by Mahmoud Fouly
CAIRO, Nov. 16 (Xinhua) -- The chess community in Egypt, though few in number compared to other sports, has its own celebrities, fans, coffee shops and gatherings, but chess is not so popular in the most populous Arab state where people are mostly obsessed with football.
Since Egypt has recently achieved a rare chess ranking: the 47th place worldwide with one of its players ranked 45th, the highest in Egypt, Africa and Arab world's chess history, the country's chess community wishes for more popularity of "the game of kings."
One of the chess stars in Egypt is Bassem Amin, a 29-year-old grandmaster and a physician. He is the title holder of Egypt, the Arab world and Africa, and the 45th world best chess player, according to the rating of World Chess Federation.
Amin does not seek fame like football players as much as he urges the country to pay more attention to chess and for wider media coverage of national and world chess competitions to spread the brainstorming and sophisticated game.
"Our main problem as Egypt's chess national team is that we do not have a foreign coach. We have achieved big accomplishments and won several gold medals for Egypt without a coach or financial support," Amin told Xinhua, hoping for more support from the Youth and Sports Ministry in the near future.
"We also need sponsor businessmen to support us, but in return they would need publicity for their businesses to do that. So our national chess federation should work on getting more media and news coverage to spread the game and attract sponsors," said Amin, whose rate has just reached 2,700 points to become a member of the world chess elite club.
At a popular coffee shop near downtown Cairo, a group of chess players gathered at a couple of tables while playing a tournament of rapid chess with a special timer on each table. They looked isolated from other coffee shop visitors who played entertainment games like dominoes and backgammon, but they have been enjoying their own smart battles involving kings, queens, pawns, rooks, bishops and knights.
"In my opinion, chess popularity in Egypt can be achieved via different directions, the top of which is to introduce it in schools. The national chess federation should also increase the number of local competitions to widen the base of participants and raise the status of chess in the country," said Walaa Tharwat, a chess coach and Egypt's former title holder for several years.
"Some big sports clubs in Egypt are so short-sighted that they refrain from including chess in their activities because it is neither popular nor profitable. They pay more attention to money making than to sports," the veteran player lamented.
Tharwat, also a manager at EgyptAir national airlines, emphasized that chess is an elegant game that gathers people of different professions and positions including businessmen, physicians, art critics and engineers.
"None of us relies on chess for an income. Very few can do that," he told Xinhua.
Special coffee shops are the usual meeting places for chess players, whether in the most famous provinces of Cairo, Giza and Alexandria or elsewhere across the country. Coffee shop owners and waiters like chess players, as they are more polite, quiet and respectful.
"There are several tables for chess here in the coffee shop. I believe it's the best entertainment game here in Egypt," said Mohamed Abdel-Fattah, a 30-year-old coffee shop co-owner.
"The chess players are polite and respectful and they never swear or say bad words, unlike visitors of younger generations who play dominoes, cards or backgammon," he added.
Physical engineer and businessman Mazen Abdel-Hamid, one of the distinguished players at a Cairo coffee shop, said chess occupies about 50 percent of the lives of professional players.
"I play chess since I was 12 and have never stopped ever since. When I went to Russia and Europe on business, I also played chess there," said the 50-year-old engineer, who urged the state to teach chess in special classes at schools and produce chess-learning TV programs for children.
He noted that Russia did that and accordingly it has the largest number of grandmasters in the world.
Founded in 1894, the Egyptian Chess Federation, in cooperation with the Youth and Sports Ministry, is working to address the complaints of professional players by spreading the chess nationwide.
"To spread the game, besides the premier league we hold annual individual competitions for males and females and we hold similar competitions for age groups varying from 8 to 20. We have also open competitions like Golden Cleopatra international competition that will be held in December, which is one of the strongest worldwide," said Hesham al-Gendy, president of the Egyptian Chess Federation.
"The federation will hold a new international competition in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in February 2018 with financial rewards up to 30,000 U.S. dollars, which will attract a larger number of world grandmasters to join," Gendy told Xinhua at the federation headquarters in Cairo.
He said providing a foreign coach for the successful national team is "a legitimate demand" he's working on with the sports ministry, expecting "good news" to be heard soon.
"Chess has already entered elementary schools in four provinces nationwide since October 2016 and we will gradually increase them," said the chess federation chief, noting that media coverage of chess activities in Egypt started to rise over the past couple of years.