Chess competitions and their significance

AUGUST 25 ― The World Junior Chess Championships has just ended in Bhubaneswar, India; the winner of the Open U-20 was 15-year-old Jeffery Xiong representing the USA while Dinara Saduakassova, the No. 1 ranked player in Kazakhstan, won the Girls U-20.

Xiong, who won the event with a round to spare, is already a 2650 level grandmaster and is now the leader of of an exciting generation of hugely-talented teenage Americans slotting just behind their senior twentysomethings Fabiano Caruana, Hikara Nakamura, and Wesley So who are all ranked in the World's top 10.

An equally convincing winner, Saduakassova is the leader of an amazingly talented group of young Kazakhstan girls who when collectively put together in a national team are able to provide the top women teams in the world some serious competition.

Despite their huge talent base, none of the Indians were able to make a serious challenge and surprisingly it was two relatively unheralded players from the Philippines, International Master Paolo Bersamina and International Woman Master Janelle Mae Frayna, who impressed even though they could not last the pace.

Malaysia? No, of course we were not represented. We can talk ourselves up all we like but when it comes to doing... 

When I was a junior, there was only the Asian and World Junior Championships where each country had only one place. Today, there are not only numerous age-group events like the Asian and World Youth Championships and the Asian and World Schools Championships but the ASEAN+ Age-Group Championships, the Commonwealth Championships, and now the East Asian Championships.

The prestige of the World Junior Championships may not be what it used to be but without doubt it is the most important youth event, and by quite a margin. The winner is awarded the grandmaster title but of course today we often have numerous grandmasters trying to win the title.

In 1980, I had the privilege of playing at the World Junior Championship in Dortmund. Germany, where a young brash Garry Kasparov, already one of the top players in the world, showed up to add the title to his resume while a younger Nigel Short, already considered the big hope of British chess, finished second. 

13th World Champion Kasparov was just following in a long tradition where the Soviet Union expects their best hopes to become first World Junior Champion and then World Champion and that was also the case with both the 10th and 12th World Champions Anatoly Karpov and Boris Spassky (The 11th World Champion, Bobby Fischer from the USA, did not become World Junior Champion).

The list of World Junior Champions incidentally makes for fascinating reading not only for the talent and great names that appear but also for the fact that so many of the top players today, both the current and ex-World Champions and the contenders for the World Championship, simply failed to win it!

Last weekend, the Asean Chess Academy based in Singapore organised the inaugural Lion City Youth Cup for players Under-11 and Under-9 and despite being kept low key, without FIDE ratings and titles on offer, still attracted teams and players from China as well as from Malaysia.

From the results perspective, it was hugely successful for the KL Chess Academy whose Ng Jun Fung not only emerged champion in the U-11 category but with Chai Chang Yik in third place and Woo Kai Wai in sixth, they were also the team champions.

However, what is more important is that a competition format that just might work for very young players has been created.

Special chess talent will always show itself regardless of the type and format of competition, but the truth is that these events are run to target the mass market as evidenced by the opening up of entries to anyone able to pay. But there is no doubt that it is a nice win-win arrangement for all the parties involved so who is to blame when all are happy?

Yes, the kids get to travel and have fun while getting serious official credentials they can show off and which their parents might perhaps even be able to leverage into scholarships and of course the organisers, trainers, and officials make money. But what has happened to the original and core objective of organising to develop sporting excellence?

Not everyone can successfully organise international youth championships although if one is given the rights to a prestigiously named World Youth Championships, there is already a huge captive audience that all but ensures it will be a success.

Not so easy with lesser known competitions and yet the ASEAN+ Age-Groups in its 17 years has grown to be an enormous success. Even this year when titles and ratings were taken away by FIDE, it continued as before with hardly a hiccup.

By contrast, the newly-created East Asian Youth Championships ― with extraordinary privileges given to it together with huge political backing ― was a miserable failure. As has been the longstanding Asian Youth Championships and Asian Schools Championships for years when held in Iran, India and Sri Lanka.

Former Asean Chess Confederation President & FIDE General Secretary Ignatius Leong has to be given credit for knowing how to organise international youth events.

It was excellent that the Lion City Youth Cup gave young players a pressure-free and fun start to competitive chess. Neither titles, ratings and prizes mattered but a chance to play chess in the right spirit, to learn the game in their own time, while making new friends from other countries.

This is how the very first chess competition should be for very young players if we want them to love the game and to benefit and excel in it.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.