is allocated time like any other subject such as math. As the children get older, those who want to continue with it stay on and some even get into the chess team. The public schools usually don’t get to have the same opportunity, and if they are lucky, they run chess through clubs,” says Ronald.
“Chess helps a lot in decision-making, improves critical thinking and improves concentration, that’s why it’s recommended for both the young and old,” says Mark.
After he and Ronald and joined the Strathmore Chess Club, they decided to focus on how to improve their skills through reading, learning from other more experienced chess players and sometimes using quick strategies to learn the game (it is called traps, mainly during our trainings),” Mark says.
“I was a strong believer of learning the game through reading books, but after sometime, you begin to realise that you need someone to help you and your team grow, someone with more experience at the game. Let’s just say chess is about personal initiative,” he says.
In 2014, a year after they joined Strathmore University Chess Club as part of the school team, Mark was appointed assistant captain of the club and a year later, captain, a position he held until 2018.
“My greatest challenge was getting the team to commit to trainings because this meant working odd hours and sometimes sacrificing personal time because getting ready for the national chess tournaments and the league is demanding - the school invests in the club, and there are serious challengers at the national level, so you need to train hard,” he says.
Some other universities that participate in chess tournaments include: Technical University of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, University of Nairobi, Mount Kenya University and Daystar.
So far, the two friends have taught chess in schools in Kitui, Kitale, Mombasa and Kiambu, free of charge.
Chess Kenya, the governing body that runs and manages chess in Kenya, and MiniChess, (an organisation that offers the Academic award-winning Minichess curriculum tailored for five-nine year olds, the Kasperov Chess curriculum, the British chess curriculum and The Steps chess curriculum for schools) were of great support, providing them with boards while the university footed their transport and accommodation costs.
Chess is a sport quickly catching on here, a fact that is evident in the increasingly busy chess calendar.
“There is a chess event happening every weekend at a preselected venue: from chess tournaments (interschool and national tournaments) to chess exhibitions (where a titled player plays 20 to 30 people at the same time),” Mark explains.