Interview with Kenya Chess Champion Mehul Gohil
Mehul Gohil the 2019 Kenya National Champion was interviewed by University of Nairobi Chess Club members.
The Whatsapp interview which took place on July 17, 2020, covered a wide range of topics.
Introduction to the game and early years
How were you introduced to the game of chess?
I learnt chess by mistake way back in December 1992.
I was transitioning to Standard 5, and my dad took me to buy the textbooks for the new school year at Text Book Center. We did the book shopping. On reaching home, we realised the cashier made a mistake. Put in a book meant for another shopper.
That book was BEGIN CHESS by David Pritchard. I spent the 1992 Christmas holidays learning the moves from the book. I learnt the moves then forgot about that book.
Then a few weeks later, over a weekend, I got bored at home. At random, I picked up the book again and flipped to the second chapter, which was on tactics. There I saw pins, forks, skewers, double-check etc. I was hooked as I found out the game had so much to it.
Did you join any club or even play in school?
I went through the rest of that book and came up with a formula for winning. Just win material, exchange down, and mate. I learnt the basic mates and endgames from that book—mating with Rook and King vs lone King, two Bishop vs lone King etc.
In school, I started beating everyone by using my formula. I became the school champion which did have a club of sorts.
Influence from books
UoN Chess Club: How did you proceed from there?
The next revolution in my chess thinking again came from another book. My parents have always been bibliophiles. I grew up in a house filled with all kinds of books. So one weekend we went into town (CBD) where next to Stanley Hotel there was the Westlands Sundries Bookshop. I saw a chess book titled ‘THE GAME OF CHESS’ by Harry Golombek. My parents bought it for me. That same afternoon, back at home, I cracked it open. The first chapters were on the basic mates which I knew.
I flipped to the final chapters where there was this breakdown of the great players of the past with one representative game.
I found this chapter fascinating.
The first legendary player int he book was Adolf Anderssen. The game featured was the ‘Immortal’. I played through it, and it came as a complete shock to me. It completely busted my formula. Here was another, very radical way of winning at chess — a Bishop sacrifice, double Rook sacrifice, then a Queen sacrifice. I was stunned. I immediately knew I would be playing this game forever.
Adolf Anderssen v Lionel Kieseritzky
The following year was my entry into Kenyan chess. The Standard newspaper in their Sunday edition had a chess column written by THE AQUARIAN (John Mukabi). Just a couple of weeks before Easter 1993, there was a feature in the column highlighting the upcoming Panpaper Easter Open. There was a photo from the previous year’s event showing Philip Singe playing William Juma (then the best player in Kenya). My parents thought I should enter the tournament. I won the Under 14. In those days juniors played with the seniors.
UoN Chess Club: What was your training routine then? Did you practice regularly?
Yes I did play quite a lot after that event.
I met Kim Bhari for the first time at the 1993 Pan Paper Open, and he was instrumental in my growth as a chess player. I did not have a coach. But Kim Bhari had a big chess library of over a hundred books. He gave me access to that library, and I took to it like a duck to water. I just became obsessed with the game. Every day after school, I just dived into this or that chess book I had borrowed from Kim’s home chess library.
I improved rapidly as a result and even qualified for the 2nd phase of the National Team Qualifiers in 1995!
By 1996, I managed to finish in 9th position overall (joint 4th with 5.5 points out of 8) in the 1996 National Championships when I had just turned 16 years old.
1996 was a good year for me. I managed to beat top players like Humphrey Andolo, Martin Oyamo, Rodgers Adai, Mike Waliuba, and Larry Kagambi in the local events in that year.
Did you have periods of stagnation?
I just stopped playing chess during the years 1997 – 2002 to concentrate on my higher studies. Looking back, this was a significant mistake. Had I continued studying chess, I believe I would have been much stronger right now. I should not have neglected chess in those formative years.
Owino ‘Zero’ Magana
I returned to chess in 2003 when I met Ben Magana’s elder brother, the late Owino’ Zero’ Magana, who worked close to where I stayed in Kilimani.
We developed a friendship and studied chess together. I was trying to get back into the game and discovered I had lost none of my love for it. We met over weekends with ‘Zero‘, analysed games, and openings. It went on for a few months when I regained my addiction to the game.
My first tournament on returning was the 2003 Kenya Open (held traditionally over the Easter period). By this time the likes of Ben Magana, Ben Nguku, Nathan Ateka, Ken Omolo, Mathew Kanegeni, Peter Jaoko had overhauled the generation before them. They were now the kings of the Kenyan chess kingdom. They were the lions, and the rest of us were the gazelles. I was pretty much a statistic and no threat. Unexpectedly, I mowed them down one by one, including some Ugandans, and ended up as the Kenya Open Champion. That is how I became a Lion!
Which remains your favourite tournament, the one that has stuck with you?
My most memorable performances:
2003 Kenya Open.
2005 Niels Lauritsen Invitational. The top 8 Kenyan players took part in a single round-robin which I won.
2011 All Africa Games. It was my debut for the national team. I was the best Kenyan player, after defeating an FM, and drew against two IMs. My performance earned me an initial FIDE rating of 2112.
2014 National Championships, in which won me my first national title.
2019 National Championships in which I won a car.
Most notable games
What are your most notable games?
My game which I won against the then invincible National Champion, Humphrey Andolo at the 1996 Marble Arch Open. No blunders by him. I outplayed him in an interesting Sicilian Dragon with the White pieces. It was an incredible feeling to beat him. The first and only time I have beaten him in a classical time control game.
My game against Nathan Ateka in the 2003 Kenya Open in which I won a vital point. I outplayed him positionally, then busted him with a neat tactic.
2011 AAG, Rd1 game vs the Angolan Elo 2336 IM player. Very explosive game. Ended in a draw and it was an excellent way to play my first international game!
Rd 3 vs Namibian FM Eichab.
Rd 6 vs Zambian IM Richmond Phiri I like this game. I was well prepared and played deep strategy. I should have won but lacked some experience in finishing off my opponent, and it ended in a draw.
2012 Istanbul Olympiad. Final rd game vs the Nepalese FM. I was having a bad Olympiad. Playing on Board 1 came as culture shock. I finally played a good solid game—just solid chess, good end game technique.
2019 Zonals – My win against a GM El Ghindy of Egypt.
2019 National Championships – My win in Rd 7 vs Joseph Methu.
It was a dramatic game, as I had prepared a risky strategy at home. It went according to plan with lots of ups and downs. I eventually prevailed, and this was the game that won me the car, I would say.
Mehul Gohil v GM Essam El Gindy
Chess Opening and tournament preparations
What are your favourite openings?
Over time, my openings have changed. I used to like the French Defence when I was younger before moving to the Sicilian. Now I am back to my first love. Over the last ten years, I have developed a fondness for the Trompovsky. With Black against 1.d4, I used to play the KID. I eventually found it too demanding and switched back to my first love, the classical Queen’s Gambit Declined.
I was an e4 player before I switched to d4 as I matured.
Do you usually play according to preparation? If so, how deep do you go in your analysis? How often do your preparations occur over the board?
I used to be the best at opening prep locally maybe 5-10 years ago. Nowadays, I am not well prepared in the opening. It is my weak point nowadays! I need to get back to that routine of preparing my openings.
In general, I pick an opening. The variation I like best. Look through games on online databases. Just go through them one after another at blitz speed. Maybe look into an opening book. But my primary method is just selecting a variation and then going through GM games on the database. Just browsing through them and picking up ideas and seeing some repeating patterns.
Most difficult Kenyan opponents
Which Kenyan player gives you a difficult time over the board?
I believe I can beat just about any Kenyan player in a match, except two.
Ben Magana – I always have problems against him. Maybe I just bring out the best in him. I find it challenging to play against him. He plays solid chess, and I consider him the best player in Kenya. He is just good at every phase of the game. Whether opening, tactics, positional play, endgame. And he comes with a terrific fighting spirit and has incredibly strong nerves. It is tough to ruffle his psychological feathers. Yup, he is one guy I have problems against. He has a big plus score against me.
James Kabui – He is not quite at the top but will get there soon. I get flummoxed when playing him. We have played three classical games, and I have lost them all! I get this strange feeling when playing him that I am playing against my self. Our styles are similar. Our thinking in positions is similar. I did not lose by blundering in any of the three games. I played well in each of them, but he played better. He has the potential of becoming the best player in Kenya. He needs to discover that self-belief and back it up with hard work.
UoN Chess Club: Which time control do you enjoy the most?
Mehul: I like classical time controls. I do not like speed chess and blitz.
UoN Chess Club: In one of your articles, you were advocating for blitz as an excellent way to keep up with tactics and practice openings.
It is suitable for practice. But I am not a fan of taking it seriously like the Kenyan lichess online gang!
In general, what does chess mean to you?
Chess is life, but life is not chess. It is a beautiful art and sport. I love it and will be playing it actively until I die. Expect to see me playing in FIDE rated into my seventies!
You have been consistent and sturdy with your performance. What is the primary motivation for your continuous top performance?
My best periods have come after long periods of being out of form. I always like to make comebacks as it gives me a motivational kick. E.g. 2013 and the first half of 2014 was terrible in terms of performance. Local armchair pundits wrote me off as a has-been. I came back and won the 2014 National Championship.
2017 and 2018 as well were terrible years. I plummeted down to Kenya No. 15. Then I went into my hole, studied, prepared and came back much stronger in 2019, which probably my best chess year.
My primary motivation is that I like to win tournaments and prove I am the best. I like the routine of preparing and becoming better. And I think being naturally combative is a great help. I like the fighting that chess has. I like going one on one against strong local opponents.
If you were to learn chess all over again, what thing would you do differently?
I would not take that long five-year break I did when I was young. And nowadays guys have all these online tech platforms, software and so on. I did not have any of that as a junior. I am just surprised that with all this tech available to Kenyan players under thirty and twenty, the dinosaurs have not yet been wiped out! The dinosaurs, like myself, should be history! If I were growing up in this era of Chessbase, Lichess etc. I would easily be an IM by now.
Through the years, you have spoken out several times about promoting the growth of the game, especially for the young generation. What training method would you recommend, for the rating range of (1200-1800)?
There is no real secret here. The standard ways of improving from 1200-1800 level to higher levels are well known. It is a simple training strategy.
Get to know your basic endgames.
Get familiar with the tactical motifs. Keep doing tactical puzzles repeatedly.
Study openings in a general manner. Maybe by going through game collections of great GMs rather than opening books themselves.
Use Chessbase, online apps, etc.
The critical thing here is What is the level of the obsession of the player. Those who are more obsessed with the game, and who have a greater hunger for sporting success will rise to the top.
What chess books would you recommend for an improving player?
There are many books out there. And nowadays the quality of books is better than ever.
Some quick tips:
For Positional play, I believe understanding the classical masters of the time of Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine is essential.
Some of the recommended books include;
SOVIET MIDDLEGAME STRATEGY by Peter Romanovsky.
It is an excellent book from which to learn the basics of positional chess.
SIMPLE CHESS by Michael Stean.
PRACTICAL ENDGAMES by Paul Keres, a book that I grew up with and which is still relevant.
ENDGAME MANUAL by Dvoretsky is maybe the best to get to grips with the theoretical endgames.
LEARN FROM THE LEGENDS by Mihail Marin.
ENDGAME STRATEGY by Mikhail Shereshevky, which is superb for practical endgame play.
I also like Kasparov’s books on his matches against Karpov where you feel the drama.
I believe GM game collections are a great way to get inspiration and dissect the beauty of chess.
Chess Coach – is it essential?
Is it essential to have a chess coach?
I have never had a coach and do not think it is essential to have a coach at the sub-2000 Elo level. I believe this coaching phenomenon which has developed over the last 15 years or so in Kenyan chess has led to our juniors becoming weaker and not progressing to the top of Kenyan chess. The coaches have become crutches to lean on. The youngsters are unable to think for themselves or decide on their chess life on their terms.
When you sit down to play, you play by yourself. That same attitude has to be there in training. The junior player needs to sit down and see things on the board for himself or herself in practice. Read books and understand the annotations using his or her own natural perspective.
I think a coach becomes vital once you are plus 2000 Elo then something extra is needed.
The magical 2200 barrier
What challenges have you had in your chess journey? What would you say is the reason why you have not managed to break through the 2200 Elos barrier?
The main thing I need is exposure. You only become better by continually playing against higher rated players. The top Kenyan players need to be exposed to 2300 plus opposition ever 3-4 months.
For the first year, they will be slapped around and lose every game. Then you get used to that level of opposition, learn, and move forward.
That lack of constant exposure has prevented the likes of other top Kenyans and me from going past 2200.
The current Chess Kenya office looks progressive and is changing things. So I think it is only a matter of time before we start seeing more than one Kenyan at plus 2200 Elo level and I will be one of them.
Do you have any further ambitions on titles?
Yes. I want to crack at least 2300 before I die and to write a chess book.
The future & Kenya’s first Grandmaster
In your opinion, what are the major problems facing the growth of chess in Kenya, and what would you recommend as possible solutions?
To me, it looks like, especially over the last two years, Kenyan chess has grown quite a lot. The current CK leadership is doing an excellent job of creating the necessary environment for players to flourish.
Now, it is up to the players. They have to work hard and take advantage of this vibrant environment that has been created and move to plus 2200 level and beyond.
Over the years, there has been talk about the possibility of Kenya having its first Grandmaster. What practical steps do you think needs to be done to help Kenya get a Grandmaster? When, if at all, do you think Kenya could get a GM?
It is very simple and complicated at the same time!
1. You will need a junior who has a natural obsession for the game. A junior who does not require local trainers to tell him worthless trash. A junior who can do 98% of the work himself. This junior will need to be obsessed with chess.
2. Chess Kenya provides this sort of junior with the necessary tools once he achieves 2000 Elo and includes constant exposure to challenging, 2300 plus opposition, travel to strong events, seasoned GM coach, and financial support.
And you get your GM.
When will this happen? I do not know, but it will happen!