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Caveman who conquered stalwarts
Rhonda Wellington joined the ranks of T&T chess stalwarts with an unusual record.
In a career that spanned a quarter century, from the early sixties to mid eighties, Wellington won more major tournaments than any of his better known contemporaries.
What makes his string of victories somewhat exceptional, however, is the fact that he was never able to secure the coveted mantle of national chess champion. Wellington’s most prestigious triumph came in 1968 when he emerged Champion of Champions, excelling in a contest that was open to all national champions, past and present.
By that time he already had the RVI Knockout and Independence Knockout titles in the bag and later went on to win the championship of the RVI Chess Club, at that time the strongest chess outfit in the country.
For decades, before, during and after the War, RVI was the colossus of the local chess world, the “home” of most, if not all, the leading players who became legends of the time.
Youngsters joined the RVI with a sense of awe, having to serve their apprenticeship in the lower ranks before they were accepted to play as regulars among the giants.
The club’s championship, from year to year, became the virtual preserve of a coterie of leading members including such “immortals” as George Stanford, Fred Brassington, Fred Sabga, Carl Brown, Arnold Fortune and Lionel Dechi.
When Wellington joined the RVI in 1961 at the age of 20, however, the young police constable soon became an arresting force among his older clubmates, playing a brand of unorthodox and aggressive chess that clashed with the bookish and conservative style that had become the norm among his seniors.
He played unconventional, if not heretical, openings that puzzled his opponents from early. And several of his significant victories resulted from dramatic piece sacrifices which either gained him lasting advantages or derailed his opponents into playing badly.
“You may find this hard to believe, but I never read or studied a chess book in all the years I played the game,” Wellington confided. His caveman tactics on the chessboard developed largely from his voracious appetite for the game, starting at the Woodbrook Youth Centre where he played a variety of athletic sports before getting “hooked” on chess under the encouraging tutelage of warden Jacinto Rodriguez.
Later he spent endless hours “sparring” with his neighbour Arnold Lynch. And eventually, when his natural chess skill demanded stronger competition, two friends, Dr Philbert Norris and Tony Martin took him to the RVI.
The irony of Wellington’s chess career is that while he scored individual victories against all the leading players of his time, he just could not win the national title. Why? “I really can’t explain it, up to now,” he tells DR with a philosophic smile.
“I remember in the first national finals I played, I had both Brassington and Brown to hang. Beating them would have given me the title. The games were adjourned and when we resumed I blundered and had to settle for draws. I suppose it is what we call a jinx.”
As Champion of Champions, of course, Wellington has demonstrated his superior chess prowess, but that event has since disappeared into history together with the once elitist RVI Chess Club. Indeed, the ex-policeman may now well be the only surviving holder of that title and one of the few remaining RVI stalwarts.
The national championship, by comparison, lives on, imparting a form of immortality to its winners.
If it’s any consolation to him, Wellington’s story has famous parallels at the highest levels of the game. Brilliant grandmasters, such as Paul Keres, Samuel Reschevsky, Akiba Rubinstein, David Bronstein and Mikhail Chigorin campaigned formidably throughout their careers, winning world class tournaments in different places but, as fate or destiny would have it, their logical challenge for the world title just never succeeded. But, say what, such is the nature of life and, as for Wellington, he feels no regrets as he looks on the brighter side, filled with memories of beating the best.
“Apart from Rodriguez, I never had a coach as such,” he recalls. “Also, I never read a chess book in my life.” The game came naturally to him and he played it according to his own individual style. From that respect, his victories and achievements were particularly pleasing, comprising a record of which he can be justly proud.
Apart from chess, Wellington’s competitive spirit made him a leading athlete of the Police Service which he also represented at football, hockey and basketball.
He was a member of the T&T chess team which demolished St Vincent in a match and placed third behind Cuba and Jamaica in the Caribbean Chess Championship played in Guyana in 1975.
Wellington’s abiding love for the royal game comes out in his feeling that much more can be done to raise standards. He advocates, for example, a revival of the Caribbean Chess Championship and engaging other countries such as Venezuela, Cuba, Jamaica and Barbados in matches. He says: “We need to be playing chess regularly at a high level if we really want to improve.”
We must also work towards having a permanent home for chess, he urges.
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