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Chess Champ Who Sold Out

THEWILL APP ADS 2

Match fixing is sometimes considered part of the game for outdoor sports like football. With the connivance of coaches, footballers and even soccer administrators, fixtures can be bought or sold, sometimes well before play commences on the pitch. What about fixing games in indoor sports like Chess? Does it ever happen? Yes, it does! So THEWILL was told recently when the newspaper met and spoke with a former champ who lost games to opponents he could have defeated easily. Things have not quite been the same for him ever since. Michael Jimoh reports…

For years beginning from the nineties, dozens of Chess devotees used to converge at the Adegboyega household in Aboro Ogun state to watch two brothers and their friends square-off for hours on end. Begun by the senior sib, Bayo, friends and sundry Chess enthusiasts used to flock around, the crowd attracting more people as time went by.

Demola the younger brother didn’t play at first. He just watched in solemn fascination as the players moved their pawns back and forth and diagonally without even uttering a word. This was a mind game and nothing physical, a game you tried to outwit your opponent by out-thinking him so as to capture his king. Demola loved it and so began to play.

It may have ended there at home were it not for the secondary school Demola attended. Just as there were literary, drama and sundry societies given to extra curricula work, there was a Chess club which he joined promptly. His exposure at home and school was all he needed to become a notable player, someone respected by other equally gifted players like his brother Bayo whom he soon began to play against. And such was their fame that it naturally attracted people from far and near.

There were the neighbourhood kids, for instance, youngsters who come by just to watch players try to outwit and mate themselves. There were the regulars, as well, chess enthusiasts who will one day take up the game. And, finally, there were the bettors, the money bags who come with bricks of cash to back one player or another in informal tournaments. The last ones came mainly from Lagos Island, driving all the way to the venue in Ogun state.

Undeterred by the more than two-hour drive over rugged terrain and traffic congestion, they come from as far away as Surulere, CMS, Oyingbo loaded with as much N150, 000 per head to stake on their favourite players, very much like bettors in a horse race.

“I was not even in secondary school then,” Tomide Babatunde told THEWILL mid-week. But he used to frequent the Adegboyega household like most other youngsters drawn irresistibly to a mind game he now plays almost every evening. “There will be wads of money on the table – as much as a hundred and fifty thousand naira per person – to be collected by the winner.”

For all of them, it was some kind of business pilgrimage – business in the sense that at the end of the day, someone would have become richer by several hundred thousand naira. A pilgrimage because they had all come to the temple of Chess where there are many worshippers like them with two brothers as the presiding priests.

“I started playing Chess in 1992,” Demola told the newspaper. Of course, he was a rookie at the time. Hard work and talent, so they say, can carry a man a long way. It did for Demola. With time, Bayo and Demola joined the Nigeria Chess Federation where they will soon distinguish themselves thus becoming permanent fixtures in National Sports Festivals.

The first national competition Demola took part in was NSF Imo 1998 in Owerri the state capital. Demola played for Team Lagos in that year. Next was the same NSF Bauchi 2000. Demola represented Team Kwara. They won the silver trophy with Demola himself playing in the finals with others representing the Middle Belt state. He would go on to participate actively in Edo 2002 in Benin. This time, he represented Yobe state. All in all, he represented no fewer than four different states in the space of six or eight years of national competitions.

Asked whether it’s possible for a single player to represent different states like he has done, Demola said yes. It is possible, sort of like a mercenary to whoever is willing to bid for your services, sort of belonging to nobody but everybody all at once.

For what it is, an intellectual kind of game and not a brawlers sport like cricket or rugby, say, most of the athletes were given the royal treat, having their travel, feeding and boarding expenses paid by the various governments enlisting their services. Demola admits he was a roll at the time. “There were many pleasures, many small, small connections,” Demola recalled with a wistful grin.

When the newspaper caught up with him last Wednesday, Demola was playing with a handsome graduate of Mining Engineering, Tomide Babatunde, in a storey building by the rail tracks not far from Egbado Market. The building itself is occupied by a parish of The Redeemed Christian Church of God. So, twice or so every week, members of the church come to worship. But every evening, another kind of meditative session takes place – almost always between Demola and Tomide.

The latter started playing Chess proper with Demola in 2019 and he continues to doff his hat to someone he sees as a first rate Chess player. A game had been on when the reporter met them. Answering questions, Demola would pause to make a move, capturing a Knight or even a Bishop. Demola did likewise, their respective sides filing up with white and black pawns correspondingly.

In no time, Demola won. Next game was a tie. Then Demola won one more time. This was not a tourney, just something to while away time. There were smiles and laughter from both of them since this was the equivalent of a friendly. It would have been a different ball game if there was something to be won like in a serious competition. There are stories of losers at such tourneys becoming depressed, having being outwitted in a game that has much to do with mental acuity and alertness.

“I feel bad if I lose in a tournament,” Demola admits. Tomide agrees, too. “It is kind of depressing. Almost the same feeling if you are defeated by an opponent in a physical combat. There was this day he won me and I was actually having headache, feeling feverish. I was hoping to come back and each time I was defeated and I was just messed up. For the rest of that week I was not myself, not because he is not a better player but I have been winning consecutively in several meetings and all of a sudden he just gave me like seven straight wins!”

More than anything else to Tomide and Demola’s Chess companion is the immeasurable joy he derives from playing the game. “Even the gratification of just winning is something, it is therapeutic in a way. For me right now, I play when I am tired, when I need to clear my head. Not because I get a prize from playing but just the fact that it relieves me, it distracts me from my daily struggles, from the things I probably am looking forward to and am not getting, the disappointments. When am in the game, the only thing in my head is just the game. So, when am done playing, am exhausted mentally. And that, for me, is better.”

Isn’t it like one is hiding, like using Chess to hide from daily worries? “It is not,” Tomide said sharply. “That’s why I said it is therapeutic because if I wasn’t playing Chess, I will be dwelling on the problems I can’t solve so it doesn’t make any sense. I’d rather be doing something productive than something which is counterproductive which is not necessary.”

Tomide had heard about Demola long before he started playing with him. “I have known him, heard about him since 1999. I wasn’t even playing Chess all those times. I just go to his place and people will come from as far as Surulere, Lagos Island, betting on his brother and himself, betting as much as N150, 000. It was 2002. And they always played with Chess clock. In other words, they were timed. And I remember also that there was cat-quiet silence, studio-quiet silence then when they were playing.”

Demola’s loss to an opponent was deliberate. According to him, and like most expert players who can predict an opponent’s move long before he makes one, Demola had the opponent’s back to the wall. But he decided to give his game away. What was his reason? His total takings from the tourney was about 20, 30 to the challenger’s 80, 70. In other words, whether he won or not, his purse will not amount to much. In his words, he’d won two games hands down. Before the third game, someone approached him from the opponent’s side, made an offer he could not refuse. And that was it!

It has been tough since then for the Chessman of Aboro who’s represented many states across Nigeria in championship games sponsored by the NCF. Nobody would put his name forward anymore to appear in tourneys. There are no more challengers. And of course no more paid up trips to Benin or Owerri. His only comfort these days is when he arrives round about 5pm every day at Tomide’s place, sitting and brooding over the pawns on the 64 square board.

Will he take up any challenge from an opponent if he has half the chance? “Yes, of course,” he replied with a peculiar glint in his eyes, as if to say “I still have it in me.”