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Updated: Jul 15, 2021

Walking me around the sky blue wall with its creative checkerboard murals, JV Nkqwili shared the philosophy that grounds his approach to playing and teaching chess in Zithulele. Chess has become a high-stakes competitive sport for many here, with competitors sometimes strategically suggesting games at unexpected times of day: get your opponent with a challenge when they’ve just woken up from a nap and you may have a shot!

Far more than just a game of logic, JV and Ruan Cilliers see chess as a lesson in life. These two were part of sharing the game so widely, initially by playing it with Axium Education, though it has since taken off independently.

Faith is important to both men. Connecting the game to the teachings of Christianity, they use their training to share scriptures and principles that help students think about choices. They teach it with values attached to different pieces and the plays they can make. A few of these are as follows:

Pawn – Endurance, perseverance, working together

Horse – Love

Castle – Strength, safety, sacrifice and protection

Bishop – Integrity

King – God who guides us

Queen – The Holy Spirit and power

“Chess is a game of life, it’s a war. Life is a war. You need a strategy, you need to play, to take responsibility for your mistakes, to learn from them and to be proactive and think ahead to solve problems,” JV said.

Being able to evaluate possibilities and make strong choices is essential for success in life. Ruan elaborated on this by highlighting how Chess depends on strong mental tools, considering thousands of possible permutations and making creative choices in relation to an ever-changing game where one’s opponent’s decisions affect one’s own.

“You need to analyse many solutions, you need to evaluate and make a strong decision around choosing one, and then you need to be creative about employing those to your context,” he said.

It isn’t just intellectual, though. Pointing out one mural depicting the Horse chess piece next to the isiXhosa words “Thanda Abanye” (Love Each Other), JV explained that their real focus is on values of sharing, perseverance, care, and support.

“For example, pawns, they always work together so even if they move one step, they always protect each other just as us as a team, we must protect each other. Alone, that means you’re going to give up,” JV explained.

“It is also endurance and perseverance. They are very humble – the smallest piece on the board, but when he gets to the finish line he can become a Queen. Same as at school, you need to endure, to finish your Grade 12, to go to university and you can become a Queen.”

JV has been driving the project for some time, liaising with teachers and schools, setting up clubs, and building relationships with the learners, teaching them the game. “For me it was easy because we are from the same community,” he said about engaging the learners.

There were always chess sets in the library, but before this work got off the ground at the start of 2017, learners in the area were not familiar with the game. Now JV can barely make it through an interview without a group asking if they can fetch a board to play!

“They are very good. Some can beat me, although I taught them!” he laughed, clearly happy to be the master surpassed by his students. More than simply skill, it is a love for the game that seems to have passed on.

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