Robert Mcligeyo: Chess whiz-kid aiming to be Grand Master

Robert Mcligeyo

Robert Mcligeyo ponders his next move during the third round of the 2022 Kenya National Chess Championship at Charter Hall, Nairobi on December 27, 2022.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The KCB Chess Club player, 17, got a golden opportunity to meet Swedish GM Pontus Carlsson last year. He gave tips on how to become a prolific player and shared books too
  • ‘I am no longer timid when drawn against higher ranked players. Preparing for big matches has become a bit easy because I now know the best way to do it and I am also now enlightened on how to bounce back from a loss,’ says the youngest top seed in Kenya who has defeated big guns; six-time Olympiad Magana, Sang, Gohil and his former personal coach Methu

At 17, Robert Mcligeyo is Kenya’s youngest chess top seed in history.

The teenage sensation rose to the top of local rankings on January 31, when the World Chess Federation (Fide) in its latest rankings placed him at the summit, alongside Candidate Master (CM), and veteran player-cum-coach Ben Magana.

They are joint top with a Fide elo rating of 2027 each.

Because Mcligeyo is still young, his achievement elicited a lot of excitement in the local chess community, with many seeing Kenya’s first International Master (IM) or Grand Master (GM) player in him.

In chess — a game of wits, GM title is the highest honours, followed by IM, Fide Master (FM), Woman Grand Master (WGM), Woman International Master (WIM), Woman Fide Master (WFM) and Woman Candidate Master (WCM).

No GM in East Africa

There being no GM in East Africa, and only two IMs in the region — Ugandans Arthur Ssegwanyi (2375) and Elijah Emojong (2142), it is clear why the local chess enthusiasts are yearning for Kenya’s first IM or GM player.

But just how did a teenager, who is only six years into the sport rise so fast to the helm of the local standings, now becoming the country’s leading hope in having a player with the top honours?

So far, Kenyans with the highest chess titles are FMs Martin Gateri, and Stephen Ouma in the Open Section and WFM Sasha Mongeli in the ladies’ section.

“I feel like there is still more that I can accomplish. I want to be an IM this year and then focus on being a GM by the age of 25,” said Mcligeyo, who is the reigning national junior champion and a conditional CM.

Mcligeyo recalled that he started playing chess by chance in 2017. One afternoon, his parents failed to pick him up on time at Logos Christian School where he attended school.

The delay was caused by a violent demonstration by students at the University of Nairobi. With nothing to do, Mcligeyo, then 11, opted to join the chess club members for their session om that day.

Since then, the game of wits has become his cup of tea.

“I like how the journey has been so far. There has been continued progress, so I have no regrets for embracing chess,” he said.

As he strategise on how to make history again by becoming Kenya’s first IM or GM, the new KCB Chess Club man credits several factors to his fast rise in the sport.

But it is his debut at the World Chess Olympiad last July in Chennai City, India, and a moment with Swedish GM Pontus Carlsson last October in Nairobi that he says propelled him to the top of the standings.

Even though Mcligeyo failed to achieve his target of attaining an FM title at the Indian Olympiad, he said he learnt a lot from the Games regarding how to become a star.

World Chess Olympiad

The World Chess Olympiad, which is held every two years, is a prestigious championship since it brings together the best chess players globally.

Kenya finished 130th and 73th in the open and women’s section, respectively, at the Indian Olympiad, with Mcligeyo attaining a conditional CM for the second time after doing so in the Africa Schools Individual Chess Championship in Nairobi last year.

While he has since crossed the 2000 Fide elo rating required for the conditional CMs to be upgraded to actual ones, he said that he is no longer interested in that, as he is now eying higher titles.

“I played and interacted with tough opponents at the Olympiad. In the end, I returned home with a lot of experience on how to improve my chess," said the former Lighthouse Alpha Chess Club and Nairobi Chess Club player.

"I am no longer timid when drawn against higher ranked players. Preparing for big matches has become a bit easy because I now know the best way to do it and I am also now enlightened on how to bounce back from a loss," says the first-born in a family of three siblings.

Six-time Olympiad Magana, Ricky Sang, Mehul Gohil and his former personal coach Joseph Methu are some of the big guns that Mcligeyo has upset recently.

Beat top players

He outwitted them in the third and final phase of the national team qualifiers held last weekend at Utalii Hotel to finish top with 8.5 points.

The former Makini School and Rusinga School student was unbeaten in the competition, a performance he said is the one that he is most proud of since he started playing chess. "Humiliating all those top players is not easy. I am excited I did it," said an elated Mcligeyo.

During GM Carlsson’s last visit to Kenya in October, the teen sensation was among the few young players who got the golden opportunity to interact with him.

Apart from sharing with them tips on how to become prolific chess players, GM Carlsson introduced them to several chess books.

The KCB Chess Club man said the books have been the game changer in his performance.

Some of them are; Improve Your Chess Calculation by Indian GM Ramesh RB, Playing the Caro-Kann by Denmark GM Lars Schandorff, Mastering Endgame Strategy by Swedish GM Johan Hellsten, Positional Making in Chess and Decision Major Piece Endings all by Soviet-born Israeli GM Boris Gelfand.

“Interacting with him (Carlsson) has been very helpful. For me apart from training for several hours a day and playing many local and international tournaments, the books he shared with us have enhanced my chess knowledge,” he said.

“I know how to take my chances in tough matches and emerge the winner.”
With Mcligeyo being one of the players who impressed the Swedish GM during his last visit in the country, he has had a keen interest in the progress of his chess career. The Swede was thus elated by the national junior champion becoming Kenya's top seed.

“I am very proud of him because he is disciplined, and he follows my instructions.

GM Carlsson impressed

“I am not surprised (that he is now Kenya’s finest chess player). I knew that he would do well,” GM Carlsson told Nation Sport.

He tipped Mcligeyo to achieve his goals should he get GM training, and financial support from corporates.

“First, he needs to play tournaments abroad against strong titled players and get GM training. He will need a sponsor to achieve this so it’s high time for Kenyan companies to take some responsibility and start to sponsor him! All brands would earn on being associated with chess and such smart and sharp young kids,” said GM Carlsson.

KCB promises support

KCB Chess Club team manager Isaac Babu said they are happy to be associated with the top player, and that they will strive to help him achieve his goals.

“He is a top talent and we want to help him grow. We will sponsor him for matches against players ranked above him and also seek GM training so that he can become an IM or GM,” said Babu.

KCB Club is the most successful chess team in the country, boasting eight titles in the 12 seasons held since 2003.

Mcligeyo has promised to help the team to continue with its dominance.

“KCB is the biggest club in the country so I am very happy to join them. I want to contribute to their success,” he said.

Mcligeyo also likes football but only plays at an amateur level as a striker, or attacking midfielder. At the university, he wants to study a business-related course.


According to https//, for a player to attain the GM title, he must reach an established classical or standard Fide elo rating of 2500, and also earn three GM norms in international competitions.

For IM, one must attain 2400 and three IM norms in international competitions), FM – 2300, CM -2200, WGM – 2300, and three WGM norms in international competition, WIM -2200, and three WIM norms in international competition, WFM – 2100 and WCM) – 2000.