What makes a champion

FEBRUARY 19 — My column comes out on Thursday and so far that has meant Christmas, New Year’s Day and today of course, Chinese New Year!

For those looking to celebrate, all these would have been great excuses and yet, when looking at chess, both locally and internationally, there is not a lot to be happy about.

When in college, as a naive member of the student editorial board, I occasionally contributed to a section where short comments, yesterday’s Twitter so to speak, were published,

I remember well saying on one occasion that the world was not so different today (this was the Eighties) as when Jesus walked the earth, only that media has changed!

To my surprise, the Dean of my faculty, who was also a Jesuit priest with PhDs in both Theology and Philosophy, actually read what I said and commented on it during my Philosophy 101 class.

So on this Chinese New Year, remembering that in life and throughout history “the wheels on the bus does go round and round”, I should perhaps try to look and find some positives!

This might also help many of us find some perspective in a week gone by that might be a little more extraordinary than normal even if we do live in Bolehland.

Last week, I got the reaction I expected when writing about how parents are failing their kids with the wrong priorities 

I was warned that people have difficulty recognising themselves in writing but none whatsoever in assuming others are the ones being referred to, but I think everyone understood who they were and the only question was if they actually had an alternative.

That alone makes it hard to be positive.

One of the big stories last year and which went on right though his participation at Tata Steel was that of ex-Filipino Wesley So who was making his debut as a USA player after switching federations.

No matter of course that the young man had already been USA-based for over two years as a student at Webster University after being recruited by its head coach Susan Polgar where effectively his sports scholarship all but ensured he continued to play professionally as he has done since 14 years of age.

There was another twist when So (apparently against his manager mum’s wishes) announced before Tata that he had quit college to give himself every chance of breaking 2800, which was as good as saying he would be a viable challenge for the World Championship.

At Tata Steel the former world’s youngest grandmaster showed he was ready for the big time and tied for second and in doing so leapfrogged the current and long-standing USA No. 1 player to become his new country’s top ranked player.

So has always been fortunate to have been given opportunities to play top level chess and this only accelerated when he started to live in the USA and the timing was right as he was maturing and losing some of the fear he had past prodigy stage when much was expected of him.

Case in point was his taking last round draws which all but settled for second place and I saw that again at a Zonal Championship when he was top seeded but chose to just ensure qualification and what does one make of his repeated failure to win the World Junior Championships before quitting trying altogether?

But that was the old So. The new and vastly improved now 20-year-old So is as refreshingly charming as the old and none of the selfishness so needed to be a top player is lost, only that the self belief in now absolute.

Talking about self belief, what does one make of Hikaru Nakamura, the 27-year-old USA Champion dethroned by So?

Before Tata Steel a blitz match was organised between the two and if you think about it Nakamura had nothing to gain from it. Win and it would be sure why not, So is an up and coming young player, but what if he drew or lost?

Nakamura simply stepped up and crushed So but the younger man was unaffected and went on to play in Tata Steel, taking a place that might just have gone to Nakamura in another time.

So what does Nakamura do? He goes off to play in a super strong Open, the type of event he had declared he would not compete in to concentrate on elite events and reach his goal of becoming World Champion.

Of course there has to be a storybook ending to all this (think positive!) and so Nakamura wins Gibraltar comprehensively and retakes the No. 1 USA ranking from So!

I remember reading what a good friend Levon Aronian, until recently the World No. 2, said about the need to play against strong players to improve and clearly both Nakamara and So are in full agreement.

Nakamura is now playing in Zurich where he is in the lead and well known grandmaster Jonathan Tisdall was on Twitter recently saying “Congrats to Nakamura for a new personal rating record. Can’t help feeling that So’s arrival has been a real spur for Naka”.

To which I asked :”The Benefit of Competition?” and got the reply: “I was thinking more of guarding one’s turf, but not much difference”!

Competition is good, even necessary, but one’s self motivation is what determines success or failure because while many dream or even talk, champions put in the hard training and step up to perform as it is demanded.

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

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