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Warri : African Strategy Game

  Warri just might be the oldest ' board ' game in the world.

Originating in Africa more than 5,000 years ago, it ' s alive and well in the Caribbean, particularly in Antigua where some of the world ' s best players  come from.






According to one enthusiast,

 G. Bacchus Joseph, the game arrived in the West Indies with African slaves brought to the Caribbean to work primarily on sugar plantations.

      Joseph, a manager with a popular fast food restaurant in Antigua ' s capital, St John' s, can often be found playing Warri after work at the Bus Station downtown. A bustling spot, just across from the island ' s main Market, the Bus Station is a favorite haunt for some of the best Warri players in Antigua. The game ' s popularity amongst taxi men  here and in Barbados is legendary. Many visitors to these islands leave with enduring images of taxi men hunched around Warri boards playing with great concentration while waiting for passengers.



The game has many hundreds of variations and names

including Manacala (South Africa), Oware (Ghana),

Ayo (Nigeria), Mbau (Kenya), Awale, Bao, Omweso and


        Warri is said to mean ' house ' and many of

the other names also translate to mean house in other African


         W Lee Farum-Badley writing on the ' Barbados

Warri " website, says gameboards have been found in the

ruins of Egyptian temples and that slaves in Barbados at

one time were punished if they were found playing Warri.

Noting that Barbadian Warri boards in those days

were functional and made to ' dash way easy, ' in contrast the intricacy of game board artifacts found in Africa

suggests that it was a game enjoyed by all classes

of society. It is even said that some African Asante

kings would challenge their generals to Warri games

on golden boards before going into battle to make sure

their minds were sharp. In other African societies,

newly crowned kings were required to play Warri to

demonstrate wisdom to their subjects.

         September Christian, public-relations officer for

the Antigua and Barbuda National Warri Association, says

that Warri is actually closer to 7,000 years old, started in Egypt

 spread from there throughout Africa and then to Asia before

 coming with the slaves to the Caribbean in the 17th century.

      His  organization's main goal is to prevent Warri from

 dying and they administer the game in Antigua/Barbuda,

 organizing competitions and workshops across the island. Today Warri is also being played in North America and Europe.



Game boards can also be of different sizes and shapes, but in Antigua and Barbados, boards are typically rectangular, made of wood and have two rows of six round hollowed out depressions or cup-like scoops in

each row running the length and either side of an imaginary

 middle line in the board ' s centre. On either end of the rows is a

 bigger scooped out hollow, which is a roundish rectangular

 depression, perpendicular to the rows of hollows in the middle.


        A feature of the game is movement of the game pieces or beads

 also known as ' seeds ' or ' nickers ' from hole to hole until one

 player has the most seeds in his big hollowed out section or

 house. The seeds/beads/nickers are real rounded seeds from


        Most places use a greyish-whitish coloured seed. In

Antigua, it's more common to use a reddish-yellow seed


           The board is placed between the players, who sit

facing each other. If the player were to hold his hand out to

 shake his opponents hand, it would form the stem of an

 imaginary letter ' T ' with the board forming the letter ' s cross


       There are forty-eight beads at the start - twenty-four

 each. These are placed into each of the rows small holes or

 ' houses. ' The beads are placed in equal amounts inside of the

 houses on each players side of the board.


The aim is to capture as many of your opponent ' s pieces as  possible Play moves anti-clockwise with players picking up as many seeds as they wish and depositing them in the scooped holes.







If when you drop your last one there are only two or three in that hole or proceeding ones, you can pick these up and put them in your ' home ' at the end of the board. The ' home ' to the player ' s left is his home.






























    You ' re supposed to at all times leave at least one bead so that your opponent always has a play.


 Whoever captures the most seeds wins. It requires a calculating, mathematical mind and despite the games simplicity there are unending strategic ploys that can be used. Easier demonstrated by a fellow player than described.














       While Warri is played enthusiastically in many Caribbean territories including St Lucia, Grenada, Haiti, Suriname and to a lesser extent in places like Dominica and the Bahamas, it ' s on Antigua that the game has reached the peaks of perfection.

         Antigua is arguably to Warri what Brazil is to football.

 The island is rated number one internationally in tournament Warri. They have produced the first certified Grand Master in the sport and dominated all international Warri team championship competitions they've entered.

           The first World Championships in Warri was organized by the World Mind Sport Olympiad in 1998 when the first games were held in the United Kingdom. The Olympiad was the brainchild of a group of British businessmen who theorized that it takes special talents to win mental games and that such skills were worthy of rewards and international recognition.

     They scoured the world for board games to include in the competition and besides well known mind games like Chess, Checkers and Backgammon, included lesser heralded ones like Warri.

       Simon won the individual champion ' s title three years in a row and was given a special certificate recognizing him as a Warri Grand Master when he first retained the title.

         In those years Antigua also dominated the team championships sweeping Senior and Junior titles. Lack of funds  has hampered participation in similar contests in recent years

but the Simon says he expects Antigua to be back on the international circuit again either this year or failing that, in 2005

According to Simon, " Warri is an extremely tactical game. It requires strategic thinking. Most people don ' t know this, but it ' s also used to teach calculus and maths in Africa.

         A Swiss researcher used the principles of the game to demonstrate lessons to psychology students. While a teacher in Britain told the B.B.C. that all her students that learnt Warri had shown improvements in their mathematics scores.

        After a few years of waning interest, recently there has  been a renaissance of sorts and the game is enjoying a rebirth  across Antigua. Some link it directly to Simon ' s successes as  World Champion and the island ' s dominance in the sport internationally.

      " Now when you go into any of the villages you can find groups of young-men playing Warri late into the nights. " remarked Joseph Isaac, a shoemaker and play-wright.

    " When I was living in France I was surprised one day to come across groups of Africans playing this game that I knew so well from my youth in Antigua. Later I came to understand that to them, it was much more than a game but also an expression of liberation and cultural pride in a foreign locale. "

       Joseph says that when he was a child they would dig holes in the ground and use stones as playing pieces."

      One of the beauty ' s of this game is it's simplicity and yet it ' s so intellectually challenging at the same time. " he said. The game's popularity as a national pastime in Antigua can probably be compared somewhat to that of dominoes in Jamaica.

A feather ' s blow from Isaac ' s shoe-repair shop in St John ' s, the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda has an intricately carved Warri-board on display. Donated to the museum by some tourists whose grandparents had visited Antigua in the 1950s it was carved by an Antiguan craftsman. It's fish motif gives an idea of just how intricately designed some boards can be.

Because of this, it ' s not uncommon for a well done Warri board to fetch prices of over US$200.00. In Antigua, the warri board is as ubiquitous as the steel pan in souvenir stalls. What makes these boards and Warri sets different is that in Antigua the seeds are red or yellow. They come from a tree that grows wild on the island, whereas games from other countries tend to have white-gray seeds or beads. These are also used by some players in Antigua.

         Grand Master and Champion player Trevor Simon says that because of the yellow/red beads, Antiguan sets were in big demand by competitors from other countries when he played in the Mind Olympics. " People would always be offering to trade or buy their sets and seeds for mine! " he explained.

         The game which started in Africa is not just being played worldwide, but universities in Europe and North America are currently developing computer game software based on Warri. There are also attempts to develop a computer program that can beat a human player in the same way that ' Deep Blue ' a computer from IBM beat former World Chess Champion, Garry Kasparov a few years ago. Developers have actually tried to set up a match between their computers and Simon. So far he ' s declined offers from universities in Canada and Switzerland, but he says when all the conditions are right he'll take up the challenge any where in the world. This would even include a ' sensible ' challenge from computer giants Oracle, who say they have the ultimate in unbeatable Warri computers. " I ' m not worried about any of it.

I believe it could be possible to develop an 'unbeatable' computer program but I also believe that against a Grand master human player, most computer-challenge games would probably be drawn. " says Simon.

         The Antigua and Barbuda National Warri Association's September Christian, while happy that the sport is being played by people all over the world nowadays,expressed a bit of disquiet with the sport ' s globalization. " Ultimately it may leave the

Caribbean and African countries with smaller economic resources lagging behind. "






    The sport that was once banned and played in secret by slaves, is now enjoyed by West Indians from all walks of life. In Antigua several parliamentarians are good Warri players and so are several former test cricketers including  Viv Richards, Curtley Ambrose and Kenneth Benjamin. According to Trevor Simon, Bejamin is actually a pretty strong player who is known to organise regular competitions in the village of Liberta.

   If Warri can help students around the world to be better at numbers, maybe it could one day be part of the mental gymnastics for West Indian school children, businessmen and athletes as well. Perhaps one day Antigua won ' t be the only place in the Caribbean famous for its " Warri - ors ".



Written and copyrighted 2004

by Wayne Bowen.

Photos by Wayne Bowen.

All rights reserved.

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