Choosing players for the national team... why bother?

MAY 12 ― One complaint constantly raised by top players with regard to their national chess federations is that nothing or not enough is being done for them.

My response? No one owes you a living!

Now this same complaint is being made in many other places as well but in the context of the coming World Chess Olympiad to be held in Baku, Azerbaijan in September.

In the case of Malaysia, I ask again if looking for money to send our teams there makes any sense when there is not only no programme for the national team but not even targets that have been set together with our sports authorities.

Then there is the question of why the Malaysian Chess Federation (MCF) is always relying on its former president and long-time patron, the 90-year-old Datuk Tan Chin Nam, for sponsorship, and this after he helped with the selection tournament that is now known as the Malaysian Masters.

Apparently one of the reasons is that current MCF President Tan Sri Ramli Ngah Talib is interested to also go!

Given that Datuk Tan is looking to replace Tan Sri Ramli at the MCF elections promised for this month, that reason beggars belief.

On FaceBook recently, I read the post of an understandably proud top trainer who noted that his charges in the Turkish women's team are already in training as is the Romanian men's team while New Zealand announced the hiring of a GM coach to prepare their players. Still, many others have not even selected their teams.

Well, if so, then Malaysia is certainly one up over our neighbour Singapore!

Their best home-grown player in recent years is International Master Kevin Goh Wei Ming and he is also the winner of a record number of national championships but he has now in an open letter expressed his disappointment with the Singapore Chess Federation (SCF) over its selection process and announced he would no longer be available to play in team competitions for his country.

I can understand his frustration but it was clear that with the takeover of the SCF by parents its focus would now be on the youth i.e. their children.

National chess federations can really be divided into four types: those few whose countries have a large chess tradition and history in the game and which enjoy extraordinary government support as it is considered part of its culture; a larger group of mainly European nations including some others like the USA which have a significant number of professionals; countries with mainly amateurs, and those nations which membership can be as few as that of a single family.

Unfortunately both Malaysia and Singapore belong to the group of countries whose chess players are amateur, no matter what we try to do.

While it is better than for most in both our countries with plenty of parents willing to open their wallets to pay for entry to chess tournaments, overseas participation and chess lessons, the money in chess is not very good.

Hence, my response to those wishing to excel and think help is due to them.

Even the likes of Israel which is a strong chess nation with many professionals, a minimum fee is expected by their players to take part and unless a sponsor can be found, like Singapore, they will be represented by a youth team.

Australia has several grandmasters and yet almost none are professionals and how it works for them is players apply for places and if selected, they pay their own way; notwithstanding the fact that the chess community gets together to help raise funds to ease their burden.

Of our other immediate neighbours, Indonesia will not send a fully representative team as their national games take precedence for most of their players. It's complicated with a Philippines in decline and distracted by the politics of both FIDE and its just-completed  presidential election.

Brunei says they may not send a team as none is good enough while an excellent Thailand Chess Association will have no problems sending teams with the objective of giving them exposure and negotiations are ongoing for a coach from Norway. 

What I found of real interest about Goh's post was first the fact that SCF's selection committee comprised three members: the most qualified an unrated trainer who has apparently never ever played in a tournament and who is perhaps of 1700 strength and two parents (one who is in a conflict of interest situation) who apparently do not know how to play chess.

There was also an expectation on Goh's part for a systematic training programme to be in place for national players; this would have helped players like him keep in shape and competitive (and perhaps take away some of his personal burden both financially and in terms of time).

On the first point, I think what Singapore does is actually not that different from how it is done in Malaysia: the horrendously poor design of our selection process which together with the lack of transparency ― compounded by the poor dissemination of information ― leads to serious questions of cronyism.

With the point raised by Goh on training, it is certainly not a matter given any real consideration here either.

Without real commitment to invest in a national team, let anyone who makes the effort go based on whatever criteria announced early enough. It is no problem for any of them to find their own airfare.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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