Johannesburg - Teenage chess sensation Keegan Agulhas had so little interest in the game when he was younger that he thought pawns – the weakest and most numerous pieces in the game – were called “prawns”.
Seven years later, the teenager has set the South African chess scene alight by earning the title of FIDE World Chess Federation Master, the third-highest ranking in global chess, as well as an International Master norm. This means he is just two norms away from the International Master title.
The 17-year-old from Bellville, Cape Town, has set his sights on playing professionally and, of course, attaining the Grand Master title – an elite honour bestowed on only a handful of the world’s top players.
Agulhas swept aside the competition a few days ago to clinch the Under-18 Open Category at the SA Junior Closed Chess Championships in Benoni. This has earned him a spot on the South African team to play internationally at the Commonwealth Games.
The chess whizz-kid was also named the South African Under-16 Player of the Year at the inaugural Chess SA Youth Chess Awards, which took place on Tuesday.
“I love the feeling of outthinking my opponent and calculating the possibilities to make decisions,” he said.
“Chess also brings people together. Every week and month, you play and meet new people. Once you get national colours, you travel the world meeting people from all over. I find it amazing and it makes me appreciate the life I’m living.”
While his mum Marcelle – who serves on the board of Chess SA – and dad Henry do not play, Agulhas’ interest in the game came from watching his older sister Tiffany, who attained the international title of Candidate Master – a notch below his title of FIDE Master – in 2009.
His interest in the game was inspired by his sister playing at the junior championships in 2009, which he attended because it was his birthday and he wanted an early birthday present.
“At that tournament, I told my mum that I wanted to play in the individual tournament. She was surprised because I was a soccer player, but she said yes and I received some quick coaching from one of the coaches and played.
“I did badly with a score of 2.5 out of nine. I didn’t take that loss well because I am competitive and I cried. But the defeat motivated me to be a better player,” he said.
Since that fateful tournament, he has gone on to play for his school, Western Province and, eventually, South Africa.
His success hasn’t come without sacrifice. Agulhas practises for 90 minutes every day and spends another half-hour playing online against players from all over the world.
In 2015, he played in the Under-16 Olympiad in Slovakia. But it was at the African Youth Championships in Port Elizabeth later that year that his talent started to blossom.
“My failure taught me to work harder, as did watching my friends in that section gain titles. At first, I was nervous, but knew I could get the job done. It worked out as I won eight out of my nine points, with seven wins and two draws.
“I ended the tournament with a 1.5-point lead in my best performance by far, and earned my FIDE Master as well as my International Master norm.”