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Tunde Onakoya: Lessons from a Nigerian Chess Master

Chess is an intriguing game that other board games cannot hold a candle to. It’s one game that eliminates the tyranny of lady luck, preferring to reward the intellectually superior player. Perhaps this is why it continues to capture the heart of Tinsel Town as no other board game has drawn Hollywood lenses like chess. Some of the most engaging movies and series have revolved around the game, the intrigues and strategies of winning. In one swift, calculated and stone-cold move, a pawn can become bishop or queen.

Movies like the 2016 Queen of Katwe, based on the true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world was transformed when she was introduced to the game of chess, and the 2020 mini-drama series, The Queen’s Gambit, have captured global attention. The former featured the delectable Lupita Nyong’o and Nigeria’s David Oyewole.

And for most of last weekend, life imitated art, and the movie became reality; starring Nigeria’s Tunde Onakoya and US Chess champion Shawn Martinez, in New York’s iconic Times Square. While it was streamed live, the whole world watched with bated breath as the duo made history by setting a new Guinness World Record for the longest chess marathon. Sixty hours of non-stop chess is no mean feat.

A trailer from the Queen of Katwe movie quotes former Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, thus, “The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them.” The Nigerian must have taken this to heart and strategized. After all, chess is all about tactics and strategy.

The 29-year-old Nigerian chess master, who first set the record at the 58-hour mark, extended it to 60 hours of non-stop chess. The Nigerian broke the record of Norwegian players Hallvard Haug Flatebø and Sjur Ferkingstad, who played for 56-hour, 9-minute in 2018.

Last Saturday, Onakoya had posted on his X handle after reaching 58-hour mark, “We have done it. We’re pushing to 60 hours guys. We’re not stopping yet. Let’s keep going. We have a fundraising goal to meet for the education of African children around the world.  “This is our why – the reason we are doing this. Let’s demonstrate to the world the incredible power of love. Together, we can make this happen.” And he did, in grand style. “King’s Gambit in Play,” screamed the headline from the New York Times, celebrating the Nigerian’s world record. The Nigerian media also celebrated their own with front-page headlines and reports.

For much of those 60 hours Onakoya attempted to break the world record, Afrobeats music provided a party atmosphere, garnished with some jollof, Nigerian jollof rice. Nigerians in New York and other parts trooped to Times Square. Those in other parts of the world followed on social media or live-streamed the history-making event. But beyond the Internet and social media platforms, what connected Nigerians was the show of solidarity for one of their own. For three days and a splinter of hours from other days, most Nigerians set aside their tribal roots and religious sentiments. Nigerian politicians forgot their differences and sang a united chorus. It was a collective amnesia of sorts, a good kind. It is the same with our football; victory for the Super Eagles, Super Falcons or any of the national teams, lifts millions into the cloud of temporary highs, that fleeting zone where we, as Nigerians, collectively forget the worrying rate of inflation, the insecurity, large number of out-of-school children, among other national challenges.

For that brief, suspended time frame, as the chess champion chased history, many Nigerians dreamed of a united country, where anyone can aspire for greatness and achieve them, within Nigeria.

The Nigerian chess champion’s decision to attempt and set the world record in New York’s Times Square, rather than maybe Lagos’s Onikan Stadium or Abuja’s Unity Fountain or some iconic place inside Nigeria, may have been for personal or strategic reasons.  Besides the global PR coverage this feat garnered, Onakoya’s world record has brought into perspective the need to develop systems and structures that will benefit Nigeria’s incredibly gifted young population, which makes up about 70 percent of its over 200 million people. They don’t have to play chess or run chess initiatives, they just need the right platforms to pursue their dreams and thrive, including in the areas of education and sports.

The power of sports and education to transform lives and communities is profound. But there is need for effective strategy to harness that power, especially in a multi-faceted country like Nigeria. Were we to have multisport and education centres in each of the 774 local governments in Nigeria, discovering talents in football, boxing, athletics, wrestling, tech, vocational skills, and others, our country would become a sporting and tech giant in the mould of the United States of America. Developing the grassroots is a key to unlocking the future of dreams of many young Nigerians to thrive and achieve greatness in their respective fields. We should go back to making quality investment in basic education and school sports, so as to discover, develop and enhance those precocious talents hidden in the backwaters of communities. Also, investing in sports has been known to contribute to a country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in diverse ways.

Many, including Nigeria’s President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, have congratulated Onakoya on his world record. “Tunde has shown a streak customary among Nigeria’s youth population, the audacity to make good change happen; to baffle impossibility, and propel innovations and solutions to the nation’s challenges, even from corners of disadvantage,” President Tinubu stated.

Recently, I watched a short video clip online where a non-Nigerian asked Nigerians to tell her what makes them successful in different fields across the globe. It is the incredible Nigerian can-do spirit, that determination to succeed and thrive against the odds.

Victor Osimhen, current African Player of the Year, who led the Italian club side Napoli to an historic Scudetto title last year, captured it succinctly in one of his posts on X (formerly Twitter): “If you knew where some of us came from, you won’t pray for us to fail.”

The relevant authorities, local, state and federal governments, need to restrategise on how to discover and harness the incredible potential of the Nigerian youth and people in general. They say one in every five black people is a Nigerian. Nigerians are everywhere – the largest black population on earth, the largest market in Africa, with a population yearning for opportunities to pursue their dreams and soar to heights once imagined.

Many young Nigerians want to chase history too, like Onakoya, but they don’t mind doing it from their backyards, with the right structures in place, at home. The greatest resource that Nigeria has is not the crude oil, gas or abundant mineral resources, but its people, the most sustainable capital for any great nation. If our politicians and different levels of governments can get it right, and tap into the synergy between sports and education, we may just unlock the full greatness of 200 million people.

Onakoya praised his opponent, Martinez, on his X handle, afterwards. “Dear Shawn (@CoachShawnMar), there’s no world record without you. Together, for 60 hours, we showed the world what true collaboration means, trumping competition. We picked each other up during tough moments, both mentally and physically. And you did it with so much grace. This is a public acknowledgment and gratitude to you, my brother. Congratulations on our shared achievement.”

The power of effective collaboration in a fast-paced world cannot be said enough. Like an African proverb noted, if you want to go fast, go alone. if you want to go far, go together.

Since he founded his chess non-profit, Chess in Slums Africa, in 2018, Onakoya, himself from a humble background, has continued to make positive impact on the lives of children on the streets of Lagos through chess. Maybe he was inspired by the 2016 Queen of Katwe movie to chase a dream. Whatever it was, the goal of using chess and education to change the lives of young people was worth chasing.

Prior to his world record attempt, Onakoya said he was “doing this for the dreams of millions of children across Africa without access to education.” His ultimate goal was to raise the sum of $1 million to be used to “transform the lives of undeserved children across Africa.”

Last Saturday he showed the power of possibilities. What was once the flicker of a young man’s dream, eventually lit up not only New York’s Time Square, but the candle of dreams in a million hearts in Africa and across the world.

Not everyone will get an opportunity like Onakoya to make history from Times Square, US. The good news is that everyone can chase their dreams from anywhere and achieve them. You just need Time, and the right factors, mixed with the values of hard work, resilience, persistence, consistency and excellence in your own corner. The road to glory is not always linear. Just don’t ever give up on your dreams.

Indeed, it is possible to do great things from a small place. Congratulations, @Tunde_OD.

Author

  • Arukaino Umukoro

    Arukaino is an award-winning writer and journalist, a recipient of the CNN/MultiChoice Africa Journalist of the Year Awards (Sports reporting)

Arukaino Umukoro

Arukaino is an award-winning writer and journalist, a recipient of the CNN/MultiChoice Africa Journalist of the Year Awards (Sports reporting)

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