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International Awale Tournament
Festival des Palais, 26 - 28 February 2016
The 19th International Awale Tournament is to be held at the 30th International Games Festival Cannes (South of France) which takes place from Friday 26th of February to Sunday 28th of February 2015. There will be a Senior & Beginners/ Junior Tournament (for under 16's and novices). Tournament Starts on Saturday at 11 am. We will aim to complete the tournament on Saturday but if there are a large number of competitors then it will be extended to Sunday. For more information contact us admin@oware.org or go to the View links page more details.
It was a cold and dark Thursday morning when I flew out from Gatwick, my destination, Nice Airport and then on to Cannes for the Festival International des Jeux. It was a mixture of nerves and excitement as I got off of the plane and boarded the coastal train to Cannes. I had never been to the Festival before or Cannes for that matter, but I was meeting up with Seth and Glenda, two seasoned veterans of the festival and the main organizers of the Oware or Awale stand.

I quickly dropped my bags at the Hotel and was met by Seth with his welcoming smile and firm handshake. After some brief chat I was handed a security wristband and an ID necklace and we made our way to the hall. My first impression was the sheer size of the building. Upon entering, it seemed a veritable ant’s nest of people busily setting up their stands.

The Oware stand was set up at one side of the hall and was in the traditional games section, so it was in good company amongst such games as chess, go, shogi, fanorona, and many others.

There, I was pleased to meet Guy for the first time, although I had seen pictures and contacted him before on face book. Students from the local university help out each year with the Awale stand and Guy is the main interface between them and the requirements of the Oware society. With fluent English and a dry sense of humour, Guy immediately puts you at ease, and it is soon clear to see that little of the public stand would go ahead without his organisation and translation skills.

On Friday morning, the first day of the festival, we head back off to continue setting up. All of the boards for both public and tournament use are brought up from the store room. In one or two places we found that some items had been damaged in storage and were put aside for repair. The opening deadline of 12.00 soon passed and we were still setting up, but thankfully it all came together as the public slowly came into the hall and filtered into our area. Many people dropped by who were familiar to both Seth and Glenda which is hardly surprising given their 19 year presence at the festival, their warm welcome was also extended to me as a newcomer and I soon began to feel at home.

The students quickly engage with the public allowing them to play at the tables and Guy, with his display screen, draws the public in and soon has them pointing at the screen and competing against each other.

The stand obviously attracts newcomers to the game of Oware, but also people who already know the game or their version of it. We meet for the first time Ngoufo from Lille, who originally comes from Cameroon. He shows us the version he has been taught with the same rules as Oware, but using six seeds in each pit, known to him as Songo. This leads me into great conversation with him regarding the Songo that I have seen on you tube, which uses two rows of seven pits and five seeds in each pit, played clockwise. So keen was he to continue play and meet other players he rearranged his travel plans and stayed with us for the three days, and good company he was too.

Seth, who is keen to video the tournament matches, busily sets up two cameras over the tournament boards. In testing them out he is fortunate as two top players from Cape Verde drop by and, as a guinea pig, I am given a taste of the game standard that is yet to come. We also have the good fortune to have Serik Aktayev and Dastan Kapaev from Kazakhstan drop by. Serik is one of Kazakhstan’s top players at their national game of Togyz Kumalak and a very fine Oware player who has won the international Awale tournament in the past.

The days is long and despite the late start the festival closes at 21.00 and my only thoughts are food and sleep, however a quick trip to the supermarket is firstly required for a tube of wood glue to carry out repairs.

Saturday begins more like an English bank holiday, with wind and rain but on approaching the Festival Hall this does nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the public.

Being a free event, I think, the weather only served to swell the crowds as an easy access indoor event in the warm and dry. The security ID necklace becomes more like a talisman of gold as we sail past the queues and through the security checks. Today’s opening times are 10.00 – 20.00, we arrive in good time and it is nice to be able to relax a little and have a coffee before things kick off.

Saturday is tournament day and it was soon evident just how lucky we were to have the Students as a tidal wave of people comes into the hall. Seth has his hands full welcoming the competitor’s and entering their details on the computer. Glenda is also greeting and keeping an eye on the sales table at the same time. For a short time I must confess to feeling a little left out as they all seemed to know what they were doing and also they all knew each other. However this soon passed as the tournament got under way.

Seth did a brief introduction welcoming the players and outlining the procedure of play.

As a newcomer to playing Oware other than with my family and friends, I soon realise what a different level these players are on and for a first ever competition, I had gone in at the deep end.

I had no expectations of coming anywhere in the tournament and as such was under no pressure, or so I thought. When your opponent ties you up in knots and leaves you wondering which pit to pick up from because they all seem equally hopeless, there is pressure, it is the pressure you put yourself under.

One of the great names in Oware is Trevor Simon and his presence at the tournament was a great privilege to all. A tall man with a warm laid back Antiguan accent and his trademark board which he carries around with him. As a board maker I have often admired this large mahogany board with its simple decoration and huge pits, so to play the man himself on this very board was a real pleasure.

I remarked that he reminded me of BB King who was never seen without his guitar “Lucille” I don’t know if Trevor has a name for his board?

Ferrea Fortes of Cape Verde arrived in the nick of time; I think the queues had hindered his entry. To watch him play Fernando Tavares of France was a real treat. The speed of play and the force with which some seeds were slammed down into the pits sent many a seed flying. Bystanders were more like fielders at a cricket match than spectators.

Serik Aktayev of Kazakhstan was smiling throughout the tournament but his play and temperament was rock solid. Eric Sotoca, the only player I managed to come anywhere near giving a game, was there with his two daughters and it was wonderful to see a family taking part.

Egoitz Campo Gonzales of Basque country, who looked a little tired, played well.

However, at the end it was Trevor Simon who claimed the tournament.

The award ceremony was conducted by Seth and he spoke briefly and warmly about each player as a certificate or trophy was presented. This made it very personal and it was clear that all the players were well known to him.

In the juniors and beginners tournament Eric’s daughters, Clara and Emma Sotoca placed 1st and 3rd respectively and Ngoufo Gangnimaze placed 2nd. The day ended with my head spinning from the sound of the seeds rattling on the boards and generally worn out from even trying to keep pace with the play I had witnessed.

Sunday started much the same as Saturday, poor weather and long queues. However once inside that was all forgotten and I knew the day was going to feel much easier than yesterday. I had decided I would watch but not take part in the Togyz Kumalak tournament scheduled for later in the morning. One reason was that my brain was still addled from the previous day and I also needed to buy presents to take home for my children, or risk them never speaking to me again.

It was the first real chance I had had to wander around the festival at leisure and I just could not believe the number of stalls and public participation.

Back at the stand Guy was still demonstrating to the public and the mystery of how his voice held up was revealed to me when he drew out the lozenges as used by professional singers. Guy first became interested in Oware or Awale in 1999 and started helping at Cannes in 2001. I asked what first drew him to the game and he told me it was the game principles of always feeding your opponent and never starving them, which were pretty good values to have in life, that really attracted him. I felt that it was as good an answer as I was ever likely to hear.

The students manned the crowded tables and several members of the public examined and purchased boards for sale. One small girl showed an interest in a four row board and Glenda was happy to explain Omweso to her. In the competition corner Togyz Kumalak boards are set up on top of the Oware tables and a small group of players set about their games. Play seems somewhat quieter and more thoughtful than yesterday as moves are calculated and executed.

Our Friend Ngoufo shows a natural flair for the game coming in 3rd with Glenda Trew in 2nd place. There could of course be only one winner and that had to be Serik Aktayev.

Serik, a true gentleman, handed out gifts to those present, and as he handed me a Togyz Kumalak board, which I was very grateful to receive, he said, “Please, you take and you practice”.

The Kazakhs are keen to promote their national game, and I look forward to bringing this game to the attention other people.

We say many goodbyes and again after a long but enjoyable day the crowds begin to thin out and we begin to pack all of the equipment away.

My aim when I left England to attend the festival was to play Oware, maybe improve my game, and also to meet some new and interesting people.

I can’t really speak for any improvement in my game, but I can certainly say I have made some new friends, who I hope to see again, and I have absorbed a little of their culture which I feel goes some way to enriching my own life.

Julian, Pembury Woods.
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