Rehema Khimulu, 31, has been appointed by the World Chess Federation (FIDE) as one of the arbiters at the 43rd Chess Olympiad, starting tomorrow, September 23, to October 7 in Batumi, Georgia. This is only the second time a Kenyan has been appointed for the role, which is the equivalent of refereeing matches at the FIFA World Cup. She tells her story of how she got here:
“The first time I saw a chessboard, I had no idea what to do with it. I was 9 and the chessboard had been a gift from my cousin. A chess board is similar to a draughts board so that is what I used it for. We mostly used it to play basic chess and draughts with my elder brother, and then it just kind of fell by the wayside.
One day, when I was in high school, a chess coach came to our school, Bishop Gatimu Ngandu Girls’, when I was in Form Three. He said he wanted to coach some students in chess. Fascinating memories of the old chess board I had as a child came flooding back and I found myself incredibly interested in the game.
Two hundred students registered and we formed a chess club, but within a month, only three of us remained. Everybody else’s interest waned quickly while mine only grew stronger.
The coach would come with his 9-year-old son, and the fact that this child would beat us easily at the game was a source of motivation for me. Eventually, we started going for the Under-18 chess championships.
I realised two things when I started going - one, that there were very few girls. Two, there were more foreigners than locals, many of them from the Asian community. One of my lowest moments was when I qualified for the World Youth Championships but I could not go because I did not have the money.
The girl who had placed second ended up going in my place because her parents could afford her air ticket. From there, I got the impression that it was a rich people’s game.
I was in Form Four then. My parents were concerned about me going to play chess, which they did not understand, instead of concentrating on my studies. However, my teacher tried to convince them that my studies would not be affected and that she would make sure I stayed on course. Eventually though, we just did not have the money.
During high school, my parents had moved upcountry from the city, so when I finished, taking part in tournaments meant planning to come to Nairobi. To them, it was still just a game and they did not really understand why I was so focused on playing what was really just draughts to them, not knowing that there was a whole world surrounding chess.
So being out of school, I had no access to a chess board, and at that time they cost Sh2,000 which I could not afford. I got cardboards and drew chess boards on them and then I would use different items like bottle tops and twigs to represent all the different chess pieces like pawns, rooks, the queen, the king, and so on. That is how I played chess for a year with my brother Ibrahim. They were crude pieces but they worked, and we never forgot what piece was what.
When I got to campus at Kenyatta University to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Planning and Management, my interest only grew, but my father always said I needed to put priority in my studies, so I would ensure I passed my course work so that my interest in chess did not become a source of contention.
I was always on the lookout for opportunities to return to the game. It came one day in my first year when I was going for a meal in the students’ mess. I saw a student who had placed a chessboard on a table, hoping that someone would want to play. Of course I did, so we played and I beat him several times. We became good friends and from then on, we would play regularly.
At some point, we heard about a meeting at the Kenya Chess Association and a whole new world opened up to me. I discovered that there were chess books to be read, software, many different styles of playing in tournaments. I even found people to play with and discovered places to play the game in town.
However, I quickly realised that I was not as good at chess as I had imagined. My friend and I would be the bottom five in all tournaments and we started to believe the other chess players thought we just did not know what we were doing.
It was the first time I felt like giving up on it. Some of the places where people played chess would also make me uncomfortable, because sometimes it would be in dingy places and pubs and I would very often be the only female.
So now it was not only a rich people’s game, but now it was also a men’s game. Women would join us every once in a while and just never come back. It is so much better today because many chess clubs have come up so there are better places to train.
I had many obstacles back then, because I also did not have a laptop and software. Also, tournaments cost between Sh500 and Sh1,000 to attend - unless it was the campus team taking us there. Luckily, chess people became family and if I showed up, they would pay for me. I began winning tournaments in the women’s section, which helped because I would get prize money - a minimum of Sh5,000 - and that helped pay for my upkeep in school.
I eventually excelled at it, becoming the university women’s chess champion in intra and inter-university competitions. In 2010, I was crowned the universities women’s chess champion at the biennial East Africa University Games.
I also won in the national chess women’s qualifiers and, in 2010, I qualified for the 39th World Chess Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. In 2011, I qualified for the 10th All Africa Games, in Maputo, Mozambique and, in 2012, I qualified for the 40th World Chess Olympiad in Istanbul, Turkey.
The first time I qualified for the Chess Olympiads, it was only the second time Kenya was taking women. When we had been playing for the Under-18s, there was a belief that we were all equal, but once I got into the big leagues, I realised it was no longer the case.
So I began vocalising the issues we were facing, because, for instance, our prize monies were very low as women, but the men’s prize money would be five or ten times higher in the same tournament. If the women’s prize for the first winner was sh20,000, the men’s would be Sh100,000.
It is only recently that they have begun equalising the money in some clubs. The chess community would argue that they did not have men and women categories, and women could choose to participate in the open categories.
Being very active and vocal, I became the youngest and only female Vice Chair of Chess Kenya, and in December 2013, I was the head of a delegation to the World Youth Championships.
With time, I also realised there were not so many arbiters who were women, so I decided to also train for arbitration. That training takes place alongside major tournaments, and you are trained by someone from FIDE (World Chess Federation). I have arbitrated in tournaments in Algeria, Ethiopia and Germany so far.
I hope now that we can dispel the myths that it is a rich people’s game or men’s game. Being appointed by FIDE as one of the arbiters at the Chess Olympiad is a dream come true. Having come this far is a reminder that there are many alternatives for everyone, and it is a testament that anyone can excel at anything they put themselves to. It exemplifies the power of the brain and the will of a person.
My dream now is that chess will become more mainstream, and that the sports authorities will be more supportive of the game, and the game will have more sponsors. Currently, even when you qualify for international matches, you still have to raise the funds to attend the event, which not everyone can afford. We need to get to the point where one can be a chess player full time, because right now it is quite difficult.
I knew early in my chess journey that I needed to have additional components in my life [could not depend on chess alone for a living], given that the government’s narrative has been that they would only give support commensurate to the medal and trophy cabinet, yet this is the kind of game that’s firmly mainstreamed in the sporting systems and academic curriculum in the countries that excel. We excel in athletics as it is deeply rooted already. Denying another sport the exposure it requires, either internally or externally, stifles its potential.
Anyone can play chess, even the blind and those with learning disabilities. Of all sports, chess stands out as the sport that a six, even or ten-year-old can play, represent the country as part of the national team and become a world champion. Chess has given me opportunities I would not have had otherwise, like travel and interacting with many different cultures.
My story isn’t the usual kind of glorified achievement. Chess is addictive and fun at the same time. Chess has deepened further my sense of self belief in valuing it so much in that I can do anything I want to do and be anything I want to be and go wherever I want to go - more like transferring some chess principles to life as we view it. I hope to actualise this soon.
I have a Master’s degree in Energy Policy from the African Union’s Pan African University. My dream is to blend my passions together — chess and advocacy. I want to fight for the right for all children to have quality education and be a crusader for climate smart initiatives and clean and affordable energy.