By Vaishnavi Ram Mohan
'Do you play football?' 'No.' 'Rugby? Basketball? Athletics?' No. I play chess.' ''Chess?'' followed by an incredulous look, a polite smile or the disinterested thought 'chess? How boring!!' At first look, chess seems simple enough. The objective: use any of your 16 pieces strategically to capture or checkmate your opponent's king. It would be by way of a revelation to many to know that there are as many ways of doing this as there are stars in the sky! (And I mean this literally; it has been proven that there are over a billion possible ways to checkmate an opponent) It would amaze many to learn that chess is a sport like any other and has its own rules, intricacies, tournaments, rankings and heroes. The best of these players under 18 are showcased at the prestigious World Youth Chess Championships. There are several international tournaments for juniors held each year but the climax is always the World Youth Chess Championships (or WYCC, or World Youth, as we know it in chess lingo) and it is the dream of every junior chess player to represent his/her country at this event and stage his/her bid to bring their country honours. It is an even bigger honour to host this event and each year a different country gets to bear this mantle.
Thus, on 18th November, I was in Vung Tau, Vietnam, a proud representative of Kenya and participant in the U-14Girls category at the World Youth Chess Championships 2008, held from 19th-31st October. This year, Kenya had one of its largest delegations, with 13 players. We were represented in all the categories, which are the Under 8, 10, 12, 14, 16 and 18 age groups with divisions for boys and girls respectively. It is indeed very ironic that upon return from such an event, everyone immediately demands, ''So how did it go? Did you win?'' The common perception is that playing chess is an easy way to travel abroad to play for the country and by far the easiest way to win fame as an international champion. Trust me, it is as hard to win a gold medal (or for that matter even a top fifty position) in the field of chess as it is to win in any other sport. The World Youth attracts the very best, the cream from each country. Each nation sends only its best champions, so even being there is a privilege in itself. This means that the standards are of the highest order, and painful though it is, it must be admitted that we are very far off from the medal podiums.
This year, there were over 2000 players from 73 nations. The games were spaced over 10 days and there were 11 rounds, played on the Swiss System. The playing venue was the National Sports Stadium, Vung Tau. What exactly is the common conception of a tournament hall? A small room with a few tables piled together. Picture this. A huge conference hall, with long rows of tables lined by chessboards, the walls flanked with the flags of the participating nations. Next to each board are the 'chess clocks', each player's nameplate, recording scoresheet and belongings. There are many arbiters to ensure smooth running of the rounds and games. Anxious parents and coaches fill the stands on either side of the hall, awaiting their child/charge's result. To an outsider, it is just two children sitting on opposite ends of a board. To the participants, the board number is greatly significant and shows the quality. To play on board 1, (i.e. top board) is tantamount to being declared one of the best and a matter of great pride, while playing on the lower and bottom boards is considered an indication of the poor quality of your game. A good quality game of chess does not end before three hours and actually, it is quite the norm for a game beginning at 3.00pm to end at 7.30pm. That means about four and a half hours before a board! Indeed, only someone who has been to such an event can fully grasp its enormity. All factors considered, our performance was quite respectable, with each player chipping in.
At such events, chess is like a religion. A barrier lies between us in the form of language, as most of the others do not speak much English, but we are all still bonded together. Indeed, whether you come from a country as distant as Latvia, Peru, and Iceland, if you speak the language of chess, that suffices. Nothing matters apart form your game. For example, a puny boy, wearing old jeans, suspenders and a worn, unfashionable shirt, speaking broken English may be given priority. All the parents point at him as he passes. Players hush up and whispers float, ''don't you know him, that's the GM (Grand Master; the highest achievement level in chess.) He's on top board.'' The coach will strut proudly, for that nondescript boy happens to be his charge and one of the top players. All that matters is your game and that is why countries like India (India had a sweep of the medals and won the best overall team award) and Serbia or Croatia walk with their heads held high. One night, a 'Social and Talent Night' was held, where each country had a chance to present something authentic. This was a nice chance to socialise and get to know each other better, as well as learn about different cultures. It was a great experience to meet and make new friends from all corners of the world.
Now about the host. Vietnam is the first Asian country to host the World Youth since Singapore twenty years ago. This probably explains why the hosts went out of their way to keep us (indeed all 3000+ of us) satisfied and why we were treated like royalty. It all began with a spectacular opening ceremony. We walked down the red carpet and were then treated to a series of authentic folk-dances that had everyone applauding, followed by a fashion show, which included many international models and beauties. This was capped off by a splendid and spectacular firework display that had every single one present on their feet. Several comfortable hotels had been booked just for the event. Our hotel, the KhuDuLich Bien Dong, was right by the beach, (which suited me perfectly) and while not the Burj Al Arab, it was good enough. Vung Tau is a sleepy beach resort town and is not quite one of Vietnam's major cities. Thus the arrival of over 3000 foreigners caused quite a stir and the sleepy town was soon wide awake. Banners and posters for the event were everywhere, and the tournament logo of a giant knight flanked the streets.
As a place, Vung Tau is quite pleasant. There are several large shopping malls (some can even beat our own Westgate), so it isn't like one is completely cut off from civilisation. Vung Tau is about 150km from Ho Chi Minh City, the capital ad can be reached either by road or the hydrofoil speedboat. I recommend the speedboat, as it is an unusual way of travel, and it's fun to see the boat slice through the Bien Dong. There are many hotels, so tourists can take their pick. Motorbikes are the most common form of transport and everybody owns one. There are plenty of souvenir and curio shops, and we found the prices very reasonable. This is because one Kenyan Shilling is equal to about 220Vietnamese Dong, so I felt no guilt at spending hundreds of thousands, indeed I was a millionaire!!! The people are very friendly and Vietnamese hospitality is worth experiencing. However, be warned, almost no one speaks any English!! We had to resort to extreme forms of sign language to communicate. Language does tend to be a major problem and if you ask me, it would just be easier (and quicker) to learn Vietnamese than try to communicate to them. We had many hilarious and vexing incidents ourselves so this is from experience. Food does tend to be a bit of a problem, more so if you are vegetarian. Seafood is very popular. (No surprises there) A tip to future tourists, please exercise caution when trying out regional specialities, as they may not agree with everyone. Do watch out when shopping, as with the language barrier and miscommunication, you may find yourself on the wrong end of a bargain.
Apart from the chess, we did a bit of exploring and sightseeing. There are many places worth visiting in Vung Tau. First of course, is the beach. There are many sea-activities like kite surfing, surfing and boating for water lovers. The beach is lovely although it is filled with many sea-creatures like crabs, shells and prawns crawling around. The Jesus statue is a major tourist attraction. It lies along the Nho Mountain and is so big it can be seen from all over the city. Near the statue, also on the Nho mountain is the Artillery Station, which has a collection of weaponry that is worth seeing. There are also the Binh Chau hot springs, which are like our own Bogoria. You should also not miss the Buddha Pagoda and Nirvana Temple. These are essential to get a glimpse of the local religion and culture. The weather in Vung Tau is like Mombasa, except stronger. Temperature can be from 32-40 degrees with very high humidity. Shorts are the best attire, but beware of sunburn, dehydration and heatstroke.
A lovely closing ceremony, where the winners were felicitated as the rest of us watched the fantastic performances and said our goodbyes capped off the trip. Personally, this trip opened new dimensions to me and I realised that success can come in many forms, because although I did not win anything in terms of medals, I was chose as one of the faces of the event (To tell you the truth, I am still wondering on what grounds I was chosen!!) It also felt very nice that despite my mediocre chess-playing skills, I left the tournament so popular, with many international players and coaches as my friends. (It was almost like I was an ambassador for the sport in Kenya!) I am not a newcomer to the world of chess and travel; in fact I have done this several times. Yet the excitement and experiences are different each time and it is with the same eagerness that I will always await my next trip.
Fourteen-year-old Vaishnavi Ram Mohan has made a mark for herself as an aspiring writer whose stories, articles and travelogues have been published for over five years now in newspapers both in Kenya and in India. Her recently published book "Tales From Africa" has been widely acclaimed and is seen on the shelves of book stores world over. She has had a feature done on her writing skills and creative abilities by the Young Nation. Recently, the Oshwal Community Centre invited her to share her writing experiences with young enthusiasts as part of a story-reading session of her book.
Vaishnavi is a well-known face in the local junior chess circuit. She has won many prizes at the national level and is the five-time junior defending national champion in her category. She has also had the rare honour of being selected to represent Kenya in international chess events in Greece, France, Serbia, Georgia, Turkey and Vietnam. She is amongst the top junior players in the country.
Vaishnavi's talents have been recognised by the well-known Al Jazeera Television network. She was one of just four teenagers selected from entire Africa and the only one from east Africa to be featured in documentary-style footage of her life and achievements. This show was aired globally.
Vaishnavi is currently a Grade 11 student at Nairobi Jaffery Academy. She has won several prizes for her excellence in academics and extra-curricular activities. She was one of the first students to receive a full school merit scholarship in her school.
Writing and chess aside, Vaishnavi loves travelling and spends much of her leisure time reading books.