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Delta State-born Benedict Odafe Efemuai is the national chess champion. He speaks with KOLAWOLE DANIEL, on the problems confronting the sport in Nigeria and the way out of the imbroglio.
In Nigeria, people are used to participating in indoor sports like ludo, opon ayo and so on. There is the belief that chess is an aristocratic sport. What really is chess all about?
The game of chess can be likened to life. One of the great grandmasters of chess, Garry Kasparov, likened chess to life and even wrote a book about how life imitates chess. The game of chess involves planning just as it obtains in life, because if you fail to plan in life, that means you have planned to fail. The game of chess is a very good one that should be inculcated into the educational curriculum of Nigeria.
As a matter of fact, we have started the move of integrating the game of chess into schools as a compulsory subject, or an extra-curricular sport. Some of the schools have imbibed the concept and have even started it with students being taught chess. The essence of teaching chess in schools is to bring out the qualities of the game which requires skills, strategising and focusing skills and instilling more skills into children so that with these skills, we will be able to positively assess them in other areas of life.
There is a saying that chess brings out the artiste in you but parents of nowadays seldom have the time to actually discover the natural talent of their wards and so, the parental responsibility is gradually shifting towards the schools. So, teachers now have the responsibility to discover the natural talent in students because some students may not have educational talents but have talents in other areas.
Another school of thought stipulates that chess should be a compulsory part of the Curriculum of military training institutions. What is your view on this?
As a matter of fact, it will interest you to know that many serving and retired generals in the Nigerian Army and even in the world play chess. It is interesting to know that General Ibrahim Babangida is a chess enthusiast, just like Professor Wole Soyinka and the late Libyan leader, Muamar Ghadaffi. Many army generals have played chess to higher levels because the game aids defensive instincts. President Barrack Obama of the United States is a chess player, our president, Goodluck Jonathan is a chess player. The game shows you how to attack and how to defend, how to conquer your opponent in the sense that you are able to overwhelm your opponent completely. Chess teaches you how you are able to dominate your environment and so, such things are very vital and if I am to suggest, I will implore that the military should see chess as a tool to be used as plank towards embarking on other activities in the military.
What really attracted you to this game as one sees it as a game of the elite and you never told us that you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth?
It is true to an extent if some people refer to the game of chess as a game of the elite because like you said, many other people will prefer to play cards or ludo where you require lesser skills; but in this world, as we speak, chess is the oldest board game and it is still being played. It originated from India and developed by the Britons but today, it has moved to all nooks and crannies of the universe. In fact, chess is a language which people now use to communicate as the English man can play against a Frenchman without both of them necessarily needing to understand each other’s language. We have defined ways of moving around on the chess board. I started playing chess at a tender age of five years when my elder brother, who now resides in London and practices as a barrister, taught me at the age of seven years, I was competing in Shell Petroleum–organised tournaments in Warri, Delta State. I won in those tournaments for as long as the sponsorship lasted and I was the champion in the Toddlers’ Category which was my category then.
From there, we moved on to Secondary School Chess, where I even attended the World Juniors in Zambia. From there again, I proceeded to the university category where I was chosen to represent my school at NUGA games and the first one was ABU 2001 where I won two gold medals for my school. That never happened befre then in the history of the school before and I was immediately rewarded with a scholarship by Professor Denis Agbonlahor, the then Vice Chancellor of Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma and the scholarship lasted throughout my sojourn in the school.
In fact, my school fees in my 100 Level was refunded and a very standard hostel accommodation, a self-contained apartment was given to me and you can imagine the level of luxury I was living then. From there, I went on to play for Delta State which immediately placed me on monthly salary. I left the Delta State job only two years ago because of my relocation to Abuja and because I couldn’t have the time for Delta State any more. In 2011, I represented the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) at the Port Harcourt Garden City Games and I made Abuja proud through the grace of God because before I was hired by Abuja to participate in the games, I was given a condition that I must win a gold medal for them. I gave them my terms and as God would have it, I was able to deliver the gold medal and even added another bronze medal for them. Because of the feat, the Director of Sports in FCT is now looking at hosting an annual chess tournament and when that tournament gets on board on annual basis, it will surely enhance the tourism potentials of the FCT. More revenue will be generated and many more people will come down to see the beauty of the FCT.
Will you say you have benefitted tremendously for embracing chess?
Very well. I have won many tournaments and made millions of naira, but chess is only responsible to an extent for my being successful as regards the extent at which we patronise the game in Nigeria. The returns are nothing to write home about when compared with what obtains in other sports because of the dearth of sponsors and so, we cannot but ask for the understanding of well-to-do Nigerians because we give in a lot. You see, we all fail to look at the mental development in our country which chess can help augment because it develops children mentally and we should encourage it so that the mental aspect will flourish. In this aspect, one must not but be grateful to commend the effort of our incumbent National Chess Chairman, DCP Sani Mohammed. He has really done much for chess such that come the 2020 Olympics, there is the very high likelihood that chess will be one of the sports to be competed for. So, he has really done enough and the grassroots concept of chess is his brainchild.
You are the national chess champion, what inspires you to really lord it, so to say, over your opponents during tournaments?
Chess is a mental game and it requires strength. Incredibly, anytime I want to play any round of chess, what I rely on is a drink of Malta Guinness. It sounds incredible but it is true, and I found out that whenever I take it, I get strengthened to go ahead because my mental alertness would be in full swing and I have been taking this wonderful drink for years.
Now that you have leaked your winning secret, what happens if your opponents too now embrace the drink?
There is a saying that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. So, when two opposing Chess players decide to go on a drink for strength and mental alertness reasons, then, the battle is going to be very interesting and you may possibly have that game ending in a draw if fought well. I don’t know anyone in their office but there is no time you come to my house that you will not find the drink. In my office too, my staff are now used to the product.
What can be done to make Chess attractive to Nigerians?
Nigerians can only embrace chess by its introduction to them right from the grassroots and by that I mean introducing it from the primary schools and let them teach and accept the game because of the extra skills that are attached to it. There is never one single chess player that is not intelligent or bright academically.
How did you feel that day when you were crowned the national chess champion?
I have always been a champion and in all modesty, I have been used to winning and being a champion in chess. So, what I desire now is how to dominate my environment and not just to be a champion but how to remain the champion. V-Mobile organised a tournament in 2005 and I was a champion. I have attended so many international tournaments.
I attended two tournaments in England, one in Zambia, one in Holland and I was even to go to China last year but my business right here in Abuja took the better part of me.
Looking at international tournaments, we hope that the proposed Wole Soyinka International Chess Championship will take shape soonest as planned because sponsorship details is slowing it down, but we hope that by next year, the plan will come to fruition.
It is as if your name is not a household one in Nigeria compared with other national stars/heroes like Kanu, Uti Nwachukwu and their likes?
It is because chess is a sport for the educated, the elite and because of the literacy level of the country, it has limited followership. Well, many people may not have heard much about me, but I am Benedict Odafe Efemuai. I hail from Orogun in Ughelli North Local Government Area of Delta State. I was born on May 6, 1981 into a very large family and while my mother died some years back, my father is alive and kicking, I am a very successful businessman. I have the sole franchise for Teen Interactive Wide-Boarding in Nigeria and we are located in Abuja and some cities in the northern part of the country. I did my primary and secondary schools in Delta State after which I proceeded to the Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma where I bagged a B.Sc in Economics in 2004. I later proceeded to Kebbi State for the NYSC programme and I passed out in August 2005 after which I relocated to Lagos where I worked with an international documentation company for about four years after which I resigned and moved on to Abuja to set up my personal business and through the grace of God, we have been doing well and we still hope to get to the next level God – willing.