While the first French online chess championship is being held, Le Pèlerin looks back on the adventure of three enthusiasts who transformed the Isle of Beauty into a hotbed of international players in two decades.
HAS La Santé prison, in Paris, this evening in 1978, a 25-year-old Corsican begins his first night behind bars . Léo Battesti, secretary of the Corsican Student Assembly and member of the Corsican National Liberation Front (FLNC) was arrested for his participation in an attempted attack against a tax center under construction on the island. He comes out of grueling police custody, seven days of interrogation without a lawyer and is looking for sleep when he hears noises that are both sharp and regular. Paranoia overcomes him: is this a new persecution to prevent him from sleeping? The next day, a Breton inmate reassures him: they are two KGB spies competing against each other in chess. The Morse code that they type on the bars of their cell window indicates the movement of the pieces on the board. A game ? He likes the idea. The tricks and the fools, the ladies and the kings will perhaps help him to overcome the ordeal of prison, especially since he is finally sentenced to nine years of detention by the soldiers and magistrates of the Court of state security. Léo Battesti then resumed his law studies, controlled a chess board and trained by reading a chess manual. He became more seasoned as the days went by, playing games via postcards, organizing a correspondence tournament… which he completed once released, after having been amnestied in 1981.
Thirteen years later, in September 1994, Léo entered the Corsica Chess Club in Bastia (Upper Corsica) with Saveriu, his 9-year-old son: the child had already become stronger than his father! He needs new adversaries. The club is the haunt of around fifty adults, all passionate. His secretary, Jean-Philippe Orsoni, an economics student, has just convinced certain teachers to bring their class to the Youth Center where he runs introductory chess workshops. Léo Battesti then runs a small photoengraving company. Known in Corsica for having been one of the architects of the FLNC, the self-determination activist was elected to the territorial assembly where he was involved in the culture and sport commission. In 1988, he saw his car destroyed by a molotov cocktail. Four years later, in 1992, he resigned from all his mandates after calling for an end to the armed struggle and the dissolution of clandestine groups in favor of an “exclusively democratic fight”.
From the outset, Léo Battesti feels on the same wavelength as Jean-Philippe Orsoni regarding the benefits of chess for children: for extroverts, the game brings calm; to introverts it gives self-confidence, a real possibility of self-development. And this game, in their eyes, has another virtue: it is accessible to everyone. The nationalist also sees it as a school for learning respect for rules and citizenship.
All Saints’ Day holidays 1997. Bastia is flooded with posters. They inform the residents that around twenty international chess grandmasters will come to compete in public. The event, organized by the Corsica Chess Club, takes place at the Théâtre de Bastia. 150 private and political partners are attending, alongside the population, the meetings of this first Corsican International Open. The former elected official used his interpersonal skills and his address book to find private financing: the prices, attractive enough, attract prestigious foreign players. It is a success. The refreshment bar on the ground floor provides funds for the club’s coffers. The event will continue from year to year. And all the world chess champions, whether their names are Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov or Viswanathan Anand, now know Corsica.
However, the following year, despite recruiting several international players to wear its colors, the Corsica Chess Club found itself at the bottom of the rankings in the Vitrolles championship (Bouche-du-Rhône). And he lost a lot of money! This failure encourages the small management team to prefer to devote most of the budget to education for children and the organization of tournaments on the island. A new Corsican Chess League, chaired by Léo Battesti, is created. It brings together the Corsica Chess Club of Bastia and the Ajaccio club (Southern Corsica). A first agreement is signed with the rector of Bastia: schools that wish can provide chess lessons during extracurricular time. The League is responsible for providing facilitators.
This is how Léo meets Akkhavanh Vilaisarn. The young man is of Laotian origin. His discovery of chess in Toulouse, during his math studies, was a shock for him. This game, which he considers to have “wonderful complexity”, opened up a “vast space of imagination” for him. The death of his grandmother encouraged him to leave Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) and it was the chance of a coin, thrown above a map of France, which brought him to Corsica, in 1999, just when the chess club was looking for new leaders. Léo and Jean-Philippe entrusted him with several schools, from Calvi to Calenzana to L’Île Rousse, Akkha settled in the center of its perimeter, in the mountain village of Cateri. As the end of the year approaches, he is approached by three Corsicans sitting on the bench in the village square. “So how are chess lessons going?” » They are very surprised to hear the young man answer them in Corsican! Akkha used her long drives from one school to another to soak up the local language through cassette tapes. Corsican thus became… his seventh language! Introduced to French at age 3 in Laos by the family tutor, he was 5 when he learned Thai in the refugee camp where his grandparents had fled with their five grandchildren while his father was imprisoned. in a recovery camp. When the family then settled in Toulouse, he learned English and Spanish at the Ecole de la République, Italian at the university… The young polyglot tells the old Corsicans that he is preparing to take his classes to the first school tournament in Bastia.
Vast capitals were erected on this day in June 2000, along the plane tree avenue of Place Saint-Nicolas . It was fenced off for the safety of the 500 expected children. At the foot of the statue of Napoleon I, the tournament is organized by classes and all the children take turns participating. The atmosphere is worthy of a vast fair but at kick-off, the voices fall silent. On the other side of the protective barriers, a retired teacher looks on, impressed: in his forty-year career, he has never succeeded in establishing such silence!
The event had a strong impact and requests from schools poured in: a first agreement was signed with the general council. Nearly 3,000 students are affected. It was in CM1, at Saint-Joseph school, in one of the working-class neighborhoods of Bastia, that Michael Massoni caught the virus. The child is shy and reserved, but he learns quickly. In the evening, after school, he joins the Corsica Chess Club to face players stronger than him. Very quickly, he impressed with his speed and won his first cup in his first “blitz” tournament, games that are played quickly. At 11 years old, Michael already reached third place in the French Youth Championship. In 2006, the club organized a meeting between its young “hope” and the Indian Viswanathan Anand. The reigning world champion, known for his fast games, makes short work of Michael but he takes the time to explain his mistakes to him…
The young champion’s victories make Léo Battesti’s work easier to convince institutions to direct part of their financial efforts towards failures. But in Corsica, like almost everywhere in France, it’s football that wins the day! So Léo addresses the daily Corsica Morning. In the photo on the front page, he sits holding, in his right hand, a football that weighs too heavy and in his left hand a very light chessboard. The provocation convinced the two Corsican general councils and the local authority to support the failures.
Around twenty facilitators are hired whose training is provided by Akkha. This enthusiast has even designed learning brochures for children. He is convinced: rather than teaching students to start games, which is done everywhere, it is better to train them to win the end games to encourage them to become creative. Five chess clubs were then created in Corsica to welcome the most fanatics among them. In 2003, during the first French Under-20 Championship in Calvi, draws by mutual consent, usually tolerated in chess, were prohibited for the first time in Corsica.
In 2008, when the Corsican rectorate authorized chess during school hours, Michael had the chance to be one of five Corsicans to play simultaneously against Garry Kasparov, world champion. He was just 16 years old and two years later, in April 2010 in Troyes, he became the first Corsican to win the title of French under-18 champion. League officials are exultant. This victory marks the beginning of recognition of their fundamental work: making Corsica the French homeland of chess. Two years later, the young man reached the mark of 2,400 ELO points, the system for evaluating the performance level of players: he was the first Corsican to become an “international master” of chess. He now teaches classes in schools on the island.
October 1, 2023 in Mexico City (Mexico): another Corsican teenager, Marc’Andria Maurizzi, spotted in first grade at the Charpak school in Bastia, becomes the first Corsican junior world champion. Léo Battesti follows the matches via the Internet. He entrusted the presidency of the Corsican League, which has 7,000 members, to Akkha to devote himself to a new challenge: fighting the mafia which is plaguing his island. He founded the collective Maffia No’-A Vita Iè with Jean-François Bernardini, the singer of the group I Muvrini. Akkha is now an international referee, but he continues to teach in classes to maintain the Corsican talent pool. This October morning, he is standing in front of a bilingual CE2 class at the Venturi school, in the center of Bastia.
“The rider, where is he going? And if I move this black pawn, can the knight take it? » Several of the twenty-six students raised their fingers to answer the question. Akkha designates one of them, a little brunette, to come and move the piece on the large screen attached to the classroom wall. The child rises on tiptoe to reach the black box with the tactile pencil.
The president of the Corsican Chess League begins each of his lessons with a reminder of a few rules, then he distributes boards and pieces and seats the students two by two. “It’s an exercise in playing without talking. I insist: without speaking. The rule is simple: if you talk, you lose! »
Silence settles in, hammered by the clicks of pieces moved by the children. Ten minutes later, Akkha stops the game. “Count your points!” » The values of the pawn, bishop, rook or queen are displayed on the board. “Aghju vintu” (“I won”), “Aghju persu” (“I lost”), “Ci he patta” (“there is a draw”) makes them repeat Akkha, well convinced that the game makes it easier to learn a language. “And now the tournament!” » Every week, the students face a different player from their class. “Shake hands properly and concentrate. » Silence returns, barely disturbed by the scraping of a chair leg.