Amon Simutowe learned chess by reading magazines. He was the Zambian national champ by the time he was 14. But a series of dazzling victories at a recent tournament in the Netherlands earned Simutowe, now 25, a permanent place in chess history: he became the first subSaharan African to achieve the notoriously difficult ranking of international grandmaster. At home in his native Lusaka, the local papers exalted in his victory on the front pages.
Chess in America has typically been the reserve of the geeky eccentric, or the rich and effete. But in many parts of Africa, where the game is seen as a powerful tool for intellectual strength and self-improvement, it has developed a broad following. And because chess is so cheap, it is luring players who are just as likely to come from a rural village in Botswana or a South African township as from a European boarding school. Now two homegrown stars—Simutowe and Zimbabwean Robert Gwaze, who won the African Individual Championships last month and is heading toward becoming a grandmaster—are leading the way for other African players to break into the ranks of the world's best. "This is the beginning of a real renaissance," says Lewis Ncube, the Zambian vice president of the World Chess Federation. "In time they'll be able to challenge for the top positions in the world."
Christian missionaries first spread chess throughout Africa in the 19th century. But the continent has generally lagged behind in turning out masters—until now. Since Simutowe first beat British grandmaster Peter Wells in 2000, he has become something of a national hero. He receives hundreds of e-mails from adoring Zambian fans and provides them with daily updates from his tournaments via BlackBerry. Chess now regularly makes the front page of the sports section in The Post of Zambia. And Zambian officials are reportedly considering awarding Simutowe—who earned degrees in finance and economics while on a chess scholarship at the University of Texas at Dallas—a diplomatic passport to encourage him to become a global ambassador for African chess. "This is proof that you can come from southern Africa and achieve grandmaster ranking," says Dabilani Buthani, president of the African Chess Union. "It's going to be a boom."
Perhaps. There are lots of hurdles. African players face a dearth of good tournaments at home and are unable to afford traveling abroad to play. Malawian Alfred Chimathere bounced for 72 hours in a bus to participate in the African championship—only to be detained at the border for two days because officials wouldn't accept his visa. Chimathere began playing only two years ago, but is already working his way toward an international title. "Chess is a game of thinkers," he says. "That motivated me to show the world that I can think."
And while many aspiring players improve their games over the Internet, some of the best African players don't yet have access to the Web. Chimathere's policeman's salary, for instance, is not enough for him to buy a laptop. In Zimbabwe, political instability and a severe economic crisis have stripped the game of financial backing, forcing leading lights like Gwaze to move abroad. "I've gotten no support whatsoever from them," he says.
But support is starting to come in other forms. African chess officials have embraced the strategy that Russia, a world-class chess center, adopted long ago: teaching chess in schools. The World Chess Federation plans to implement a global Schools Program focused on promoting chess among children in developing countries. In South Africa, there are already an estimated 100,000 students participating in official and nonofficial games. Earlier this year South Africa promoted chess as one of six "priority sports codes," allotting it the same kind of federal funding as football, rugby and swimming. Botswana and Namibia both now categorize chess as a sport, which means it is federally funded and promoted. Namibia is working with Iceland—where the government pays chess champions large salaries and where the reclusive American chess master Bobby Fischer lives—to promote chess in schools and prisons.
Corporate sponsors are also pitching in. For years the mining company De Beers has sponsored chess championships in Botswana. Now a South African company called ChessCube plans to launch an interactive, free Web site featuring chess lectures and videos aimed at Africans who don't have access to teachers or local chess clubs. "This system we're building helps make Africa smaller," says ChessCube's Mark Levitt. And as Africa gets smaller, the number of African chess champions is bound to grow.