Nauru-logy of chess in times of COVID

Because of its population (10,873, 2021 figure) and size (smallest island nation, eight sq. mi.), the country finds its way in many pub quizzes.

Published: 20th July 2022 09:32 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th July 2022 07:31 PM   |  A+A-

TheOnline Chess Olympiad is scheduled to begin from September.

Representational Image. (File Photo)

Express News Service

For a tiny island tucked away in one of the remotest corners of the world — just south of the equator and roughly 3200km Northeast of Australia — Nauru's place in history is pretty secure.

Because of its population (10,873, 2021 figure) and size (smallest island nation, eight sq. mi.), the country finds its way in many pub quizzes.

When Novak Djokovic was held in hotel detention in Australia early this year, the country's existing border relations with Nauru received another round of criticism. There is also the existential angst posed by climate change.

More recently, Nauru has been in the news because of Covid-19. While most other countries across the world have learned to live with the virus, Nauru's residents were waking up to their first wave in June 2022.

At one point of time in late June, roughly 20 per cent of Nauru's population were positive.

After not having any community transmission for nearly two years, there was one positive case for every three tests (the case fatality rate, thankfully, has been marginal as more than 98 per cent of the residents are fully vaxxed).

Among the infected was Ricko Depaune. When the government announced a lockdown to stall the virus' march, Depaune was convinced that their chess team would not make it to Chennai for the Olympiad.

Depaune, who will be on the main board in Chennai, also doubles up as the general secretary of the Nauru Chess Federation (NCF).

He has spent his last few weeks dividing his time between practicing his endgame online and contacting sponsors to secure funding (FIDE, the world body, have chipped in with a portion) for the trip.

"When the lockdown commenced, I thought we wouldn't make it to Chennai," he says over a Zoom call. "But the government helped us. Securing a visa to Australia is quite hard but we have got it. Now, I'm starting to contact all the companies in the Island for the purposes of sponsorship. It was already agreed upon but because of the lockdown, it was postponed. But they will sponsor."

The challenges of pursuing chess in an Island like Nauru is too many. For one, because there is no money in the game, there is 'no motivation'.

"The entire Island has about 15 boards," Depaune says.

"There are about 30-40 players in total. There is a lack of motivation to play, work commitments, family commitments. The enthusiasm is there (to play) but there needs a push. They lack confidence in playing." 

It also isn't all that popular. Weightlifting (the country is a Commonwealth powerhouse in this field) and Australian football gets all the attention.

"Here, weightlifting is the gold standard. Chess people play for free and most of us are family oriented. So we put our family first. Chess is a second option. Guys who used to do security work play chess in their free time. The ones who actually play chess in Nauru manage their time well."

There are no full-time chess players on the Island. Depaune, for example, is an environmental officer at a local school.  

But Depaunae, who travelled as a reserve for the 2018 Olympiad before featuring after a few rounds, is hopeful of a good showing this time.

To that end, they hired a Zimbabwean coach for online sessions. For the time being, though, the lockdown has forced them indoors and online training.

"Training individually, we are playing online. We (the team) can't meet up. Maybe we can catch up on the flight and see where we are at and how far the players have trained themselves."

Their plan is to leave on July 24 before reaching Chennai via two stopovers (Brisbane and Singapore).

Away from the weightlifting arena at the Commonwealth Games — the country's former president, Marcus Stephen, for example, is one of the most decorated weightlifters at that level with 12 medals — they don't get to pen feel-good stories.

After fighting past various obstacles over the last month, Depaune and four others have a rare opportunity to create their own song for two weeks in Chennai.


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