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How a head injury made me see things very differently

If there was one person that linked the chess festival and last weekend’s Gibtalks it was young Stephen A J Whatley.

The teen chess sensation pitted his skills against some of the top players in the world only to then talk of the injury that changed his life at Gibtalks on Saturday.

The rise of Stephen A J Whatley has been documented many a time. As a teenager he received a scholarship to study at a prestigious sports school in UK. Then only last year he won gold for fencing at the Commonwealth Junior Championships.

Along with his chess exploits he is one of Gibraltar’s top sportspeople, so his head injury came as a surprise setback. He talked about its impact on his life and how it had given him a fresh perspective.

“The title to my Gibtalk was: If I can do it, anyone can,” he said. “There were a lot of lessons I learned from that and I met a lot of people who all told me the same thing. The importance of recovery is staying positive and knowing you will recover and not getting bogged down by the fact you can’t do things the way you did them before.

“These lessons can be transferred to other areas of life because if you really believe you can do anything you will always get there.”

Knocked out

Whatley’s accident came when he was taking a break from preparing for his Oxford University entrance exams to study medicine the next day.

His passion for fencing has inspired Whatley to set up a local association

“In a fencing warmup we were playing dodgeball and someone else jumped at the same time as me, elbowing me in my temple by accident,” said Whatley. “I was knocked out in mid-air but only for a few seconds. I don’t remember hitting the ground but nobody noticed and I insisted I was fine.

“Then I was doing an exercise and I almost fell onto the person next to me. The head coach sat me down and told me to go back to my house. My mum had come over so I was staying with her for a couple of days but when I arrived I was grey and not making any sense.

“She called an ambulance and was taken to hospital. I was told I had concussion but when I went home I was still very drowsy and would fall asleep. I was taken back to hospital as they were concerned about a bleed on the brain. But after tests I was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome.”

Resting

Recovery these types of concussion symptoms can take from two months to two years. He described it as “a fog that stops you thinking as you did before,” and it stopped him playing chess for a whole year.

Whatley represents England at the European Youth Chess Championships

For the first week and a half I couldn’t even read or write,” said Whatley. “I even had my 18th birthday and I could not even drink. Initially, my personality changed a lot as I didn’t have much patience with my own symptoms but I got a lot better since then.

“It is what it is and I learned from it. If it hadn’t happened I wouldn’t have come back to Gibraltar. Who knows, I might come back a better player as I now have a more relaxed outlook? Essentially I realised chess is a game and while you always know it, it’s hard to understand until something like this occurs.

“I was always interested in neuroscience so after this accident it has only increased my desire to pursue this path. I am just lucky the head injury has not affected me a lot worse as a different angle or being hit a second later could have caused a more serious injury.”

Comeback

Any fears he had about having lost his touch were dismissed in his first competitive game.

“When I returned I played in the Spanish league against a FIDE Master who was ranked 200 points above me and I won,” he said. “That was a relief for me because I wasn’t sure I was going to play properly again.

I wouldn’t say I had lost any ability but it just makes it harder because I get tired very quickly. I now get headaches or even a temperature if I am thinking for too long.

“In the Gibraltar Chess Masters I struggled with those symptoms because it is a marathon of ten days of chess. All of my games lasted at least four hours and with all the preparation and analysis that goes with them, I was happy to get through it all.”

Whatley studies his moves carefully

Even renowned Ukranian Grand Master Vassily Ivanchuk remarked after the event how he had struggled with the intensity of the two week chess tournament. So for Gibraltar’s only representative at the Masters tournament held at the Caleta Hotel to get three wins after such a nasty injury was a big achievement.

Local effort

I have now set up and run a Gibraltar club called Gibraltar ChessNuts every Thursday at 8pm at Timeout Cafe,” he said. “It is almost a social club where you can buy food and drink but most of us are at a decent level too. Some of them are international like myself but others are complete beginners.

“I play as much as I can even though I am studying for my A-levels in five months’ time. Now I am have an offer from St Andrew’s to study medicine. I need three As for that so I really have to study hard.

“Also, I have set up a proper fencing association which has been set up with the GSLA. We will have all three weapons available: sabre, epee and foil. I used fencing as a way of recuperating too so it is a sport I am looking to introduce further in Gibraltar.”

Now 19-years-old, Whatley has will now only be competing in the adult leagues. But for a person of his character and experience he is sure to succeed despite the adversity. The way he stood up to be counted at Gibtalks was another sign his confidence has not harmed in any way.

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