Moments 2019: Comeback kid

Sunday December 15 2019

 Wanyama ponders to make a move in a recent game.

Wanyama ponders to make a move in a recent game. 

By Robert Madoi

Most games not only leave you sweating profusely but also never seem to take offence to straining your muscles. Chess, on the other hand, wants no part of such sweaty exploits.

It only exercises your fingers, arms and maybe eyes (if such a thing exists!). It could strain your back, but – one thing is for sure – you hardly break out in a sweat.

Chess may put no premium on miles clocked as well as find no comfort in blood and iron conquests, but it does get one muscle working tirelessly and obsessively. Well, sort of. The brain is complex, impossibly so. Anatomically, it does not qualify to be a muscle.
But for chess players the pure relentlessness and mental exercises needed to succeed gives this organ of soft nervous tissue the semblance of, well, a muscle.

Immediate past Uganda Chess Federation president, Vianney Luggya once succinctly described chess as “a brain game that can enhance...potential in all other aspects of life.” Phiona Mutesi, the chess prodigy whose extraordinary story inspired a Hollywood blockbuster, went a notch further, telling me that – besides chess giving rise to one of the most astonishing rags-to-riches stories – she loves the fact that the board game is methodical. Success rests entirely on the concept of “planning”, she offered in a 2013 interview.

Indeed, success in the board game remains a work of genius. Gray matter is just as – if not more – important to a chess player as a calf or hamstring is a footballer. The true index of the brain’s regenerative capacity is on display when pieces on a chequered board keep falling as a web is tangled. It is hard not to feel powerless and despairing in the face of an onslaught. Watching from the fringes, it’s hard not to develop a lust for consumption and actual play. At least that’s what Harold Wanyama felt on an evening in the latter part of 1994. He was just 13.

“I don’t know what drew me to chess as I was in a heavy [football] background in Bugolobi Flats,” Wanyama recalls, adding, “When my cousin showed me how to move the pieces, I was simply drawn to the game.”


Humble beginnings
His first match ended in defeat, but there was lots of transactional value to be found in the ebbs and flows. Despite pulling up short, Wanyama hastens to add that he “was excited for playing for a long time.” The fact that he was hardly easy pickings for his opponent showed that what he mustered on the board was both prodigious and intensely imaginative. While the sentiment of the gusty display being down to beginner’s luck was difficult to fault, Wanyama knew straightaway that he would seamlessly blend into chess’s ecosystem. And he did.

While at the board, Wanyama did his job and by all accounts he did it well. His brain was serving him well. The theological sense of conviction with which he pursues contests would soon show that a quiet subversive lay behind the silent smile. When he took part in the 40th Chess Olympiad in 2012 his ambitions sounded innocuous enough, if a little pompous. While in Turkey, Wanyama made it starkly apparent that he didn’t lack the energy for a fight.

He had the white pieces in his first match against Libya’s Hussein Asabri. After opening with e4 and engaging Asabri in a tactical Ruy Lopez variation, Wanyama soon noticed that he was onto something that was as vast as the potential benefits. It wasn’t long before he managed to snatch a pawn and consequently capitalise on his opponent’s kingside frailties. This gave him leeway to launch a seismic attack that proved unstoppable. It was the start of a richly rewarding tournament. “I gained the most number of points. I think in total I gained 98,” Wanyama recalls. “That’s where I got FM (Fide Master rating) after winning seven points out of a possible 10.”

Long road to recovery
After reaping those tremendous rewards, Wanyama knew that the mistake would be in imagining that things would be rosy after. Unmitigated triumphs are not almost inconceivable in chess. Lows are bound to blip on the radar, but unlike contact sports they rarely owe their existence to an injury. Yet seven years after his sterling performance in Istanbul, Wanyama suffered an obstacle that was neither trifling nor illusory. “I was attacked mid-January and after the attack I lost part of my memory,” the bespectacled chess player recalls. “I lost part of my memory and was advised to do a scan. The scan revealed a fracture in the skull and a blood clot.”

The brain surgeon assigned to Wanyama made it abundantly clear that his patient was at the vanguard of an ominous shift. Although easy fixes were all but impossible to come by, medical wisdom suggested that an operation be conducted immediately. It was. “I was put under anesthesia so I did not feel anything during the operation. I just woke up in ICU (intensive-care unit) where they were checking my vital organs in relation to the brain surgery.”

It was quite easy for Wanyama to reluctantly come to the conclusion that darker things were to come in 2019. He had every right to be hostage to gloomy forecasts. Yet as remarkable as it sounds, the software engineer says not at one point did he fret. “ After the operation I immediately was okay and my memory came back. I took a month off work and resumed in good condition. I considered the operation as a miracle.”
While Wanyama was optimistic, there were those to whom the odds rather predicted the inverse. And they didn’t wait long to get fodder that supported the assumption that the surgery had dimmed Wanyama’s prowess at the board.

The schoolboy error committed at the Kenya Open could quite easily have been seen as an aftereffect of the surgery. “It was a technical issue,” Wanyama says, adding, “I had a phone in my pocket and according to the Fide rules I was supposed to lose regardless of the fact that it was switched off.”

Punching above his weight
The 38-year-old wasn’t about to let several years of hard work evaporate. Not at a time when he was supposed to be toasting to a silver jubilee. It is this decades-long experience that convinced the Uganda Chess Federation top brass to name Wanyama on a two-strong squad as Uganda’s chess team made its debut at the African Games in August. “In order to stand any chance it was important to go with the most versatile duo of FM (Fide Master) Harold Wanyama and IM (International Master) Arthur Ssegwanyi,” says Ugandan chess’s top honcho, Emmanuel Mwaka.

With the scar from his January surgery freshly healed, you would forgive Wanyama if his mind boggled at the audacious enormity of what was being asked of him. “I came up against players from countries like Egypt, which had a Russian coach. Players from other countries had camped for training months earlier.”

The players Wanyama faced in the Rapid Section were no slouches. Three of them were in fact Grand Masters, and yet he only tasted defeat once – against eventual gold medalist, Adly Ahmed of Egypt. After picking the scalp of GM Hamdouchi Hicham in his Rabat backyard, Wanyama shared the spoils with GM Bilel Bellahcene from Algeria. In between, there were wins over a Zimbabwean IM and Malian FM. When the dust settled, Wanyama had a bronze medal draped around his neck. He missed out on another medal in the Blitz Section by the slimmest of margins – half a point!

“Harold stood tall. He showed that Ugandan chess can be relied upon to deliver at the big stage,” purrs Mwaka.
Above all, the intensely private 38-year-old Ugandan software engineer fashioned a comeback tale that undoubtedly takes some beating this side of the year. Robbed and left for dead in a puddle of his own blood in January, he bounced back eight months later, scoring scarcely believable wins over African chess’s crème de la crème.

What we now know....

Chain of events on Jan. 11
2am: Harold heads to bed.
3am: Thieves break into his house, rough him up and make off with his laptop, smartphone and Shs 50,000.
9am: Harold misses a morning meeting at Andela Uganda.
10am: After several calls went unanswered, Harold’s manager informs his mother about his unusual no-show at work.
11am: At his mother’s behest, Harold’s brother makes a stopover at his Makindye house, but doesn’t notice anything strange.
11am-10:59pm: Harold is fighting for his life, lying in a puddle of his blood.
11pm: Harold’s friend Esther Nannozi goes to his Makindye house to check on him after her messages to him went unanswered.
11pm: Esther notices the door to the house isn’t locked. She lets herself in only to discover.
11pm: Harold is wheeled off to hospital. Undergoes brain surgery two days later on January 13.

How Wanyama fared at the 12th African Games
• Shares spoils with Algeria’s IM, Arab Adlane.
• Beats Zimbabwean IM, Rodwell Makoto.
• Sees off Malian FM, Traore Bakary.
• Picks up the prize scalp of Moroccan GM, Hamdouchi Hicham.
• Shares the spoils with Algerian GM, Bilel Bellahcene.
• Nothing to choose between him and Zambian IM, Andrew Kayonde.
• Loses at the hands of eventual winner, GM Adly Ahmed from Egypt.