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Magnus Carlsen, the World Chess Champion is set to play in the Fide World Cup holding in Tbilisi, Georgia and he will be meeting Nigeria’s IM – Elect Femi Balogun in the very first round. Setting up the interview with the soft spoken master was easy but getting it to actually take place was beset with difficulties. After mutual efforts, we now present you with it.
CH: Hello Femi Balogun.
FB: Good evening.
CH: Welcome to this interview session. I will like to ask you some questions, first, who is Femi Balogun?
FB: Should that be a question since everybody knows who International Master Femi is already so I think that that is already an answer to the question.
CH: No. You are new to the international scene as you will soon be going to Tbilisi, Georgia to participate in the World Cup and a lot of people have not heard your name in many parts of the world, its not only in Nigeria people play chess so as much as you can, give us a brief summary of who Femi Balogun is.
FB: I am just a simple person who is passionate about the game of chess. People who know me can say more to what I give myself. I am just an ordinary person.
CH: What primary school, secondary school and university did you attend?
FB: My secondary school was Mayflower in Ogun State, while my primary school was Nepa Staff School, Egbin and I finished from University of Lagos where I studied Insurance and Business Administration with a second class upper degree.
CH: I know there is a chess culture at Nepa, Egbin; did you play chess in your primary school then?
CH: Your dad was a Nepa staff?
FB: I don’t want to talk that but I am privileged. I picked up the game of chess in the university.
CH: How did it happen in university that you picked up chess?
FB: I got interested in chess because I found it fascinating. Even though I could move the pieces, I had never seen people play at competitive level but when I got to the chess club I realized that it could actually be played competitively and I became seriously interested. I got to meet the likes of Kola Ladokun, Tunji Rojugbokan, Foluseke – may his gentle soul rest in peace – , and some other good players Emeka Ifedi and the rest of them. We created a chess family. I was never good in the university because I needed to graduate but I found it interesting.
CH: Why did you choose to become a professional chess player?
FB: Professional? In Nigeria you can’t say professional, you can only say passionate for chess. I found passion and I followed it through. There are other things you have to do because you cannot focus on chess alone. I became professional – using the word professional – during my Youth Service. I got more free time and was closer to the chess family than usual. Before I graduated, I had already bonded but during my service I played more tournaments than I used to and than I would have imagined.
CH: So far, what have been the rewards of your chess career?
FB: I think for my age I may have gotten more achievements than most players even though I haven’t become national champion yet. I was a gold medalist at Eko 2012, Sports Festival for Oyo State and through chess I got employment with Oyo State. Through chess I’ve been able to visit many states in Nigeria, many countries in West Africa, many countries in Europe and America. Chess made me travel for the first time, which was to UK, Gibraltar. it also took me to US, gave me titles and money. So far, its been good.
CH: What have been the challenges so far in your chess career?
FB: The only limiting factor right now is the Nigerian economy. The game of chess is a royal game but it can only be played well if your environment is suitable for it. If you don’t have a convenient environment you may just have to face what your environment has to offer you and just go with it the best way you can while staying focused.
CH: So the challenge is that chess is difficult or has unfriendly environment in Nigeria.
FB: Not so friendly compared to outside.
CH: How did you manage to qualify for the Fide World Cup?
FB: I would say, I owe God thanks and a little bit of luck even though I believe in my own ability. I played hard, I played well. It was a fight because the first hurdle you had to cross was traveling. Traveling to Liberia was challenging but in the end I got there and I emerged champion of Zone 4.4.
CH: At what point at the Zonals did you realize you could qualify for the World Cup?
FB: The first thing you have to consider is you are going out there to win. That was the mentality I took. Fine, it was a tough competition, very competitive because we had the best chess player in West Africa there in the person of Bomo Kigigha, a good friend. We also had others, higher rated than me, Anwuli Daniel, upcoming player. I knew I had to play my best and hope for a little bit of luck which actually came true for me.
CH: Can you give us some inside story of how it happened in Liberia?
FB: It wasn’t until the very final moment that I knew I was going to win. It was all about early tournament leader Bomo Kigigha. We then played even, until the very last round. I knew I had to win my game and hope for luck. Along the line, all eyes were on Bomo as favorite to win but in the very last moment he made a blunder and lost and I was crowned the champion. But overall everybody came with that mentality to win and if Bomo had won everybody would have been happy because he was a fellow Nigerian.
CH: What were your feelings when you realized that you would be playing a mini match against the current world champion?
FB: I was overwhelmed because I will be the first African to sit and play a reigning world champion. It is an achievement on its own like I said when I did an interview with Channels TV. No pressure at all ‘cos I would be playing from the angle of an underdog. I think I am going to give it my best and with support from my fans and Nigeria as a whole it is going to be a very good experience for me. I hope it puts Africa on the spotlight with the kind of performance I display because I am one of only four representing Africa.
CH: How do you rate your chances?
FB: The world champion is one whom everyone looks up to. I am a fan of his. So far, he has been impossible to beat but I believe out of 100%, it is fair to say I have chances. I just hope my chance comes at the world cup rather than anywhere else.
CH: What do you intend to do against him?
FB: Well, he is someone you cannot prepare for. It is impossible to prepare against the world champion so to say. I believe I am going to play my best and give it my all. I believe fortune might smile on me at the end of the day.
CH: What contributions do you think this opportunity you have can do to chess development in Nigeria?
FB: I believe if I can pull an upset at the world cup, which is unheard of that a black man gets to beat the reigning world champion. I believe it is going to be the birth of chess in Nigeria and it will make Africa happy and proud of me as a whole.
CH: What do you think has to be done to popularize chess in Nigeria?
FB: Somebody has to first of all become a grandmaster, I think. Somebody just has to put Nigeria on the map and make it stick. Someone has to let Nigeria’s voice be heard. Getting to the top of chess worldwide on the international scene, just to make a name, just to put the name out there. Every country were on the same level, some countries are now far more advanced maybe about fifteen years ago they were on the same level with Nigeria. Norway where the world champion came from were some decades ago on the same level with Nigeria but in the long run they did their thing. We just have to learn from them. We just have to keep trying and make sure one person breaks that jinx and puts Nigeria’s name on the map.
CH: So if there is a grandmaster from Nigeria more people will play chess?
FB: Yes I believe so. Anand made that experience possible. When Anand became an elite, then world champion, he popularized chess in India. They are now chess super powers.
CH: Who can be Nigeria’s first grandmaster?
FB: I would vote for me, other good chess players will vote for themselves but I believe the top rated Nigerian player has the best chance of being the first grandmaster so I will work towards being the top first, then aim higher.
CH: When do you expect to be a grandmaster?
FB: Time may not be on my side. I believe the younger ones are aspiring to be grandmasters more than me. By the time I become a grandmaster then it might just be for leisure and it will be a great achievement for me. I believe will be sooner rather than later.
CH: Are we expecting it in three years time, five years time or ten years time?
FB: When God wills it I think. I believe it will come.
CH: Joe Kyosu sent us this question. “ Are you nervous on your upcoming match against the world champion?”
FB: Like I said, no pressure at all. I am playing as the underdog, I have to give it my all. I believe with luck and favor it may turn out positive for me.
CH: Big Josh Onuh sent us this last question. “What is the secret in chess?”
FB: I think the secret in chess is to play chess yourself and find it out. It is not easy, we learn everyday and we cannot learn it all. Even the elites and the world champion still get beaten so I believe everyday would be an experience for you and everyday you learn something new. Some you share with the world, some you may need to keep for yourself so you stand out in your own way.
CH: Thank you for your time.
FB: Thank you.