Chess Interview With Kenya’s Mehul Gohil

Africa Chess interviewed one of Kenya’s top chess players Mehul Gohil. This interview is a must read. 

Mehul Gohil
Mehul Gohil

Who is Mehul Gohil?

I am a third generation Kenyan of Indian origin, born into a family where I am the only chess player. I have lived almost my whole life in the city of Nairobi. If you know Nairobi then you know something about me. Otherwise the best way to know who I am is either by living with me or reading my fiction stories. And perhaps that’s who I really am. I am a fiction writer.

What do you do [profession]? Are you involved in chess on a fulltime basis?

I am not involved in chess full time, as much I would like to be. I have a day job. That’s as far as I will explain on this. The profession feeds me but that’s it. I will not name it as I don’t love doing it.

Congratulations on your success in the recent Kenyan National Championship that you played in. How did you achieve this feat?

A recent national scandal in our chess scene means events have overtaken my so called ‘success’. Like Mikhail Tal’s world championship reign, my national championship reign was meteoric and short. I was champion for two months. Then I resigned in protest when the ladies champion was stripped of her title. I believe sometimes it is important to stand up for some principle you know are right.

But how I did win the event…well, Kenyan chess players are not so strong. You just train for a month and you beat everyone in a tournament. Kenyans don’t train much. So it’s easy to dominate them over the course of a tournament if you have. There is nothing special one has to do. And therefore it is no special achievement to win the Kenya National Championships.

Which was your best game and why? Would you care to share that game?

Round 8 of the 2011 All Africa Games when Kenya was paired against Zambia. I played against International Master and former Africa Junior Champion, Richmond Phiri.  From the annotations it will be clear why I selected this game. Rather than ‘best’, let’s use Fischer’s more accurate phrase: ‘My most memorable’.

When did you start playing chess and how did you start playing? 

I learnt the game by mistake at age 13. I had gone with my father to buy textbooks for the new school term in DECEMBER. We got home and I took out the books from the shopping bag. I found a chess book, BEGIN CHESS by David Pritchard. It must have been somebody else’s book. The cashier must have mistakenly put it in our bag. I read chapter one which explained the moves. I learnt the game. But then I left the book until a few weeks later when I was bored. Then I read chapter 2 which was on tactics. It talked about pins and forks. That got my attention. Over a weekend I went through the whole book. The key moment was when I went through the first game in the selected games chapter. Anderssen-Kieseritsky, London, 1851. Double rook sacrifice. Queen sacrifice. Checkmate. That did it. Now I was infected for life.

A few months later, I came across a newspaper article in THE STANDARD which announced a Kenya Open. There was a photo of Philip Singe jousting with William Juma from the previous edition. My parents thought playing in the event would be a good way for me to spend the Easter of 1993. I played in it, had the time of my life, met many of the Kenyan and Ugandan legends of that day, and came top in the under-14 category. That was the beginning of something.

Which is your favourite piece on the chess board and why? 

I don’t have one. But when I read up on chess history and the evolution of the game and how the pieces moved, I was (and still am) fascinated by how the moves of the King, Rook and Knight have not changed for thousands of years. Perhaps these are the original chess pieces. The way they move carries human memory from thousands of years ago. A way to hear what our ancestors are saying.

What has been the greatest highlight of your career thus far?

I still have to do something big over the board, so my ‘greatest highlight’ probably has yet to happen. However, the most memorable event I have played in so far has been the 2011 All Africa Games. I loved every second of it. Both on and off the board. And my results in the event were not bad either. It was my first international chess event and it was a beautiful experience meeting the African chess family. The best players from all over the continent. And the locale, Maputo in Mozambique, nobody could have asked God for a greater city. And the people of Maputo, and the chess players and everything. It’s worth being alive for such moments.


Which of the two first moves do you prefer, e4 or d4 and why?

When I was younger, my favourite chess player was Bobby Fischer and always played 1.e4. When I grew older, Kasparov relegated Bobby to 2nd best and I started playing 1.d4. So now I am a 1.d4 player. It just suits my style more. In 1.e4 you have to study too much theory as white. I find black’s replied to 1.e4 are stronger than those to 1.d4.

How has chess impacted your life? 

It’s probably half of who I am. Every day of life is a chess life. Either by playing it, studying it or talking about it. It has some good points. It can help with motivation and disciplining a young person as chess requires a structured approach and one needs to play with determination. Chess has also helped me interact with different kinds of people. In Nairobi we have this invisible social barriers between tribes and races. I would say chess has made me become a real Kenyan. Without it, I think I would still have been cocooned in my Indian ethnic enclave and way of life. Chess is a very involving game and you get to know strangers, tournament after tournament, on an almost serious personal level. It has made me realise that when I go to a new country, if I want to meet the real people of the country, then the place to head to is the local chess club. Chess players are essentially honest in their behaviour, even if that behaviour is negative. You get to see the person as he is. I could contrast chess players to say writers. I sometimes travel to other countries because of the writing. But with writers you never see the real person. Writers, despite what you may think, wear many masks and come across as fake. You will never know who the writer is. Never. I simply walk out of a writers’ festival and head to a local chess club in Port Harcourt. And I meet the real person. The human as he is.

How much time do you spend working on chess every day? Do you have a regular programme of work?

Strangely, as I am getting older I am getting better at the game. I am experiencing the Korchnoi Effect. I try and do about an hour. On weekends two to three hours. No structured programme. Whatever I feel like doing.

What do you regard as your 3 greatest achievements in chess?

I have not achieved anything great in chess so far. Ask me after another 10 years.

Who is your favourite chess player and why? 

At first it used to be Bobby Fischer. I loved his one-man vs the world attitude. I loved his adherence to principle. I think he is heavily misunderstood. The showmanship. His 6-0 match wins. Going recluse. And his games. He makes complex things look so simple and straightforward, as if you yourself can do them.

Then I got my hands on an annotated Kasparov games collection. The two volume work by Igor Stohl. Before this, I never understood Kasparov’s games. The style looked so alien. But Igor Stohl does a wonderful job of deciphering Kasparov’s art. I fell in love with the games. Now I consider Kasparov the unparalleled artist of the chessboard.

It’s been said that a chess player’s personality is mirrored or reflected by their chess style (positional, tactical, strategic). What are your thoughts on this?

Perhaps this is true of the styles of players born with a talent for the game. Maybe it takes talent for a player’s personality to come out in the game. I was born with love for the game but not talent. I have to work harder than most of the other top Kenyan players in order to achieve success at chess locally. In order to compensate for the lack of talent, I have to put in more hours in training. I don’t think my style of play reflects my personality. I tend to be dry, technical and theoretical in my play. My personality is none of this.

 What do you think is the right age to start playing chess and why?

Obviously, one has to start very young if one is to become really good at this game. There is much to study and learn and that takes time. Starting as soon as possible is a must. You can’t start at 13 like me. That’s already too old to start playing chess if you want to become GM or something.

Why would you encourage anyone to take up chess?

There is no better and more beautiful game. It’s a world unto itself. This is something you can take into your old age and enjoy.

However, I would also point out chess has its negative aspects as well. It is an addictive game. Very very addictive and can distract you from other more fruitful activities if you are not careful. It’s easy to be swept away and days and weeks and months can pass by and you have nothing to show in life for the time gone. If you are playing in tournaments and happen to be a contender for the prize bracket perennially, then you are in danger of developing an overly-competitive and fighting character.

I would say take up chess and get to the level where you can enjoy and appreciate annotated GM games and follow live GM commentary and live broadcasts with a fair level of understanding. But beyond that, unless you are going to earn a living from this, maybe it’s not a good idea to pursue it far.

Plus there is no money in chess. There are enough examples of intelligent, creative people who are wastrels in their adult lives because of chess addiction. They are there in Nairobi, in Kampala and are probably there in Moscow, London and Tromso.

How would you best describe your chess style?

Aggressive but technical.

How would you like to be remembered as a chess player?

My main ambition in chess is to get a +2300 FIDE rating. So that I can have the rating credentials to write a chess book. I want to write a classic book on African players and the games they have played. This is an untouched area when it comes to chess publishing. I have already started on it. I want to write a really good book. That’s how I want to be remembers. As a chess writer. I think I am a far better chess writer than chess player.

Kenny Solomon from South Africa is now a Grandmaster. What are your thoughts on this recent achievement?

It’s a serious achievement. It’s every player’s dream to become a grandmaster. Well done by Kenny. He deserves the utmost respect for what he has achieved, especially when it has been achieved in a region like ours which has been almost completely neglected and looked down upon by the rest of the chess world and FIDE. Compared to Europe, Asia and the Americas, we lack adequate chess resources (trainers, training material etc) and infrastructure (access to FIDE rated events where titles and norms are on offer etc). That someone like Kenny can become a grandmaster in such an environment is simply phenomenal.

What will it take for Africa to produce Grandmasters on a regular and maybe competing at the same level as the world’s best.

It’s simple, as I mentioned above, we need chess resources and we need to build a chess infrastructure. We need trainers and training material. We need FIDE rateds and title and norm events all over the place. We need sponsors to fund these things. We need networking amongst ourselves so that we are all moving together.

I think it’s only a matter of time before these things start coming into place. We are in the midst of a phenomenon known as ‘Africa Rising’. The continent’s economy is beginning to fire on all cylinders, the creativity of its people is exploding in many diverse ways, the politics and ways of governance is slowly changing for the better. The ground has been set for chess to start thriving. The future sponsors of chess projects will be homegrown corporations.

We already see what a big push the Kasparov Chess Foundation (KCF) has made on the continent. For example, we now have a massive Chess in Schools ready to roll out across Kenya. By this time next year we are talking of jumping from 150 active tournament players to over 10,000 of them. KCF has come in as competition to FIDE. And competition is always good for growth. KCF have forced FIDE to up their game in the region. Over the last few months we have seen FIDE respond and Lewis Ncube has been active and productive in making projects happen in African countries which never had them before. This might all be a political game by KCF and FIDE but there is no denying Africa is now seen as key in the political game and therefore deserved to get development input from these guys.

In addition, across the continent there is a new wave of chess leaders cropping up to take over the reins at the national federations. They are full of fresh ideas and are embracing networking across the continent.

The continent is also getting wired up. Internet is everywhere. Social media has led to players from across the continent talking to each other. Players in Zambia are seeing players in Kenya fighting for their chess rights and are asking why they can’t do the same. Ideas and information are flowing rapidly and easily around. For the first time we are seeing signs of African players and federations starting to work together and forming a big political and social juggernaut in the chess world.

Also, the increasing number of players which projects like those sponsored by KCF and FIDE will usher in means a large pool of tournament players. This will not only result in stronger players but also better chess leadership across the continent. We could start talking of an African heading FIDE in 10 years time (or sooner). Taking Kenya as an example, we have hitherto had a small pool of players. Which meant not many quality people to pick out from the bunch. Even today, Kenya is bediviled with poor chess leadership. When the Chess in Schools starts kicking in, we are looking at a big pool of tournament players, in their thousands, maybe even tens of thousands. This will mean a bigger pool to choose quality leaders from.

It’s only a matter of time before we start producing the Grandmasters and Super Grandmasters.

 What do you think it will take for Africa to have a world chess champion?

History has shown us there are two ways in which World Champions emerge. One is by creating a chess industry. This is what the former Soviet Union did and they produced their constellation of World Champions. Today, China is doing the same and they already have 6 players in the +2700 group and it’s clear China is sooner or later going to produce a World Champion. Africa, if it creates a chess industry could go the same way.

The second way is by pure luck. This is how Anand, Fischer and Carlsen emerged. From the most unlikely chess regions. Sometimes some people are just born to become World Champions. It’s a one in a seven billion thing. But sometimes it happens. Who knows, the next World Champion could be born in Windhoek or Busia.

How successful do you think Magnus Carlsen will be in holding on to his Chess Crown? Do you think he can come close to Garry Kasparov in terms of dominance over such a long period?

It’s pretty clear he is simply invincible right now. I think he will remain champion for another 5-10 years before a Chinese beats him.

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