What you need to know:
- In his free time back home, Ssegwanyi says he shares with junior players skills on how to excel in the game. He has trained his eyes on being a GM.
- “For the next six months, I am working towards getting my practicing license (pharmacist). After that, if I get the resources required, I can consider that (being a GM) because for me to reach that level, I have to get exposure. For example, go to Europe for a year or two and expose myself to the strong events,” he said.
The rivalry between Kenya and Uganda in sports has always stood out.
It normally gets fiery on the eve of a clash between Harambee Stars (Kenya national men's football team) and The Cranes (Uganda national men's football team), as citizens of the two East African nations are known to engage each other in all manner of banter on social media platforms.
But from January 27 to February 7, the two countries put aside their 'differences' for one goal – to ensure the Kenyan national chess team starts the year 2021 by registering a good performance in the Africa Online Individual Chess Championships.
Ugandan International Master (IM) Arthur Ssegwanyi was the man at the centre of this rare unity, after Chess Kenya tasked him with the responsibility of leading the national team (six men and four women) in the championships.
“It is true that we (Kenya and Uganda) are rivals in everything, but I think the rivalry for chess is productive in nature. If one has something to offer that the others don’t, we can always come and share experience,” said Ssegwanyi.
And for the 12 days, the 32-year-old, whose International Chess Federation rating of 2395 is the highest in East Africa, was locked up in a Nairobi hotel with the players, training hard to ensure that they perform well in the competition.
The end result, five players – Riya Shah (Tritonite Stars), Glenda Matelda (Equity Chess Club), Lucy Wanjiru (Anchors Chess Club), Martin Njoroge (KCB Chess Club) and Robert Macligeyo (Makini School) all improved in their ratings, while John Mukabi, who contested in the over-50 category combined, emerged third to pocket a cash prize of $500 (Sh50,000).
Njoroge, who competed in the open section, improved his rating from 1781 to 1998, Macligeyo, who was in the open Under-20 category, increased his from 1408 to 1443, while Shah and Matelda, who were drawn in the girl’s'Under-20 section, improved from 1556 to 1826 and 1427 to 1753 respectively.
Wanjiru increased her rating from 1623 to 1646.
“I can say that the performance was good. In chess, the rating is always an indication of what you are expected to score, so if you outperform your rating, then you have done better than expected,” said Ssegwanyi.
Going by that performance, Ssegwanyi believes Kenya stand a chance to have her first ever IM/Woman International Master (WIM) in one year’s time if the players are well exposed.
"Kenya has so many young strong players, but they need to come out and compete against other strong players outside Kenya. What is lacking is the exposure. If the federation fails you as an individual, take the necessary initiative and come to Uganda and gauge yourself by competing against those players who are rated above you. With that, you will be learning something and getting better,” he advised.
IM/ WIM is the second most coveted title in chess after Grandmaster / Woman Grandmaster (WGM). Fide Master (FM) is the third most coveted title followed by National Master (NM), Candidate Master (CM), Woman Fide Master (WFM) and Woman Candidate Master (WCM) respectively.
Kenya only boasts of having two FMs – Martin Gateri and Stephen Ouma. The country has seven CMs, three WFMs and nine WCMs.
Apart from Ssegwanyi, Elijah Emojong, also a Ugandan, is the only other IM in the entire East Africa region. Ssegwanyi, who is also a practicing pharmacist in Uganda, attained his IM title in 2015 after winning the Zone 4.2 Africa Chess Championships held in Uganda with a round to spare and at the age of 28.
He became East Africa’s top seed in 2016 when he broke an over 20-year-old record set by Fide Master (FM) Andrew Naimanye, who previously had the highest rating of 2360.
Having not had a coach in his entire chess career, the Makerere University alumni singles out his habit of interacting with top players to his rise in the game of wits.
“In my first event I emerged last without a point. But my team won and that spurred me to train hard….I kept meeting players who were better than me and somehow they would show me a thing or two,” said Ssegwanyi, whose chess career only started after being forced to quit rugby due to a back injury, while senior two student at Namilyango College School.
His first impression on the national chess scene was when he won the Uganda National Junior Chess Championship in 2007.
Since then, Ssegwanyi has represented Uganda in several international events, which include the 2012, 2014 and 2018 chess Olympiads that took place in Russia, Norway and Georgia respectively.
But it is his participation in the 2015 Chess World Cup held in Baku, Azebaijan that is nostalgic to him. This is because he gave the then world fourth seed and GM Anish Giri of Netherlands a run for his money by holding him to a draw after over seven hours of play.
Giri eventually beat Ssegwanyi in the next round of the competition, which is reserved for the world’s top chess players.
In all the editions, he played in the board one, which is reserved for the top seeds.
“So many people at the event (chess world cup) do not believe that a black man is capable of playing chess to that level, so it was an honour to show them the opposite. It was an honourable performance by me against such a top player (Giri). I hope to go back another time,” said Ssegwanyi of his performance in the 2015 Chess World Cup.
He is the first East African to play in the Chess World Cup. In 2017, he pulled another big shocker when he stunned Indian GM and five-time Commonwealth Chess Champion Gupta Abhijeet at the GM Norm tourney in Zambia.
"At that level of chess, there is a bit of psychology. Because he (Gupta) was stronger than me and because he was likely to win, I had to be cautious.
I just waited when he was trying to win and I saw a loophole within his plan, which I exploited," recounted Ssegwanyi.
He described East Africa to be a “desert” in chess, and advised players and their respective federations to capitalise on the rise of virtual chess tournaments brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic to help bridge the gap of exposure by organising tournaments with the top players globally.
According to the pharmacist, while Kenya boasts of having many talented chess players, Uganda with a smaller number still beats them because their players are rated higher.
“For us (Uganda) what we need to do is to build the base (have many more chess players), while you guys (Kenya) need to identify those talented and help them get more exposure, so that they can get better,” advised the IM.
He tipped Kenya’s female chess players to achieve a lot in the game than their male counterparts.
“When you look at the men’s team, there is no new blood but in the ladies, it is a complete new team, so the men’s team needs some juniors to step up and take the mantle. I feel that the ladies team has a higher potential to show their capabilities,” he said.
In his free time back home, Ssegwanyi says he shares with junior players skills on how to excel in the game. He has trained his eyes on being a GM.
“For the next six months, I am working towards getting my practicing license (pharmacist). After that, if I get the resources required, I can consider that (being a GM) because for me to reach that level, I have to get exposure. For example, go to Europe for a year or two and expose myself to the strong events,” he said.