Xhosa chess book a winning move

The game of chess has become much more accessible to Xhosa speaking people of the Western Cape after the department of cultural affairs and sport (DCAS) in conjunction with Watu Kobese, handed over the isiXhosa chess books, the first of its kind, to four schools last week.

Kobese spent more than a year developing the book, complete with authentic terminologies, creating a new chess language for the wider Xhosa community in the province and the country.

The ceremony, held at Hazendal Primary School, saw the three other schools (Sopokama Primary School, Masiphumelele Primary School and Nomlinganiselo Primary School) have the books handed over to them by Kobese and DCAS provincial minister Anroux Marais.

Kobese is one of the country’s foremost chess players. He holds the title of international master and he has represented South Africa internationally on numerous occassions.

He started playing chess in 1972 after learning of the “match of the century” between Bobby Fischer of the United States and Boris Spassky of the then Soviet Union.

“It (the match) sparked the imagination of the whole world and my dad and his friends were draughts players and they shifted and then played chess, but what brought me to chess was not the game but the energy around the game. All the games are very vocal with guys making jokes and talking and that is what I hope this book will achieve,” said Kobese.

Kobese then pointed out the impact chess has had on his life, something he hopes will become more common following the distribution of this book.

“My biggest break came in 1990 when I got a scholarship to go and study chess in Germany. I studied there for three years and after that I played professionally. In 2001 I was African champion and I have been SA champ on six occasions. And I’m still playing as a member of the national team.”

Kobese identified the need for a Xhosa book on chess and worked together with DCAS to develop the Xhosa terminology for chess pieces and moves.

“Basically the need for the book came through interaction with various communities and seeing that at a certain age there was indeed a need for such a book, especially when you are trying to explain to a six-year-old who has not yet had real exposure to English but is keen (to play chess). I got to the point where I was losing the players in terms of their interest when I was simply explaining the pieces and the meaning of the pieces,” said Kobese.

Kobese said although chess has become standardised after its origins in India (Chaturanga) in the 15th century, that even with the European languages, the names of the pieces are not translated directly.

“Even within the European languages the pieces are a reflection of their dynamics.”

English is seen as the universal language in today’s society, but when trying to explain chess in indigenous languages, new words need to be created in order to make the game more identifiable to someone not familiar with English.

“So we have, for example, pieces: the rook has been translated to a gun, but a big gun. Bishop is a spy in Xhosa and even the name of chess has been changed or reinvented and is called intimba (check mate).”

Kobese thanked DCAS and Advocate Lyndon Bouah, chief director of sport and recreation at DCAS in particular for helping to make the book a reality.

Bouah in turn thanked Kobese for coming forward with this initiative and hoped it would serve as a platform for the budding chess masters of tomorrow.

“He has made it possible for more chess champions to come from the Western Cape”, said Bouah.

Marais said she is pleased children will now be able to learn about chess in their home language of Xhosa and in a way that will encourage excellence and inclusivity in sports.

“The handing over of these Xhosa chess books is the physical implementation of the department’s mission to move towards excellence through creating the conditions for access and mass participation, talent identification and skills development,” said Marais.

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