Playing chess: Then and now

MAY 21 — It is a wonderful time now to be a chess player; especially if you are a kid and your parents have the money.

When I first started playing chess, I was already in secondary school. If I did not come from a school whose library hosted one of the very few significant local tournaments then or if I did not switch to the Royal Military College when it was time to move up from U-15 competitions, who knows if I could even have qualified to play in the MSSM (National Schools) Championships?

During my time, there was only the Selangor Open and the occasional Penang Open and for a time some smaller events such as the Pesta Pantai in Terengganu. 

We did have a regular National Closed Championship and more often than not, a National Inter State Team Championship.

How about international Opens? Hardly any! Official FIDE events? Just the Zonals as the first stage of the World Championship qualifying cycle and the World Chess Olympiad every two years alternating with the Asian Team Championships. 

Juniors? Really only the World and Asian Junior Championships and the World Youth U-16 Olympiad. More importantly and to provide further perspective, one representative per country only!

In contrast, today there are international events like the Malaysian Chess Festival, KL Open, Penang Open, Johor Open and endless Rapid events held every weekend all over the country.

Our region alone has numerous international Opens; Vietnam’s HD Bank in March, the Bangkok Open in April, Taiwan’s Asian Dragons in July, the Hong Kong Open in September, Indonesian Open in October and the Myanmar Open in November joining our IGB Open in August/September (depending on when the school holiday break is) and we can aslo inlcude the NZ Open in January, Australia’s Doeberl Cup and Sydney Open as well as Indonesia’s JAPFA in April.

I have not even included the many big Philippine Opens held throughout the year! 

By winning the MSSM, I was recognised as the National Junior Champion as MCF (Malaysian Chess Federation) enjoyed a good working and complementary developmental relationship with the Ministry of Education then and so there was no need to have a competing National Junior Championship.

This ensured that once I found the money I could represent Malaysia at both the Asian and World Junior Championships and without playing in those I would have easily left the game for good.

At university, chess quickly took a back seat and it was only when I returned home and was persuaded to serve as Executive Secretary of the Malaysian Chess Federation that I continued in the game, albeit less as a player than a mix of administrator cum organiser, newspaper columnist and national junior trainer.

For a young person playing chess today, there is not only the MSSM but a National Junior Championships and a National Age Group Championships. Not to mention endless tournaments organised year round targeted at children or with sections and prizes accommodating children.

Yes, any child today with the endorsement of MCF can participate in any of the many FIDE (World Chess Federation) official events!

When I played at the World Junior Championship in Dortmund in 1980 — incidentally won by Gary Kasparov who eventually became the 13th Word Chess Champion — we played 13 rounds at the leisurely pace of a game a day with several rest days and were also accorded great respect as our country’s best. 

Young champions sent to do battle with their peers!

Now all children meeting the age requirements can play in the World and Asian Junior Championships, the World and Asian Youth Championships, the World and Asian Schools Championships, and the Asean+ Age Groups Championships which means that without looking further, there are already seven major FIDE official title and rating events for world, continental and regional championships to play in.

For the World Championship qualifying, besides the Zonals there is the Asian Continental Championship and again anyone can play! But if you think that’s too hard, why not the World and Asian Amateur for those under 2000? Those above 50 and 65 years of age have the World and Asian Seniors Championships.

I remember when captaining and coaching our women’s national team at the Istanbul Olympiad in 2012, a young Yeoh Li Tian, now our top player, was looking on with respect as senior players boasted of the number of times they represented Malaysia.

He turned to me and asked how many tournaments I had played and when we counted, the reality dawned upon us that he had at 13 years of age already played double the number I had and that also applied to the girls I was supposedly sharing my “vast” experience with!

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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