The world of chess gets a local twist

2015-07-08 18:17
Advocate Lyndon Boauh of DCAS and Minister Marais observing young players at the SA Chess Open. (Western Cape Government)

Advocate Lyndon Boauh of DCAS and Minister Marais observing young players at the SA Chess Open. (Western Cape Government)

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Cape Town - How do you get a chessboard on the corner of every taxi rank, with an energetic crowd gathered around and cheering on the contestants?

The first step is to make the game relevant, especially to youngsters, by using terms they understand and which spark their imaginations, SA chess International Master Watu Kobese said on Wednesday.

And a book on chess that literally speaks their language may be a big step in that direction.

Kobese, 42, this week launched the first Xhosa language chess book in collaboration with the Western Cape Cultural Affairs Department. He has won the South African Closed Tournament three times and the South African Open twice.

He plans to distribute the book to local chess clubs and take it along with chessboards to different townships as part of a roadshow.


In Xhosa, the game is called "Uthimba" and the winner gets to shout out "Uthinjiwe!" (checkmate). These terms relate to an ancient war practice where kings would not kill each other, but one would surrender himself and his entire homestead under the rule of the victor.

“It is seen as a foreign game. From the time I started professionally, around [the year] 2000, and went to various communities. You have a problem when kids don’t speak English,” Kobese told News24.

“When explaining the history of kings, knights and bishops, I have completely lost the kids and they are looking me like ‘what!’. When you use terms they understand, their imagination is unlocked as well because language is very close to how we think.”

He believes chess also provides a fun way of learning mathematical concepts, problem-solving and working under pressure.

The term he chose for the bishop was an "intlola", which referred to a spy who was sent behind enemy lines to report back before an impending war with another chief.

The "ifolosi" or pawn was the soldier who would charge at the front of a war formation.

“The rook or castle is ‘umbayimbayi’ which is a big gun and its movement on the board is straight - either horizontal or vertical.”

The king is 'ikumkani', the queen 'ikumkanikazi' and knight 'ihashe'.

Chess revolution

Kabese had found memories of growing up in Soweto and playing lively chess games organised by local clubs at different homes. He wanted chess to be viewed just like any other game.

“The one thing about games played in South Africa by indigenous people is that they are very vocal.”

He started the project nine years ago with a Zulu chess terminology book and then other official languages. 

"I had a problem getting it accredited because the people who are supposed to be in charge of developing the language and who are getting funded were not interested. They don’t see it as a need.”

This changed when he relocated from Johannesburg to the Western Cape, where the provincial government launched a chess revolution. He currently teaches chess as a school subject.

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