Chess revolution at a school in the slums

Polly Khatun (in red) and others playing chess at the Sohag Swapnadhara Pathshala in Duaripur, MirpurShamsul Hoque

When Polly Khatun first began learning to play chess in school, her mother Ajiron Khatun was sternly against it. She had seen her husband gamble on the chessboard. To her, playing chess could only mean gambling. That’s why she opposed Polly learning the game.

To keep Polly in chess, firstly, her mother’s misconception had to be corrected. Sohag Swapnadhara Pathshala did it. In that school, the black-white chessboards are adding a touch of colour to the lives of less fortunate kids like Polly.

The school, located at the Duaripara slum in Rupnagar, Mirpur, was established in 2006. In its first 15 years, there were no sports in the school. From October last year, the school began teaching students chess alongside academic studies. Out of the 350 students of the school, 46 are now chess players. Polly Khatun (1130) and Mim Akter (1048) have FIDE rating. Shahinur Khatun is also set to get a FIDE rating.

Chess players from Sohag Swapnadhara have recently taken part in the National women’s Chess Championship, Begum Laila Alam 12th FIDE Rating Tournament, Elegant Chess and Manha’s Castle Rating Tournament. In the Women’s Chess League, Shahinur Khatun, Polly Khatun and Zakia Akter played for the second division team Agami Chess Guild. In the league, they even defeated the South Point School and College team.

One has to go through the narrow alleys of Duaripara slum to reach the Sohag Swapnadhara Pathshala. During a recent visit to the school, it was seen that a chess class was underway in a small room in extremely hot conditions. Forhadur Rahman was laying out chess pieces on a display board and teaching the game to the students. Children who have grown up in extreme poverty, hunger and hardships, are finding the joys of life on the chessboard.

Poli Khatun poses for a photo in front of her home in the Suaripara slum
Prothom Alo

Agami Foundation, an organisation that works for underprivileged and street children in Bangladesh, have spread the dream of chess among the students of Swapnadhara school. Agami Foundation has previously worked to solve other social issues but this is the first time they have taken an initiative to teach a game.

Tahsin Rouf, a director of Agami Foundation, asked Grand Master Rifat Bin Sattar, who also happens to be his school friend, to teach chess to the underprivileged children. But owing to his hectic work schedule, he passed on the responsibility to International Master Abu Sufian. Currently, Abu Sufian and Forhadur Rahman are teaching chess to the students three days a week.

Initially, Agami Foundation wanted to run the chess teaching programme for three months. But three months is inadequate to teach a game like chess, opined Abu Sufian, and proposed undertaking a long-term initiative instead.

“Tahsin bhai had asked me to run a three-month programme. But I said, in order to bring out good chess players we have to give at least two years. After that, I was asked to present a plan, budget, syllabus, coach’s salary and other related information. After I presented my proposal, the programme began accordingly.”

It wasn’t easy for the two coaches to teach chess to kids living in the slum. Forhadur Rahman spoke about those challenges, “Impoverished parents think that after their children grow up, they will send them to work at a garment factory or to work as a transport worker or as domestic help. We had to convince them to send them to school to learn chess.”

Mohammad Ibrahim is one of the young chess players from the Sohag Swapnadhara school. Ibrahim studies in the eighth standard. His father, Ilias Majhi, works as a security guard and his mother is a domestic worker. Ibrahim’s father had sent him to work at a garment factory about a year ago. But the yearning to play chess brought him back to school, “Before, I didn’t understand chess. But now I really love playing chess. I returned to school for chess.”

The headteacher of the school Sagarika Das said, “A chess revolution has quietly begun in Duaripara. Now, many parents want to send their children to school only to learn chess.”

A movie titled ‘Queen of Katwe’ was made in Hollywood on Ugandan chess player Phiona Mutesi, who was born in a slum. From the slums of Uganda, Phiona took part in the World Chess Olympiad. Who knows, maybe Bangladesh’s Phiona will emerge from Sohag Swapnadhara Pathshala! Polly and Mim are dreaming to do exactly that.

*This report appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ashfaq-Ul-Alam Niloy