A Knight's Endgame
The story of a chess opening, middle game, and a long endgame.
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In Ikorodu, there’s the Majidun Creek. On the river bank, there’s a jetty and a few houses, one or two on stilts; you can see them when you cross the bridge. Beyond the bank, old houses are crammed on narrow streets to make up the Majidun Community.
In March 2018, Tunde alighted with his friends at the Majidun Bus Stop one Sunday after playing instruments in church with them.
“Are you sure?” one of them asked, giggling, as they hopped off the danfo with them. He knew they didn’t live in Majidun but always stopped there. On that day, he had his curiosity and time on his hands.
A few minutes later, they arrived at a shed. Under it, there were soldiers away from their duty post huddled together. Thugs stood beside them, and next to those thugs stood children whose voices cracked from smoke faster than puberty could.
They were all smoking weed.
His friends came here off their church high to find a new high. Tunde wasn’t a smoker, so he sat quietly, soaking in the scene before him.
One of the thugs had a scar that ran from his right shoulder to his left waist. He’d gotten shot and attacked with a machete, he explained to Tunde when he caught him staring. When the attack ended, his intestines were outside his body, his life hanging by a thread.
Tunde returned with his friends the following Sunday – there was no place more important to be. This time, he was comfortable enough to pull out his chess board and play himself while everyone else played with their wraps.
“Kíni yẹn?” one of the kids asked, pointing to a chess piece in Tunde’s hand.
“What does it look like?” Tunde responded in Yoruba.
“It looks like a church.”
Tunde smiled. Other kids drew close, naming the pieces; the king looked like a bottle, and according to a teenage mechanic apprentice who’d come to smoke, the rook looked like a part of the gearbox.
Tunde didn’t know what a gearbox looked like, but he agreed.
Maybe it was the second-hand high or the kids’ enthusiasm, but at that moment, Tunde knew what he wanted to do when he returned to Majidun the following Sunday.
Thirteen years before that Sunday, Tunde stood in a tiny barbershop in Ikorodu. It was a school morning, but the shop was packed with schoolboys who gathered in a corner around a television, some with their school shirts in hand, others with Playstation pads.
It could only have been Winning Eleven on the screen.
Unlike the other boys, he wasn’t wearing a uniform. He hadn’t worn one in over a year.
As the match pressed on, Tunde’s mind wandered elsewhere. In another corner of the shop, a man’s face was buried behind a book, photocopied and bound between a see-through plastic sleeve and a blue cover.
A chequered board with carved playing pieces was on a stool before him. He’d frown at the board, then back into the book. Then he’d move a piece, move another, take one off, then rearrange the board.
It was as if nothing else existed, not the screaming boys, not Tunde staring enthralled, just his book and the chessboard.
“Bros B,” Tunde said, pointing at a playing piece on the board, “What’s this thing?”
“What does it look like?” Bros B asked as he lowered the book from his face, revealing a frown.
“It looks like a horse,” Tunde responded.
“Yes,” Bros B smirked, “it’s called a knight.”
“What about this one?” Tunde pointed at another piece.
“That’s a pawn.”
“Porn?” Tunde flinched.
The boys overheard and teased briefly before returning to their game.
“Pawn,” Bros B corrected. He was running out of patience.
“Come and teach me how to play it.”
“No, no,” Bros B said, shooing him off, “you’re too small to learn it.”
Tunde was ten.
Bros B was every boy’s È̩gbọ́n in the neighbourhood. The boys came for Playstation, fresh cuts, and sometimes, advice. They liked that he was an older person who didn’t force them to do anything or beat them.
Every day, after his parents left home for work, Tunde went to Bros B’s and stayed until his younger brother came looking for him when he returned from school or before dark, just as his parents were heading home from work.
Tunde had spent months doing nothing: uniformless, schoolless. His parents worked hard all day but could only afford to cover one of their son’s school fees. To keep him engaged, his parents enrolled him as an apprentice to a refrigerator repairer. That didn’t last for long – his teacher beat him too much, so he stopped going.
He couldn’t afford to play Winning Eleven like the other boys, but with chess, there was no price, only curiosity. And so, chess filled the space that idleness had occupied in his mind. He went there every day to watch Bros. B play himself. Bros B still wouldn’t allow him to play. He often said, “Chess is for smart people,” and “How you play chess reflects your personality,” but this didn’t stop Tunde from watching and learning.
One day, all the watching paid off. Bros B’s friends, young but skilled players, came to play, and they offered him a seat.
That was only the beginning. As he continued to learn, he decided to take practice home – he made his own chess board with scrap cardboard paper, a ruler and a pencil. For the pieces, he used bottle corks. Next, he taught his brother to play, unleashing everything he’d learned watching Bros B and his friends.
He played him whenever they could, but this didn’t last long. Not long after, their mum walked in on them playing chess. She ripped the cardboard to pieces. It wasn’t the first time she’d ripped something to make a statement. Before then, it was the comics he drew with his notebooks.
For his parents, he was only allowed to be a doctor and a shining, focused example for his younger brother. Everything else was a distraction. They weren’t going out early every morning and coming back late at night for him to be drawing comics and playing funny board games.
Tunde’s father drove a danfo on the Ikorodu - Lagos Island route every day, multiple times a day. He left home with the early morning commuters and returned as the markets emptied on the island. Tunde’s mother, a trader at the market in Idumota, moved with her husband on the first and last trips.
And even with all their hours, it wasn’t enough to keep both boys in school or make Tunde a doctor.
One morning, Tunde’s mother stopped going to the market. After a few days of staying home all day with Tunde, she’d had enough. She grabbed her purse, walked to a school in the neighbourhood, straight to the principal’s office and asked for a job. She didn’t want a salary; she just wanted her son to become a student at the school.
Mrs. Esan, the principal, said no without a thought. She terrified everyone, but Mummy Tunde’s desperation eclipsed Mrs. Esan’s wrath; she showed up every day until the principal asked her to return with her son.
“What is a noun?” the principal asked Tunde when he showed up with his mum.
“A noun is…”
Tunde hadn’t been in a classroom for most of 2003 and 2004; if he hadn’t stopped school, he’d have been in his second year in secondary school. But here he was, unable to remember what a noun was.
“He’ll start in primary five,” the principal said. His mum would resume as a cleaner.
When he eventually made it through primary school and into his first year in secondary school, he could take one of the school’s extra-curricular subjects: chess.
By the end of his third term, he received his first actual chess board – a small plastic set. Even though he did well at school and chess, his father still worried. Studies or nothing.
Tunde’s dad was stern. It was a blend of his upbringing and his job. Every day, he had to fight traffic enforcers, officers and thugs alike, road accidents, and the endless battle with a bus trudging through Lagos on a weary engine. Still, he always brought money home no matter what the day dealt him – nothing seemed to matter more.
But nothing mattered more to Tunde than chess. He played every time he could sneak a game at home and school. The owner of the school Tunde went to, Femi Badejo, was a one-time UN ambassador who enjoyed writing children’s books. He had an undying obsession with chess. He’d set up a chess tournament with schools across Lagos, hosted from his school. Tunde remembers multiple schools attending – but none stood out for him like the boys from St. Finbarr’s, with their blue blazers and white pants. One carried a laptop with him; Tunde had come near one for the first time.
Tunde’s world was the neighbourhood he was born in, Ketu; the one he was shaped in, Ikorodu, Bros B’s shop, his family and school. By the end of that day, his world had become larger, with all the other players from other schools with their blazers and laptops.
The boys in blazers won that day, while Tunde and his schoolmates lost in every round. Mr Femi was livid, but he had a plan.
Not long after that loss, the school got a new chess coach, Mr. Collins, and he was now coming to be a teacher on the same grounds he’d coached St. Finbarr’s to victory.
At Mr. Collins’ first class, he didn’t teach any chess. Instead, he threw a challenge to the class right after introducing himself.
“Bring any maths question,” he said, “and I will solve it on this board. Go and bring your seniors’ textbooks, too.”
The class mostly emptied, and when the kids returned, they all had maths textbooks. As they threw math problems at Mr. Collins, he threw them at the board and turned them into chalk dust – the class grew more excited by the problem.
By the time the class was over, it was at its most charged. Tunde was spellbound.
Mr. Collins didn’t even touch a chess piece.
When Tunde was a child in the early 2000s, his father often left ₦200 at home for him and his brother to buy food before heading to work.
Then, one day, the money stopped. Tunde later learned that his father’s bus had plunged into the Majidun River. Somehow, he survived. He’d always provided for the home the best he could, but that day, he stopped trying. It was the last time he ever left ₦200 for food.
In 2018, Tunde returned to Majidun — over a decade after his father lost his bus — under entirely different circumstances.
Tunde had gotten a lot of help to prepare for his first chess class. First, there was a thug from the smoking shed – you’d know him by his dreadlocks and the scar across his face – everyone called him Smile.
“Kini chess?” Smile asked the first time Tunde told him he wanted to teach the kids chess and needed his help mobilising the kids.
By the time the conversation was over, Smile was down.
Some of his bandmates were also down; even Michael, the pastor’s son, volunteered and showed up with his camera. They brought biscuits for five kids, but the rustle of biscuit wrappers drew almost thirty kids.
After the kids had gathered and Smile managed to keep them quiet, Tunde stood before them.
“See that uncle there,” he said, pointing to one of his friends volunteering. “I’m going to play against him, and I’m not going to look at the board.”
And so he wore a blindfold and started to play. He couldn’t see the kids under his blindfold, but from their breaths behind his neck and the occasional “How did he do that,” he knew he had their full attention.
By the day's end, the kids had learned the chess pieces and how each moved. Tunde’s friend, Michael, had also taken a lot of photos.
In one of the photos, a little girl smiled as she held the queen. He remembered her: Basirat, 5. When he’d asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she’d said she wanted to become a nurse, probably because of the neighbourhood nurse to whom they went for medicine.
Basirat herself had never been in a classroom. She lived with her parents and siblings in a single room, and school, her mum had said earlier that day, was beyond reach until she was old enough for free public school the following year.
That night, he wrote about her on his Facebook and went to bed.
When he woke up the following morning, his phone was blowing up. Everyone wanted to hear more about Basirat and the other kids.
There’s a lot of research to show that chess is great for kids: it helps them develop problem-solving skills and improves critical thinking and concentration. For his classmates, chess was all of these and perhaps a hobby – but chess was everything for JSS2 Tunde in Mr. Collins’ class.
In chess, his dad wasn’t pouring his frustration from the day or avoiding his mother as she worked in school. In chess, he wasn’t ashamed of the quality of his uniform, and he could be the best at something.
Tunde entered his first chess tournament that year. He played and lost all six games. After losing to a girl in one match, he ran to the bathroom to cry.
Mr Collins was waiting when he returned.
“She can’t even play like that,” Tunde said.
“But she beat you,” Mr. Collins said, “In this chess, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a boy or girl; you’re either a fish or not. And you’re still fresh fish.”
“Cry well-well, and get used to it. Even the greatest players still lose.”
Then Mr. Collins asked Tunde for his recording sheet from the game; they analysed it together and noted the mistakes that cost him the games.
At the end of the school year, the tournament returned to their school again, and Mr. Collins’ former students at St. Finbarr’s came first again. But as Tunde walked home that evening, he had a brand new chessboard, a certificate, a trophy and an envelope with money.
He’d finished third overall in the tournament and was now the best player in school. He was only 12.
Neighbours stepped outside their homes to congratulate him as he marched home, shy but beaming with pride.
His dad saw him first. His body trembled as he burst into tears – it was the first time Tunde had seen his father cry.
The neighbours poured out of their rooms as Tunde’s mum’s praises grew louder. From that day, chess stopped being a distraction. It became a badge of distinction. It also helped that he finished top of his class that same year.
The years rolled by for Tunde in secondary school, and as he progressed, things regressed at home, with the one predictable but little income from his mother selling snacks to kids at school. And so, he dug further into his studies and chess, and the world around him shifted out of focus.
Until it was time to go to University.
Every year, over 1.5 million students write JAMB, Nigeria’s matriculation exam for secondary school students trying to get into tertiary schools. They’ll be vying for tens of thousands of slots across Nigerian schools. Most will stay home for various reasons, from low scores and limited slots to high cut-off marks and unaffordable fees. Tunde was at risk of being one of the latter. For his first choice, the University of Lagos, he didn’t make the cut.
For his second, the Lagos State University, he’d made the cut on the scores side, but there was one problem. In 2012, the Lagos State Government increased the school fees by tenfold to ₦250,000, more than most parents could afford. It was also the year Tunde was supposed to get into university.
And so, whenever he had some change, he’d go to a cyber cafe, stare at his admission in the university portal, and then return home. As schools across Nigeria and the world filled up with new students, all hope left Tunde, and the emptiness filled with sadness, then anger.
He was angry at everything: his parents for not offering much for options, chess and all the hours he wasted moving the stupid pieces, God for not rewarding his faith, and life for offering such a tumultuous fate.
When his friends returned after their first semester, Tunde was a teacher at a neighbourhood nursery school. He rocked a fat tie, pants, and chubby shoes. He’d even gotten a small promotion to teach primary school kids Computer Basics and Music by the time his university friends returned to school.
A year later, in 2013, he tried to get into university again – he missed the cutoff mark by three points.
His mother’s sadness slowly crept from her heart to her face and skin. The last time she’d been a student was in primary school. Her husband had also dropped out in his third year of secondary school. And now that his baby brother had also paused secondary school with less than two years left to graduate, she worried about her children’s fate.
Sometimes, she told Tunde, she wondered how her life would have turned out differently if she’d gotten more education, especially seeing women drop off their kids at school in their cars. She talked about mums in their cars a lot.
This time, Tunde accepted his fate and wrote the entrance exams to a polytechnic outside Lagos; he passed, but the only thing he hated more than feeling trapped was going to that school.
The night before he left for school, as they gathered whatever provisions they could for him, his mum paused, standing across from Tunde in the silent kitchen. Then she asked:
“Do you want to go?”
A few days later, she returned home with the Yaba College of Technology application form. By December 2012, almost a year and a half after graduating from secondary school, he was admitted to study Computer Science.
He never returned home; there wasn’t a home to return to, not in the true sense of it. His dad moved to Ibadan to work at his sister’s bakery. His mum moved to another part of Lagos, where she worked as a cleaner. His brother moved out of Lagos with some friends.
One day, while walking around school, he stumbled on some people playing chess. It’d been months since he played anyone, so he stopped to stare at them from a distance.
“Do you play?” a man watching the players asked.
“Yes, sir,” Tunde said with some hesitation.
The man was Coach Johnson, who coached the Chess Team of Yabatech. He paired Tunde with a young lady, and she beat him silly. He played her again, more excited than in the last game. She beat him again; Tunde was good, but she was so much better. Around him were all kinds of players, chess pieces clacking against boards – plastic, wood, rubber.
Tunde ran into an old player from one of his secondary school tournaments who told the Coach all about him. And so he was placed in the school’s reserve Chess Team. That had great perks: free tuition and free accommodation.
Yabatech has a chess reputation for having one of the strongest chess communities in Nigeria. Students played, but even more competitive chess players came there to play. Daniel Anwuli, Nigeria’s youngest chess champion, used to play there.
And so, to be back at the board again, with some of the best chess peers his world had to offer, Tunde felt electric.
By 2015, Tunde’s three-year diploma was over, and his family hadn’t lived as one unit for three years. Leaving school didn’t change his family’s fortunes, but it now changed his living situation. First, he squatted with a friend, but only for long enough not to begin to feel like a burden.
With nowhere else to go, he went to his aunty’s. They weren’t delighted to see him – they weren’t delighted to have any extended family living with them. So, they turned him back.
When the family woke up the following day, they found him sleeping by the door. He lived with them for the next few years. From then on, he rolled from one stint to the other.
The first thing he tried was a business he’d started with his friend. They called their idea Chess in Schools. They had a clear plan: go from school to school, make compelling pitches to the management to make chess a subject, and charge ₦5,000 per student.
For a school of 200 kids, that meant ₦1 million. At ten schools? They’d be swimming in money! But there wasn’t much swimming to do – they landed a few schools, but not enough to change their battered suits and shoes.
By 2016, he’d gotten disillusioned and started daydreaming about japa-ing with another friend. But that friend had a passport and parents who had the means to remove all the blockers between Lagos and America.
His friend was gone; Tunde was alone.
And so he continued teaching, chess board in his backpack, squeezing in and out of his Keke NAPEPs and worn-out clothes. One time, while teaching students at a girls-only school, one of the girls said, “This chess you’re teaching us, is it so that we can become a chess teacher like you?”
He didn’t teach chess again for a long time after that.
But it was between rolling from stint to stint he found the gig playing the piano at church for stipends and holy spirit, which led to Majidun, which led him to Basirat.
A few weeks after that first visit to Majidun, two kids they were training in chess, including Basirat, had gotten lifetime scholarships from strangers on the Internet.
In those weeks, Tunde's new sense of purpose came into focus. He’d shown up at Majidun and met the kids. He’d met Basirat and her family, and nothing stayed the same. And while it might be said that Tunde showed up and their lives changed forever, it’s also true that they, too, changed Tunde’s life forever.
Tunde named his new idea Chess In Slums. With it, he would sustain their work at Majidun and replicate it everywhere. And so, they took it to other places over the next few years – in four years, their work has blitzed to reach up to ten thousand kids. The donors have come from everywhere, too, to push the work forward.
Everywhere they went, they taught the kids that the world of chess had 64 squares. Every piece had a role. They taught the kids that when a pawn moved to the opposite end of the chess board, it would be promoted to a more powerful piece, like a rook, bishop, knight, or the most powerful piece, the queen.
In Germany, they describe zugzwang as a situation in chess where a player is at a peculiar disadvantage: they must make a move, but every move they make will worsen their condition. And so, Tunde and his friends weren’t just showing the kids how to make moves; they were hoping that by expanding their world, they could help them break out of the zugzwang life had thrust upon them.
They taught kids in Makoko, a low-income riverine community in Lagos. They taught kids in Oshodi, Lagos’ busiest and most infamous bus stop. Everywhere they went, they turned urchins into boys and girls in blazers. They turned the willing thugs into planners and organisers.
Then they brought the world to witness – from diplomats to global stars and media – that it is possible to do great things from a small place.
As for Tunde, the kids taught him that they could learn chess fast, compete, and have a good time. By watching the kids, they learned it was beyond chess; it was a gateway to a world expanding before them, far removed from their circumstances.
They reminded Tunde of himself.
Perhaps it’s why he starts by observing the most curious every time they teach new kids. One day, one of them will see a chess piece as he pulls it out of a bag. They’ll ask him, “What’s that?”
“What does it look like?” Tunde will respond.
And Tunde Onakoya will smile as he sets the knight piece on the board.
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It took a village to put this together:
It began with lunch that lasted for seven hours; I just knew I had to write about it.
I wanted to enter a writing prize, primarily because one of the judges – Gay Talese – is one of the most influential writers alive to me. I couldn’t stand the version of the draft by the time the deadline reached, so I pulled it. But if Gay Talese wasn’t on that panel, the story wouldn’t even exist on Vistanium. I guess he deserves some credit too.
I was very unsure about the quality of this piece until:
But whatever is great about this version, Ope’s brutal but ultimately benign editing made it readable.
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