FEMI SOLAJA is perhaps the only practising sports journalist in the country who is a certified arbiter and a member of the Technical Committee of the Nigerian Chess Federation. He recalls Nigeria’s great stride in the intellectual game in the just ended year.
It was a massive celebration in Team Nigeria’s camp in Istanbul, Turkey, the moment Nigeria was officially pronounced by the world chess body, FIDE, as the winners of the Category E of the last World Chess Olympiad.
The victory at Istanbul capped Nigeria's glorious outings at the global level in 2012.
Still smarting from the two gold and one silver medals the team won at the 2011 All Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique, the Nigerian Chess Federation (NCF) in May hosted the Zone 4.2 International Chess event in Abuja which was won by International Master Bunmi Olape.
It was at the same event that the duo of Bomo Kighiga and Seun Bisiriyu bagged the same International Masters titles that are still subject to FIDE confirmation.
Two months later, the Nigerian male team led by International Master Dapo Adu, who joined the team from USA, left nobody in doubt from the opening round of the Chess Olympiad in Turkey that they were in that country for business.
The feat was the best performance ever of the country at the biennial intellectual game since 1998 when International Master Odion Aikhoje won a gold medal on board two.
Significantly, this is the first time Nigeria will come out tops at any team event in chess and when team captain Lekan Adeyemi led the team to the podium at the closing ceremony, it was a loud ovation that greeted these worthy champions from Nigeria who came into the tournament as underdogs and ended up as kingpin!
The NCF President, Sani Mohammed, a deputy commissioner of police, commended the players for a battle well fought in 11 days of the ‘mind war’.
“Many pundits did not give this team a chance because most of the payers were attending the competition for the first time but I had faith in them and the technical crew, the result here has shown that we have abundant talents in the country,” Mohammed remarked in his assessment of Nigerian chess Monday.
However, while the male team were able to sustain their lead in the category till the end of the competition, the story was not the same for the female team that slipped into the second position after a disappointing 1.5-2.5 lost to South Africa. Chinese Taipei emerged tops with 10 points as against the nine points Nigeria and Thailand tied at. The Nigerian representatives upstaged Thailand on a tie break.
It is noteworthy that two Nigerian female players, Oluwatobi Olatunji and Nsisong Bassey, bagged the Women FIDE Masters titles for their performances during the 11-round Swiss event pairing.
The tournament also had one of the country's Chess Olympiad debutants, Adeyinka Adesina, hugging global limelight in chess following his brilliant win against highly rated Grand Master, Pontus Carlson of Sweden, in the round eight male category.
Although Nigeria’s male team lost 1-3 to Sweden, Adesina was the star among hundreds of chess players on parade after the upset against an experienced opponent and put him at pole post of getting a FIDE title at the end of the 11-round Swiss event.
Adesina, playing in the white side of Nimzo Indian Defence deviated from his opponent's prepared repertoire and forced him into finding solution to impending isolated pawn structure.
The Grand Master ran into time trouble and thus paved the way for Adesina to gain an upper hand in the middle play and in the end game, the Nigerian had a better pawn structure and an active Queen as against Carlson's rook and a knight.
When Adesina acquired another Queen, just like the biblical story of David and Goliath, the respected Grand Master resigned to the admiration of chess pundits at the arena.
“This is a memorable day for me because chess pundits here (Olympiad) did not give us any chance at this event knowing full well that Nigeria paraded unrated players, but we were able to overcome with our raw talents.
“I dedicate this win to thousands of chess players at home and knowing full well that if the leadership of the game in the country can implement the 'chess in school' programme as promised, a lot of talents that will take Nigeria to greater height will be discovered,” Adesina reacted after his heroics in Istanbul last September.