"An unemployed draughts player from New Brighton township in Port Elizabeth has shocked the draughts world with a string of international victories, including the US Open Checkers (draughts) Championship title.
But true to South African sporting tradition, internal politics kept him from joining the South African team going to the World Mind Sports Games this month in Beijing.
South Africa's best hope of winning a medal at the Games by far, Lubabalo Kondlo was left out of the team for not belonging to the officially recognised Mind Sports South Africa association (MSSA) and for failing to take part in pre-games trials.
A long-standing personality clash between MSSA president Colin Webster and Kondlo seems to be the reason two apparently minor players, Thabo Makuna and Lebogang Shibambu, will represent South Africa in Beijing instead of Kondlo.
He has just returned from the United Sates, where he drew 23 games against the world champion and lost one. He recently attained grandmaster status and was ranked number seven in the world even before his latest successes.
Thirty-six-year-old Kondlo has been playing draughts since the age of seven in the obscurity of New Brighton township, where he was raised single-handedly by his mother who scraped together a living as a casual domestic worker.
"Draughts is so popular in Port Elizabeth that people play it everywhere on the streets," he says. His talent was spotted early on by the local draughts enthusiasts and he was urged to join a club as a teenager, which probably saved him from a life of crime, he says. As a mind sport, the game requires high levels of concentration and therefore does not form part of the shebeen culture of the township.
With only a matric to his name, he has not had a job apart from a short stint as a manual labourer on a building site, which he had to give up because of an old rugby injury.
In search of more challenging opponents and work he headed for Gauteng, where he stayed at an Orlando West hotel -- popular among black Gauteng draughts players. He played so well that the owner of the hotel gave him free accommodation for a few years in return for "raising the level of the club" there. He studied draughts books borrowed from the Johannesburg library.
Kondlo caught international attention in 1999 when the long-standing world champion, Ron King from Barbados, toured South Africa and was beaten by Kondlo six games to two. Kondlo admits that King, who was recovering from an accident, was not in top form. But in 2001 the then number-two player in the world, Irishman Hugh Devlin, toured South Africa and was also beaten by Kondlo, who officially represented South Africa in Protea colours.
But then the relationship between Kondlo and Webster soured. Kondlo says he was blocked by Webster from taking part in international championships and tours.
Webster, who is sponsoring the air tickets to Beijing, says Kondlo's obstinate refusal to join a club affiliated to the MSSA, the official governing body of draughts in South Africa, and his absence at the trials made it impossible for the MSSA to select him. It is considered unfair towards other members of the association. Kondlo, on the other hand, claims that an obtuse insistence on bureaucratic correctness has thwarted his previous attempts at joining the MSSA.
Webster says that after the Test match against Devlin, "Lubabalo disappeared. He came back this year in January and he said he wants to go to Beijing and we said 'look, we have procedures, we've done the trials, you're not even a member'."
But Kondlo had meanwhile caught the attention of the World Checkers and Draughts Federation in the US, which invited him to participate in the US Open in July last year. He won the title, as well as a world championship qualifier, which allowed him to challenge King in Ohio this month.
His achievements are all the more remarkable for not having a computer on which to practise -- standard gear for the world's top players. But he believes that his success is because of the high-level play among the enthusiasts in Port Elizabeth, many of whom remain undiscovered because of the lack of formal development of the game. "There are guys here in Port Elizabeth, we are on the same level; it's like I win today, I lose tomorrow," he says.
Kondlo usually studies the game for six hours a day at the New Brighton library. He lives mostly at an aunt's tiny council house, which is shared among more than a dozen people, making it hard to practise at home.
When he isn't preparing for matches, Kondlo teaches draughts at local schools. He dreams of starting his own draughts academy to develop local talent and help fight the misconception that draughts is less of a mental challenge than chess. "I think chess and draughts are equal."
Competitive draughts has a strong psychological component to it, says Kondlo. "For you to become a good player you have to read [your opponent's] mind, how he thinks."
Kondlo says he was desperate to represent South Africa in Beijing and had secured a US sponsor to pay for the trip were he allowed to go. He says he was even offered an opportunity to play for the US, but turned it down out of loyalty to South Africa.
About the MSSA, he says: "I wanted to join the organisation. Before last year [Webster] would play hide-and-seek with me. I would send him forms and when I tried to fax him forms [he would say] the forms are wrong." Earlier this year, when he played in a tournament in Johannesburg, he asked Webster for the correct forms, but their interaction ended with Webster accusing Kondlo of "bad-mouthing" him in the US, he says. Webster, on the other hand, claims he has constantly urged Kondlo to join.
The World Mind Sports Games from October 3 to 18 is the first of what could become a regular fixture alongside the Olympic Games. A total of 35 gold medals will go to the winners in five mind sports: chess, bridge, draughts, the Chinese board game go and a Chinese form of chess called xiang qi, which is the only code in which South Africa will not be represented."