The critical impact of having a national junior programme

AUGUST 11 — The last 10 days have been spent on a wonderfully-enlightening trip to Auckland, New Zealand where I was privileged to see how chess and chess training is organised and done in that country.

Of course this is something I have always been very interested in and done since 1984, and perhaps even earlier even when I was still in school and a young player, although the 12 years or so when I was more focused on career-building could arguably be deducted.

It all began with a six-week stint in Belgrade where I was attached to the Yugoslav Chess Federation back in 1984. The country was ranked No. 2 in the world behind the old Soviet Union and boasted both the highest number of rated players and percentage of chess literate population.

Then there was Chess Informant, the publication that made top quality chess literature available worldwide and forever changed how chess was studied. The publishing company — also called Chess Informant — is from Belgrade.

The outcome of that experience was the “Kumpulan Remaja” programme that in a very short time facilitated both the development of young talent in Malaysia — which concretely manifested itself in outstanding results such as having our first Asian Junior Champion and Olympiad Gold Medalist — and gave rise to juniors being a part of the national team for the first time.

Many years later, on my return to chess in late 2006, and with my involvement in Intchess which was the training provider for the Singapore Chess Federation, this programme was replicated with the creation of the Singapore National Junior Training scheme.

In a short time this helped a generation of young players there develop. The scheme also supported individual initiatives in a golden period of Asean co-operation among its leading chess nations.

Many top young talents in these countries blossomed and I am proud to have directly participated in the training of some of the best players in those countries today.

Malaysia was not forgotten even if the training was less officially done given our dysfunctional National Chess Federation, but no less than three successive national senior chess champions emerged from the training given at what is today the KL Chess Academy.

At that time I was also a “founding” member of the FIDE (World Chess Federation) Trainer’s Commission (previously the FIDE Trainer’s Council) and was fortunate not only to be able to spend enormous amounts of time with some of the top chess trainers in the world but also joined them in conducting FIDE Trainer Seminars in numerous countries.

Besides Malaysia and Singapore, there were several engagements in India and of course Indonesia with both the Sekolah Utut Adianto and their Dream Girls programme and the Asian Chess Academy in UAE.

I have also been to leading chess countries like China, Vietnam, Philippines and Australia which despite having top players and their own formulae for success, do not seem to have been able to get a comprehensive chess development programme in place.

In my recent visit to New Zealand, I was simply amazed at the vibrancy of their local chess scene — two recent posts in my blog have photos that will illustrate better what my words cannot — but the chess community is small.

As in many amateur countries, there is always the older generation made up of older hard hobbyists who have continued to be involved in the game through juggling careers and family and are still the players of choice for the national team. 

With the return of Murray Chandler who is now the New Zealand Chess Federation President, there is however a renewed focus on junior chess and more and more of their best young talents are travelling abroad to participate in both Oceania and Asian events with past president Paul Spiller ensuring important events such as the Oceania Zonals be held in New Zealand next year.

Like most countries, there is however no junior training and development programme yet in New Zealand but they also have the disadvantage of not having their top players ready, interested, or even perhaps yet able, to give their time to working with young talents. This means there is very little happening after the excellent work done with beginners by entry-level coaches.

I was surprised — or maybe not, given I see them everywhere in every country I have visited — by their young players with talent and who with the help of their computers and raw intelligence together with hard work and lots of playing reach anything between the 1900-2100 level.

But to get to even 2200 and beyond, to past 2300 and even to 2400, it is clear that without help, even given that they are able to work hard, given their knowledge gaps, current habits, and technical limitations, they are not going to come anywhere close while young enough to want and be able to do it.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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