Thursday, November 13, 2014

Rear view

As we left the school on our second and last day, Josh and I walked down the hill toward the village of KwaPitela, the kids in tow kicking up dirt in the road and asking us, were we coming back, were we coming back? They asked repeatedly, even though we told them we were not, at least not for a long time, most probably. Still they kept on as if perhaps they asked enough times we might change our minds. After a while, when a quiet had enveloped us, the smallest & keenest boy rose up and told us all: You are not coming back. We shook our heads, not much more to say. Then one young girl pushed our silent sorrow away, held her head up, the mountain rain falling softly on her face, and  said: "I love you." Spoken in flawless English, the fluency of these simple words cut through the cold mountain air and startled me with their boldness, their power to connect our disparity, to knock over whatever barriers our cultural upbringings had and would wedge between us. I love you said like a daughter saying goodnight to her mom, without pretense or forethought. just simply and naturally. What comfort these words carried. I loved her too and the others and I wanted to hold them and the moment, but then we were in our rented car driving slowly down the rocky pass, the night was falling on us and through the rear view mirror we watched them slip into the shadows and out of sight. The above video is a greeting from the twelve KwaPitela students who participated in the chess lessons to the students of Philadelphia Paul Robeson Chess Club. Hello friends, they say, I want to play you soon. 

It is Josh's and my wish to continue to correspond with the students and their teachers, to sustain the program, to help them with their chess and other goals, and to build an exchange between students in the U.S. and the KwaPitela students. Coach El Mekki and the Paul Robeson Chess Club are sponsoring this exchange and we hope others in the community will participate as well. Our visit was greatly enhanced by the remarkable spirit of the KwaPitela students and their teachers, the dedication and love Russell and Simone Suchet have for the community where they live, the unconditional support of Coach El Mekki and the Paul Robeson Chess Club, Stephen Shutt's prolific ideas and suggestions, Dewain Barber's generosity and interest in spreading chess, Florri Middleman and the contributions from the Watermark Foundation, Grandpa Clyde and his unwavering affection, encouragement and care for Josh and me, and all our friends who bought tamales, donated money and cheered us along the way.  A million thanks! -- Josh and Celyne

KwaPitela School -- Day 2

On the second day we took Russell and Simone’s daughter with us who plays chess and she helped a lot by walking around the classroom and making sure the students understood what I was explaining.

I showed them the game and notation on the chalkboard as they followed along over their own boards playing the sides against each other...overall it went well. I stopped the play every now and then and explained the important moves in more detail. I feel like maybe they got a better feel for how the pieces move and some basic ideas. But really they just loved to play. And that was good, it was enough to just instill the love of the game in them. Later they could learn to play better, and better, and better....

On this day a chess player who is a member of the local Zulu community and who offered to be the team’s coach came and taught along with me, translating some of the more complicated concepts into Zulu. With him and Russell and Simone’s daughter helping it all went well. I think he'll do a good job continuing the program, though I hope other chess players will come through and help also. Ms. Purity attended for some of the class also. My mom assisted by writing most of the notation on the board and taking the photos and videos. It definitely took a group and will continue to need involvement from the local and chess community to sustain this program and bring these enthusiastic new players to a competitive level. I think it can be done though and that regardless of the outcome the skill of chess will be helpful to the students. It's certainly been a great skill for me to have learned in so many ways and has become such an important part of my life. I honestly can't imagine not playing chess.

You can watch videos from the classes here:

We also shared photos and a letter of greeting from Coach El Mekki and the students of Paul Robeson Chess Club, New Jersey chess coach Malik, and a letter written by a player on the US World Youth team. I think the students really enjoyed looking at the photos and knowing that other youth like them exist around the world to one day meet and play chess with. They also had fun choosing the colorful chess piece key rings that the Paul Robeson students sent as momentos.

A couple of days ago we received word from Headmaster Ndlovu via an email from Russell and Simone that “chess at KwaPitela school is alive and well.” Russell and Simone also reported that the school is getting a library at the end of the month. A local non-profit is sending a large shipping container with doors, windows, shelves and fully stocked with books.

KwaPitela School -- Day 1

On our first morning at the Sani Pass Lodge we woke up to a cool morning. We took a short nature hike, ate a breakfast of muesli, homemade yogurt, and bread with blackberry jam, and then got ready to meet the students at KwaPitela school. For more information about the school, and the volunteer program Russell and Simone have organized, link here:

Prof Josh

On the first day we packed our trunk with the chess sets from Dewain Barber and the gifts from the Paul Robeson Chess Club and gave a ride to a teacher who was visiting from Austria and who had volunteered to assist with the English classes for a week. The drive to KwaPitela from Sani Lodge and our cozy rondavel was about ten minutes up a winding unpaved mountain pass along which we spotted white heron and other birds mixing with the livestock in the pastures. We parked our car and walked up the dirt drive toward the corrugated iron roofed buildings that comprise the school.

The school goat
A goat greeted us, and the students were at recess playing on the playground and running in the yard. The mountains stood in the distance. As I wrote earlier, the school facilities and materials are quite basic. There is limited electricity and no heat in the classrooms. Each room has blankets to wrap around the students for when it gets really cold. I imagine you need to be pretty dedicated to learning school lessons shivering under blankets in an uninsulated building. We were there at the beginning of Spring, but in the Winter, temperatures can drop below freezing.

Headmaster Ndlovu and the teachers identified twelve students who were interested in learning chess. I taught them for two days from the time their recess and lunch ended until the end of the day -- about four to five hours, I guess. On the second day -- a rainy and cold afternoon -- headmaster Ndlovu dismissed school early, but all the students in my chess class said they wanted to stay and we did.

On the first day I taught them how to move the pieces, how to take with each piece, how to set the board, etc.  Then I had them play a game (or two) with each other. Despite the language barrier, they seemed to understand a good chunk of what I was teaching them. I would however see many games where one side mysteriously had two same-colored bishops, and it was definitely not because of under-promotion! I did forget to teach them about castling...but would do that on day 2. Their teacher, Ms. Purity, learned along with them. She really liked the idea of chess and said she wanted to include it as part of the school’s sports program. She said other schools in the area played chess and they would be able to play against them also. It all seemed promising.

That whole night I examined my chess databases for a game that would be suitable for beginners, as I wanted to show them an example of an actual game and notation. I decided on a Paul Morphy game that I thought would show them the concept of development and the attack on the weak, undefended, uncastled king. I realized that the game didn’t involve castling... but I would show this as an example of when you didn’t castle when you should have.

Link to Alexander Meek - Paul Morphy game here:

Monday, November 10, 2014

On the way to Himeville and KwaPitela

"An intelligent man always wants to learn. A stupid man always wants to teach."

It is hard to say who learned more in the two days I taught chess at KwaPitela Primary school. I hope I started them on the road to playing chess at least. But more on that later...

The morning after the World Youth Chess Tournament ended, we rented a small car, bought some groceries, and drove 218 kilometers to Himeville, a small town in the Drakensberg mountains. It would be my first sights outside of the city of Durban and into the country. Suddenly there were bulls and goats in the roads and small villages of rondavels which are traditional Zulu homes made of cow dung, reeds and plaster. We would live in one in the backpacker's lodge we would stay at.

On the road to Himeville through the Drakensberg Mountains
In our trunk were a dozen chess sets donated by Dewain Barber, who hosts the Barber Championship chess tournament which I participated in last summer, and other chess equipment, souvenirs, and photos from Coach El Mekki and the Paul Robeson Chess Club in Philadelphia. I was on my way to jump start a chess program and exchange at a small rural school that had never seen a chess program, that only just got electricity in one building and had no heating, a school of students who were English learners but whose first language was Zulu  and who I was told knew little or nothing about chess. I had no idea what to expect or how I was going to teach them and I had been so busy with World Youth that I felt poorly prepared. I figured I could teach chess basics though, had some ideas of how to begin, and figured after the first day's assessment  I could do make appropriate lesson plans. I also attempted to learn some isiZulu which is a really interesting and musical language with the clicks. This website prepped me:

The drive was amazing though, the views as we headed up the mountain were spectacular, and I especially got a kick out of the goats. We wanted to stop at the Nelson Capture Site Museum, a waterfall and nature reserve that were all on the way, but we missed the turnoff (we would get there on the way down, so more on that later) but we did stop at Bulwer and got to walk the indigenous Marutswa forest boardwalk to do some birdwatching and to look for the rare and endangered Cape Parrot. Unfortunately it threatened to storm and we didn't sight the parrot, but did see and hear many other birds and met a friendly old man who was walking through the forest to his home with a bag of food for his chickens. He said he walked through the forest every day and saw the Cape Parrot often. This was my first real introduction to the birds of South Africa (there weren't many on the Durban beach surprisingly) and during our travels I would get more and more interested in them and especially their calls and songs. In later blogs I will play you one of the recordings I made of a bird song I especially like.

Marutswa forest 
The Cape Parrot which we did not see

Anyhow it started to get dark and cloudy and we were still an hour or more from Himeville, so we got back in the car and drove with very little visibility which was somewhat scary especially because we knew there was livestock in the road. Luckily we didn't crash and by the time we made it to our Himeville lodgings it cleared, and we got this beautiful view of the mountain range we would be living within.

We stayed at Sani Lodge Backpackers in a traditional rondavel made from ‘dakha’ (clay soil), poles, ‘tengus’ (tree branches) and grass thatch (no cow dung we were told because it doesn't last that well). The materials all come from the local environment and the rondavels are built by local Zulu people. Our rondavel was very comfortable and warm, even though it was cool at night (we were visiting South Africa in springtime and in Durban the temperatures averaged in the low 70s, but in Southern Drakensberg at an altitude of 5,183 feet the weather was variable). One man we met said that the Drakensberg mountains had seven seasons and he could not even name all of them! To prove that, one night when my mother went out to the car to get something, she swears she encountered a light snow though I was all snugly in the Rondavel preparing my chess lessons so did not see it. It was cold early in the mornings though and I had to layer with sweaters and vests. Russell and Simone are the proprietors of the lodge and they also organize the volunteer program at the Zulu school I taught at. Theirs is a beautiful, peaceful hostel where you can see wild cats and baboons walking the trails and where the birds seemed even more prolific than the forest we had visited. The area was formerly the terrain of Bushmen hunter-gatherers, who spent their summers in and around Himeville and after teaching chess I would hike to see Bushmen art and will show you some photos in a later post.

Our home during our stay in Himeville

Thatched roof of our Rondavel

World Youth Chess Championship 2014 Part 2

This post will encompass games 6 through 11. Also since all of these games are against high opposition (2200+) I have analyzed and annotated all of them. Enjoy!

Also if you don't have a chess application and want to view the games and my analysis with a chess application, I would recommend the free program Scid. Just open the pgn with Scid and you'll be able to follow the games and my analysis with a 2d chess board. Get it here:

Round 7

I found out who I was playing on the free day: the Uzbekistanian Fide Master(FM) Temur Igonin! I was Black, so as soon as I found out that he played King's Pawn, I wanted to play the aggressive Bronstein-Larsen line of the Caro-Kann on which I had done some work. However, the line he played against the mainline 4...Bf5 did not impress, so I decided to just play the mainline. He surprised me with another rare line though, which ended up giving him a nice advantage. Shortly after I had a nice chance to complicate and likely equalize, but once I missed it I collapsed rather quickly. I was not happy with how I played this game, but maybe that just gave me the motivation to do better!

Download the game here:
Temur Igonin - Angel Hernandez-Camen

Round 8
                                                     Waiting for Vogel Roven
As he was doing quite terribly as of this point, I was not afraid of the German #1 Vogel Roven, the top seed of the section rated 2450, even as black. His opening didn't make me scared either, but he did have one chance to put me under serious pressure if he had found and played 29.c5. After that I gave him a chance to escape a worse position with a queen trade, but it is obvious even there he wanted the win. That made him suffer in a bad ending for 30+ moves before he got extremely lucky and got out of it with a draw. This game bothered me as well, but at least I had drawn with Black!

Click here to download:
Vogel Roven - Angel Hernandez-Camen

Round 9

It was unfortunate that in this round I was up against a fellow teammate from the US team, Craig Hilby. I thought he played pretty well, but then the blunder came, 16...g5? This blunder practically ended the game, he could never get back up to his feet. Another crush with White!

Click here to download:
Angel Hernandez-Camen - Craig Hilby

Round 10

Beginning the match with Kevin who was quite friendly
After surprising me with the interesting 9.Nb1!? in the 6.Bg2 Bogo-Indian, the #2 from Germany, Kevin Schroeder, extracted a solid advantage. Kevin's position looked pleasant, until he unexpectedly dropped (or sacrificed?! Most likely dropped) a pawn. From there I was always ahead, although both of us made many inaccuracies. Finally, in a late endgame, I managed to push my passed pawns to secure the win. Overall I was fairly happy with this game, and I was very happy to finally win with Black!

Click here to download:
Kevin Schroeder - Angel Hernandez-Camen

Round 11

Again I gained an advantage in the opening with a rare but, in my opinion, strong line in the Grunfeld, 10.Nh4!?, against the Austrian #1 Florian Mesaros. I managed to completely decimate my advantage
but Mesaros failed to take advantage of the situation. After one last lucky chance in time trouble to escape his troubles, he fell into the dark abyss as I collected my 3rd win in a row with a 6-0 score with White.

Click here to download:
Angel Hernandez-Camen - Florian Mesaros

Click here to download all the games in one pgn:
World Youth Chess Championship 2014 Games Part 2

Durban when I wasn't playing chess

When it was announced that the tournament was to be held in South Africa there was a lot of fear about the safety of going into that country. There were participants and families of participants that were very worried, about the Ebola outbreak and about crime. In fact many people have been canceling flights to everywhere in Africa because of the Ebola outbreak. However, if you look into it, it all seems ridiculous. First off, as of November 3, 2014, there are only three countries in the whole vast wide range of South Africa, North Africa, Central Africa, West Africa, and East Africa that are known to have a problem with Ebola -- Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, three of the 16(!) countries in the region of West Africa. Every other country in the whole of Africa is, as of now, basically Ebola free. Now look at Durban, South Africa. 10,484 km away from the Ebola outbreak. It is about as far from West Africa as London. It also has had less cases of Ebola than Dallas,Texas. So Ebola wasn’t that big of a problem really.

(Why the Ebola outbreak is so feared even by people who are not touched by it is something to ponder. My mother -- who is more versed in politics and social justice issues than I -- seems to think that much of this is rooted in racism, fear of Africa and the people we've oppressed, general selfishness, and a medical and pharmaceutical business that is more concerned with profits than in curing people. Whatever is going on I do agree with her that we should be less concerned with it spreading to us and more concerned about helping those who are dying in West Africa. It's obvious that this is the solution and that just sectioning off West Africa and letting the disease run rampant will only make the risks for all of us greater and also is heartless. My mother says it reminds her of what we used to do with lepers and also that many AIDS activists are likening the world's reaction to Ebola with our early reaction to AIDS. Speaking of which I learned from listening to some local musicians that AIDS is still a big problem in South Africa and one that needs attention)

The second  issue the chess participants had was with the reported crime. Nobody wanted to walk anywhere because they were afraid of being mugged. Even though the chess tournament venue was only a short 10 minute walk away, and the weather was warm and clear most of the time, the majority of people took the chartered bus. It's true that some people did get mugged or robbed. A whole team of parents and kids went two blocks behind the hotel and got mugged...twice! And, as one person found out, it is a mistake to go out with a fancy camera at night. He was robbed of everything he had! Luckily no one was hurt though.

My mom with friends she made who were visiting from Limpopo. These women spoke four languages: Venda, Sepedi, Zulu and English. Interestingly most people in South Africa speak at least two or three languages fluently.
Me in front of ANC headquarters
But we did not want to be confined to our hotel or the short beach strip in front, the restaurants in the hotel or the tourist atmosphere of our surroundings. We wanted to experience the city of Durban, to see how people lived, to visit the museums and parks, and to explore its history and culture. And of course my mom felt that much of this fear was caused by racism and that people were perhaps even being mugged because of their attitudes of fear and unfriendliness. As there was no stopping her, we put whatever fears and prejudices we had aside and we walked, not only to the venue but all about the city. And it so happened that everywhere we went we met friendly, helpful people and we never felt in danger or threatened. Sure there are people in need and homeless people who asked us for help but it did not seem much different than Philadelphia really. Here's a slice of what we experienced:

Visited the Apartheid museum called the KwaMuhle Museum
Not sure, but maybe this was one of the beaches we were on. Today everyone can swim and walk along the beach, thankfully

Nelson Mandela burning a pass book

South African women took leading roles in protesting pass laws
The building this museum is in was once the headquarters of the infamous Native Administration Department and the center of Durban’s harsh system of labor control. In other words it was once a Pass office. Pass laws held the country's apartheid system in place, until popular protests ended their use in 1986. Black people had to carry pass books with them when they went outside their homes. Failure to produce a pass often resulted in the person being arrested. Any white person could ask a black to produce his (or her) pass. The museum used life sized models and historical photos to tell about how people lived in Durban during this time and how they worked together to end this form of racial control and segregation. It really made you realize how hard it was for black people to do the simplest things like work or shop or use a public bathroom, or eat at a restaurant or get an education. The whole country was segregated and blacks were not allowed on the beaches or in the game reserves we visited. I guess it was a little like to what my great great grandparents suffered in Belarus before they came to the United States in 1910. My family, because they were Jewish, were not allowed to travel without a pass. They only reason they were able to escape and come to the US is because my great great grandfather was friendly with the mayor (because he sold him bootlegged liquor) and the mayor gave him a pass to travel and he was able to sneak out of the country and also to help others in my family to get out also. Many people did not escape and died including many of my relatives. Similarly under apartheid many people died cruelly without access to hospitals or in poverty or because of violence against them by the government and random people who held power over them.

Mohatma Ghandi came to Durban in 1903 and seeing the oppression of indentured laborers from India  he began to forge his philosophy of passive resistance. This is a bust to his memory that stands in a building in the center of town.
Visited the art museum in city hall where they had an exhibit on Xenophobia in South Africa
Here many local artists spoke through their art about how racism still exists in post apartheid South Africa not only between whites and blacks but also toward immigrants from other countries.

Played chess in the parks
While we were in Durban we noticed that the city still seemed largely segregated and that especially white people were fearful to go into predominately black parts of the city. When I played chess in the park against black students from the university an older white man told us that he wished "there were still penalties," against blacks. We met other mostly white men who had the same feelings. On the other hand most of the black people we met were extremely hopeful, despite the problems and continued racism. One man we met told us how grateful he was that he was finally treated like a "human being," but this made us feel the weight and sadness of the racism in our world and history because why should anyone not be treated like a human being ever? Today in South Africa there still seems to be much segregation and poverty and I guess it will take time and effort and more changes for people to live equally.

Went to a local bookstore and bought some pens and a cool little notebook I kept my journal in
Again we were walking on streets we were told that we should not walk on, but when we saw the small bookstore that reminded us of the bookstores in Mexico that largely sell school supplies we could not help going in.  There we met the friendliest guy. He was about 20 years old or so, probably a student, and he was so excited to meet us and wanted to go with us to Drakensberg but he could not take the time off or we would have taken him along.

Walked through lots of markets
Women vendors

Durban city market

Shopping district in Durban
We also found a large Indian Spice market that had barrels of spices and teas and we ate some good vegetarian curry there. Durban, by the way, is known for curries. One street food I enjoyed was something called the Bunny Chow. A Bunny Chow is a round piece of bread that is hollowed out and  filled with curry. It was named after a man named Bunny (really!) and was originally food cab drivers ate while working but now they are eaten by everyone in Durban who likes curry (or should be as the two Bunny Chows I had were delicious).

We also bought these sweet little apples and pears from a man who liked us so much he threw in several for free. Guess how much they cost? Five for five rand which is equivalent of 50 US cents. That's right and he gave us two more. While walking the streets and going to the markets we also bought little pineapples, papaya that they called pawpaw, and spicy Doritos that reminded me of the Doritos I used to eat in Mexico. The South Africans seem to have a similar taste for spicy food and salsa.  I'll tell you more about some spicy fish we ate when I tell you about our visit to Sodwana Bay.

Malibongwe Shangase in his studio at Victoria Market
Something else interesting we saw were the barbershop stands that lined the streets, just little lean-tos where people got their hair cut, braided, or their dreadlocks tended to. These were especially busy on Sundays and several of the stylists tried to entice my mom to get her hair done. My mom wanted to but unfortunately(or fortunately as I did not advise her to get dreadlocks!) we never had the time to stop. There was too much to see!

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Chess Mom Loose in Durban -- Part two

I am almost alone on the beach at sunrise, except for the few women walking to work with their colorful headscarves fluttering like love-struck suitors behind them. The other day Josh and I noted that Durban is strangely absent of dogs, stray or pet. We resolve to research why this is, but never do. There is too much else to see and understand.
Students at KwaPitela Primary School, in the Drakensberg Mountains above Durban
Rising early I walk on the beach, leaving Josh to sleep as much as he can before another day of World Youth Chess. Signs are staked in the sand warning that swimming is forbidden and the usual array of young surfers are absent. The ocean is certainly riotous and unruly this morning, throwing bawdy stories and broken shells that stick in my bare feet, whipping the sand at me so that my skin and mouth feel gritty, a sensation a friend who lived as a child in the Sahara recalled and had once described to me. "Yemajah," I shout into the wind, "I have not forgotten you." Immediately my calls are answered by a deep-voiced singing:  rich, melodious and unmistakenly African. I turn around startled and squint up and down the coast. The beautiful song seems to be coming from a man I can barely make out ahead of me through the midst of sea and sand. For a moment I wonder about the prudence of continuing on toward him, alone as I am on the beach, but his singing is soothing and pleasurable -- I cannot believe anyone who sings like this can pose a threat. The singing continues and grows louder, but I cannot discern the words which I assume must be Zulu or Xhosa and the melody too is allusive, broken as it is by the sounds of the wind and ocean. The man himself I only see in bits and parts as I get closer, as if I am watching him painted onto a canvas. His sinewy dark figure is erased and redrawn in a constant whir of motion and when I am almost upon him I realize that he is going back and forth into the ocean -- either he hasn't read or has chosen to ignore the posted warnings.  He is sopping wet and dressed in only the flimsiest of white underbriefs. When he comes in from the sea he crouches in front of a line of plastic soda bottles which he appears to be filling with sand and ocean. My initial thought is that I have come upon a madman. Again I check myself -- should I turn around and bolt? But the man has stopped singing and he is smiling at me, a bony arm raised in greeting. He is so thin that his chest recedes and I am afraid his hand will disintegrate when I take it into mine, but am instantly surprised by the strength, warmness and firmness of his handshake. We introduce ourselves. He spells out  his name so I can say it properly. W-I-T-O-L-D -- it takes me about three times before my diction satisfies him. "I am Zulu," his skeleton chest puffs out with pride when he tells me this, fills up as if there is something much more substantial than the skin and bones that make him. "My language was Zulu, but they taught me English in school. I can barely speak Zulu anymore,' he says, not complaining but as if trying to make me feel better about my lousy English-centric pronunciation of his name.  I think of all the bands of South African children Josh and I have seen on school trips to the beach, combing the souvenir huts for cheap toys and marching in line behind stern, poker-faced teachers into the public swimming pools, orderly and neat in their crisp school uniforms. The discipline of South African institutions  reminds me of our years in Mexico. I imagine little Witold marching upright with his classmates, reciting English phrases. His English is near perfect.
"I had a good job with a big corporation but I was laid off, so now I sell these to the gas station up the road (he points to the plastic bottles of sand and sea). I look into his face, which is solemn, stubborn and brave, and  wonder again if he is just a bit insane -- why would a gas station want ocean water? (but later, when I make friends with three women from Limpopo I learn more about this tradition).
"Your singing is beautiful," I tell him. "but I could not understand the words," still thinking it must have been in Zulu. He looks abashed suddenly, as if realizing for the first time that he is standing in front of a strange woman in his underwear, underwear that is wet, transparent and practically falling off his small frame. I try to make him feel more comfortable by turning away and squinting out at the sea. I have not in all this time looked down below his waist. He follows my gaze and answers less shyly: "It is a song we learned at school," -- and recites the words which sound like Zulu to me. "Yes," I say,  "but what do they mean?" Again he repeats the words --  this time with the slow, even,  patience he showed when teaching me his name. "What-the-Mighty-God-Gives-Us," he repeats and then he begins to sing, in that deep sonorous voice, like the ancient African wind that once whipped around King Shaka and Durban before the obscene Coca Cola tower shown haughtily over the highrise hotel towers and elephants and leopards roamed the beach. And with that, Witold walked majestically back into the sea with his bucket and plastic soda bottles, leaving me alone again in Africa, surrounded by coastal fog, and I turned back toward the hotel to wake Josh for another day of chess.