JAN 29 — The Malaysian chess community is very small — from half a dozen to maybe as many as two dozen diehards in most states — but the numbers swell with a floating population of school children thanks to the National Schools Sports Council's (MSSM) inclusion of chess as a sport.
Still, that means for most local competitions we really have this pool of between 30 to 50 regular participants. The numbers actually taking part vary depending on where the competition is being held of course.
It is no surprise then the turnout all depends on how children-friendly the organiser makes the event. Many don't even bother and organise purely for the numbers and that of course means a junior or schools competition that is broken into sections to accommodate major age groups.
The sad reality is too often, however, these local competitions are done for the sake of profiting from entry fees forked out by parents so their kids have a chance to play.
So we have poorly-run competitions, often rushed to be finished as quickly as possible and with prize funds covered at times by just a dozen or so entries; the endorsement not coming from state associations as mandated by the sports commission but direct from the national body — Malaysian Chess Federation — that in search of revenue from rating fees and to show there is activity, simply bypasses their membership and deals direct, so to speak, with any Tom, Dick and Harry.
I have heard too many stories of things going wrong or rules being changed, even broken, but the way it is done, the risk is solely borne by the paying customer!
When there is a big event, one with actual sponsorship like the Malaysian Chess Festival which of course has to meet minimum standards as an international title and rating competition, the many who would not normally play might be tempted to join because they are able to participate in the company of friends in the same team and perhaps even win a category prize.
Yet the organisers understand very well it still has to be held during the school holidays if they want any sizeable numbers taking part.
Bluntly put, chess survives in Malaysia — beyond having a small social club of ageing adults meeting up for a game -- thanks to the children coming through the schools and yet for all the money being poured in by their parents, so little is being done by those who should and can do better to help them and the game reach its fuller potential.
What then are the challenges and what is wrong and what could be a way forward?
To start with I think it is no exaggeration to state that everyone is to blame! My experience is that everyone will agree that rules to ensure a fair playing ground and to ensure standards need to be established and followed until it affects! That is when an exception has to be made, of course. As a result, nobody really gets what they deserve but there is always something they can get.
In Malaysia, like in too many other countries happy to remain mediocre while not living their talk, chess for children is a nice business.
We have players who were a joke when they played chess or who are at a basic level but are representing themselves as former great national players, often also collecting titles and positions so as to be able to sell their services as coaches to unwitting parents.
All that can be hoped for is when past beginner stage, a professional can be found who is able to take the kid to the next level.
No, I am sorry to inform that Filipino professional chess players in the 2200 rating range are not the answer and neither are occasional trips to China to attend a chess school!
One of the equally good and bad things about chess today is the proliferation of international youth events open to all, starting now as young as five (5) years of age. Children as young as that can become national players and that makes for another business by a national chess federation that decides who can go.
No need to get sponsors, their parents can pay entry fees, airfare, hotel, etc. (if not then find your own sponsor), and because at that age there must be accompanying persons, big money is to be made with a requirement to stay at the official hotel.
The Malaysian Chess Federation charges administrative fees to facilitate participation, and usually the organisers provide free accommodation for one entry per age group and that can also be sold and perhaps the group cannot go unless there is an accompanying official and he or she needs to have expenses covered?
Of course to play you have to be selected and yet while the top finishers in the National Age Group Championships qualify, there are other ways such as having a minimum rating requirement.
While the world is moving to adopt the World Chess Federation universal rating system, now redesigned to start at beginner level and which regulates all chess played today, we stubbornly insist that our own national rating system is better and and is the basis for national selection for international competitions.
The national rating system is, however, without oversight the property of a self-taught individual who teaches chess for a living and is done on Excel spreadsheets. Of course a fee is charged per player for each tournament nationally rated.
So the cycle continues with many organising tournaments without sponsorship for entry fees, pay for it to be national rated to have credibility and attract participation and the rating fees go to the official involved.
A minimum national rating is needed to be selected (got to play more) and when qualified the parents cover the costs of the trip while another official collects administrative fees and then the same (or another official) gets a free trip as head of delegation, perhaps even earning more by providing a coaching on site service.
Parents want to get their bang for the money forked out (not always but sometimes a grant given by school, community, or even local politician.) Their kid is now a national player and there are sometimes other rewards like scholarships too.
Nice work if you can get it! Any bright kid with some luck can achieve something until about 12 years of age after which the systematic approach to developing talent by the real chess countries begin to tell.
While grandmasters are popping up everywhere from age 14, we have 20-year-olds 400-500 rating points less and well short of international master thinking they can be grandmasters one day. And why not, everyone is allowed to dream.
Talking about real world class talent? The recent Tata Steel Masters & Challengers events just concluded with World Champion Magnus Carlsen, practically the old man at 24, fending off a group of younger rivals to emerge a convincing winner on the back of a six-game winning run in the middle of the tournament but also equally impressive was 15-year-old Wei Yi winning the Challengers to book a place in next year's Masters.
With an unbeaten amazing 10.5 points from 13 games, the young China prodigy who is closing in on a 2700 rating, just bettered the fantastic 10/13 score by talented top seed David Navarra and from the start it was clear one of them would be the winner.
I give here a wonderful effort by Wei Yi against current Dutch Woman Champion Anne Haast who completed the requirements for the Woman Grandmaster title in the tournament.
Haast has long been considered one of the most promising young woman players from the time she was a junior but one mistake was all it took to be crushed. (Notes taken largely from Chessbase.)
Wei Yi-Haas, Anne
Tata Steel Challengers
1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 e6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nc6 5 Be3 a6 7 Qf3 Ne5 8 Qg3 h5 9 0-0-0 h4 10 Qh3 b5 11 f4 Nc4 12 Nxc4 Qxc4 13 f3 Bb7 14 Rhf1 e5 15 Nb3 Qc7
So far we have been following the game Saric-Giri, played a few days ago in the same room these two players are battling. Saric continued with 16 Bg5, 16 Kb1 seems to be Wei Yi's novelty.
If 16 f6 Nxf6 17 Rxf6 gxf6 18 Bb6 Bh6+ is a very important check. Now tehre is no mate on d7 and the queen can take the bishop on b6. Now 17 f6 is threatened.
Already a decisive mistake but the character of the position is very sharp. Better 16...Nf6 17 Nd5 Bxd5 18 exd5 Rc8 with a complicated position.
17 f6 Nxf6 18 Rxf6 gxf6 19 Bb6
Now it is all over. the queen has no good places to go
19...Qc6 20 Na5 Qe6 21 Nxb7
All this is forced, and White is ahead in material. the two pieces will dominate the rook in any endgame, so Black tried to keep on the queens.
If 21...Qxh3 22 gxf3 Rb8 23 Nd6 Bxd6 24 Rxd6
22 Nd5! Rxb7 23 Qc3!
However Wei Yi continues the onslaught.
23...Qc6 24 Nxf6 Ke7 Bd8+ Ke6 26 Qh3#