“Most fled, I play alone”: how chess fell victim to Taliban politics in Afghanistan
In one word, spoken coldly, Sepehr Sekhawaty captures the fate of failures in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, “Terrible”.
But he says he has nothing to complain about, as he is just happy to be alive and playing the game, a privilege few could afford.
After the re-conquest of the Taliban, they banned all sports for women and began to suppress streams which they thought contradicted their doctrine. Chess, they believed, was a form of gambling and distracted people from saying their prayers, as well as carrying the Soviet stigma. Although they didn’t officially ban the game, as they did during their previous reign, they cut off his arms.
The difficulties of being a chess player in a country intolerant of the game, and to an extension most sports, are immeasurable, he says. Fearing a backlash from the Taliban, most chess clubs frantically shut down, most chess players stopped playing, and even federation officials fled. The president sought refuge in Latvia while several others emigrated to Uzbekistan. “For months I had no one to play chess with. Even the president of the federation fled the country. So there are a lot of senior players and officials. I was playing alone in my room,” says Sepehr, originally from Herat, some 900 kilometers from Kabul.
Or when there was electricity and the internet, he would browse chess websites, download game diagrams featuring the top 100 players, play a few games, and if time permitted, read up on his player favorite, Bobby Fischer. Forget the training camps, he hasn’t met his Olympiad colleagues for months. To get into the rhythm before the Olympiad, he traveled about 600 grueling kilometers by road to Tehran to compete in three tournaments. “I started playing the game alone when I was seven years old, and now I’m 19 and I’m still alone. There is no coach or colleague. Most of them have fled the country , and I just manage to play chess thanks to my father’s support. But I can’t keep troubling him forever,” he says.
The Chess Olympiad was his dream, a dream he almost didn’t achieve. He had practically no money to buy tickets. “There was no funding and all we got as a stipend was $25 in three months. Luckily, my dad bought the tickets for me and I hope the federation will reimburse me after I arrive in Chennai,” he says.
A bigger hurdle was getting the go-ahead from the government. For several weeks, he was unsure whether to travel to Chennai as his government kept refusing permission. He was anxiously checking news or information from his friends in the media. Finally, last Saturday, he obtained approval.
Equally suffocating was the fear of Maroof, the religious police. The chess fraternity fears a ban on the sport like it happened in 1996. Old stories haunt them – police would burn chess boards, pieces, imprison them for weeks, fine them and threaten to cut their hands if they played again. . The chess players, fearing being denounced, had to meet in secret. But even that came to a halt when the police stepped up the crackdown.
Freed after the exit of the Taliban two decades ago, chess had begun to flourish again. “Over the past five years, chess has grown rapidly. We could afford to hire a grandmaster as a trainer, opened branches in 28 provinces across the country, had around 10,000 active players and held the FIDE Arbiter and Trainers Seminar in 2019,” details the former Secretary General of the national federation Abasin Mohibi.
Sepehr could also travel abroad for competitions and was a regular at tournaments in India and Iran, at a time when he was accumulating a wealth of experience and points. But fewer tournaments naturally meant stagnating points (he only managed 1,809).
The emergence was further marked after Afghanistan won gold in Category D of the Chess Olympiad in 2019. But all that progress has been turned upside down in the last 11 months.
“Eleven months into the Taliban regime, there has not been a single official tournament, seminar or related activity. Most federation officials have left the country. In some provinces, chess has been banned. The federation’s women’s department is currently closed, and there are no active players either,” says Mohibi.
The Taliban have been particularly harsh on female athletes. Several had to flee the country, many others had to completely stop their flows and burn documents or material that betrayed that they were athletes. Even women’s cricket was stopped – under their last regime, the Taliban banned women and girls from getting an education or working as well. Mohibi sighs: “People are busy rebuilding lives. It’s a tough life for us.
Fleeing the country seems the only realistic alternative to forging a career in chess, although Sepehr does not want to leave his country. “I really love my country and I care about it,” he says emotionally, but admits he would eventually pay attention. “I will certainly accept any offer from countries where chess is important so that I can achieve my goals and objectives. But who would want me? he asks, in a deflated tone.
But Sepehr does not want to give up. “I want to win individual gold in the third board and help the team win gold in our category. That would mean something in these times,” he says. Gold that would be a metaphor for challenge, though they would not be paraded as heroes when they returned home.