Doing their countries proud

SEPTEMBER 29 ― History ― and quite a lot of it ― was made at the 42nd World Chess Olympiad held from September 1-14, 2016 in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Understandably, USA's victory after a 40-year drought got most of the headlines.

While not top seeded, they were a big favourite with three of the top 10 ranked players in the world in the team. What's more, Armenia which had won three of the previous five Olympiads declined to participate and the always top-seeded Russian team has not won since 2002.

In the end, the main challenge came from Ukraine which did not seem to miss their top ranked player Vassily Ivanchuk who characteristically chose instead to take part in a checkers championship!

The American team, of course, was not just Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and former Philippines star Wesley So but also Sam Shankland and Ray Robson. Four players and an alternate (reserve) made up the team and there was also captain John Donaldson and coach Alex Lenderman.

In the end, USA just edged Ukraine on tiebreak and it hinged on the result of a game neither team had anything to do with.

What perhaps was more significant was that the top seeded Chinese women finally won despite their leader Hou Yifan again not being at her best. This seems to be more due to a levelling up at the top of women's chess which meant they were just the more consistent performers.

For most neutrals, the most astounding feat at the Olympiad was however that of Eugene Torre of the Philippines who at 64 years of age performed at 2800 level.

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Torre, in his 23rd Olympiad, played all the games and led his team's score with an astounding 10/11 from nine wins and two draws and in the old scoring system this would have gotten the Gold medal but with the new tie-break system in place, he had to settle for the Bronze medal. He was ironically enough behind the winning effort of So who ― till his shift to the USA ― was looked upon as their best prospect to take the legend's records to the next level.

I have known Torre since 1980 when I met him and his wife while I was a junior representing Malaysia in the Asian Junior Chess Championships held in Baguio, Philippines.

He had become Asia's first Grandmaster in 1974 and was halfway through his journey to become a challenger for the World Chess Championship but his humility, generosity and kindness to a young player travelling abroad alone in a time when being able to take a flight and go overseas was a privilege, has stayed with me as an example of greatness till today.

We are now of course long time friends and I when I asked him what were the reasons for his incredible performance in Baku, he laughed and was almost embarrassed, saying he was surprised!

So I then told him what I thought were the reasons and as always he was thoughtful about what was said but in the end he did not disagree.

The three reasons I gave were: firstly, that he had always looked after himself well ― lived healthy by eating well, exercising daily, and getting sufficient rest; secondly, that his love for chess was without parallel and he was engaged with it practically every minute, whether playing, studying or even thinking about the game; and thirdly, the way the Olympiad was set up, with a fixed daily routine of preparation, exercise, rest and play, was perfect as it fitted his ideal lifestyle.   

I did not remind Torre that he was a top 20 player before and that class is eternal.

The same can be said for another world class grandmaster who comes from the Asean region ― Utut Adianto from Indonesia. In his time too he was a well regarded and very respected top player and even though now a very busy sitting Senator in his country's legislature, he pops up every few years and plays chess like he has never left the game.

Indeed Adianto turned up for the last six rounds in Baku and an unbeaten 5/6 with four wins and two draws for a 2683 performance would be a result any active grandmaster would have been very pleased with.

But more importantly for him, it ensured that a woefully understrength Indonesian team ― thanks to the Olympiad coinciding with their national games where players had long been contracted to play for their provinces ― finished credibly!

Perhaps this inspiration from Torre (and Adianto too) is timely for players of my generation (and a little bit more!).

In less than a month, the Asian Seniors Chess Championship will be held in Mandalay from October 26-November 5, 2016 in two categories, 50 and above and 65 and soon after will be the World Seniors Chess Championships to be held in the Czech Republic from November 18-December 1, 2016.

The winners of the Asian Seniors will get a grandmaster norm but for the majority of participants, it is the award of the International Master title that is most attractive.

So far as I understand from the organisers, there are already four International Masters playing in the 50 and above category and from the 20 so far registered including 13 from other countries, there are two Malaysians, Ismail Ahmad and Lim Kian Hwa, while in the 65 and above category the 10 entries have just one IM from the five overseas participants.

Not limited to the older generation although conducted by lecturers in their golden years is a FIDE Arbiter's Seminar to be held concurrently from November 28-December 2, 2016.

Remember, in chess, officiating as a referee is never a bad option!

Myanmar, anyone?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.