Interview with African Chess Confederation President Lewis Ncube

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

I am a Chemical Engineer by profession having graduated from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in 1983. Since then I have worked as a Process Engineer in the Mining Industry and in Marketing, Distribution and Technical Support in the Petroleum Industry.

I currently run a partnership company engaged in commodity trading and I am also a Consultant in the Energy Sector.

My involvement in chess is now almost fulltime.

The new elected board of African Chess Confederation headed by Lewis Ncube (second from right) of Zambia and the deputy president is Dr. Hesham Elgendy , who is also FIDE Executive board member 2014 _ 2018 and Stephen Kisuze treasurer & Enyonam Séwa Noël Fumey General Secretary
The new elected board of African Chess Confederation headed by Lewis Ncube (second from right) of Zambia and the deputy president is Dr. Hesham Elgendy , who is also FIDE Executive board member 2014 _ 2018 and Stephen Kisuze treasurer & Enyonam Séwa Noël Fumey General Secretary

How do you balance chess with your other responsibilities?

It is quite a challenge to balance chess with other responsibilities and there has to be give and take in most areas of my responsibilities. Nevertheless, I find the challenge very fulfilling and I would not change this for any other scenario.

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

I started playing chess in 1972 during my first year at Secondary School.

My friends and I were going for basketball practice when we passed a classroom where some players were playing chess. As we had a bit of time before basketball practice begun we entered the classroom to learn more about this “strange board game”.

All three of us were bitten by the “chess bug” and throughout our Secondary School life we had to balance chess with basketball as our sporting activities.

We actually made it into the school teams in both chess and basketball.

Whilst my friends excelled more at basketball, I excelled more at chess and eventually became one of the top junior players in the country.

From playing chess how did you get involved in Chess administration?

My initial involvement in chess administration was at club level after returning from my studies in the United Kingdom.

The mining company I joined as a Process Engineer had an excellent community development policy and employees (and their families) were encouraged to join or form community clubs which were sponsored by the mining company. The company was Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines Limited in which Anglo American Corporation also had an interest.

The mining company had operations in various towns on the Copper belt of Zambia which were called Divisions.

I was based in the town of Chingola which was under Nchanga Division.

Each Division had teams in various sporting areas such as football, basketball, volleyball, netball cricket and others as well as chess.

The Copper belt chess administration was affiliated to the national body, the Chess Federation of Zambia, and also had its own league in which most of the participating teams were sponsored by the mining company.

Before getting involved in chess administration at national level I was more involved in sponsorship through Agip Zambia Limited where I worked as Marketing and Distribution Manager.

In 1998 I was approached by a group of players who included the late chess Olympian Stanley Chola to stand for the Presidency of the Federation. At the time I was too busy with projects at work.

When I was approached again in 2000 I agreed and subsequently became the President of the Chess Federation of Zambia.

Lewis Ncube and compariots in good spirits after winning the elections at the FIDE Congress in Tromso, Norway, 2014
Lewis Ncube and compariots in good spirits after winning the elections at the FIDE Congress in Tromso, Norway, 2014. (From Left to Right) Pedro Chambule of Mozambique, Lewis Ncube of Zambia and Edward Thompson of Ghana.

 What do you enjoy most about your role in chess?

The most enjoyable aspect of my involvement in chess is witnessing the development of youngsters from novices to accomplished players able to hold their own at international level tournaments.

As we encounter more and more challenges in our quest to popularise chess and make it one of our foremost pastimes, the satisfaction that comes with successfully putting together the required programmes is also a never ending source of inspiration and joy.

In terms of growth and popularity how is Chess doing in Africa at the moment and where do you see it going?

Initially there was a misguided notion of chess being an elitist sport in most areas of Africa. This is still the case in some parts. I am however confident that the chess explosion era is about to emerge in Africa.

Having travelled across most of the continent and witnessed the hunger and interest for chess development activities, I can see Africa being a major force in global chess within the coming two decades.

The onus is on the African Chess Confederation to put in place the necessary structures and programmes to make this a reality and my team is already focussed on this task.

Do you ever miss being an active chess player?

In our playing days we did not have as many opportunities for international tournaments as in the present day. Nevertheless I really enjoyed my playing days both while at school level and in league and national tournaments thereafter.

The challenges were different but the enjoyment was still worth the time spent.

When I meet up with my old chess playing contemporaries we still have a lot to share about our exploits.

The current challenges make up for the loss of being an active chess player and I do not really miss actively playing.

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

My favourite chess piece is the knight. I believe this is more to do with my tournament experiences in my younger days when I was able to get more out of my knights than my colleagues.

One instance that I always remember is the standard smothered mate sequence that arose in a national championship.

My friends and I would always play out different scenarios during practice but seeing this arise in actual tournament play was something I always remember.

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

Although I was taught with e4 as the standard opening, I started out as a d4 player in my younger days but later found e4 to be more dynamic. In my older days I became a c4 fanatic as the English became my favoured tournament opening. Nowadays when I play online I favour Nf3 for flexibility.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I have no particular description of my leadership style but I am aware that I sometimes lumber myself with extra responsibilities when I should really spread some of the burden of leadership responsibility amongst my colleagues. This is more to do with my passion to see things work out quickly than a judgement of my colleagues.

I am extremely happy with the team I have as the ACC Board and everyone is extremely competent.

I can vouch that they will deliver well beyond the required expectations.

How has chess impacted your life?

The famous phrase “chess is my life” cannot be far from the truth in describing how chess has impacted on my life. I would not change my involvement in chess for anything else.

How much time do you spend in chess admin every week?

That’s a difficult one. I would estimate that I spend about 60% of my free time on chess administration. It’s really difficult to quantify as sometimes when meeting friends and colleagues we stray into chess administration issues even when we are discussing business and we proceed to try and resolve whatever chess issue is at hand.

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

The first real great achievement I remember was winning the provincial championships in the final round in my younger days having blundered away my queen. I conjured up a forced mating sequence with a rook and two pawns, having forced my opponent’s king to the h-file when he still had the queen advantage. This was the game that got me to the national schools finals where I finished as runner-up in that year.

The next great achievement was getting Zambia to successfully host the 2005 African Individual Championships with a very young team of administrators. Whilst we had hosted the 2001 and 2004 African Junior Championships, the African Individual was a much greater challenge and I was impressed with my team’s competence and ultimate successful delivery of the event.

The third great achievement is my current ACC team’s victory at the Continental elections in Tromso last year.

The underlying current would have broken a weaker team but I am extremely proud of how we achieved our victory. I will not expand on this aspect but believe that history will ultimately reveal much more about the Tromso episode.

As it is we are focused on delivering on our “Building Chess for Africa” promise.

Who is your favourite chess player and why? 

My two favourite chess players are of two completely different styles.

They are World Champions Jose Raul Capablanca and Tigran Petrosian.

The swashbuckling adventurous style of Capablanca was very attractive in my younger days whilst Petrosian’s positional exploits appealed to me in my later playing life.

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

Whilst I would agree in most cases, I have found that sometimes the opposite is the case. A case in point was one of my chess playing colleagues who had a very quiet and almost withdrawn personality.

When a chess board was put in front of him, his style of play was really aggressive and adventurous.

Maybe it was his way of showing his inner self.

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

I would say that the best age to start playing chess is between 5 and 6 years. However I believe that at that age the teaching process should be gradual to allow for greater assimilation of various aspects of the game. I also believe that as you get to the ages of 9 and 10 years the future Grandmasters will start to emerge.

Why would you encourage anyone to take up chess?

Whilst learning chess is best as a youngster because of the benefits of problem solving, reasoning and logical ability enhancement, a mature older person would also benefit from the social interaction, strategic thought process enhancement and related attributes.

How would you best describe your chess style? 

I would say that I thrive more in positional play situations. When I have ventured into adventurous play I have also experienced memorable games.

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

As a player, I would have liked to have achieved more but my professional career was more important and I am really grateful as I fulfilled my ambition as an Engineer and I continue to reap the benefits of my Engineering training in my business and consultancy fields.

As an administrator I would like to encourage a lot of young players not to abandon their chosen careers but try to manage their careers with their calling in chess.

As the Team Leader of our African administration I believe that the next four years will define my ultimate contribution to chess in Africa.

Kenny Solomon recently became a Grandmaster. Any thoughts you would like to share on that?

I have known Kenny for well over 10 years; closer to 15 years actually. His attainment of the Grandmaster title is a just reward for his hard work. Kenny has gone about his chess in a humble manner and even when he got his final GM norm he was controlled in his appreciation of this reward. I truly wish him more titles and greater global achievement as he carries the African name abroad with him.

Zambia produced the very first Grandmaster from Sub-Sub-Saharan Africa. How are things looking for another Grandmaster coming from Zambia?

According to my assessment there are 4 Zambian players who could attain the Grandmaster title given the right circumstances within the next four years. I will not name them but I have said this to three of them and they are fully aware of my thoughts.

The challenge at hand is to create the right circumstances (on both sides; player and federation/administrators).

I am confident that Zambia will produce at least two more Grandmasters within the next five years.

What does Africa need to do to get more Grandmasters?

The key is regular exposure to high level tournaments. Playing in one or two top level tournaments per year is not enough. We must create a situation where the players are relaxed and are not playing under the pressure of feeling that if they do not do well in a particular event; it will be sometime before another opportunity arises.

This can only be done if the frequency of high level tournaments is greatly increased so that players can choose to skip a tournament if they do not feel able to perform well without worrying that the opportunity may not arise in the near future.

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

I would look to Asia and say thirty years ago we would not have expected a world champion to emerge from Asia. We now have a situation where this scenario can be repeated with another champion emerging from Asia within the next 10 years.

Remember that we have had an African World Junior Champion in Grandmaster Ahmed Adly of Egypt who won the title in 2007. This is a really positive sign.

Creating the atmosphere and culture where top level chess tournaments are the order of the day in Africa is the first step to grooming our African World Chess Champion.

Once this scenario is in place, the players will recognise that the sky is the limit and work towards achieving the ultimate.

Any parting thoughts for chess players in Africa?

My message to African players is that the ACC Board under my leadership is working towards creating the necessary structures and atmosphere for them to achieve the highest honours in global chess.

On their part the players must recognise that the sought after honours will not come on a silver plate but will entail a lot of hard work.

My colleagues and I will be available to dialogue and share ideas as we embark on this wonderful demanding journey for African chess.

Bruce Mubayiwa

I am the founder and editor of Africa Chess Net. I have been playing chess for over 25 years and love writing about the game. Our goal is simple, to get more people playing chess in Africa! The game of chess is not only absorbing but a great deal of fun.

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