FEBRUARY 25 ― For both local and international chess enthusiasts, March is shaping up to be a very big month indeed.
On the world stage, it starts with the World Championship Match from March 1-19 between China's Hou Yifan, who is the undisputed top woman player today, and Ukraine's Mariya Muzychuk who is actually the current defending champion.
This is not going to be a match played without some controversy; firstly, Yifan declining to play in the knock-out version of the championship when she was the defending champion (and also simply because it was organised on short notice when she was already contracted to play in the Hawaii Open), and secondly when the bid from China to host was illegally put aside in favour of Ukraine when FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov went out of his way with Russia's help to ensure it took place there.
In fact, he was not the least bit embarrassed, but proud, to admit it was for purely non-chess political reasons!
While Yifan is a clear favourite, the younger Muzychuk (her older sister Anna was till last year the higher ranked) has improved by leaps and bounds recently and has also been given unprecedented coaching help by some of the very best from both Ukraine and Russia to prepare for this match.
For most of the international chess community, the Candidates tournament in Moscow from March 10-30 will be the big one as it is from that event that we will have the official challenger to World Champion Magnus Carlsen.
It is a fascinating line-up of eight, starting with the former World Champion Viswanathan Anand who, while in decline, had surprisingly qualified last time around to play Carlsen and despite some real disasters in recent competition has slowly played himself back to some semblance of his old form.
While age waits for no man, there is no denying his class and he is playing with those he is intimately familiar with and remains still the best prepared in the openings.
While USA's Hikaru Nakamura has one of the worst possible personal individual records against Carlsen, he has come into himself in the last two years and has become not only a frequent winner of big competitions but seems to be a very much more stable player with very few ― and far between ― losses. This might be his best chance ever.
This might be the final chance for the popular Levon Aronian who for so long was ranked World No. 2 before going into free fall after his failure at the last Candidates competition when he was the favourite.
Aronian is under pressure again; something he has never enjoyed. While deserving of his place among the elite, the fact is that he got the wild card entry into the Candidates because it was an Armenian businessman close to his patron who is the sponsor.
Vaselin Topalov from Bulgaria is the other former World Champion in the field and is joined by another veteran Russian Peter Svidler. While the former could have beaten anyone in his day, his energy-sapping approach to playing chess has hurt him now that he is past his prime while the latter is respected as one of the top players in the world but is not quite World Champion calibre any more.
Of the others expected to have a good chance, the still very young American Fabiano Caruana (24) is starting to return to his best form while even younger Anish Giri (22) representing the Nederlands is in competition with him.
Sergey Karajkin (26) is a little older but for too long now has been the young hope for Russia ― he is still on record as the youngest ever grandmaster in history (at 12 years of age!) ― and is a player who while having largely underperformed given his talent, has shown he can turn it on for the right occasion.
In the region, there is the HDBank Cup in Ho Ch Minh City, Vietnam from March 7-14 and for the locals, there are the National Age Group Championships in Seri Iskandar, Perak from March 12-14 followed by the National Closed Championships ― now renamed the Malaysian Championships ― in Kota Kinabalu from March 16-20.
The National Age Group Championships and the National Closed Championships have shaped Malaysian chess by providing the main basis for international representation (even if cronyism and vested interest still prevails and the introduction of the Malaysian Masters has changed the way national teams have been selected).
It is clear that everything is about the kids these days as all major local chess tournaments, including the Malaysian Chess Festival, and the Penang and Johor Opens, are held during the school holidays.
Of course I should not forget the MSSM (National Schools) Chess Championships will also be in full swing at district, zone and state level.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.
**A previous version of this story contained an error and has since been corrected.