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Thursday, March 31, 2011

And our first GM is.....

For the local chess community, most of us are waiting to see our very own GM, a Malaysian born GM, a local fella we can be proud of. Old, young, men, women, boy or girl is probably secondary.... We just want to have a GM we can call our own. But who would be our best bet to earn the coveted title? Will we be able to see one in this decade? Maybe sooner? Or maybe later?

Maybe, we should share our country vision - Wawasan 2020 and get a GM by then. I think 2020 is a bit too far off... Perhaps we should aim to get our own GM by 2015 at the latest. But is this a realistic objective for us to achieve? And who would be our best bet to claim the title of Malaysia's first GM.

Foremost, is it "mathematically" realistic to achieve that target? Let say we have identified and marked a prospective player with a reasonable 2000 FIDE rating points. So, in order for the player to achieve the GM title, he/she has to earn 500 points in 4 years, at an average rate of 125 points per year. Is this possible? One junior player did that by jumping from below 2000 points to above 2100 points in 1 year. This was done over a few FIDE rated events including the Malaysian Open, the National Closed and the KLCA open but, the higher the rating points a player has, the stronger tournament he/she needs to play in order to continue climbing at the "projected rate". Doing it in Malaysia alone - despite having the Malaysia Open, Penang Open, KL Open or any other open for that matter, may not be enough. With two major events going into extinction i.e. KLCA Open and Malaysia Open, the situation becomes more challenging than ever because, the player would have to travel abroad to achieve this feat... So, is it still possible and realistic considering the amount of time, money, traveling, study that needs to be put in? So, the better bet still lies amongst those who are already in the circa of 2300 FIDE rating because they are much nearer to the 2500 mark especially those who are established like our IMs and FMs. But the question then... are they HUNGRY for it?

Of course, if I say that is not possible for players below that rating point to earn a GM within the next 4 years, then I am seen as "negative". Well, I would rather say that I am being SMART about our objectives i.e. Specific, Measured, Attainable, Realistic and Time bound. As you know, there are a lot of people out there who are "eager" to twist and spin words around, right? Anyway....

We can still achieve a GM from players who are on the rise but in order to continue providing the player(s) with a "better than average chance" to earn the coveted title, it seems inevitable that the player(s) has to travel abroad and participate in stronger events, probably around 6 events per year, and achieve good results in all these 6 events. Of course the more events he/she participated in, the better the chances of him/her to earn more points and norms, besides gaining the knowledge and experience. And with every poor results (there would probably be one or two along the way.... ), the player would have to make it up in additional events to replace the "lost points".

If playing in Europe sounds a bit too far (and expensive), there are a few events in our region that the player can look forward to playing i.e. Bangkok Open, Singapore Open, Continental Championship in Philippines, Campomanes Memorial, Australia Open, etc. but still, some international traveling is required.

But, there are still other supporting factors that needs to be taken into account because playing in events alone will not be enough. The player would need time, money and of course, the main spanner in the works - a good trainer/coach. And to top it all, the player also needs to have the desire to achieve and a supportive parents to help make the journey easier. But even though a player has all these, and I mean PLENTY of these, sometimes... just sometimes, he/she just don't have the talent to carry him pass the "victory line". Like it or not, lady luck sometimes have a very humorous way to convey her message across.... But let's not go too deep into that...

So, let us look at the pool of players that we have... Who would you put your money on? Or, do you think that our future GM is still running in diapers in somebody's house... of just maybe, our GM will come from one of our veteran players who decided to focus on chess once he/she has retired and go all the way for the GM title. FYI, I am surprised (and inspired) to learn that GM Wong Meng Kong of Singapore took more than 15 years to finally achieve his GM title... Maybe it would be me (since I am doing chess almost full time and can devote my time to learning chess....). So, who would be our GM, our first GM?

There are definitely a lot talented players amongst our juniors i.e. Lim Zhuo Ren, Sumant Subramaniam, Edward Lee, Timothy Capel , Mohd Nabil, and if we were to go more junior than these juniors, we would have Yeoh Li Tian and Subramanian Sivanesan. For the girls, we have Nabila and Najiha, Alia Anin, Tan Li Ting, Puteri Rifqah, Puteri Munajjah and Camelia. But, even the "older and seasoned" players also can still aim for the prestigious title such as IM Mas, IM Mok, FM Nicholas Chan and FM Ronnie Lim. But amongst these players, who would most likely be our GM? Well, I would probably not want to name any of them but based on observations....

IM Mas (and IM Mok - age may not be on his side), would still remain as the best persons to achieve this feat - considering their mathematical chances because they are less than 200 points away from the GM "bar line". Further, both Mas and Mok are clearly a league above everyone else.

I had the opportunity to see Mas grow from an aspiring junior to become Malaysia's strongest player. The support provided by his late father was immense and undivided - I knew his father as we hailed from the same school. His father would buy any and every chess books that he come across and work each book with Mas from page 1 to the end - such was his support and determination to make him what he is now. The late Cikgu Rahman (as I fondly called him) will, on almost every occasion whenever he is in KL, call me to ask if I have any books for sale - new, old, in whatever conditions and if he does not have it, he will probably buy it. And during Mas 2 year stint with GM Ian Rogers, Mas continued doing the same thing, train and learn chess as many hours as he can put in alas, he fell short of achieving his dream - our dream, to be Malaysia's first GM. But, the good thing is, the dream never fades and he is still eying for the title so, can he finally cross the "finish line"?

But, do we have our junior players who would read chess books after chess books like what Mas did? I assume.... most players are almost dependent on Chessbase, Rybka, Fritz and probably Shredder but, do our players read chess books? Hardbound, hard copy chess books, turning the pages leaf after leaf? Looking at the lines with a chess board on the side or does our chess players only look at the diagrams and "visualize" the moves on the board?

Mok, albeit age is not on his side, probably have a slightly better chance than Mas based on the simple fact that he is in chess almost on a full time basis. But balancing between teaching chess as a mean for living and playing chess by forgoing the teaching, is a difficult thing to juggle. Of course Mok would love to get his hands on the GM title (and earn much much more after he had done this) but the question is not whether he can or cannot, its whether he is willing or will not? That my friend, only Mok can tell you....

Maybe I should not name names but let us look at some of the characteristics that can probably "help" a player to achieve the feat.

For the girls (and we do have plenty of girls who can play well), if they have a brother (or father, cousins and even partners or spouses) who plays chess, and if they spar often, the girls will tend to play the game like the guys - aggressive, attacking, tactical chess. A lot of our stronger women players came from families where the entire family plays chess. If we look at the list of Women winners since 1990, all of them except sisters Eliza Hanum and Eliza Hanim, and Roslina Marmono (not sure about her?) who do not have brothers that play chess. 1990 Champion WIM Audrey had her younger brother Adrian Wong (who is a strong junior player) to spar with, WIM Siti Zulaikha had brother FM Johan Foudzi, sisters Khairunnisa and Nurul Huda had NM Kamalariffin and Mohd Khair to practice with, Alia has Anas, Shazwani has Zarul, Li Ting with Jun Feng, and Fong Mi Yen has brothers and a father to learn and practice with. Even the younger generations that we have now, most of the leading "girl" players have a brother that can play chess really well i.e. Nabila/Najiha have Mohd Nabil (and father Azman Hisham is also not an "easy meat"!), Puteri Rifqah/Munajjah have Syakir/Irfan. I am not saying that those without brothers do not have a chance but its just that they have to work a bit harder. For Eliza Hanum and Eliza Hanim, though they do not have brothers that play chess, a lot of the senior national players would spar with the girls whenever their father, Tuan Haji Ibrahim attends a chess event. Maybe, just maybe, we will be able to see a first WGM instead of our first full fledged GM.

For the GM title, imagine if the girls surpass the guys and took the title as well... It can happen. At one point, I think WIM Siti Zulaikha wanted to play in the Open Section of the National Closed but she did not. If she had, I am sure she can end up somewhere at the top of the list, or even a champion.... Imagine a lady National Champion amongst the guys.... Our very own version of Judith Polgar...

For the juniors, most of them rose to the height of their play just when they reached their 17th birthday and by then, they have SPM to deal with. And soon after, universities beckons, studies become more demanding, career comes, then "she" (or "he") appears, and the dating starts, love and before you know it, chess becomes a thing of the past. They may still play, and they are still strong but, the desire to excel becomes weaker. After all, they are still at the top of their game and can still give other players a good run for the money albeit the lack of playing..... So, chess becomes... a hobby....

One parent put it aptly (but not exactly) - "If my child can reach an IM level by 17, then I don't mind for my child to pursue chess full time and aim for the GM title". Money? "I will work for it because my child is not far off from the title". The parent continued "However, if my child can't reach that level by 17, then I need for my child to put chess on hold".

An example is GM Ziaur who attained his IM title just before he went to college. He studied for 4 years - taking something that is not too difficult i.e. Anthropology, and refocus on chess after graduating and achieve his GM title soon after. I think that is a good plan... Because when you have reached IM by 17, putting chess on hold to earn a degree is not too bad. Chess is like swimming - once you have mastered it, you will not forget how to do it as long as you take some time to "practice". But, can our players achieve the IM title by the time they are 17?

A player may have the right ingredient to excel in chess i.e. a family that plays "good" chess, and the child that enjoys playing chess but, but does the family have the resources to travel around the country and the world to pull it all together?

A player may have all the money in the world, a rich family and a supportive parents but, does the child has the desire to excel? Whilst the child can afford to travel to any events in the world, will the child want to be a chess champion? The child would probably think - "I can still travel to London or New York without becoming good in chess". Or, the child may also think "I can also learn to play the piano or take up tae kwan do and be good at that too". With so many "food on the table", the child may not have the desire to be a champion. But tell the child "You will become the FIRST GRANDMASTER in Malaysia, an achievement that NO ONE has ever done" then maybe the child would see the opportunity in a different light.

But maybe, just maybe, if we were to go into one of the poorest area in the country, meet one of the poorest child in the nation and tell him (or her), "I will teach you chess and if you become very good at it, you can travel the whole world, and be a very well known person, a celebrity and a rich person" then I am sure, we will get our nation's First Grandmaster.....

What say you?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Struggling for Survival ....

MCF has, on most occasions, had the generosity of DTCN to keep the chess movement alive in Malaysia. And during the late 80's and throughout the 90's, we also had the influence of Dato' Sabaruddin Chik, the Minster for Tourism at that time, who helped MCF in finding sponsors and running promotions for a lot of international and national events. We also had the help of Dato' Rosli of Bank Pertanian Malaysia (now Agro Bank) with rapid events that tours all over the country.... Alas, most if not all of them, had gone but mind you, they are not the only ones who had left the chess scene.......

I remembered in the late 80's where we had the Bank Rakyat Open and whilst Bank Rakyat building is still standing at the junction of Jalan Tangsi and Jalan Kuching, the chess part of it has closed for a very long time. And funny enough, across the street from Bank Rakyat was a building that used to be occupied by MAA (Melewar Group) who sponsored the MAA Allegro (later was replaced by Bank Pertanian Allegro) and they too are missing from the sponsorship list. For the MAA Allegro, the Allegro Finals were conducted at PWTC and the winners from all the other Allegro Legs around the country were invited to play in the final event.

For the Labor Day event, we used to have the Southern Bank Labor Day event and that too has now become a memory of the past. Not only the event is now missing from the calendar, even the bank itself has gone missing after being swallowed by another bank.

In the earlier days, one of the more gracious and generous donor was Selangor Pewter who have been sponsoring most of the Selangor Open event (including a Junior event - if I am not mistaken) since the Open first started way back in the mid 70's but somehow, it seems that CAS has been having difficulty to get Selangor Pewter to continue with the sponsorship. Perhaps the interest in chess has diminished from the management of Selangor Pewter.

Another yearly event that is missing from or chess Calendar is the Kajang Chess event held at a clubhouse somewhere just outside of Kajang town (I forgot the name of the club?). Kajang Chess Club also used to host the first few editions of the Malaysia Open, and if you have seen the photo of the late Dato' Arthur Tan playing chess, you will probably notice that the photo was taken during one of his outings to Kajang.

And, there were also times when our National Closed was hosted by Parkroyal Hotel for a few consecutive years. It was indeed a "grand feeling" to have the event at one of the more prestigious hotel in KL, right at the edge of KL golden triangle and next to one of the more happening area in town - Bukit Bintang, the Bukit Beverly of KL (Beverly Hills that is... ).

During Dato Sabaruddin's first few years as the MCF President, I had the pleasure of playing on the Feri Muhibbah Chess Event where we depart from Kuantan, sailed across the South China Sea to Kota Kinabalu, Kuching, and Singapore before alighting at Port Klang. It was an amazing 1 week adventure where I also had the pleasure of beating Dato Sabaruddin on a golf putting game that we had on board the ship.

There were a few teams on board and if I am not mistaken, aside from my BSN team, there were also the Arab Malaysian Team and the Public Bank Team - 3 players per team with 1 reserve. At every port of call, all the Feri Muhibbah participants will join forces and play as a team against the local team from the docking city. The ship usually docks for one day before continuing its journey to the next port early the next day. It was indeed a memorable journey but the event never continued and the ferry services ceased after only 3 years in operations.

Although most of the sponsors have gone, there seems to be a new breed of sponsors coming in - albeit the amount may not be staggering or consistent, but of course, none can be compared to IGB who have become the major sponsor for the past 7 Malaysia Open. The total amount would have easily hit the 7 digit figures by now considering the prize money that it is offering and the cost of the venue accumulated over 7 years. So, aside from IGB, we also have Masterskill, ASTRO, AmBank (it was previously Chevrolet) and KLK but with the possibility that the Malaysia Open may be erased from the calendar (have you noticed that there is almost no news about the KLCA open as well?), these sponsors may also go missing before the year end. So, who is next, or what is next?

We are also beginning to see organizers who are striving by aiming small sponsorships for rapid events, and many others who are providing prize fund from self collection - a risk that may not pay off. However, most Universities like UIA, UKM, UPSI, UNIKL and UM, are able to conduct their events because of the strong support they received from their universities sporting unit - I am sure a small allocation is provided and combined with the entry fees that they received, they are able to put up a decent event and are able to survive. But these are considered small events and although these events helped to continue the growth of chess in Malaysia, the rate of which it will grow may not be as noticeable as we want it to be. Contributions are well and fine but, we need more, we need bigger events, but where is more going to come from?

On the national level, the current MCF committee is making some radical changes by taking a slightly different approach in conducting its event i.e. subcontracting it to another entity or organizations to run events. A smart move that indirectly allows MCF to take a "bigger" role in administering and developing chess in the country rather than be stuck in tedious and fickle issues that are synonymous with events organizing. Whether or not MCF (or the organizers) are able to profit out of these ventures is a separate issues but, the bigger issue is, how much further can we survive it this modus operandi continues? Imagine if organizers find it difficult to break even, would they they want to continue doing more events in the future? Whilst MCF can continue to "beg" for sponsorship, MCF has to come up with a business plan to improve its finances by other means and not be too dependent on sponsors. I am sure there are a lot of suggestions made to improve MCF finances (including one suggestion that I wrote 8 years ago) and I am sure some, if not all, have been taken up, improved and implemented albeit the results are not seen yet.

Sponsorships are fine but, sponsorships are hard to come by not because there aren't any out there but, for the most part of it, chess is an "intellectual" game and it is definitely not a spectator sport and that by itself is almost a full thumbs down. At the end of the day, sponsors want to see crowd in the number and chess, may not be able to pull that in. Of course, one can always appeal to the sponsors CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) but that too are usually taken up by the more needy sector i.e. government departments, orphanages, charities, etc. Further, MCF may not have the resources to "hunt" for these sponsorship as most of the committee members are in the committee on a voluntary basis. A very minimal amount of allowance is probably given to them, if any, but most of the time, they are paying for their own expenses (and would probably end up giving...). This is like the chicken and egg situation all over again. Even in the previous committee, because Dato' Tan, Dato' Sabaruddin and Dato' Rosli were there, most of the committee were .... ok ok ok.. that is a different story *LOL*

In order to make chess a more "spectator" sport, rapid events (and blitz) were popularized as attempts to make chess into a more entertaining event but still, you have to understand the game to appreciate the game. The least you need to know is how the pieces move and what is the objective of the game otherwise, the game will be all Latin and Greek to the spectator. Blitz events are very popular but sometimes, due to the very fast pace of the game, players tend to make "easy mistakes" and the game loses its beauty and lessen the quality. Rapid is a more acceptable mode of fusing the classical time control with faster playing pace as the quality part of the game remains almost intact albeit some "easy mistakes" can still be made in time scramble.

Let us take other sports that are easier to understand.

In comparison, Formula 1 is a very exciting spectator sport where you see "action" on the circuit where cars crash into one another, spinning, flying, burning, tumbling, etc. As for the sport itself, any Tom, Dick and Harry could understand the concept rather easily i.e. to be the fastest driver and the first one to reach the finish line without crashing! The thing is, Formula 1 is not as "easy" as what it seems to the layman's eye but because the concept of the race is very "easy" to understand, people can appreciate it quicker because you do not need to "study" the sport to understand the objective. In reality, Formula 1 is actually a very difficult and challenging sport. The weight of the fuel, the way the driver uses the brake, the angle of the downward force on the wing, the effectiveness of the pit crew, the compound and thread of the tires used, the pit stop timing, up to the racing line on the circuit are all very important but, spectators can ignore all these "little details" about the sport and still enjoy watching it. But for chess, if you do not know how the pawn moves, then that is it.... And to see a player uses more than 30 minute to make a move, spectator's would have fallen asleep waiting for the move. And of course, in a chess game, you have to be quiet.... You can't clap or pound on the "kompang" when a player has made a good move. I like Ilham's video where Kasparov gave "the look" to a spectator just because he glanced his board so, how to make it a spectator's sport?.... Of course, blitz and rapid tend to be a more "relaxed" form of competitive chess where "some noise" from the spectators are tolerable. Some years ago, I also organized a blitz event where I encouraged players to "talk and play" but still, in critical situations, both players tend to be quiet and went deep in thought, and spectators follow suit, and the only sound you can hear is the "clicking and clacking" of the chess clock. Some other forms of chess event such as simul events and blindfold chess may attract the crowd but, can it attract those who does not understand the game? Someone told me that the late GM Eduard Gufeld once said, "People like to go to circus and if you can turn chess into a circus show, then you can have the spectators". Do we have to resort to such?

I am not offering a solution as I am just looking at the current challenges and situation that we have. The effort to upgrade chess in the country needs the help of many people from many angle - the Federations, the players, the spectators, the sponsors, the media, the education department, etc. Educating the general public will be one of the bigger challenge and turning chess into a spectacular sport, is another.

The questions that boils down to you is; as a person who is involved in chess, have you looked in the mirror and ask yourself what have you done to help the chess community? Or are you easy to point out mistakes and shortcomings, nagging and complaining without making a real effort to help? Are you the ignorant type or simply the "don't care" type? Or are you in it for something else?

To quote JFK - Ask not what Chess can do for you but ask, what you can do for Chess....