A look at national team participation and selection

FEBRUARY 5 — In 2010 I was asked by the Malaysian Chess Federation (MCF) if I would be available to play in the World Chess Olympiad in Khanty Mansiysk, Russia. This was a bit of a surprise as I was hardly an active player even if I had — since returning to chess at the end of 2006 — played the occasional international tournament.

As was pointed out to me, the last I played such an event was in Dubai 1986; a whopping 24 years ago and I had by 1993 all but quit the game.

Surprises require investigation and it did not take too long to learn that the Malaysian Chess Federation (MCF) had for many, many years been handpicking the senior players for its national teams.

Even though I would probably be easy meat at such tournaments because of my age and lack of training, my playing could help to give opportunities to young players in tournaments where my high rating helped the tournaments meet international rating.

Still, even if I lost rating points over time because of my inactivity it was not as much as I expected and so I still qualified to be on the national team based on the current policy in place.

The FIDE elections was also taking place in 2010 and my chess idol Anatoly Karpov was challenging Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and Malaysia had an interest in the outcome with Hamid Majid on Karpov’s team as designated General Secretary.

But what has that to do with playing for the team?

Well, even then MCF was the sad organisation it is today. Hamid was no longer an official but he had a long-time patron in Datuk Tan Chin Nam.

Tan, of course, is the grand old man of Malaysian chess and the reason why there is a Malaysian Chess Festival and so a bargain was made.

In return for sponsorship of the team to Khanty Mansiysk, Hamid would be made World Chess Federation (FIDE) delegate and so hold the Malaysian vote at the coming election.

I did not of course know any of this at that time but I told MCF that I would go provided there was no one else based on their current selection policy.

When the time came I was surprised that I was a member together with national stalwarts Mas Hafizulhelmi and Mok Tze Ming, the remaining two places to make up a team of five (four players and an alternate) was going to the current national champion and likely also the previous year’s champion.

Evan Capel, a standout talent of his generation and someone I have worked with, was the current national champion and I understood that since the next national champion would be decided before the Olympiad, he would be the other player and in the end it was Tan Khai Boon who was the surprise winner.

Then the politics (or was it a fight over money?) started. The accommodation provided by the organisers were for a team of five including a captain.

Including the women’s team we had five plus five. There was a place for the Head of Delegation and also the FIDE delegate, so 12 in total. So as I understood it, we had five men and five women players, Gregory Lau as head of delegation and Hamid as FIDE delegate.

But when I finally met up with the men’s team, there were only four players and Gregory was now the alternate. We still had five girls but the MCF Treasurer (a non-chess player) had also come along and we were told he was going as the captain of the women’s team.

So not only had Evan been sacrificed, the men’s team now had no reserve and from thinking I was going to be the alternate, in the end I was the only player who played every game (Khai Boon’s inexperience together with poor form was so bad that towards the end Gregory was asked to play a few games) and the other senior members also asked for and got some extra rest.

This was really turning out to be a tough event for me as I had to clear my work in a major project I was working on at that time to be able to go. Other than playing a couple of games in an international open in Manila while on a business trip to get some form, I had no time to do any other preparation.

But in Khanty Mansiysk, I soon found I had made a few misjudgements.

The first was I forgot it was 11 games, not the usual nine (notwithstanding I did not expect to play so many initially) and even if one a day with rest days there was the additional stress due to playing in a team competition and by round 6, I was completely physically exhausted and so hardly able to think while stumbling my way to a 50 per cent score. (Looking back perhaps I should have just focused on getting fitter before coming!).

Secondly, I had no time to prepare my openings and so I was playing pretty much what I used to play in the early 90s with little update. So after a couple of games I saw holes being punched in my games due to opponents seeing what I played and successfully preparing for it while I was pretty helpless to do anything about it.

I remembered all this well, however, in 2013 when for a few months I very reluctantly agreed to serve in MCF as FIDE delegate and Technical Chairman at Datuk Sri Edmund Santhara’s request when he became MCF deputy president (and supposed MCF president in waiting).

The first thing I agreed with MCF Vice President Lee Ewe Ghee, who was also Tournaments Committee Chairman and Key Member of the Selection Committee, was that we could not continue to select the bulk of our national players from their international ratings alone and so redesigned the process and implemented it that same year.

We agreed to allow a certain number of qualifiers from the national championship to join the top six international rated players in a selection tournament, which was in the form of a revived Malaysian Masters.

This huge change made possible a team of young players at the Tromso Olympiad even if many vested interests had by then come into play.

I wanted to increase the number of qualifiers as the younger players got stronger and the older players were less able to commit due to demands of work and career, and so required for a national team to be created at three levels (senior, back up and feeder) which would ensure a commitment to year-round training

Certain officials bowed to the demands of some influential players but I suspect all were actually relieved they did not have to find the money to fund the programme, let alone manage it.

The selection for Tromso was actually appalling with drop-outs from the invited seniors with high ratings not replaced by more qualifiers from the national championships and then one drop-out was even allowed to join a play-off.

In the end, controversy was however largely avoided when our top player Yeoh Li Tian and winner of the Malaysian Masters had to decline due to exams and another clear qualifier Ng Tze Han was also unable to play due to work demands and so two deserving candidates, Ahmad Fadzil Nayan and Sumant Subramaniam, were able to get their overdue senior national team debuts.

Going into 2015, FIDE has now tried to compensate for the international rating ceiling being lowered to 1000 (from the 2200 of my time) and sought to accommodate young talents being disadvantaged by multiplying their results by a much higher "K" rating value.

Sadly, MCF, instead of embracing and taking advantage of this designed for players under 18 years of age, is still making the national rating system all important in regulating the participation of our players in the numerous international youth tournaments today (the big eight of the World Junior, Asian Junior, World Youth, Asian Youth, World Schools, Asian School, ASEAN+ Age Groups, and Commonwealth).

I think that we will anyway see more and more of our more serious young players playing abroad in "select" open tournaments to escape this. Example: Dilwen Ding’s 20 games played over his month-long Hungarian Odyssey in the company of Russian coach, mother and sister. Young Dilwen has moved from being an 1800 player to 2274 and is now ranked No.5 in Malaysia! (see http://ratings.fide.com/topfed.phtml?ina=1&country=MAS).

Like it or not, that is the reality of the international rating system today and we cannot fight it.

Today’s buzz locally is of course about the fact that MCF may still have not paid its arrears and so participation in these international youth championships is moot anyway and some deadlines for entries are in March.

But I have no doubt that push comes to shove, with enough shaming, the uneasy ruling troika of the MCF President, MCF Secretary and acting MCF Treasurer will find a way.

The test perhaps will be if any of the many interested and qualified players in Malaysia would be able to play in the coming Asian Zonal Championships to be held in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam from March 6-16, 2015. The deadline for entries of February 2, 2015 has now passed.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online. 

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