2017 Jamaica International Chess Festival

Jamaica Jamaica Jamaica

Jamaica

Ambassador Dr. Nigel Clarke, Akshat Chandra, Qiyu Zhou, Andrew Holness, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, Akshita Gorti, Awonder Liang, Hon. Olivia “Babsy” Grange, Maurice Ashley. Photo by Peter Myers (Jamaica Chess Federation)

The inaugural Jamaican International Chess Festival kicked off on the 13th with a serious schedule of events. The weekend was filled with many activities certain to ignite the chess scene in Jamaica for many years to come. GM Maurice Ashley teamed with Ambassador Dr. Nigel Clarke to produce and host the event. As with any new initiative, a web of relationships were established over time to make it happen. It begin with the idea of starting a center at Seaward Gardens in Olympic Gardens. Prime Minister Andrew Holness told the Jamaica Gleaner,

Actually, that came from a meeting I had in 2010, thereabouts, with Ian Wilkinson (Jamaica Chess Federation President), who was then spearheading a programme to spread chess throughout the island, starting with the schools. I had made a commitment at that time that I would spend some resources to create a centre at the Seaward All-Age School. But then it blossomed, having spoken to (Grandmaster) Maurice (Ashley), a former resident of Olympic Gardens, who has done amazingly well. Then I asked Ambassador Nigel Clarke (JCF vice-president) to coordinate with Maurice, and that blossomed into a bigger movement, to kind of get chess a new energy, to spread it in Jamaica. The centre at Seaward is only but just one of what we plan to do. (full article)

Four young masters were flown in to partake in the festivities including GMs Awonder Liang and Akshat Chandra and WGM Qiyu Zhou and WIM Akshita Gorti. These players are well-traveled having competed worldwide in youth tournaments during their rise to stardom. Liang is currently the world’s youngest Grandmaster while Chandra’s rapid ascent to GM has become legendary. According from Tournament Director Frank Johnson, Chandra has one of the fastest times for achieving the GM title. Only five years ago, his rating stood in the 1500s.

Zhou, who represents Canada, has an interesting background. The 17-year old is the only one of the four who has represented the national team having won the women’s championship in 2016. Despite being of Chinese ancestry, she spent her first few years in France where she learned to play. Her family them moved to Finland where she won the under-10 Finnish championship five consecutive years. Her family then moved to Canada where she excelled at the youth level and then won the under-14 world championship in 2014.

The 14-year old Gorti is one of the many young girls dotting the top section is American open tournaments. Starting chess at age seven, she won a number of titles including the under-8 North American Youth. She is currently the highest-rated girl under-14 and won the 2017 U.S. Junior Girls Championship and competed in the U.S. Women’s Championship.

So a high-powered lineup would come to the land of “wood and water” engage with the chess community. The excitement was at a fever pitch. The young masters started with visits to local schools with Liang and Zhou visiting Wolmer’s Boys’ School and Chandra and Gorti visited St. Catherine’s. They would play simultaneous exhibitions to waiting and eager students.

Awonder and Qiyu at Wolmer’s Boys with GM Ashley, former Wolmer student
Photo by Changrong Yu

In the evening was an extravaganza with an introduction of the players and an evening of social interaction with guest players and the larger chess community. There was so much excitement building up as the players mingled. There were lots of casual blitz games being played. The highlight of the evening was the appearance of the Prime Minister, Andrew Holness.

His Excellency actually played competitive chess for St. Catherine High School and later while a student at the University of the West Indies (UWI). The idea of this initiative is to use chess as a means for social intervention. JCF President Ian Wilkinson has been charting an ambitious course across the island and was on hand to support the event.

David MacEnulty (far left) joins the players and the organizers during the chess seminar

Frank Johnson shaking hands with Ian Wilkinson, QC. Past JCF President Frederick Cameron is in the background.

National Master Akeem Brown
playing friendly blitz with Canadian WGM Qiyu Zhou
Photos by Frank Johnson

After an eventful day, the guests would conduct more educational visits and take a tour to visit landmarks around Jamaica. One must-see in Jamaica is the Bob Marley Museum. It was actually the house that Marley lived in. Part of the lure of the tour is the simplicity in which Marley lived. Despite being a pioneer in a music form that would sweep the world, his fame did not change his perspective. Unfortunately, Jamaica was heavily steeped in bitter political battles that often turned violent.

In his house are the bullet holes from an assassination attempt. Marley was injured and many feared he would have to cancel a scheduled concert two days later, but he refused and gave an inspiring performance. “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?” he stated.

Bob Marley and the Wailers

Frank posing with the legend


My favourite part of the Jamaican International Chess Festival was surely the night at Emancipation Park. From human chess, and continuous blitz, to the simul, the crowd (and us) were in for a treat.

~Qiyu Zhou


Now the fun began! Qiyu described the scene as electric in Emancipation Parkin her ChessBase article. Several videos attest to this assertion as she stated crowds had to be contained. This was chess and not boxing! There was a human chess game that was of course very interactive. Each participant was given a red or gold jersey with the name of the piece.

Photos by Frank Johnson

As if there were not enough activities, there were stations where anyone could learn how to play chess. Local masters were on hand to provide the basic instructions. It was wonderful to see this process as it would become a trivia question in one’s chess life. “Where did you learn how to play?” will be answered, “at the Jamaica Chess Festival.” Certainly, a historic marker for the community as well. There were vendors selling chess merchandise and booths by SMART Chess and the Jamaica Chess Federation.

Learn chess…

…from one of the local masters! National Master Ryan Blackwood shows rook movement.

Scavenger Hunt

Drone footage and photos by Jamaica Chess Festival

There followed blitz battles with the four masters and GM Ashley taking on 44 local players. The five masters ceded only one loss… National Master Joshua Christie getting a win against Akshita. The tandem simultaneous exhibition would feature the five masters against 76 players. Awonder had 16 while the other four had 15. In the end, the masters would drop one game with Awonder blundering mate against veteran master Geoffrey Byfield.

With FM Warren Elliott and NM Mikhail Solomon belting out commentary and trivia, the crowd was buzzing with excitement. It is about as vibrant a chess scene as one could hope for. For an island with a population of about 2.9 million, a good portion were aware that chess was grabbing headline news that weekend. GM Ashley was as excited as we’ve ever seen him. Get a taste of the action in the following videos!

Videos by Jamaica International Chess Festival

What a night! Frank Johnson told The Chess Drum that “activities went all night.” In a place that is known for the parties until the wee hours of the morning, it is no surprise that the energy continued to flow with the pulse of the booming music. Jamaicans know how to throw a party. Nevertheless, it was time to get ready for the next day… and the grand finale.

For those who are not familiar with Emancipation Park, it is an iconic place and a social center of Kingston since 2002. It had met controversy because of the two imposing 7-foot statues representing the indigenous people of the island. Both are completely naked and anatomically-endowed as the symbol of freedom, aptly named after Marley’s “Redemption Song.”

On the final day, crowds had begun to gather for the final events. The marquee event was the team rapid event. Two teams (Dark Knights and Raging Rooks) consisting of 11 players would face off in a four-game match. Each player would play their opponent four times with 25 minutes plus five seconds added per move. JCF President Wilkinson gave his blessings and would join GM Ashley and FM Elliott in the commentator’s booth. Let the games begin!

JCF President Ian Wilkinson making way for the event
with his usual panache and in an eloquent style.
Photos by Jamaica Chess Festival

Ian Wilkinson, GM Maurice Ashley and FM Warren Elliott were on the call
Photos by Jamaica Chess Festival

Games from Dark Knights vs. Raging Rooks
Compiled by Frank Johnson via DGT systems

…and the final results were in! Raging Rooks win by the slimmest of margins!

See table at Chess-Results.com

The Raging Rooks with the Maurice Ashley Cup!

The event appeared to be a rousing success and the excitement has increased immeasurably with support of the government, the Jamaican Chess Federation and local players. It is a matter of time before the island begin hosting elite events. As Qiyu Zhou pointed out in her article, Jamaica offers ideal conditions for a vacation with its beautiful scenery and the hosts are certainly experts in the tourism industry. Hopefully, the Jamaican Chess Festival will become a fixture on the island’s chess landscape.

Thanks to the young masters for their presence and inspiration and to the organizers and supporters who made this wonderful event possible. Until year…

ONE LOVE!!

Jamaica Jamaica Jamaica

Daaim Shabazz

Daaim Shabazz is the founder of The Chess Drum, while serving as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds a B.S. Computer Science from Chicago State University, an MBA in Marketing and a Ph.D. in International Affairs & Development, both from Clark Atlanta University. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you Daaim. The Festival was a fantastic advertisement for Chess not just in the West Indies but, as Dr. The Hon. Usain Bolt would say, “To di World”!!!!!!

    Congratulations to the Most Hon. Andrew Holness (Prime Minister of Jamaica); the Hon. Olivia “Babsy” Grange (the Minister of Sports); Ambassador Dr. Nigel Clarke; GM Maurice Ashley, the various sponsors and the scores of other persons who made the event a reality. We have only just begun….!!!!!

  2. Former Prime Minister Michael Manley and I had a brief foray into the discussion of chess back in the 1980s. I was a book editor at Howard University Press when Manley’s “Up the Down Escalator” was being considered for publication. An elegant man, Manley had asked me, on learning about my chess activities, if there are any We’ve come a long way. I see on the horizon a black man competing for the World Championship. Out there is a young, dusky-black masters? Indeed, I had said, there are a few. Of course we now have GM Ashley, a slew of IMs, FMs, and national masters. a black-hued Bobby Fischer is lurking (as FM William Morrison might describe it.)
    Warmest regards,
    G. Sashi Kearse
    Writer/Editor Scottish Rite Journal & and DC Chess patzer

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