The Zambia Chess national team was the most overachieving team in the world at the recent 2010 Chess Olympiads, the world’s biggest international chess tournament. They were ranked 121st but managed to come out at position 47th (out of 148 countries) by the end of the tournament. The obvious reason for their poor ranking at the beginning of the tournament is that the members of the team are not known in the world, therefore they have very low chess ratings as individuals and collectively. And they are unrated because they have not participated in enough international tournaments to be fairly rated. Zambia is too poor to send its chess players to such tournaments. Or rather, all the money goes to the one team that underachieves consistently these days: the national soccer team.
And the most underrated chess player in the world has to be the Zambian team captain, Stanley Chumfwa. For many years, Chumfwa has been the most dreaded chess player in Zambia. At any local tournament, every player instantly loses heart upon learning that he has the misfortune of being paired against the unpredictable Chumfwa in the next round. Thus a game against Chumfwa is normally lost even before it starts! At the last tournament I saw him participate in, he had a Christian book on his table (written by classical evangelist Smith Wigglesworth) on how to pray for the sick or something, but this did not tame the merciless aggression with which he mutilated his opponents!
Despite this tough competitiveness on the board, Chumfwa is fondly liked by all the chess players in Zambia, because he is completely approachable and he characteristically respects every opponent he is playing against, always taking every game very seriously, no matter how lowly ranked his opponent is. He is also very liberal with offering his knowledge to the other upcoming players and he feels no need to make them acknowledge his superiority through endless boasting, as some lesser “masters” do. His own kid brother was thus so inspired by these lessons at home that he has managed to also make it into the envied Zambia national team of about half a dozen players. Almost every member of the national team is not ashamed to credit the development of their game to the critical advice given to them by their generous captain and the instructive games they have played against him over the years.
Chumfwa’s own style of play is distinctively intuitive, sometimes shockingly so. At the last Olympiads, for example, he played one particular [http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1597194|game] against a grandmaster that confounded many chess analysts and was regarded as one of the best games of the tournament (which included all the best players in the world). Not even the grandmaster could see why Chumfwa suddenly started giving away his biggest pieces in this game as if he had gone mad; his plan was not foreseeable. It only became clear after the grandmaster found himself unable to continue play and resigned the game to the little known Zambian champion shortly afterwards. This unorthodox onslaught against such a strong opponent was so spectacular that not even Gary Kasparov could have saved the resulting position; it was partly reminiscent of the super-cryptic play of the great American genius Bobby Fischer, and partly like the overbearing strategic motions of Anatoly Karpov.
The strongest chess players in the world are known for their extraordinarily high intuition, although some rely on this mysterious part of human psychology more than others do. They have this innate ability to sort of just feel that a certain move is powerful without consciously knowing why at first. They just feel strongly driven to that move and they spend time trying to understand why the move is “calling” when all immediate evidence shows that the move could lose some important material or violate chess common sense, and yet it could possess the greatest ultimate strategic advantage for the player. The trick, of course, is to follow such a move with the most forceful logical moves or else it ends up being merely suicidal, which is why inexperienced players are advised never to try this at home! The current biggest sensation in the world of chess, 20 year old Magnus Carlsen of Norway whom many predict will become the greatest player in chess history, is also best known for his extremely intuitive style of play. According to his personal coach, former world champion Garry Kasparov, Carlsen plays like Kasparov’s former nemesis, Anatoly Karpov. Karpov was indeed known for his overpowering positional intuition that seemed to create new potential energy in his pieces as they found the precisely correct squares on the board, no matter how minor the pieces were; they magically sapped the life out of his opponents’ pieces just by their simple patterns, remotely incapacitating them slowly but surely until a final quick combination would put them out of their misery (he was thus nicknamed “the boa constrictor”).
Stanley Chumfwa is also in this league. In the past he did not have as much confidence as he presently does whenever he played in the few international tournaments Zambia participated in. The fact that the team played so few games against people from foreign nations must have contributed to his low psychological preparation in those days, not knowing what to expect from these highly acclaimed experienced players. But with time, he seems to have built the self-confidence required to show his superior abilities to the world, particularly as the internet now enables anyone to see the games of all the great players around the world. A web site like chessgames.com records just about every game played by any strong player in every major international tournament. As he has looked at the games of other great players, he has slowly begun to realize that there is really no one who is necessarily at a level that is higher than him. Like Neo in The Matrix, he now finally believes he is at least as “chosen” as the most elite grandmasters out there.
And this is the truth. At the Olympiads, Chumfwa did not lose a single game, which is a feat that is only typical of the top grandmasters of the world. They can draw some games, but they don’t easily lose because they have the ability to find a drawing combination even when they are in trouble, especially when playing against lesser talents. The fact that he was on the top board for the Zambian team means that he kept meeting the strongest players from the opposing national teams.
What makes his achievement even more remarkable is that he is able to do this without committing himself fully to the game. Again because of the Zambian economy, it is practically impossible for a Zambian to become a full-time professional chess player, spending his day studying the latest ideas in chess theory and examining the games of his likely opponents, as professional players in other countries do. Chumfwa can only do this in the little spare time he finds after work at an insurance company. Like Karpov, he went to university to study mathematics (at the University of Zambia) some years ago and he managed to graduate in this impossibly tough course despite committing most of his time to chess.
The Zambian grandmaster, Amon Simutowe, whose own style was partly shaped by the older Chumfwa, has had to suffer some steep financial strain because he took it upon himself to raise his chess rating in the world by going to tournaments with his own personal savings. That’s how he reached the grandmaster ranking. But this has cost him so much financially that the other players dare not try to emulate him. Simutowe did not even play in the team that came 47th in the world (and joint first in Africa – with Egypt), because he wanted a discussion opened on the possibility of the Chess Federation of Zambia helping him recoup even a fraction of the money he has spent in the past, his logic being that his achievements have already brought some glory to his nation. Unfortunately, the discussion ended in a stalemate at the opening stage. It is quite sad that Zambia would rather put all the money into soccer when the probability that the soccer team will achieve any meaningful glory any time soon is now officially zero. Faithfully following the Einsteinian definition of insanity, they keep pouring more and more money into that game, each time hoping that the result will be different.
One cannot help but wonder what would happen if just 1 percent of the money that is put into soccer was put into chess instead. Just one percent. And by that I specifically mean sending the top players to tournaments where they can showcase their talents. It doesn’t have to start with the whole team, they can just send two players for now. Or they can even just hire a national chess coach – some semi-retired grandmaster like Anatoly Karpov (for much less than they pay the pointless Zambia soccer coaches).
The simple effort that Simutowe put into raising his ratings resulted in a historical achievement: he became the first person in sub-saharan Africa to become a grandmaster and only the third black human being in history. There was a time when the irrational white supremacists were rhetorically using the failure of black chess players to achieve such high levels in chess as empirical evidence of black mental inferiority from birth. The achievement of Zambian-born Amon Simutowe, and before him, Jamaican-born African American Maurice Ashley, and Colombian-born Pontus Carlsson of Sweden, put an end to this selective fallacy. What they are now learning is that the grandmasters are already there in Africa, but they simply cannot afford to travel to places that grant this title.
Thus when the dynamic Amon Simutowe last played in a local tournament some years ago, after getting a couple of grandmaster norms from his self-sponsored foreign travels, he could still not crack the intractable Stanley Chumfwa and he ceded the Zambian crown back to him, as the perennial defending champion remained indomitable at both classical and speed chess (blitz). Grandmaster Simutowe was joint second or third with about six other unheard-of, unrated Zambian players. This simply shows how strong the game is in Zambia, for whatever historical or anthropological reasons. And yet Stanley Chumfwa is officially not a grandmaster and not even the lower rank of International Master, merely because he can’t afford the plane ticket to these rating tournaments.
What we need to have is a private fund that is dedicated to producing Zambian grandmasters. People like Chumfwa are already in the class of elite grandmasters. The man has so much talent that he can even play simultaneously against a couple of other good players while he is blindfolded (Magnus Carlsen also does this). But without the money, this amazing talent remains hidden from the world. He is like our world champion female boxer, Esther Phiri, before National Milling Corporation decided to put a bit of money into her dreams. She already had world champion talent in her, but she needed someone to just help her travel to places where the wrong women were keeping her belt!
See the full game mentioned in article: [http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1597194]
Other games by Stanley Chumfwa: [http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessplayer?pid=79461]
__”Author is founder and president of Zambia Online (www.zambia.co.zm). He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please contact the author if you wish to help the most promising Zambian chess players achieve the Grandmaster rank.”__