Choosing Chess

Portia Mlilo

Last month, Botswana Chess Federation (BCF) President Mothokomedi Thabano was appointed the first ever Chairman of the Continental Chess in Education Commission.

The Commission’s ambitious mission is to introduce chess to school curriculums across Africa.

The 37-year-old Thabano, a Mathematics and Add Maths teacher at Mater Spei College, is adamant the game has value as an educational tool and can ultimately be used to improve pupils’ academic performance.

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Despite a limited budget, Thabano has worked wonders at the helm of local chess and was rewarded for his efforts with the coveted 2019 Botswana National Sport Commission Sport Administrator of the Year award.

Indeed, it was a double whammy for the sport as BCF won the National Sports Association of the year.

The Voice’s Portia Mlilo sat down with the Tonota native to talk about the game he loves and, more specifically, exactly what his exciting new role entails.

Q. Congratulations on your appointment – what does it mean to you?

The appointment to the post of Chairman of Chess in Education Commission means a lot to me as an individual and Botswana as a country.

It means I am doing my best in chess leadership.

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The commission is new and I thank God that I am the first leader of the Commission.

It will result in far better grades in Botswana and Africa as a whole.

Q. What criteria was used for your appointment?

I serve as a member of chess in Education Commission at Fide level, which is chaired by Grandmaster Smbat Lputian from Armenia, a country where chess is part of the curriculum from lower primary.

I am one of the only two Africans serving in that commission and so far I have gained a lot of experience in that field.

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I am also a teacher by profession, which is the core of Chess in Education – having teachers who will teach chess to improve academic performance of learners.

I believe this combination made the Africa Chess Confederation board to nominate me.

Over and above, Botswana has been one of the countries doing well in grassroots chess; as such the leadership might have included that in their criteria selection.

Otherwise we were not informed of the criteria used, but do I qualify? Yes I believe I do!

Q. So what does your role as Chairperson entail?

The role of this commission entails facilitating training of lecturers who will train teachers, and facilitating training of teachers who will teach chess as a subject in African countries.

I will be working with a team of members from different African zones to see this come to pass.

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The commission will be responsible for designing and developing the syllabus of Chess in Education from primary school up to tertiary level, linking it to the World Chess Federation set up.

We will be responsible for mobilizing resources needed for this project.

I believe this will be a breakthrough for the education system in Africa if it can be embraced by all nations in Africa.

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Q. How do you think this will work to Botswana’s advantage as far as our continental participation is concerned?

Botswana was a step ahead concerning this project of Chess in Education.

In 2017, were invited the former Fide President to Botswana to discuss the model of Chess in Education with the then Minister of Basic Education, Dr Unity Dow and the then Permanent Secretary, Grace Muzila.

The duo were impressed by the concept and believed it could have a turnaround in academic performance in Botswana.

Unfortunately, the changes in administration led to the delay in the process with two Ministers having followed Dow in the Ministry and Muzila now at finance.

However, this project will surely improve Botswana greatly and going into the highly anticipated objective-based education, this might be one of the greatest decisions our education leaders could make to take the education system forward.

Imagine developing problem solvers and analytical thinkers from as early as seven years old countrywide.

Before we know it, we will have great infrastructure developments in the level of Dubai!

Q. Wow that would certainly be a game changer! So, exactly what are the benefits of playing chess?

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Benefits of chess include problem solving skills, developing patience, recognizing patterns that may be used in other areas such as fashion designing, analytical thinking etc.

Chess also helps with some medical conditions such as autism and dementia.

It has been proved that people who play chess have less chances of developing dementia at the age of 75 compared to their counterparts who have not played chess.

Q. What are some of the challenges you face as BCF?

Our main challenge to make BCF the heavyweight it has the potential to be is that we lack in funds.

We wish to host events that can bring athletes of higher experience in order to improve our own athletes but lack of funds is a challenge.

Our annual BNSC grant is about P520, 000 – it does not even allow us to have a national team coach!

Even during the Olympiad year where most funds are channeled towards this event we still get the same amount, which is insufficient and we end up sacrificing some important events.

Our games are usually hosted in hotels and of late prices are very high and unaffordable.

The long games need a comfortable and cool place.

That said we have been very fortunate in being able to source some sponsors who have sustained us such as: Debswana, Metropolitan, Collins Chilisa Consultants, Botswana Ash, Kalahari Associates, Airfficiency, Grace World Africa Foundation, Hello Mobile, Kobe Trading, Mr Malike Mmohe, Capital Bank, Spar Botswana, Grant Thornton, Morupule Coal Mine.

This has kept us going over the years. Recently we have had Nchini Computers joining us too.

Q. What are some of your highlights or greatest achievements as a sport administrator?

Our highlights as the committee that ascended to BCF Leadership in May 2017 includes being able to bring back the chess league after 10 years of non-existence, since Mahindra stopped sponsoring around 2009.

We also managed to bring two grand masters at the same time to train our 2018 Olympiad open section and ladies section teams.

This is not an easy task, since it approximately costs about P100, 000 each to spend a month in Botswana, inclusive of flight tickets, coaching fees and accommodation.

However, with the good relationship with FIDE leadership and partnership with Russian Embassy, our cost ended up being very low.

We were also blessed by the visit of FIDE President in 2017, being the first visit of its kind.

The same year we had our under 17 Africa schools team coached by a grand master as well, and the team were crowned African champions in Zimbabwe.

In 2018 they became the continent champions again.

A lot of youngsters improved their ratings and titles, including Naledi Marape’s WFM title awarded in Zimbabwe.

A lot of grassroots development continued, thanks to the good foundation under TshenoloMaruatona’s committee.

Q. And how has Covid-19 affected your plans/progress as the federation?

Top of the list is the postponement of World Chess Olympiad that was supposed to be held in Russia this month [August].

It’s every athlete’s dream to participate at the highest level of the games; a lot of energy is invested by athletes to qualify!

Our local calendar has been greatly affected as well with most of the events postponed indefinitely and continental and zonal events have also been postponed.

School sports has been halted as well, this is likely to leave a void in sport in general.

Some people make a living out of chess coaching while some depend greatly on tournaments.

With little or no activity it’s a big challenge!

Q. What makes a good sport leader?

I believe a good sports leader is someone who has passion for the sport’s growth and has the athletes at heart.

It should be someone who believes in good governance practices, staying away from malpractice and corruption.

This should be a servant who can be woken up any time to serve sports.

In Botswana’s case, it should be someone who knows that this is pure volunteerism and you can’t earn a salary from sport.

A good administrator should be someone who believes in teamwork and does not make emotional decisions without consultations.

A good administrator should always consider the feelings of athletes.

We should know that we are administrators because of athletes.

Q. What advice can you give to young aspiring sport leaders?

Serving sports as a leader is great.

Don’t go in there to be a boss but a servant.

Don’t be all knowing but consult.

Teamwork is key as a sport leader.

Above all have athletes at heart – you become a leader because of them not the other way round.

That will not build you into a reputable administrator.

Don’t come into sport leadership thinking it’s time to get rich – gagona madi (there is no money).

Before you know it you will be in the headlines for corruption and bad governance practices!

Q. Who is your inspiration?

My father, retired Major Bayendisi Thabano has always been my inspiration.

A hardworking servant, humble and a loving person.

This is a man who believes that nothing is impossible with God and whatever he does, he invites him first.

I have since followed his steps.

Q. Sounds like an impressive man – I’m sure he’s very proud of you! Anyway, Thank God It’s Friday, what are your plans for the weekend?

Stay home, wash hands, wear my mask and watch Botswana perform wonders in the online world chess Olympiad.

I will just be home watching the online games of our team the whole weekend.

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