A Week In The Life” is a weekly Zikoko series that explores the working-class struggles of Nigerians. It captures the very spirit of what it means to hustle in Nigeria and puts you in the shoes of the subject for a week.
The subject of today’s “A Week In The Life” plays chess for a living. He tells us about navigating societal disregard for his chosen career, his persistence even in the face of dwindling funds and why chess has him in a chokehold.
It’s 8:00 a.m., and I’m just waking up — I was up late playing chess online with my friends. Because of my relatively flexible schedule, it’s not uncommon for me to play chess into the early hours of a new day. This is usually in addition to whatever real-life games I might have played during the day. There can never be too much chess.
I play chess for a living, so I start each day reviewing my strategies from previous games. I break an old game down to reveal the flaws and try to see if I could have done something better. Next, I exercise my brain muscle by reading books on chess strategy. A few hours in, when my stomach starts to demand food, it’s time for my first break of the day. After breakfast, I usually take a quick nap before scheduling matches with various opponents both online and offline.
However, today is different. I’m starting my day with meditation. In the last few games I played, I noticed that I was bombarded by distracting thoughts. And because chess is a high-pressure game, I’ve had to research various ways of calming myself.
I’m a little worried that meditation might not work but I’m confident that like chess, I can always review my process to see what I did wrong. Ultimately, I’m positive that I will find a solution.
Considering that chess is half good and bad, I’m not doing too badly. But it depends on who you ask. To society, mostly the uninitiated, I’m wasting my time playing chess instead of getting a “real job.”
To the initiated who understand the pull of chess — the appeal that draws you in and blinds you to everything — I’m doing okay. These people understand the obsession when you, who think you’re intellectually superior, lose to an opponent and you want to avenge your pride. Only they understand the drive to go back to the drawing board when someone bests you. They’re familiar with the endless cycle of certain defeat that awaits all chess players, no matter how good they are. It’s only these same yet diverse strange entities that chess attracts that understand my struggle.
And that’s why the day I had was completely frustrating. A friend staying over at my house was worried about me staring at my chess board for almost 30 minutes. To put her mind at ease, I switched to playing a tournament online and she mistook this for idleness and started to show me funny WhatsApp statuses. I had to explain to her the importance of what I was doing and how much I could make from winning the tournament. Only then did she understand. In her head, she always wondered what I did for a living. I wonder how different things would have been if I was seated in front of a laptop receiving calls all day.
To worsen things, while talking to my mum and her friends today, someone asked what I did for a living. My mum hesitated and looked at me. I hesitated and looked at her. The entire incident was extremely awkward.
At that point, I decided to apply for a formal job, not because I needed one but to show my mum that I could get a job whenever I chose to. Maybe that would put her mind to rest and remove some of the awkwardness.
All that one is future planning. Now, the only thing on my mind is what to eat and when to sleep.
Today was a relatively good day. I woke up earlier than 8 a.m. and completed my routine one hour before my usual time. This left me with enough time to let my thoughts wander. I remembered how I started playing chess in secondary school and vividly remembered the big trophy I won that signalled the beginning of my obsession with chess.
I had flashbacks of the time spent in cyber cafes after secondary school playing chess online. I also didn’t forget getting my ass whooped in the first major in-person competition I played after multiple streaks of online winning. That experience reset me and made me always review my strategy after every game.
Like yesterday, I still remembered the look on my course adviser’s face when I asked for permission to play in the NUGA games. In his head, I’m sure he was like, “who has time to set another exam question for you?” Of course, he refused.
I’ll never forget applying some principles from chess — like introspection —
to my life during my NYSC year, seeing positive results and promising Caissa, the goddess of chess, that I’d play chess for two years to repay her for helping me improve my quality of life.
There’s no way I could ever forget going to Ghana with money for one leg of the trip, accommodation, and barely enough for food. I knew that I absolutely had to win something at the tournament or I’d trek back from Accra to Lagos. Thankfully, I came first in the tournament. The alternative would have been calling family members back in Nigeria.
It’s not a perfect life but through chess, I’ve seen amazing places, had amazing experiences and suffered amazing misfortunes. Not a bad deal I suppose.
The 2020 pandemic affected many things in the world: from health safety measures to travel to relationships and finally, my earning potential.
My two-year promise to Cassia started at the end of 2018 and 2019 was fairly decent. I played in enough tournaments and won enough money to get by. Then, 2020 came with the pandemic and all the tournaments got cancelled and moved to 2022. This meant that my finances were thrown into a very dark place.
I suddenly went from being very generous with money to auditing every purchase. I also started considering alternative earning paths, like coding.
I have no regrets about playing chess professionally for a few years. I find comfort in the fact that I’m relatively smart so I can afford to take some risks.
Whenever I want to panic about my decision, I think to myself that when I was in my final year people used to brag about following Game of Thrones (GOT). But one day, I started watching GOT and binged it for two weeks and caught up with them. It’s a completely useless analogy but I feel that no matter how much wealth my mates amass now, I can always catch up whenever I’m ready to pursue money — just like I did with the GOT series.
Today, my biggest headache is that I have only N3,000 left till I get more money from playing tournaments. I’m craving parfait which is N3,000 but I also realise that the same money can get me two whole fish, some pepper, and rice which I can cook and hold body for another one week. The right choice is glaring.
Playing chess professionally sometimes forces me into decisions like this but I don’t mind, for now. Even when I transition to do other things and explore other skills, I can never leave chess. It is always drawing me back and it’ll always be an important part of my life.