If you were following chess in the early 2000s, there is a chance you may have heard of Zambia’s Amon Simutowe. I read about this rising talent on kasparovchess.com after coming across an article by South Africa’s Mark Rubery. After continuing to dig I realized I was already late in realizing that a prodigious talent was developing in Africa.
His brother taught him the moves at age 10 and years later, began sending him copies of British Chess Magazine which he studied with enthusiasm. By 1995, he won the Zambian Junior title at age 13. In 1996, he shocked the community by winning the Zambian National Championship at 14. The “Zambezi Shark” began winning African tournaments by prodigious scores. He destroyed the competition at African Junior Championship, winning in 1999 (12/13) and 2000 (11/11). He also began traveling a bit overseas. Here is an example of his energetic play against IM Colin Crouch.
The international breakthrough came when he played in the World Junior in Armenia and while lowly-ranked (2322 Elo), he ended up in joint 2nd with 8½-4½ behind Cuba’s Lazaro Bruzon. He then represented Zambia in the 2000 Olympiad in Istanbul, Turkey scoring 8/10. With that, he tallied a 2600 performance, a GM norm and a silver medal. At the end of 2000, his FIDE rating shot up to 2470.
At that point, Africa had several Grandmasters, all in Saharan countries. Slim Bouaziz of Tunisia was the first player from an African country to earn the GM title in 1993, followed a year later by Hichem Hamdouchi of Morocco. Egypt had produced three in Ahmed Adly (2005), Bassem Amin (2006), and Essam El-Gindy (2008). Slim Belkhodja of Tunisia (2002) and Aimen Rizouk of Algeria (2007) had also earned the GM title, but what about Sub-Saharan Africa?
Africa is a massive continent and Sub-Saharan countries are fraught with all types of logistical challenges. Decades ago, the flight routes often went through Europe, even when traveling to another African country! Expense is another major hurdle. Traveling by road to get to tournaments in a neighboring country could be very treacherous. When you take that into consideration Simutowe’s accomplishment becomes much more impressive.
Amon Simutowe playing rising Indian star Humpy Koneru at the 2001 Goodricke International in Calcutta, India (1-0). Photo by goodrickechess.com.
Simutowe landed in the U.S. in 2001, playing four tournaments including the Wilbert Paige Memorial. He had mixed results but ultimately got a scholarship to attend the University of Texas – Dallas. In my essay, “The GM Journey of Amon Simutowe,” I wrote:
After this disappointing run of tournaments, and losing 2-0 against Ilya Smirin in the 2001 FIDE Knockout Championships, Simutowe rating had tumbled from 2470 to 2368! He talked about the importance of getting a trainer. However, after enrolling in the University of Texas-Dallas on an academic scholarship, he was fortunate to be in an environment where chess received support. He became an integral part of the UTD chess powerhouse.
During his four years, he helped UTD win two national collegiate titles and became known for dominating local tournaments and working in the community with children. However, the GM norm remained an elusive goal. After a 6-3 performance at Maurice Ashley’s HB Global Chess Challenge in 2005, he gave an interview to The Chess Drum and stated how much he was focused on his studies. However, he vowed to round back into form.
Simutowe was unable to secure his last norm until he graduate from UTD and that tournament would come in 2007. In an interview with The Chess Drum at the 2007 Chicago Open he stated, “The most important decision for me was to decide that I would put in the next six months to get the norm done.” (interview)
After a mediocre New Jersey Futurity event, Simutowe stated that he needed a break. The opportunity came for him to travel to the tropical island of Trinidad & Tobago to play in the CMMB Caribbean Championships. He would come in joint 1st and the tournament would provide him with a tune-up for the Euwe Stimulans tournament in the Netherlands.
Armed with one piece of heavy luggage and his laptops, Simutowe then flew from Trinidad to Barbados, transferred in London and then on to the Netherlands for the Euwe tournament. Playing against three legendary figures and several hungry lions, Simutowe prepared for tough road.
At the Euwe Stimulans tournament, he secured his last GM norm beating Georgian legend Nona Gaprindashvili and winning the tournament in the process.
Simutowe was in form at the Euwe Stimulans
with a 7½-1½ score and a 2687 performance rating.
Photo by Fred Lucas
Simutowe receives his 1st place trophy at the Euwe Stimulans tourney.
Photo by Ben Schulte
Simutowe receives his certificate for the GM result.
Photo by Ben Schulte
In Simutowe’s “Last Mile,” it did take him another two years to get his title conferred. He traveled in search of Elo points, but I told him he should continue as if he still needed the GM norms. He had about six GM norms and got the 2500 Elo during a tournament in Zagreb.
For the most part, Simutowe has taken a hiatus from chess and is working in the finance field after earning his Master’s at Oxford University. He still follows chess and the last time I saw him was at the Carlsen-Karjakin World Chess Championship in New York in 2016.
Simutowe’s journey was not an easy one and the process was certainly not one he would repeat. No trainer and few resources, he traveled to some 30 countries for chess glory. Despite this tortuous journey, his feat still resonates as an inspiration to those in the African Diaspora who have aspirations to claim the highest chess title.
Daaim Shabazz, “The Talking Drum: Amon Simutowe,” The Chess Drum, 23 July 2001.
Daaim Shabazz, “Simutowe wins Euwe Tourney… earns final GM Norm!!” The Chess Drum, 25 August 2007.
Daaim Shabazz, “The GM Journey of Amon Simutowe,” The Chess Drum, 2 September 2007.
Daaim Shabazz, “Simutowe’s Last Mile,” The Chess Drum, 31 July 2009.