Checkmate! Prishtina’s elderly find solace in their love of chess

Up by the fountain in Prishtina’s Ulpiana neighbourhood, local pensioners have found friendship and motivation from their personal chess corner that they have built and maintain themselves.

A hierarchy of royal figures occupies two wooden tables placed near the fountain (or Fontana), in the Ulpiana neighbourhood of Prishtina.

Amid cries of defeat and triumph, the elderly from the area gather every afternoon to play chess under the shade of the trees. With four chess boards placed on two rectangular tables, they have created a local meeting point, where, besides playing chess, they can lament the troubles of old age.

For 89-year-old Abedin Hoxha, from Tropoja, in northern Albania, who moved to Prishtina around four months ago, integration into the circle of chess enthusiasts has helped him overcome feelings of grief.

Although he does not play chess himself, Hoxha enjoys friends’ games and says that meeting friends of his age has helped him adapt to a new place, which he never imagined he could do at such an age.

“I come here and hang out with these friends. It’s not that I play, but I watch my friends play and I got rid of the sadness a little,” he says, adding that it is better than staying alone.

Hoxha came to live in Prishtina with his daughter after his wife, two sons, and one son’s wife all passed away. “People think I am strong, but I have to push myself through,” he says.

“Chess is rarely played as well as here, and to watch them play and talk to them takes away the sadness,” he adds, excitedly.

For all the enthusiasm of the elderly, and the will of the Chess Federation of Kosovo, the game has not developed as fast as it could in Kosovo, partly due to lack of institutional support.

While the number of players is growing, clubs often do not survive long. Burhan Misini, president of the Kosovo Chess Federation, told BIRN that since his federation joined the Olympic Committee in 2015, the number of chess players had doubled.

“We have around 48 passive and active clubs,” he says, but many “have trouble surviving and are becoming [mainly] passive” because they depend totally on people’s willingness to donate.

Misini told BIRN that he tried in vain to introduce chess into schools. “I introduced a project for [chess] competitions to the national coordinator, a regulation to introduce chess competitions in school, but it all remains on paper,” he sighs.

Fierce competition between towns

Elderly playing chess in Prishtina. Photo: BIRN/ Urim Krasniqi

The elderly from the region often make jokes about which town or city is better in chess.

“Vushtrri plays best, all the world knows that,” one announces. “Drenica holds the front,” comes back another. Others agree that: “Drenica would be glad to know how but Vushtrri actually know hows to play chess.”

Ismet Maloku, from Stanofci near Vushtrri, is considered one of the best chess players among them. Every time he comes to Prishtina, he goes to Fontana to play chess.

But unlike Hoxha, who is spending his old age in Pristina, the 62-year-old is planning to leave Kosovo to live with his children in Germany.

“I dreamed of living my old age in Kosovo in freedom; I dreamed of living with children and grandchildren,” he says.

“Then, I said inshallah [if Allah wills it], freedom comes and I will enjoy old age, without asking for much. But now I have to go to another country. I would be happier to spend the days I have left here and playing chess,” Maloku says, discouraged.

He has more than 20 years of experience in chess, a skill he strengthened at his former club, Shqiponjat [The Eagles] which he led many years ago. He says chess has helped him in life even though there was no financial gain from it.

“I had a club, Shqiponjat, but we don’t have it anymore. We were the best chess players although we didn’t really have the right conditions. We had only chess. We made no profit, we played only out of a wish to do so,” he recalls. “We do not place bets … we play for fun,” he adds.

“As for chess players, Vushtrri has excellent players, everybody knows,” Maloku says. However, players from the Drenica region insist that Skenderaj and Drenas are home to the top players, while Misini says that “in school competitions, Malisheva is very active.”

Youngsters have vandalised their spot

Two chess enthusiasts shake hands after a heated game. Photo: BIRN/ Urim Krasniqi

The elderly players have invested from their minimum pensions of around 100 euros a month to fix the place where they play, due to a lack of institutional support.

Aziz Sallahu, from Krasaliqi of Skenderaj, says that if necessary, he would spend the last days of his life playing chess under the shade of trees. Sallahu, who has been living in Prishtina for years, is considered by his friends as a man who takes chess more seriously than life.

“I often get angry while playing, but I do not have that much stress because I started playing chess a long time ago,” the man in his fifties says. “What can I do? I do not like to lose!” he adds, after suffering defeat from one of his townsmen.

Gathering up the chess pieces at the end of the game, which they take in turn to their homes to bring back the next day, the elderly complain about the damage and theft that had been inflicted on them.

Misini says that back in 2014, Prishtina Mayor Shpend Ahmeti gave him the task of preparing a project for some proper chess tables, “but nothing was done. Unfortunately, it has remained only on paper.” Therefore, the responsibility remains with the elderly to take care of the place where they play.

Former physics professor Hajrush Emini from Pristhina, who built the tables and chairs to play chess, complains that people wreck the space where they spend most of their time. “I have been cleaning this place for two years now. I watered this whole part. But the young come, smoke and eat, and leave the place like this,” he grumbles.

Above the chess tables is a cupboard where the players once stored the chess boxes. But since it was stolen a while back, they have to take the boxes home.

“Chess is a brain game. Both books and chess help me to remember,” says Emini, explaining that he played chess since he was 22.

Another player, Riza Veselaj, from Katuni i Ri near Peja, who has been living in Prishtina for 35 years, said they have split money from their pensions to fix the place where they spend most of their time.

Veselaj started playing chess when he was 15 or 16, before joining the army. He learnt by watching his father, who had learned the game in the army, and his cousin, who had also learned in the army.

The 68-year-old says that to fix their chess corner each of the players gave 5 euros from their pension and improvised with planks removed from apartment doors.

“We did it all ourselves,” Veselaj says, adding: “We gave two euros each to buy chess boxes. Another time we gave 5 euros each to fix the tables. The municipality doesn’t have time to deal with us. With our small pensions, we do everything ourselves. The municipality has helped us with absolutely nothing.”

“Checkmate!”, “Leave, you brave men, the queen is coming!”, “You lost your sheep [the pawns]”, are just some of the phrases the players murmur during their moves. Sometimes with high intonation and sometimes with a lower intensity, at times even with screams, they manage to steer the course of the game.

At the end, even though the loser may not accept their defeat, they extend a hand to each other and go and get a coffee.

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