On a Saturday afternoon in Nairobi’s Westlands suburb, what is usually an empty cold space at a popular restaurant fast turns into a beehive of activity with people seated opposite each other, their shoulders hunched as they concentrate on next chess move.
Paras Gudka, a businessman and chess enthusiast, assembles professionals and amateurs — some aged nine years while others older than 40 — in the afternoon at the Westlands Chess Club.
“The club is one of the many in the country but it is the most organised and has managed to conduct successful tournaments,” said Githinji Hinga, secretary of the Interim Chess Kenya Committee (ICKC) and a player.
“Paras is providing a place for people to play and attracting new players by reaching new people.”
Chess has been through a rough patch in Kenya linked to in-fighting pitting players against officials, sometimes leading to boycott of tournaments.
Westlands Chess Club opened doors in August 2011 at the Westgate food court with six people. But the number has risen to more than 20, some paying a daily Sh100 access fee while others are annual members. The latter pay Sh2,400.
The Club migrated from the food court to a bigger home at Slush World Restaurant in Corner House in the same shopping centre, less than four kilometres from the City Centre.
Because of the growing population, the founder changed the meeting day from midweek (Wednesday) to Saturday in the afternoon, perhaps giving more people room on a weekend.
“We are creating a place where people can play chess, make friends, socialise and learn about the game,” Paras told Business Daily at the premises.
Just like Paras was introduced to chess by the mother, at the Club, young people accompany parents and older siblings, asking endless questions on the next move.
But it is this kind of restlessness that should make the founder happy when he says the Club’s “aim is to get people to commit to the game and enjoy it as part of building chess in the country.”
Chess is like a puzzle; you have to think what goes where as you anticipate your opponent, “it is a mental stimulant,” he said.
Chess puzzles are used to build skills in life and help to improve players’ games.
In a recent column in this newspaper, Marvin Sissey, who heads the Insurance Institute of Kenya secretariat, crowned the game as “the sum total of the possibilities that the human mind can conjure up and overcome.”
In Kenya, players and officials have not been seeing eye to eye, leading to boycotts on crucial days like during tourneys.
The Government intervened early in the year with the sports secretary Wilson Langat putting together an interim committee, ICKC, to oversee the sport for six months.
ICKC took office on April 20 with nine members drawn from former officials, players and the government. It has organised one open day since.
“There was a lot of mistrust and apathy but we are now seeing enthusiasm from players and sponsors. Sanity has been restored and we can now grow the sport in the country,” said Githinji.
Recently a team of 10 players, five men and five women, was chosen to represent Kenya at the Olympiad in August in Turkey. Githinji, who has been playing since 2007, is a member of the team.
Paras says his mother ensured he and his younger brothers were enrolled in different activities including chess for basics. He played at Oshwal Jain Primary and Oshwal High School.
At 14 his family went on a holiday in India and by the end of the break Paras was enrolled in a school where he finished high school and further studies.
He returned to Kenya in June 2010, researched on the game in Kenya and joined Nairobi Chess Club — one of the biggest in the city — where he played two leagues.
He fondly talks of a time he played chess daily, mainly online, but due to the pressures of work and the club, this has changed.
He has paid an Sh8,000 annual subscription for two websites — chess.com and playchess.com — to play with the best from across the world.
“If you want to play at 2am you will have someone to play with,” he says. Some of the games last days.
Apart from running a business, he is a freelance graphic designer, copy writer, web designer and a photographer.
He sells chess equipment including chess sets, timers and demonstration boards “informally” but is looking to setting up an online store.