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I play chess to gain experience and improve my game: lone Afghan player at the 2nd Goa GM 2019

by Basil Sylvester Pinto - 01/07/2019

He might be one of the lesser rated players representing his country in a high profile Grandmaster Open in Taleigao in Category A, and the only Afghan among 1300 odd players across the three categories, but he is not overawed by the magnitude of the event and takes it as a learning curve. Meet an unassuming 18-year-old Sepehr Sakhawaty (Elo rating 1774) from Herat, Afghanistan who is on the concluding leg of a three-city GM Open tournament maiden visit to India that ends here today. Photo: Basil Sylvester Pinto

The Lone Ranger of Afghanistan

18-year-old Sakhawaty Sepehr was the sole representative of Afghanistan at 2nd Goa GM 2019 | Photo: Basil Sylvester Pinto

“I have previously played around 6-7 tournaments overseas in countries like Iran and Afghanistan, but this is my third tournament in-a-row in India. I first played at Bhubaneshwar, then in Mumbai before coming here,” he told The Goan after playing his ninth and penultimate round on Monday.


But to a country barely heard of in chess at a global level, and to its popularity in their country, how did he make his foray into the game? 


“I took to chess when I was five. My father was playing the game and I developed interest in playing the game. When my father saw that I was really interest in playing chess, he brought me to the Herat Chess Federation few months later to pursue the game further,” Sakhawaty recounted.


“The only problem faced by the Afghan National Chess Federation is that the country’s government does not care about chess. It is something new. Not very often you see chess players in Afghanistan,” laments Sakhawaty.  Incidentally, his parents had moved to Tehran, Iran at the time of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and where he was born in an adopted country. He only used to come to his native place for holidays and to eventually settle down at Herat with his family at around four years.


Unlike in the Goa GM Open where the first 30 boards are digitized and go live, in Afghanistan it is totally different. “Though we have some digitized boards, they are not used for tournaments. But every chess board has a chess clock,” he points out on their lackadaisical infrastructure.  In fact, there are not too many accomplished chess players in the country that they could boast of. There are about 120 rated players in Afghanistan, with only five CMs and three FMs. Their highest rated player is Khaiber Farazi with an Elo Rating of 2128, with their best rated women player at just 1048.


“Last year it was the 17th Afghan Chess Championship.  We had categories including Open, Women, Youth U-20 and U-18. For the Open Category, there is a selection process. Every city has a chess championship, from where a certain number of chess players are eligible at the National level. But only 25 of our 34 cities have chess associations where the tournaments are held.  In the Women’s Category there were around 20 players taking part,” he divulged.  Unfortunately, not many women players come forward to take part and Sakhawaty is not sure why. But he admits the women’s chess scene in Afghanistan is bleak.


Incidentally, the last National Championship was his first and he had the distinction of becoming the U-18 Junior Champion on basis of a tie-break (another junior player also tied with eight points). While he ended up on the ninth place in the Open Category standings, he was a point adrift the eventual winner.


But that was not Sakhawaty’s first tournament. His first competitive experience was at the city-based Herat Chess Championship when he was only seven and started going to school.  His precocious talent was indicative in that open category tournament. “I stood 11th from around 60 players and was the youngest participant. From the seven rounds, I achieved three points. And this is also because most participants after losing the first or second round left the tournament,” he revealed. But this does not take away the sheen of his early promise.

Sepehr is currently no.1 junior player of Afghanistan

Cut to the present, Sakhawaty with an Elo Rating of 1774 has a long way to be more than just a participating player in Category A tournaments. At 18, he has age on his side which augurs well and the will to make the ascent of being a highly competitive player.


His normal training is mostly on his own through books, and solving tactics which takes five hours on a regular day.  He also plays chess at the Chess Federation in Herat which boasts of around 100 boards and 50 clocks.


He recalled his first brush with an internationally rated tourney as a mixed bag. “I played well in the first 4-5 games and after that I do not know what happened. It was my first international experience. I then lost three rounds in-a-row, and then drew two. It was an 11-round tournament and I only defeated an unrated player, a 1300 player as well. Because of these results, my first rating was not what I expected it to be at 1460,” he divulges.


As with every chess player, an opening repertoire with its variations is a pre-requisite for growth in the game. And it is no different for the Herat-based 11th grader.  “My coach told me that my playing style is tactical and positional. He told me to play openings that your opponent doesn’t feel good against and I do just that. Playing white, I prefer the Larsen’s Opening with b3 and against e4 with black, I play c5...

...I play the Sicilian Defence with black and all its variations like Sveshnikov, Najdorf, Taimanov and Four Knights,” he disclosed.

The love for the game has made IM Sekhar Sahu un-retire and made his return to tournaments as a player | Photo: Niklesh Jain

His most memorable game has been quite recent. “My biggest win was recently in Bhubaneswar against Indian IM Sekhar Sahu. The position was drawish. I was hoping for something. He offered me a draw which I refused, and then he played perpetual moves to offer a draw again to which I declined. He then sacrificed a knight for gaining a perpetual check to which I responded with a bishop sacrifice to avoid a draw. On hindsight, my bishop sacrifice was wrong. Both of us ran into time trouble and could not get an advantage of the bishop. At the end, I won,” he fondly narrated.


Though chess is not popular at the grassroots back home, there have been efforts to promote the game in every city. Despite all the odds, at the 43rd Chess Olympiad held at Batumi, Georgia last year, Afghanistan got a Gold in Category D which is their biggest achievement.

Sepehr's performance at 2nd Goa GM 2019

Coming back to the present, and after losing the ninth round on Monday to languish at three points with a round to go in Category A, he admits his Goa performance has a lot to be desired. “My performance here has not been good. I have got super tired after playing 28-29 games spread across three successive tournaments at the level. In fact, in Goa, I thought of entering Category B, but as there were three rounds each day, I went against the idea. At Bhubaneswar, I played okay where I defeated an IM (mentioned earlier). From Bhubaneswar, the organizers had booked my train ticket to Mumbai which was a 38-hours journey. My first game in Mumbai I lost and I played horrible thereafter. I was losing every game due to my tiredness. To come to Goa from Mumbai, a train ticket was booked for me but I told the organizer to book a flight ticket instead for which I would pay,” he recounted his plight.


While cost borne from his pocket may not pinch him, tiredness is what he grudges at with long train travel. In fact, his travel from Afghanistan from his native city, Herat to Kabul and thereon to Delhi and Bhubaneshwar was self-funded.


For him it is not the money towards travel, but following his heart: a deep interest in chess and gaining experience from internationally rated tournaments.  While he knows taking to chess coaching back home could be profitable, his priority is only to improve his game and take it to greater heights.


While the aspiring electrical engineer leaves for home on Wednesday, it would be hardly ten days when he would be taking part in his next National Championship. And the experience in India could serve him well to improve upon his debut in the aforesaid tourney.  But it would not be long before he returns to India in October, to represent his country at the World Junior (U-20) Chess Championship in Delhi.


While not looking far ahead, Sakhawaty does dream on becoming a World Champion but at the same time is also very pragmatic. “I do not care about titles like IM or GM but for my rating and increasing my player strength.”

The article was originally published on The Goan Everyday, a regional daily English newspaper on 25th June 2019 | Photo: The Goan e-paper

About the Author

Basil Sylvester Pinto earns a living through his passion for writing. Having dabbled in various genres of journalism, for the last few years he is attached to The Goan Everyday as a sports reporter, and also contributes features occasionally. He is very passionate about fashion photography, high altitude and  loves to travel. He is fond of cricket, has played chess at the college and Goa State Open level and has been a decent National level Scrabble player.


The article was edited by Shahid Ahmed

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