James Kang'aru Mwangi, 30


The Epitome School of Chess

Perhaps the most important move in chess, as in life, is knowing that it’s not who wins but how you play. Not that James doesn’t like winning. Contrary. The founder of Epitome School of Chess has always been pedigreed, one of those earmarked for success in whatever field they may choose to play.

“I got into professional chess while in university. After I perfected my moves, I wanted to give the opportunity to others. That’s how I thought of impacting change through community programmes in Ruai and Mavoko.”

“We have trained over 4,000 people in chess, whether in school or community programmes.”

James does chess as a full-time job. “I am a coach, so I have created a system where we have coaches in different areas with the same programming replicated across the country.” Coaching, he says, takes up most of his time.

"It is easy to quickly get pretty good at chess, and even an unlikely victory is sweet. The real trick is understanding that true mastery demands a lifetime."

“I also earn through arbitration. I am the top arbiter in Africa,” he says matter-of-factly. “I am the first Kenyan to earn international accreditation from the World Chess Federation.”

He makes his moves as bold as the wild buffalo, but cunning like the serpent. As a coach, he is the bridge between the genteel, upper-class snootiness of established players and the modern, ultra-focused, coming-of-age players.

He maintains that anyone can play chess—from seven-year-olds to 70-year-olds. Chess is a mental game, and it gives you mental fortitude. Thus, the most boring part, he says, is when you are required to invest time. From reading chess books to acres of time in practising, it’s an all-or-nothing dive. “It’s mental boxing, which needs you to be sharp; otherwise, you will get an uppercut.”

His approach to chess, he seems to say, is like that of a matador. You don’t match no bull against a master boxer. The bull is stronger, but the matador is smarter.

“In chess, we say you either win or learn. If you want to know you are a good chess player, the game should end in a draw.” Of all his wins, he picks out travelling as his biggest reward. “I have been a national coach, I have been all over the world because of chess, and I have represented Africa in the World Chess Championship.”

Who sharpens his iron if he is at the top of the pyramid? “I believe in listening. If I am always talking, you will not learn from others. I seek mentorship from other coaches in South Africa, Algeria and Egypt—the three top chess countries in Africa.”

It is easy to quickly get pretty good at chess, and even an unlikely victory is sweet. The real trick is understanding that true mastery demands a lifetime. That’s the chess praxis James has used to keep producing young champions, some of whom have even won scholarships from local corporations. “Queen’s gambit,” the words slide. Or perhaps James Kanga’ru Mwangi just doesn’t want to be another piece on life’s chessboard.

Eddy Ashioya