Baba Sy: the little-known illiterate world checkers champion who beat masters in seconds

Nii Ntreh June 30, 2020
Baba Sy was a Senegalese world champion of checkers although he was illiterate. Photo Credit: World Draughts Forum

All around the world, the requirements of board games tend to be non-negotiable. Take sudoku or chess, and you’d realize you are expected to fall on brain speed with Machiavellian strategy.

Checkers or draughts, for one, is a game where the good players know how to quicken things while delaying gratification as part of some greater teleology. Baba Sy, Africa’s first world checkers champion, knew this pretty well.

On one occasion in Germany in 1962, Sy played in what is known as a “big game”. The competition was an invitational tournament that boasted some of the best checkers players in the West, at least.

But Sy was so good that he was the one man up against about 150 other players. In a surviving video footage from the game, Sy is seen moving from one table to another, expending few seconds at every point like a teacher walking through the row of students and checking their sheets for the one with a correct answer.

Every challenger, if one could call them that, was treated and discharged when Sy got to their table. He dispensed with education he himself had not learned.

Sy was born in Donaye, Senegal in 1935. Little is known about his upbringing but Dr. Govert Westerveld, a former Dutch youth checkers champion, and historian of the game opines that Sy did not have any formal education.

Dr. Westerveld wrote:

“To better understand Baba Sy’s incredible achievement it is absolutely necessary to consider what the situation of checkers was in those years – about 14 years before newspapers began to talk about the genius Baba Sy from Senegal. It is then that checkers was well introduced in France, Holland, Canada, and Russia. This necessarily implied books about the game, world championships, international tournaments, and other ways to play the game well.

“That is why the capacity of this natural talent from Senegal is so strange and great. This man could neither write nor read and suddenly was among the strongest players in the world in the 1960 world championship and after winning against the 1959 world champion Iser Kuperman ranked second in the championship.”

Indeed, it is rumored that the only writing Sy was capable of was his signature. But that did not stop him from beating engineers, mathematicians among other professionals at the checkers table.

But anyone who believes illiteracy is tantamount to no education is provably wrong. Sy spoke four languages including Arabic and French and is known to have memorized the Quran as well.

He may not have sat in a classroom but the capacity of Sy’s intellect to remember game patterns and tactics was clearly superb.

Sy is said to have always been in the company of his friend Abdoul dit Mansor Kouaté. The checkers genius was thought to be a reserved man who basked in the glory of the praises that came his way but also recognized that he was not a part of the European society that cheered him.

Sy won the French national checkers championship in 1959. In 1963, at the world championships, a misunderstanding arose in the game between Sy and Soviet checkers legend Iser Kuperman and no winner was declared.

Sy died in a car accident in 1978 but was posthumously declared the winner in that 1963 game.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: June 30, 2020


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