Checkmates and Chocolate: UP Zambia's First Chess Tournament

Walking down the side streets of any Zambian village, town, or city certain sites are easy to find. Women selling piles of vegetables; men off-loading bags from dusty flatbed trucks; children kicking make-shift soccer balls made of old, plastic bags. These scenes may seem familiar to an experienced traveler, but there is another motif that may surprise you. It usually involves a small group of spectators surrounding a chess board where two players sit hunched over, calmly planning their next move.

Photo by David Johnson

Photo by David Johnson

Chess is a classic pastime to sharpen the mind. But, while you may think this game is limited to Russian arenas or elite universities, in Zambia, it is a sport for the every-man. Schools have chess teams, high-end shopping malls have large open chess boards, and in nearly any strip of shops or market stalls you will find a checkered board surrounded by players and interested passersby.

Capitalizing on this popularity, Kelly Kapianga, UP Zambia’s director, decided to bring this competitive past-time to the youth in Zambia’s prisons.

“We needed an activity to keep them busy” Kelly confided.  “What they have in abundance is time, so we needed something sports related that could keep them engaged. So, I immediately thought of chess and draughts because it stimulates the mind and doesn’t involve too many resources or costs.”

From that, a new start-up project was born. During UP Zambia’s weekly prison visits, boys are introduced to chess through instruction about the rules of game, mentoring in strategy, and practice through free play. Then, later, if the facility allows, the boys begin preparing for tournament-style competition.

This project is not just a way to pass the time, however. During their incarceration, children are out of school and have limited access to educational resources. This leaves the youth with little mental stimulation, leading to greater cognitive losses and setting them further behind their peers once they are released.

Kelly believes the structure and mental acuity needed for the game can help offset some of the disadvantages put on these children while they are out of school.

“Chess is very intellectual,” he explains. “They can learn to strategize and how to problem solve and plan their next move which is something many of these boys have never learned before.”

Of course, not every child is a chess champion. “We also provide draughts [sometimes called checkers] for those that don’t have the interest in chess. If they are intimidated or unfamiliar, they can start with draughts and then watch the others as they play chess to build their confidence.”

Kelly himself grew up playing chess in his home village of Kasiya near Pemba in Zambia’s Southern Province.

“I had a great mentor that made me who I am today. I would always learn from him even though I was never in the chess club.”

This personal passion is something Kelly brings to the project which he wants to continue to grow as much as UP Zambia and Prison Services will allow. “It is something we can get multiple facilities involved in and do inter-prison competitions.”

Recently, the program has taken off after encouragement and support from Prison Services at Kamwala Remand Correctional Facility and Kabwe Medium Security Correctional Facility.

“We started by talking about chess among the officers that supervise the inmates,” Kelly explained.

They were immediately enthusiastic and soon many of the officers were challenging the more adept boys to friendly matches, allowing them to grow in their skills.

“We have several boys at Kamwala and Kabwe that are pretty good players!” Kelly explains, with a hint of pride. “The support we’ve received from authorities has been really positive. The commissioner general himself has great interest in the idea of tournaments.”

And with that support, the dream came alive. On May 25th, 2017, UP Zambia held its first ever chess tournament for juveniles incarcerated at Kabwe Medium Security Prison. Twenty-seven boys competed for the first-place medal, bragging rights, and quite a bit of chocolate.

One of the boys proudly showcasing the tournament prizes. Each boy received chocolate for playing but continued to gain more chocolate bars as they progressed through the rounds. The ultimate victor earned the much coveted (and first) UP Zambia Chess Championship Medal.

One of the boys proudly showcasing the tournament prizes. Each boy received chocolate for playing but continued to gain more chocolate bars as they progressed through the rounds. The ultimate victor earned the much coveted (and first) UP Zambia Chess Championship Medal.

“It was very clear that all of the boys at Kabwe Medium, all 27, had been preparing for the tournament,” Kelly commented.

At Kabwe, many of the boys are coached by their adult caretakers and one of the prison officers. The boys usually play in the evenings after they go into their evening lockup, giving them plenty of time to practice their skills.

The event commenced on a group stage where the participants competed while other inmates, officers, and volunteers watched with rapt attention.The best in each group progressed to the knockout rounds of quarter finals, semi-finals, and finals. At the start of each match, the boys participating would receive one chocolate bar as a reward for their participation. The further you went in the tournament, the more chocolate you earned.

Faith Mulenga, an intern with UP Zambia, reflected on the competition, “Chess is not an easy game and it seldom is a game of chance. It takes planning, strategy, and calculations for one to win the game. I could see the fire in each one of the kids’ eyes as they played. I realized as I listened to their comments that it wasn’t just about the chocolates but to exhibit their mental capacity and, of course, to be the one to walk away with the ultimate prize… the medal.”

After hours of competition, Robert (whose full name is withheld for privacy reasons), emerged with the coveted metal in hand. Robert has been in detention for many years without trial. UP Zambia has been working to resolve his case and filed a constitutional petition on his behalf in February. The court has still not yet heard his case but at least for one day, victory was his.

Robert displaying his first place medal.

Robert displaying his first place medal.

Of course, there were many valiant efforts made during the competition. One participant of note, was an Ethiopian boy, Abai, who doesn’t speak English or any local Zambian languages. He taught himself how to play chess by observing the other boys during their evening matches. His quick wits earned him a spot in the semi-finals before being bested by the day’s champion. 

“The final two games showed that the boys who'd made it to the finals deserved their spot. The quality of the chess they displayed was such that every chess coach would be proud.” Kelly commented.

When asked to reflect on the day Kelly beamed, “The actual tournament was even better than I personally had ever hoped for. The kids displayed a deep understanding of chess and strategy. Even the kids who were spectating seemed to appreciate what was going on. The atmosphere was magical- almost as if we were no longer in a correctional facility… In the end, it was a realization of one of UP's aspirations and much more. Yesterday was the achievement of a personal life goal."

Other volunteers weighed in on the success of the day. Bliss, a young man who has been volunteering with UP Zambia since his own release more than a year ago said, “[The tournament] was so impressive! We need more effort so that we can build this project!"

With any luck, Bliss may get his wish. The Commissioner General of the Correctional Service has embraced the concept of starting juvenile chess clubs in prisons across the country. UP Zambia plans to expand the chess program to all the prisons and facilities they serve including Livingstone Central, Nakambala, and Katambora. Once those clubs get started, the commissioner suggested that UP Zambia host a nationwide tournament where the boys can be brought to a central location to compete against each other. 

“It would be great to have more kids participate and perhaps we could have bigger tournament in the future to involve other correction facilities” Faith explained. “The kids are eager to learn if there is someone to teach them and to identify their capacity and help them build on it. For some that I spoke to, they never played chess before being in prison but someone helped them learn and improve on the game.”

Faith also best summarized the success of this initial tournament and the reason UP Zambia continues to fight for legal and personal well-being of juveniles by saying, “If there is one thing I learned from the tournament, it’s that a mind cannot be caged, not even in prison.”

 Post by Carrie Russpatrick