Interview with Richard Knottenbelt, Founder of Gokomere Chess Festival

Founder of Gokomere Chess Festival in Zimbabwe
Richard and his wife Pushpa

Your Name: Richard Knottenbelt

What do you do [profession]? High School Teacher now retired

When did you start playing chess and how did you did playing:
I learned the moves from my father age about 7 but only became ”serious” when I joined the Prince Edward School Chess Club after moving to that school in form 3. I also played in Harare(then Salisbury) Chess Club and think I was runner up in the Honey Cup reserves – Herald headlines for the two inch chess report “Schoolboy’s Success”.I never used a chess clock and often had a good position against older players –all men in those days! – but lost soon after refusing offers of refreshment from opponents.

At University chess was played chiefly by two teams who shouted , discussed possible moves , took moves back – very exciting but not good for anything except developing imagination. I was astonished to be beaten by a first-year student in my final year as he was in the other “uncultured” hall of residence. Brian Donnelly who later became the first and only (?) IM from the then Southern Rhodesia!

Which is your favourite piece on the chess board and why?
Varies with the position on the chess board.

How has chess impacted your life?
Chess provided me with one of my big obsessions –in introducing the game to young Black players outside Harare – Masvingo Province and Gokomere in particular from 1981 onwards.

What do you regard as your 3 greatest achievements in chess.
(a) getting chess established outside Harare.
(b) facilitating participation in World Junior Champs of Svunurai Chakurira and Kudzanai Mamombe. (c) losing only one set (stolen by a teacher) and 2 pieces from the 43 Gokomere sets in 13 years. The sets were allowed out on loan during the week – so this makes it even more astonishing. Of course none of these depended solely on me but I like to think they would not have happened if I had not been in the right place at the right time.

Who is your favourite chess player and why?
Mikhail Tal for imaginative speculative sacrifices. Judit Polgar for showing us that women are as good as men at the game.

Name 2 chess players you admire in Africa and why?
Robert Gwaze for keeping his head in success. Phiona Mutesi for achievement against all odds.

How did the idea of the Gokomere Chess Festival come about?  
It was one of the most important Chess Tournaments every year and schools from across the country made the trek to participate.

The first Gokomere Festival had only 2 or 3 schools apart from Gokomere and was completely dominated by the hosts. We called it Masvingo Schools Chess festival for years so it would not be taken as a Gokomere event. The purpose initially was to try and get more activity in Masvingo schools. Up to that time (1986?) the rapidly improving Gokomere players had to travel to Harare to play chess at their level. This was not sustainable and it was clear to me that we needed to generate serious chess in our Province. Colin Garrard, the ZCF President, whose drive to propagate the game nation wide was a wonderful catalyst in this process. He took time off from his honeymoon at Lake Kyle to come and lecture, play and do a simultaneous chess exhibition in the first festival.

How did you manage a tournament of such a complexity?
I was initially alone with occasional clerical help. The biggest challenge was to do the Swiss draws without wasting precious playing time. The first two years it was an individual event playing 7 rounds in a day. Eventually we divided the teams event into divisions, girls and boys and A and B of each. Having clocks was essential although there were only enough for all boards for perhaps 2 years. Festivals started at 30 minutes per player for all moves and eventually came down to 20 or even 15 if behind schedule. But Gokomere was always almost all residential overnight so not too much of a problem. I think our record entry was 356 players.

What do you think is the right age to start playing chess and why?
It depends on innate ability. I always felt our top players could have achieved more if they had started a few years earlier but the main thing was motivation to play SERIOUSLY and that does not come easily before mid teens I think for most.

Why would you encourage anyone to take up chess?
I would not encourage it! My philosophy was always to provide the opportunity and if it “took off” for some that was fine, but I tried never to put pressure on anyone to play seriously and it is only serious chess that I feel is significant to personal growth. It can have all sorts of benefits not least learning to live with your mistakes, learn from them and move on.

In your opinion should Chess be made an Olympic sport and why?
Chess Olympiads are fine and I believe putting extra events into the programme of the Olympic games distracts from the value of a universal game and it becomes too much a search for glory and money rather than enjoyment and personal challenge. I do believe that there are special benefits in stretching oneself as far as one can go in any field – but there are also serious dangers if balance is lost in one’s life.

How would you best describe your chess style?
Having given up competitive chess long ago I don’t have a present answer to that but feel that I could have tried a more aggressive game earlier in my life. When the Gokomere club was developing I played as a member and tried always to play differently from the others – so queen’s pawn openings when everyone was playing kings. French defence when everyone was playing Sicilian etc

How do you keep sharp in chess?
No effort in this now!

How would you like to be remembered in chess circles?
As one of the facilitators of the post Independence Zimbabwe Chess Explosion.

What do you think about the impact of computers of chess in Africa.
I know very little of this but have a distrust of machines if there are humans to play. Having said that I was very moved and challenged when the wife of another keen Gokomere chess playing teacher said she liked playing against his machine because it did not comment negatively! I found that very interesting!

What do you think it will take for Africa to have a world chess champion? I rather fear that chess may die before that and me before chess!

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