By Anote Ajeluorou
For Dr. Silvan Ebigwei, the intellectually stimulating game of chess has been a life-long passion to which he devoted both his time and resources to develop in Nigeria. Ebigwei first encountered chess as a 15 year-old schoolboy at the famous St. Patrick College, Asaba in 1960. His American teacher, Mr. R. Scarpura introduced him to the game of royalty. He showed early promise when he beat another American teacher, a friend of his mentor.
The book, Chess: A National Legacy (Worldwide Controls Nig. Ltd, Lagos; 2011) is edited by Emiko Bake, Isaac O. Isaac, Sony Neme and Uzo Odikpo.
From that early start, through university and adult life, Ebigwei took to chess with uncommon zeal. At the University of Lagos in the 70s, he started organising small groups or clubs of like minds. Even when he did his post-graduate studies, he never let go of chess. As medical practitioner, chess still ran deep in his veins. Indeed, Mr. Chess as he became fondly called, Ebigwei is reputed to have single-handedly founded the game of chess in Nigeria and brought it to international reckoning and recognition.
The Opanam, Delta State native, also took Nigeria and some African Chess Federations to the international body. As he put it, “I became the president of College of Medicine chess club in 1973 with Boniface Adeniran as my secretary and between us we mapped out a strategy, which led to the formation of All Nigerian Universities Chess Association, with me as the first chairman. And since then I was resolved to popularise the game among intellectuals of this country. One of the major assignments executed in those infant years of chess in Nigeria was to invite the president of the World Chess Association, Prof. Max Euwe of Holland in 1975”.
According to the editors, “Prof. Euwe’s acceptance to come to Nigeria on the invitation of a friend, Dr. William Zeylstra, then Royal Dutch Ambassador to Nigeria, and his eventual arrival opened up a new page in Ebigwei’s marble-cast of achievements for the chess game in Nigeria. Euwe’s visit aided tremendously the formation of Nigeria Chess Federation with world renowned economist, Dr. Pius Okigbo as president, Dr. J.T. Cole as vice president and Dr. Ebigwei as secretary-general; Ebigwei later became president. The same year, Nigeria was affiliated to the World Chess Federation”.
Ebigwei’s towering achievements included affiliating the Nigerian Chess Federation to the world body, starting the 38-member nation Commonwealth Chess Association and helping other African countries like Libya to gain affiliation into the world body. Ebigwei also helped to fight Apartheid regime in South Africa when the chess federation money was invested in a South African company. He mounted serious campaign with other colleagues and got the money withdrawn eventually.
As a pioneer in the game of chess, he helped to plant the game in all schools and extend the frontiers of the game in the country. He encountered certain difficulties in penetrating the usual bureaucracy. But he forged ahead nonetheless.
An exceptionally brilliant fellow, Ebigwei sums up his involvement with chess thus, “I founded and brought chess to Nigeria and posterity is there to tell the story”.
Among those who bear witness to Ebigwei’s legacy in the game of chess is a former NTA director, Dr. Victoria Ezeokoli, who, through the death of her son, who was a young master at the sport, became chairman of Nigeria Chess Federation. She states, “Everybody in chess in Nigeria will say he is their mentor. Some of them he picked up from secondary schools, coached and mentored them, and sponsored them to chess tournaments where they excelled. He used to pay their affiliation fees… He made sure that not only Nigerian but other African countries continued to be relevant. Without Ebigwei, there would be no chess in Africa today. It takes that kind of sacrifice, commitment and passion to give birth to an activity like chess and to sustain it”.
Ebigwei’s son, Olisa says of his father, “Concerning chess, that is his passion. I can say chess is another child of my father. He is so passionate about chess that he gave up family time for it… He goes as far as secondary schools and the armed forces to recruit people to play chess. He was eating and waking up chess. As a matter of fact, his practice as medical doctor also suffered because of chess”.
However, Chess: A National Legacy is a fine tribute to the efforts of Dr. Ebigwei in his pioneering role in the formation of chess game in Nigeria. Although he is now retired from active participation, what he established still lingers on and is the bedrock on which other achievements are currently being built in the game of chess.
However, the book Chess: A National Legacy suffers serious editorial flaws. The editors did a shoddy job of stringing the story together. They kept going round the same things over and over again and repeating the superlative achievements of Ebigwei. For instance, there’s hardly a need for this, “So, who is the one, that one who brought the chess game to Nigeria? Who is the one, that one who does not feel but believes that he did more to chess establishment in Nigeria? Who is he who gave his home, who gave his job, who gave his knowledge, who gave his money, who gave his all to the transportation of chess game across the country than Dr. Sylvan O. Ebigwei?”