A long hard look at selection to the World Chess Olympiad

APRIL 28 ― The Malaysian Masters has ended. The top four in each of the Open and Women 10 player round robin tournaments have gained automatic selection to the Malaysian teams participating at the World Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan from September 1-16, 2016.

National squads of eight players have also now been determined; the top three from the Malaysian Championships 2016 plus five from the Malaysian Masters.

The winner of the Malaysian Masters on 7/9 was Sumant Subramaniam who was one of the favourites as he has been in top form recently with back to back wins in the last two major local events including the Pahang Open while in second and third places just half a point behind were cruising veteran International Masters Mas Hafizulhelmi and Jimmy Liew.

Just another half point further behind in fourth place and so taking the final spot was Ng Tse Han who had also qualified two years ago but could not get time off work to play in the Tromso Olympiad.

Quite a few big names were absent including current Malaysian Champion Yeoh Li Tian who is having his SPM examinations this year. Opting to skip the Olympiad, he did not want to deprive another player from selection through the Masters.

Young Ng Jen Sheng was given his opportunity at the last minute and through finishing fifth proved to be the best of the rest. A great deal of sympathy though has to be given the remaining five who all finished in a huge tie for second in the Malaysian Championships. They endured a long and hard play-off among themselves just before the Masters to select two from their number but then found that with so many others declining participation, all were then given places!

While it was just between three in the Malaysian Masters for a winner and only four were going to qualify, it was a completely different story in the Malaysian Masters (Women) where practically all the top women took part. It was only in the penultimate round that two players were sure of qualifying with four more in contention for two more slots and with the winner still unknown!

Alia Anin Azwa Bakri had taken the early lead but then lost to Tan Li Ting and from then on both largely shared the lead.

But in the last round Li Ting took a quick draw and after Alia failed to convert a winning position, Puteri Rifqah Fahada won to join them on 6/9 in a three-way tie and ultimately even prevailing in the tie-break to have her first major success.

Nur Najiha Azman Hisham on 5.5/9 took fourth place and with it, the final qualifying spot.

The Malaysian team to the Olympiad will be made up of five players ― four with one alternate ― and the Malaysian Chess Federation (MCF) has sensibly kept the option of a wild card for the final slot for the men and women teams. It seems that good sense will prevail this time around as opposed to politics.

I understand there is already a move to convince Yeoh ― a top student in school ― to reconsider his unavailability and join a team with this likely line-up: Mas, Yeoh, Sumant, Liew and Ng. For the women it makes sense to invite the other current national champion Nur Nabila Azman Hisham who despite having a nightmare Malaysian Masters (Women) remains one of our most constant performers. Her experience would be a big plus in a team that will have a debutant this time around.  

Currently MCF takes the top three in the Malaysian Championships and five more from the Malaysia Masters to be what they call a National Squad but no one seems to know what that means or entails, other than they largely get to play again in the Masters the next year.

It was during my short stint as Technical Chairman of MCF a couple of years back when this structure was created but a great deal has been lost in translation since then. It is perhaps not too late to rectify the situation with a little more political will given the controversy over a repeatedly postponed MCF Annual General Meeting and Elections now promised for May 2016.

The first problem with the current misinterpretation is automatic qualification of the entire National Squad to a Masters next year that is also a selection tournament.

In the original concept, there was a requirement that players who agreed to be in the National Squad would undertake to play and train year round while performing to deserve such benefits. In return, MCF would appoint a National Team Supremo who would manage the programme with set targets and together with a select MCF sub-committee, find sponsorship for training and competition and get benefits for the players and talents such as university scholarships, employment, etc.

We had then also identified the need to have the national team at three levels including a back-up squad which would benefit from training with the seniors and young talents squad where many local coaches were open to making contributions.

So why has this not been done? It really should not be too difficult as most of the components already exist within the current national education and sports infrastructure and just needs to be engaged. 

I think that very simply that there are three main reasons and these are: 1) The conflict of interest of MCF officials wishing to also enjoy the trips abroad or status without real work; 2) The inability of anyone (and all?) in MCF to properly develop and run such a National Team programme and; 3) the complete lack of interest by those who lead or would like to lead MCF to invest in doing the actual work of a national sports association.

My question then is why are we even sending teams to the Olympiad?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.