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Our interviewee of the week is Ajibola Olanrewaju popularly known as “Papa”. He shot into Nigeria chess limelight with his positional play at National Sports Festival, Imo 98 where he assisted his team to a gold medal winning performance. Subsequently, he has been on the national Olympiad team and All Africa Games national chess team. He is a winner of several tournaments in Nigeria during the course of his playing career that has spanned over two decades. Perhaps, his outstanding achievement in chess is his chess in school organization, Pedachess, that is probably the biggest chess in schools organization in Africa.
We sat down to lunch with him and talked for over two hours. We bring you the transcript in a three parts publishing.
TO: Papa good afternoon
AO: Good afternoon
TO: I’m glad that you gave us this Interview
AO: Okay, you are welcome
TO: My first questions for you are, can you please give a brief story of your background? You tell us about your primary education, secondary, university and then you tell us about childhood with your family, did I mention you will tell us your names?
AO: No, you did’t
TO: Okay, we need those seven things
AO: Seven? Okay my name is Ajibola Olanrewaju. I have a middle name Olufunto
TO: So what’s the mystery, why did you start promoting Olufunto of recent? Why stop promoting Ajibola?
AO: When l was in secondary school, I always joked with my friends that my wife would call me Olufunto. It was a name I left solely for my wife but my wife chose to call me Karis, I couldn’t force her to call me otherwise. Well my primary school, I went to two primary schools. The first primary school I went to was St. Bernadette
TO: The one by Doregoes?
AO: Yes the same one but then they were in Abeokuta
TO: Oh from the same woman?
AO: Yes, the same woman. Okay maybe her mother I don’t know but if she’s old then it would be the same woman. It was a boarding school; my mum didn’t really have enough time for my sister and I so she sent us to a boarding school. There I learnt one or two things but we were in like a hostel. It was nursery school.
TO: Okay, Nursery? You were in a boarding house in nursery?
AO: I still have memories of that time, very slight memories. I remember my mum coming in – Of course she had made enough provisions for us, corn beef and all other things – but she came once and though my sister was doing well but I wasn’t coping well as I was lean, I had lost weight. So she came once and she saw us and that was the last of it. Immediately she saw the way I looked she just took us out of the boarding school. Then from there, I went to Adrao International.
TO: Oh, the one in Victoria Island?
TO: Okay, you came from a wealthy family.
AO: Oh well, before the silver spoon was removed
TO: What happened to the silver spoon, how did it go?
AO: Until my dad passed on
TO: Okay, your dad passed on
TO: What age was that?
AO: That was 1984. I was in year six, primary six.
TO: So you have some memories of your dad?
AO: Not memories, very good memories. I remember he never touched me
TO: He never beat you
AO: He never beat me. Any time I offended, he always sent my mum to me and she dealt with me.
AO: Then I remember there was a time I was watching football, Italy when Rossi was scoring those goals.
TO: Okay yeah, Paolo Rossi
AO: Yes, when he was scoring those goals. I watched that. So I remember my dad coming there and seeing me watching. He was, I think he was impressed and saw that I really liked football, so he promised me that Italia 90 we would go and see the World Cup together.
TO: Okay, your dad was a big man oh. That you would go to Italia 90. So it must have pained you that he didn’t see Italia 90
AO: So, he promised me then that Italia 90 we would go together and see the World Cup but of course he passed on. He passed 1984. At that point, the silver spoon was removed and a lot of things went wrong. You know polygamous family, my elder brothers and all that too but all is well.
TO: So you now went to Navy for secondary school?
AO: I went to Navy
TO: Navy was still a good school even though it was public
AO: Yes because my mum was doing well too. My mum was doing well but over the years it wasn’t as if she was able to sustain because she had to cater for five of us and so it was quite a lot of responsibility for her so eventually you know gradually, we had to cut down from Apapa to Isolo, from Isolo to Ikotun.
TO: So you lived here in Ikotun when you were young?
AO: No no no. I did ehm, my primary school was in Apapa
AO: Then my secondary school was Isolo
AO: Then by the time I was getting into the University, we were in Ikotun
AO: Then university days, we had to move to Shagamu. She built a house in Shagamu.
TO: University days, you didn’t talk much about university
AO: Oh I thank FUTA. I gave my life in FUTA.
TO: To Christ.
AO: Yes, that was in part two but I was also a chess …
TO: Okay that’s where we get to in the second question. When did you learn how to play chess?
AO: The first time I saw a chess board was in primary school. My elder brother just came back from the U.S and among his luggage was a chess board. So when I was going I just saw the thing, pieces so I played it like draught, my sister and I.
TO: Oh you played chess like draught?
AO: Like draught then. I didn’t know what it was and nobody was there to tell me oh, this is a chess board, this is how you…, I just played the thing and moved on but later on in Nigerian Navy I had this neighbor Mr Bolanle Fatiniro. He was the one that introduced and taught me chess and that was where I started.
TO: What secondary school level where you then?
AO: I was in SS1.
TO: You didn’t learn chess that early oh.
AO: No, no, no I didn’t. SS1. I didn’t. I was in SS1, so when he taught me, I remember what he told me after teaching me, though I learned somethings but a week later I was still struggling with the moves and he said he doesn’t think I can be a good player but interestingly two weeks later I was beating him so that’s when he now started changing his mind. Then he had this friend that was usually on sea, Uncle Musa, he was usually on sea, swhenever Uncle Musa comes around he always sent for me. You know I was this young boy but I was able to deal with them and that was where it started. Then in Navy I had friends that we play chess for fun but we were usually betting. I remember the first time someone staked on me, there was a friend of mine that staked on me Niyi Alonge, he staked on me, I was playing Bayo Badegbo. Bayo Badegbo was presumably stronger, so the bet was in three game I would not win a single game. So no, no, no it was in five games I would not win a single game and so the first game Bayo won, second game Bayo won, third game Bayo won, fourth game Bayo won but by the time we played the fifth game, Niyi said “oh don’t worry, don’t worry I know the money is gone “. Everyone walked away”. All of a sudden…
TO: But most Nigerians become what we can call professional players in the University, where did you become a professional player?
AO: I became a professional player in the university as well
TO: That was when you started going for tournament?
AO: That’s when I started going. My first tournament was in 1993 NBL
TO: NBL 93?
AO: NBL 93
TO: How was NBL in 1993 compared to how it is now?
AO: Well you know chess tournament then although it’s picking up now but then it was prestigious.
TO: How many players then?
AO: Oh it was quite big
TO: A lot more players came for tournaments?
AO: A lot of players but I remember then I never finished my tournaments because by round 4 or 5, I’m out of it, I wouldn’t stand any winning chance and I’d quietly go and watch football
TO: The masters were highly respected
AO: Yes, yes highly respected. You see masters like
TO: Tolani Owosina
AO: Foli Don
TO: Ok Foli Don was a top player.
AO: Yes, Owo Tee
TO: In 93?
AO: Yes Foli Don was there, Owo Tee, Bunmi Olape
TO: In 93? Bunmi Olape was not a name in 93.
AO: He wasn’t a big boy but he started entering into the masters arms then. Then there was Iwu. I can’t remember his surname. Then Owo Tee, Owo Tee was obviously there. Then there were, there were some other people. I can’t really remember, but Little B was
TO: But Little B couldn’t have been winning prizes in 93?
AO: No, no but they knew
TO: That he had the talent
AO: Yes, tyhe knew then…. but he wasn’t… Then it was usually Fola, Fola was the main person. Fola
TO: Okay, can you tell us how you actually became a master.
AO: My mother. My mother encouraged me. Every time I went for a chess tournament and I came back my mum always told me your own time will come. you know once she sees me from a distance, she would know I had a very poor tournament
TO: Okay 93, 93 was your first tournament and it was poor. You dropped out as at round 4 or 5?
AO: Round 4, same thing 94 I dropped out round 4
TO: Okay, so how did you become a master?
AO: So whenever I go for a tournament and I was beaten my mum always kept on saying don’t worry your own time will come and that encouraged me, at least she never put me down. You know that encouraged me and kept me going. I also had a coach, coach Dipo.
AO: Akinyemi. Coach Dipo believed in me a lot and kept on telling me that he believed I was strong enough to be one of the best players in Africa. He did, yes he kept on saying that to me because he said what he noticed about me is I don’t study, I don’t read books but I play based on just my natural instinct.
TO: Your mother was encouraging you and coach Dipo Akinyemi believed in you but what would you say was really what made you a master? IM Dapo Adu said he became a master when he started studying. Some people say that they read “Play like a Grand Master” and they just became a master player just by reading “Play like a Grand Master” that before then they were always going for like king side attacks. Can you say there is any key moment that you felt like this is what made me a master or was it just regular play?
AO: Just regular, just regular because I never…, FUTA days we played chess regularly
TO: There was no frustration period, a transition period that you were having difficult?
AO: I was frustrated during those few years, 93 to 96.
TO: Okay initially before you became a tournament player you were already very good?
AO: Yes, I was, okay 93 I was going to Rowe Park to learn and of course they were beating me seriously black and blue.
AO: Yes 93. Then I started training, then you know I was going through some books but there was not, I can’t say one book really helped me as such all I remember was I started gaining understanding maybe a book I read I can’t remember whether these book or that book but I just had some general understandings but I remember there was a main antagonist. There was a main antagonist for me Giwa Olanrewaju. He was in the Ondo state team. He was the person that was playing the Colle system so I learnt the Colle system from him. He was the main person playing the Colle system so I just picked the Colle system from him. Then he discarded it then I thought I was refining it, I didn’t know all those things were already in the books…
TO: Okay, so you became a master just by regular play?
AO: Yes, more of regular play
TO: So what will you tell a youth player that is an18 years old amateur that is just starting now and wants to be a master?
AO: I think in this age, It is late.
TO: At 18 years old?
AO: At 18, though he still has time on his hand.
TO: Yes, he still has time
AO: He could still do something, what I would encourage is the first thing is pick…
TO: Just one thing, how would you encourage him?
AO: Pick on your tactics
AO: Then you have to be committed but work more on your tactics. You know I found out that tactical play is very poor, really poor. We have games that we are on plus two, winning and one move and we would be lost. There was a game I was playing I had mate in three I didn’t even see it and I lost the game.
TO: So an 18 year old should work on his tactics?
AO: Yeah more, he should be tactically sound. When I worked with the female players, you know I worked with Lagos state female players basically what I work on them on is tactical play. Probably they would be able to get out of the opening but simple tactical play they didn’t seem to understand it.
TO: So if one wants to qualify to be in the national team on strength, that is to be strong enough to be in the national team, how should the person train?
AO: Pay your dues
TO: To be in the national team?
AO: Pay your dues. I know this guy did that, Nonso. Nonso payed his dues. He kept on going to everybody’s house to play against them. He kept on going to everybody’s house, all those that he felt were strong probably a few about their people. He played Bunmi several times. He came here once played several games, he was trying to get a feel of people that he felt were very strong so that once he meets them in tournaments he won’t be ehm, there won’t be any inferiority complex or anything, he would be able to play. So you know there are dues to pay. You don’t just train and feel ah…, tournament fright, stage fright happens. So pay your dues, train but what you’ve learnt try to fix a match with them Bunmi Olape…
TO: So you should pay your dues by playing the best, the best you can get to
AO: Yes, the best even if you have to pay them to play you. Even though you have to pay 5000 naira for a game, you may to lose it but you will…
TO: First of all you are saying that it is not something you can achieve over night?
TO: It takes time?
AO: It takes time
TO: And it takes a lot of
TO: And sacrifice
AO: See let’s face it, all these grandmasters why do they come out and become grandmasters in a very short passage because of the kind of people they mingle with. They are mingling with great minds in the chess world. You know a Caruana will come up and he is dealing with, he is meeting Kasparov, he’s meeting Nakamura, he’s meeting all these guys like Karpov.
TO: So you can’t be a, you can’t reach the top by staying in your house?
AO: No, no, no it’s …See the honest truth is there is a level you need to get to. Look I was telling someone I said for my son, I want him to be far stronger maybe a grandmaster but I can only take him to a certain level. He has to meet grandmasters and be in their midst regularly. See the truth is even for us even at this our advanced age, if we get, if you put me among five or six grandmasters in a room for six months by the time I’m coming out I’m probably going to be almost a grandmaster.
TO: Your level will be higher
AO: Yes, because you’ve started mixing with them, you’ve started exchanging…, you’ve started seeing how they think, you’ve started seeing how they…, you know it robs off but you can’t stay in your house alone and you think you are strong.
TO: What of the machines?
AO: Ah, what do you learn from the machines?
TO: Hard chess.
AO: No, they would beat you black and blue a hundred times. Is that not what Carlsen said. Carlsen said playing a game against a machine is like playing a fool that keeps on beating you and you don’t even know why he is beating you but he keeps on beating you over and over again
TO: What will you call the best chess style? How will you describe the best chess style?
AO: For me I go Karpov’s way
TO: Describe his style
AO: He is positional but you see and that’s why I said people should learn tactics. I learnt a lot of positional play because I studied Karpov’s game but of course that’s after I became a master and I started trying to fine tune my chess. I went to Karpov’s style of play. I found out that he has a lot of understanding. You will say the same about Fischer too. Fischer has subtle, deep understanding of position. He plays Bishop takes Knight and there is exclamation mark and that single move wins the whole game for him. He has understanding but the strength, and of course you are going to agree with me that Kasparov learnt a lot from Karpov. He started learning that you don’t just go out, you have to build and be calm, take time too but he had an advantage because he was tactically sharp
TO: What you are saying is that the best chess style, don’t go for too much, try to get it slowly?
TO: Try to achieve your goal gradually?
AO: A good understanding of the game is better than flashes of genius
TO: Okay your chess style if I’m going to use your chess style when I’m doing my analysis, I am looking for little, little things to get. Just to get something without losing anything at all, get something without losing anything at all
AO: Yeah, you know, you take it gradual, you take it slowly
TO: Not …
AO: Not …, because once you start creating weaknesses because you want to lash out at somebody, you know it could become double edged
TO: So that’s the best chess style? Positional style
AO: Positional but it has an advantage if your tactics is very sound
TO: But the best chess style is a positional style with a good tactical understanding
AO: Yeah, good tactical strength
TO: So if you have an advantage in the opening, say from faster development and there are two variations, one leads to gain of pawn after which the initiative will be equalized and another leads to a king side attack with no guaranteed mate, which would you choose?
AO: I would go for the pawn
TO: That won’t have the initiative anymore
AO: Then we will start going gradually. I will go for the pawn then we will start going gradually
TO: You know in the king side attack, you will still have the advantage and at least perpetual?
AO: No, no I don’t want a draw
TO: No, no but you can mate now
AO: I don’t want a draw
TO: But people don’t defend well.
AO: I would like the slow grind. I will prefer give me a pawn then let’s see … it’s not like my opponent has the initiative anyway so its just, it seems equal
TO: No, it is equal in the initiative but you are a pawn up
AO: I will go for the pawn. I’m sure the engine will go for the pawn too. The engine would go for the pawn. Except the engine can see mate in the attack
TO: Yet some engines will go for the attack
AO: Some would
TO: The world champion spends most of his time training the middle game and end game plus work on his energy level. The rest of the top grandmasters work extensively on the openings like Kasparov, which approach is superior?
AO: Well I’m not in that level so I can’t judge correctly. They are world champions and I’m just…Practically you see from what I do is…, why do you think I play the Colle system. Not too many books, not too many theorems so what I actually do is I go on my middle game and strength in the ending. That’s what I play for, I don’t go for opening but have suffered for it because my openings are suspects so I’m trying to work on my openings now. So but I still will go with the world’s champions style
TO: The middle game?
AO: Yeah the middle game
TO: You can still survive the opening? You can solve the opening problems on board
AO: Yes if you don’t go too crazy in your opening, just take it simple, develop your pieces and that’s it, the others will flow
TO: Name the top three Nigerian players who you admire most in terms of chess play and describe their qualities
AO: Hmmm, three
TO: In terms of chess play
AO: That I admire most?
TO: Yes and describe their qualities
AO: Little B
AO: Positional knowledge. You know he has good positional understanding. Bomo, I like Bomo’s play too. Bomo is good, he could be careless but he’s also good. Who else
TO: Fola, what about the older guys?
AO: Ah well I used to be a Foli Don fan
TO: What about Odion?
AO: But I’m thinking of Odion but honestly I used to respect a lot Foli Don but these days you know it’s not the same Foli Don
TO: No he’s not a chess player anymore
AO: If Foli Don of old but these days he is not that same Foli Don because I did face him recently, he missed too many things
TO: So you are choosing Odion. What are his qualities?
AO: Odion too is positional
TO: Have we ever had anybody of 2500 level strength obviously gawithout the rating?
AO: I would have said yes in Bayo Adegboyega but Bayo goes out and it is as if he is a different person when he goes out
TO: Okay he has inferiority complex or something?
AO: Yes, he is not the same Bayo that is in Nigeria. When he goes out he is… but now let’s look at Lapite,
TO: You say Lapite has 2500 level strength?
AO: Maybe he doesn’t have it yet but I think he is likely… to me he looks…, well until the last Millionaire tournament I have never seen him but I like his style and he seems to have good understanding
TO: Yeah, he is a positional player
TO: So what shouls Nigeria do to produce a grand master?
AO: Start from these young ones, all these kids
TO: But Lapite can become a grandmaster and Daniel Anwuli can become a grandmaster?
AO: Yeah,it is ehm,
AO: No, he will but it’s too soon. There are younger ones, there are those that…
TO: So what can we do to…?
AO: Yeah I think we are doing what we should be doing but the next thing is we have to get to a certain level when we have to hand them over to grandmasters. We ourselves can’t produce it like for instance chess in schools, we are churning out a lot of talents but we need to now hand them over when it gets to a certain level. Well what we are trying to do for the next Pedachess tournament probably is get a FIDE ID for all these kids so that in a way we can start monitoring and they can also follow up on their chess
TO: Okay when you say hand them over, what do you mean by hand them over?
AO: Get instructors for them
TO: International instructors?
AO: Yes, international masters
TO: Grandmaster instructors?
AO: Yes, online. You pay
TO: Is it necessary to get grandmaster instructors? Many grandmasters were not trained by instructors, they just play tournaments and train themselves. Wesley So trained himself and he was in the Philipines
AO: I don’t know anyway but I will beg to differ. This guys don’t just become a grandmasters by themselves, but they rubbed off. For instance I got to rub off on the likes of Odion, Little B. You know I learn from them because…
TO: Tell us more because your idea is we get instructors, GM instructors for the young ones
AO: You see my own idea is get them to a certain level
AO: Then you now have to let them go or else you see, we can’t produce what we don’t have
TO: Okay, what you are saying is that the Nigerian top players should get the young ones
AO: Not necessarily the Nigerian top players
AO: Not necessarily, it might be some, okay like I know …
TO: Nigerian interested chess players should get the young ones to a certain level and once the chess players have a foundation, they get a GM instructor for them
TO: So that’s how to produce a grandmaster?
AO: Yeah, I think that’s the way to go. For instance for me my plan well for my son is get him to a certain level, he’s probably going to solve the Polgar’s puzzle book like age 6, at 7, 8. 9 he’s exposed to international tournaments by 10 I’m already getting some one, two, three GMs. He goes to tournaments and rubs mind, he start’s training ideas and that’s how he learns. That way it’s easier to become a GM than staying in the country. Well we can sponsor an Anwuli to go abroad and stay there.
TO: To be a grandmaster
AO: Yes, he would be a grandmaster but not staying in Nigeria and hoping that something.