University of Fort Hare chess coach Xhanti Mafongosi was convinced that his players would hate him before D-Day dawned for the USSAs.
He had put the 20-member team through a rigorous training regimen that included early-morning jogs and four-hour sessions where they were required to solve some 200 chess puzzles.
Never before had a Fort Hare chess team undertaken such preparation for a University Sports South Africa tournament, but Mafongosi was leaving nothing to chance in the bid for glory.
After an outstanding year in all competition, he is determined to see UFH’s men and women claim the Holy Grail of university sport in Durban from December 4 to 8.
Mafongosi, who will be joining the side in KwaZulu-Natal as coach and deputy referee, said the confidence in the team was high and that they were expecting to improve significantly on their eighth position overall from last year.
With the players having focused on their studies since October, they were put through their moves at a camp in Alice a couple of weeks ago to shake off any “rustiness” that may have crept in while they were writing their end-of-year exams.
In light of the situation, Mafongosi was a hard taskmaster, waking the players at 5.30am every day to go for a run. He is a firm believer that physical fitness contributes to a healthy mind.
And while he had encouraged his charges to practise chess puzzles created by grandmasters and the world’s leading players, he had never made it mandatory before, he said.
Asking them to complete 200 challenges that tested them on check-mate positioning and strategies in a specified timeframe prepared them well for the kind of pressure they would be under at the tournament, he said.
Fort Hare have enjoyed a red-letter year in the sport.
In August, they won the Eastern Cape Student League and two months later had 10 players selected for the province at the conclusion of the Eastern Cape Chess Championships in Jeffreys Bay.
However, they are expecting opponents like the universities of Witwatersrand, Cape Town and Western Cape to offer stiff competition.
“I think we will definitely make the top five, but obviously I’m hoping for number one. I think it’s possible,” Mafongosi said.
On a personal note, he was pleased to be able to join the team in Cape Town but pointed out that he needed to remain impartial when it came to his duties as an official.
He thanked the university for its support in terms of pre-tournament camps – not only for the USSAs but throughout the year.
The team’s mentor is also excited that chess is gaining popularity at UFH because of the team’s success. It is now common for students to ask how they can get involved in the chess programme.
A win or podium finish in Durban will create even greater interest.