Challenges of organising an international chess tournament

DECEMBER 3 ― From 2006 to 2014, the KL Open (Kuala Lumpur International Open Chess Championship) ― which I helped organise ― broke many participation records even in relation to some longstanding and much bigger events in the region.

All this on a shoestring budget of between RM100,000 to RM120,000 for everything.

Attracting top players to a new event is never easy and yet, in just its third edition, the KL Open in 2010 saw not just 17 grandmasters participating but also had China's teenage women's world champion Hou Yifan who decimated the field to be a most worthy winner.

One critical reason for its success was certainly the KL Chess Association's partnership with the Malaysian Intellect Development Foundation.

Even so, all things have to come to an end, and while the initial five-year sponsorship of the KL Open was extended by another two years, the subsequent annual extensions were really just a force of habit. Its time had come and gone.

Why? Malaysia simply did not have the players who could really benefit from the competition attracted to the KL Open.

This week I am at the SEA Para Games in Singapore from December 3-10 where chess has happily been included. I have no doubt ― given my experiences at various multi sports games ― that it will be professionally organised, and the same can already be said with certainty about the coming 3rd JAPFA ASEAN Chess Championships in Jakarta from December 21-30.

In December too there will be both the Penang and Johor Chess Festivals which are largely modelled after the Malaysian Chess Festival and the long-time organiser of the latter, Abd Hamid Majid, has been a big influence and will be heavily involved in both.

All these are still built around an International Open Chess Championship, and there are quite a few others in the region such as the HD Bank Cup and Bangkok Open to name two which have already been announced for the first half of 2016. As with the IGB Malaysian Open, they are organised on a larger scale.

Other than the KL Open, I have served as Chief Arbiter or one of the de-facto senior arbiters at several of these International Opens and so perhaps am able to appreciate the challenges more than most.

While each event is different as they serve different needs (although perhaps arguably more that of the organiser than the sponsor or the community) there are some common mistakes made.

1. Everyone likes to talk about having say a US$50,000 (RM212,500) prize fund but it is much better to call it a US$50,000 tournament where the prize fund might only be US$20,000-30,000. This is so there is enough money for organising the tournament properly.

That means having enough budget to pay for a decent hotel and good playing venue, to hold proper opening and awards ceremonies, and facilitate media coverage. It really helps too when both players and arbiters receive their promised fees and allowances!

2. When putting together a technical team, there tends to be appointments made for political and friendship reasons by the organiser. But when these people are less than efficient and all too often not really up to the tasks they are given, then the whole event is a big fail.

Players who do this for a living generally do not complain for fear of being barred from playing by an unhappy organiser the next time around. If some less competent people have to be accommodated as officials, give them as big a title as they like but very small roles! And make sure there are enough good people who can do the actual work.

3. Organisers generally do not understand the importance of promotion and how media works. It is usually enough for them that the players show up. They consider it a success just by achieving a a certain participation number (and perhaps by getting a sizeable entry fee collection).

But with a little bit of marketing, some big names and personalities who can make the difference will come and play. The event is also well behind today's norm when there is no proper “live” games broadcast and no games uploaded or bulletins ― let alone daily press releases ― together with a professional tournament website.

Some are happy to ensure local coverage and that is quite good already but then what is the point of calling it an International Open Championship and not having event coverage that can easily go one huge step further?

All of us who have participated in an International Open can easily relate to what I have said above (even if when caught up in play, it did not fully occur to you) and perhaps like me you can also be sympathetic, maybe even forgiving of the mistakes, but the fact is our local and regional organisers are just not meeting minimum international standards and so are failing the game, the players and sponsors.

Today we are organising at a much lower level then in the past and this is not progress, In many events, sponsorship has lagged, dried up, or become non-existent, and so our prizes have sometimes not only stagnated but often are lower than they were 10 to 20 years ago (even without taking into account inflation) and generally the conditions have become worst.

I think the time-worn justification of “Better we are doing something than nothing” is simply not good enough as it is just bad organising at the expense of the game.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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