Poppies & chess are not the first things to come to mind when you think of Morocco, but the first week of May, that was the name of the game in the agricultural heartland of the country. Amidst wild flower fields and tiny Amazigh enclaves, International El Ksiba Chess Tournament brought together players from 3 continents and 6 different countries.
The tournament was organized and sponsored by a Moroccan entrepreneur and philanthropist, Tarik Ourouadi, who plans to turn it into an annual event. The Kingdom’s best players, including Morocco’s current Chess Champion & the country’s only Grand Master attended the tournament. Grand Masters from Spain and France and International Masters from Algeria and Tunisia flew in as well. At least a 10th of the participants were kids and teenagers, including one player from the US. Most of them have already won tournaments and titles in their respective towns.
Celebrating with Music
And of coure there was music! Opening and closing ceremonies were celebrated with traditional Amazigh drumming.
To appreciate the importance of the event, you need to know the backstory. What’s happening inside the Royal Moroccan Chess Federation very much resembles the classical story – an official gets into a position of power, settles in the crony system and siphons out the funds for as long as he can, all the while clutching onto his plush seat with a deathly grip. The crimes are common knowledge, but the official is left to loot and pillage without retribution. Why rock the boat?! After all, so many others are getting their slice of the pie.
Mostapha Amazzal has held Presidency in the Moroccan Chess Federation since 2000. Throughout his term, he’s been accused
of embezzling federation funds, appropriating prize money, falsifying documents, poaching players, suspending clubs without due process, intimidating and blackmailing players – the list goes on. According to the federation members, Morocco has been losing its best players to other countries as a result of his actions. Members of the Federation have launched multiple complaints with FIDE, the Ministry of Youth and Sports (where Ammazal holds office) and Moroccan Courts, but whether proper investigation will ensue still remains unclear. In the meantime, national championships have been suspended, stagnating chess development in the country.
In this context, privately organized events are particularly important – they uphold the tournament tradition and provide an opportunity for players from remote areas to compete. Last week’s tournament was organized in El Ksiba, a small town an hour away from the nearest major city, which made it possible for players from Taghbalout, the organizing club, and other rural clubs to join in. Regrettably, the tournament was not FIDE-rated, because the president of the Federation (allegedly, trying to block all independent chess events) refused to pre-register it. Players and organizers are petitioning FIDE to be registered without President’s approval.
The added benefit of events organized outside major cities is that they attract visitors to areas in need of tourism and commercial development. El-Ksiba participants (foreigners and Moroccans alike) found themselves in a part of the country they had never discovered before – scenic Beni Mellal region known for amazing hikes, beautiful waterfalls, Swiss-like scenery and great hunting grounds. The tournament left little time for exploration, but many players vouched to return. Should Tarik’s plan to continue the tournament each year work, this promise will be easy to keep.