Out of evil, the old saying goes, cometh good. Whether or not the earthquake which devastated Haiti on January 12 can be regarded as evil, Double Rooks expects that the maxim nevertheless would apply and the country of L'Ouverture would experience a fresh beginning into a much brighter future. Recovery and reconstruction will take a long time but, with the helpful response of so many countries and humanitarian agencies, the resilient people of Haiti should be able to turn this tragedy into an opportunity to create a better life for themselves.
What role can the sporting world play in this urgent rebuilding process? Daaim Shabazz, creator and operator of the Chess Drum website, urges the idea: "Thus far, several sports organisations and Olympic committees have pledged moral support. Fifa president Joseph Blatter also released a statement of moral support. "It is my hope that organisers, players and officials from around the world will show some solidarity in supporting relief efforts for a devastated nation. "This is not a political conflict, religious, ethnic or class war, but a battle between the earth's natural forces. Who knows where the next battle will be fought?"
Shabazz, assistant professor at Florida University, notes that the Haitian national anthem speaks of Haitians being urged on by their ancestors to fight a valiant battle without the fear of death. It urges, "Our past cries out to us: Have a disciplined soul!" The ultimate battle that remains for Haitians may be survival, he says, "but we hope their strong resolve will result in a stronger nation. The chess community will be waiting for their return!" In the context of Haiti's monumental agony, of course, the game of chess may be seen as a minor concern, but Shabazz offers poignant insights into the recent progress of the sport, the personalities behind its optimistic development and the grievous setback it has suffered from the disorienting ravages of the earthquake. Hopefully, his account will move the conscience of the sporting world.
Chess was one of the social outlets being reignited as part of the country's vibrant culture. When the Haitian team contested the Turin Olympiad in 2006, the nation broke a ten-year hiatus, having played previously in 1988, 1990, 1994 and 1996. "They were full of spirit and ambition," says Shabazz, "and it was apparent that they were enthusiastic about returning to the international stage." Led by national champion Piersont Lebrun and top scorer Jozy Bazile, the Haitians finished with a score of three wins, four draws and six losses. "While this was a modest showing," notes Shabazz, "it provided them with the momentum for rebuilding their confidence and to make progress as an active federation."
After two years of steady development, the Haitian Chess Federation planted a significant milestone by launching L'Academie d'Echecs, a non-profit organisation designed to promote chess in schools. "From the academy's website, they appeared to be very active and the programmes they organised seemed to be gaining support," Shabazz observes. The Academy, driven by its energetic president Sabine Bonnet, was able to secure sponsorship and began to stage several tournaments, participating also in activities in neighbouring Dominican Republic. In 2008, as fate would have it, the Federation's plans for sending a team to the Olympiad in Dresden were blown away by a series of hurricanes which ravaged the island and killed 800 people.
Undeterred by that misfortune, the Haitian chess community pressed on and in December 2009 the country crowned Mondoly Sanon its national champion after his unbeaten performance of 7.5/9 among the ten finalists. According to Shabazz, Sanon "was poised to be the top board for Haiti in the 2010 Olympiad in Siberia." Just weeks after the championship, the earthquake wrecked large sections of the country including its capital Port au Prince, leaving an estimated 150,000 dead and 600,000 homeless. Having to endure the trauma of such a catastrophe, the idea of going to the Olympiad in Russia next September would surely be unthinkable, lost as it was in the Haitian ruins.
The need to teach chess to Haiti's young people had become a passion for the Academy's president, a noted member of the national community, who lost virtually everything in the earthquake. Fortunately, her husband and children escaped serious injury but the Bonnet family, as with thousands of others, is now faced with the tremendous challenge of reconstructing a normal life. However, as hope springs eternal, we have no doubt that Haiti will arise from the rubble, returning eventually to a full social life in which the sport of chess can resume to play its own constructive part.