Wun­derkind has set his sights on the Grand Mas­ter ti­tle

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Teenage chess sen­sa­tion Kee­gan Agul­has had so lit­tle in­ter­est in the game when he was younger that he thought pawns – the weak­est and most nu­mer­ous pieces in the game – were called “prawns”.

Seven years later, the teenager has set the South African chess scene alight by earn­ing the ti­tle of FIDE World Chess Fed­er­a­tion Mas­ter, the third-high­est rank­ing in global chess, as well as an In­ter­na­tional Mas­ter norm. This means he is just two norms away from the In­ter­na­tional Mas­ter ti­tle.

The 17-year-old from Bel­lville, Cape Town, has set his sights on play­ing pro­fes­sion­ally and, of course, at­tain­ing the Grand Mas­ter ti­tle – an elite hon­our be­stowed on only a hand­ful of the world’s top play­ers.

This week, Agul­has swept aside the com­pe­ti­tion to clinch the Un­der18 Open Cat­e­gory at the SA Ju­nior Closed Chess Cham­pi­onships in Benoni. This has earned him a spot on the South African team to play in­ter­na­tion­ally at the Com­mon­wealth Games.

The chess whizz-kid was also named the South African Un­der-16 Player of the Year at the in­au­gu­ral Chess SA Youth Chess Awards, which took place on Tues­day.

“I love the feel­ing of out­think­ing my op­po­nent and cal­cu­lat­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties to make de­ci­sions,” he said.

“Chess also brings peo­ple to­gether. Ev­ery week and month, you play and meet new peo­ple. Once you get na­tional colours, you travel the world meet­ing peo­ple from all over. I find it amaz­ing and it makes me ap­pre­ci­ate the life I’m liv­ing.”

While his mum Mar­celle – who serves on the board of Chess SA – and dad Henry do not play, Agul­has’ in­ter­est in the game came from watch­ing his older sis­ter Tif­fany, who at­tained the in­ter­na­tional ti­tle of Can­di­date Mas­ter – a notch be­low his ti­tle of FIDE Mas­ter – in 2009.

His in­ter­est in the game was in­spired by his sis­ter play­ing at the ju­nior cham­pi­onships in 2009, which he at­tended be­cause it was his birthday and he wanted an early birthday present.

“At that tour­na­ment, I told my mum that I wanted to play in the in­di­vid­ual tour­na­ment. She was sur­prised be­cause I was a soc­cer player, but she said yes and I re­ceived some quick coach­ing from one of the coaches and played.

“I did badly with a score of 2.5 out of nine. I didn’t take that loss well be­cause I am com­pet­i­tive and I cried. But the de­feat mo­ti­vated me to be a bet­ter player,” he said.

Since that fate­ful tour­na­ment, he has gone on to play for his school, West­ern Prov­ince and, even­tu­ally, South Africa.

I love the feel­ing of out­think­ing my op­po­nent KEE­GAN AGUL­HAS

His suc­cess hasn’t come with­out sac­ri­fice. Agul­has prac­tises for 90 min­utes ev­ery day and spends another half-hour play­ing on­line against play­ers from all over the world.

In 2015, he played in the Un­der-16 Olympiad in Slo­vakia. But it was at the African Youth Cham­pi­onships in Port El­iz­a­beth later that year that his talent started to blos­som.

“My fail­ure taught me to work harder, as did watch­ing my friends in that sec­tion gain ti­tles. At first, I was ner­vous, but knew I could get the job done. It worked out as I won eight out of my nine points, with seven wins and two draws.

“I ended the tour­na­ment with a 1.5-point lead in my best per­for­mance by far, and earned my FIDE Mas­ter as well as my In­ter­na­tional Mas­ter norm.”

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