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Magana, mechanical engineer who quit rugby for chess readies for 7th Olympiad

Tuesday April 21 2020

National men's chess player Ben Magana ponders his next move during a past training match. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO |

National men's chess player Ben Magana ponders his next move during a past training match. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

VICTOR OTIENO             
By VICTOR OTIENO            
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If Ben Magana were to write a book on his chess career, the title would probably read “My Chase for Chess Honours” or “Secrets to My Success in Chess.”

The other probable title would be “The Rise of Ben Magana in Chess.”

The 42-year-old, well-built player is arguably Kenya’s finest chess player.

Had the coronavirus pandemic not scuttled sports activities across the globe, Magana would have in August attained another feat in his chess career. The 44th edition of the World Chess Olympiad scheduled for Moscow from August 5 to 18 would have seen him make his seventh appearance in the biennial chess tournament in which teams from all over the world compete. Because of coronavirus pandemic, World Chess Federation postponed the event to the same time next year.

As a result, Chess Kenya will in the coming days make a decision on whether or not to hold a new team selection. Last month, some 10 players were selected for the competition.

If Chess Kenya settles for a new team selection, chances are high that Magana will make the cut due to his vast experience in the game. In fact, this year’s Olympiad would have been Magana’s ninth, had he not missed the 2002 and 2016 editions, all which he qualified for.

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Magana, a mechanical engineer and a father of three, qualified for the 44th Olympiad after finishing fourth in men’s final round of the Kenyan qualifiers held in March in Nairobi. And it’s something he expected.

“Of course I am still thankful to God for qualifying, but I have been there so the sense of excitement is not as big,” says Magana, who is also a Candidate Master (CM), a title awarded to a player after achieving an Elo rating of 2200 or more. Only the top five players in the men’s and women’s categories feature in the Olympiad.

Other players in men’s category who qualified for the postponed competition are KCB Chess Club’s Ben Nguku, Joseph Maragu, Jackson Kamau and Ricky Sang. Those in men’s category are Woman Fide Master Sasha Mongeli, Woman Candidate Masters (CM) Joyce Nyaruai and Lucy Wanjiru, Nakuru Chess Club’s Julie Mutisya and Glenda Matelda of Equity Chess Club. Magana stands out because of the many times he has competed in the prestigious competition. It is a journey he started in lower primary.

Ben Magana ponders his next move at a past
Ben Magana ponders his next move at a past chess competition. PHOTO | FILE

“My late brother introduced me to chess when I was in Class Four,” recalls Magana, adding that his star started shining while he was at Strathmore Secondary School in Nairobi. As a Form One student, he sent shock waves among the school’s top chess players by winning Strathmore Chess Championship that was held annually. But that almost landed him in trouble, as some Form Four students who had previously dominated the competition wanted to rough him up for “embarrassing them.”

But, he did not flinch and for the next three years, he won the title unchallenged despite also being engaged in rugby, where he was the team captain.

“I told them there was a new sheriff in town and true to my words, I won the competition until I left the school,” recalls the father of two girls and one boy. Rugby was his favourite sport but his passion for the game died in 2000 while in his second year of study at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology over “lack of commitment from fellow players.”

Since then, playing chess has been his cup of tea. In 2000, Magana got a call-up to the national team, and immediately stamped his authority in the squad by qualifying for the Olympiad in Istanbul.

“There was a lot of fear in me because all the other players were my seniors. I was the youngest among the competitors, but I managed to qualify in second position, so it boosted to my ego. I knew I was ripe for the national team,” he recalls.

“I told myself that from then onwards, I was going to be among the top players in Kenya and I would not miss a place in the team.”

He has since become a familiar face in the prestigious competition. He has competed in the 2006, 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2018 editions of the Olympiad which took place in Italy, Germany, Turkey, Norway and Georgia respectively.

He missed the 2002 event despite qualifying due to lack of money for an air ticket as the government did not sponsor the team at the time. He pulled out of the 2016 competition due to personal commitments.

The 2004 contest is the only one the mechanical engineer has failed to qualify for after finishing seventh. The cut-off point was sixth place. He also skipped the 2010 qualifiers due to personal commitments.

In all the six Olympiads that he has competed in, it is the events of the 2012 competition held in Turkey that have remained etched in his mind, as it is then that he attained the CM rank.

For a player to be crowned a CM he/she must score more than 50 percent in minimum number of rounds. Magana’s worst performance came in the 2006 competition in Italy, where he only managed a score of 30 percent.

At the Olympiad, competitors are pooled in five boards based on their experience. The most experienced player in every country competes in board one, while the least experienced compete in the last board.

Being the most experienced, Magana has competed in board one in most of the competitions.

Kenya's Ben Magana ponders his next move during
Kenya's Ben Magana ponders his next move during a past challenge. PHOTO | FILE |

All African Games and Africa Individual Chess Championships are the other competitions that Magana has represented Kenya in. He has set himself a target of attaining the Fide Master (FM) rank Russia.

“My target is to get a good score, of more than 66 percent on minimum number of games to be crowned a Fide Master. I know it is difficult, but I can do it,” he says.

FM is the third highest rank in chess competition, after International Master and Grand Master. One only becomes an FM after scoring more that 65 percent in a minimum number of rounds in the Olympiad.

Magana’s other target in the Olympiad is to increase his ratings to reclaim his place as Kenya’s top seed, a position he held for a decade before being dethroned in 2017. “The other reason why I want to perform well in Russia is, I want to go up the ratings and to return to where I was. It means I must put in more effort by increasing my training hours,” he says.

KCB’s Joseph Methu is Kenya’s top-seeded player. He says living outside Nairobi has put him at a disadvantage when it comes to training. Chess players in his home county of Kisumu are not at the same level as him, and he makes up for that by training alone using online materials. He often travels to Kampala to train with Uganda’s top chess players.

And while five hours a day is the recommended duration of training for professional chess players, Magana says he only manages two hours a week because of other commitments. He also links his success in competitions to prayers.

Candidate Master (CM) Ben Magana ponders his
Candidate Master (CM) Ben Magana ponders his next move during the 2017 National Chess Championship at the Kenya Comfort Hotel Suites, Milimani on December 12, 2017. PHOTO | COURTESY |

Magana also sought to demystify the thinking that chess is a game only for intelligent people.

“That you have to be intelligent to play chess is a myth. Everyone who has a brain can play chess. It makes one more intelligent. That is why more schools are embracing chess,” he says.

Because a game can last up to four hours, one must be physically fit and energetic so as not to lose concentration. Magana trains a lot in the gym, jogs three times a week in the mornings and takes energy rich foods before games.

Earning income, travelling around the world and being a role model to upcoming chess players are some of the benefits the 48-year-old has gained from playing chess.

After dominating the game locally, he was made a player/coach at KCB in 2017. Maseno University and Victoria Chess Club in Kisumu are the other institutions where the father of three spends time, moulding upcoming players.

“As long as it still excites me and I feel I can compete at the top level, I will continue playing. But the minute I feel I cannot match up with the top players in the country, I will consider stepping down,” says Magana.

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