In search of excellence

JANUARY 12 ― It has now been a month since the Malaysian Chess Federation (MCF) elections and despite a good start by the new leadership, it is clear that too much “business as usual” is being attempted by too many who represent the failures of the past while the relatively new kids on the block are still finding their footing.

Here I offer a blueprint for MCF to move forward:

1. Overview

The challenges faced by the leadership is that of a lack of expertise within the council which is seriously compounded by vested interests. As it stands today, MCF will require a paradigm shift in how it operates.

2. The core problem

MCF's membership is made up of state affiliates and most are weak and/or dysfunctional but to engage directly with individuals regardless of their alleged standing in local chess is not a solution. Instead, this creates more serious problems.

It is critical that state affiliates be the sole point of contact of the national body other than when it concerns the national team and international matters. Many state affiliates will require help to become more democratic and be better organised to be able to serve their membership.

A good start is to require every player be a member of a state affiliate and not to allow multiple state memberships, let alone representation.

3. Key areas

3.1. Secretariat & funding

This is largely in place with an office, Executive Secretary (although an Executive Director with an implementation role is better), functioning website (perhaps what is needed are more frequent updates and news) and PR/Media communications.

I assume there are grants being applied for, the various relevant government agencies being engaged, and a corporate fundraising programme being put in place but there is a danger of going the ad-hoc route and so a multi-year plan listing priorities needs to be first developed!

3.2. Competitions

We have too many national championships and too many are for children and even though they have helped grow the numbers in the game, it is long overdue that they are rationalised and made more prestigious.

For too long they have largely operated as both a means of generating income for certain individuals while growing the market for students.

I would recommend a consolidation as follows:

* Malaysian Masters & National Closed Championships

For the National Championships, each state is to have the right to send four players. However, others ― 1800 and above for men and 1500 and above for women ― may also apply to take part but only through their respective state affiliates and the same goes for previous national champions.

The National Champion must be the biggest title and the Malaysian Masters should be discontinued and made into the final stage of the National Championships where a round robin might qualify a certain number of players who are joined by a certain number of pre-qualifiers including the defending national champion.

We then have a final 10-player round robin tournament given all the prestige and conditions of a top level event.

* National Age Groups, National Juniors & National Scholastics Championships

The National Age-Group Championships should be the sole and most prestigious event for our youth next to the MSSM Schools Championship. The National Age-Groups and National Junior Championships can easily be merged into a new competition called the National Youth Championship with categories from U-8 to U-20.

Here the time control must be changed to that of standard chess and the number of rounds increased and tie-breaks for the winners being playoffs to reflect the international competition they will qualify for.

Of course there should be no National Scholastics Championships, and instead, for the MSSM be recognised as such.

* National Inter-state Team Championships

An excellent event but the last was marred by mercenaries playing for different states.

3.3 Ratings and selection

The national rating list has been a source of controversy for a very long time and absolutely does not make sense even if we choose to ignore the lack of transparency and vested interests behind it.

It mixes up three formats of chess while being the basis of selection for one, and secondly, there is no oversight while remaining a significant income generator for the individual responsible who still operates it, not as owned by MCF, but as his own private property!

In the world where the World Chess Federation (FIDE) has all rating lists going down to beginner and in all three formats, and which is the measure for now for all competition worldwide, why not just adopt it instead as so many countries have now done?

The argument that most local events are rapids does not hold water as it is not more expensive to make them FIDE rapid rated and one of the excellent outcomes of having all national and most other events FIDE rated is that the standard of organising (and arbiters) will be raised!

Also, with the need to protect the integrity of FIDE rated events, if MCF is not directly involved, then the state affiliates will have to take on this role, and if they choose to allow in independent organisers, they will also be accountable for any errors and omissions, something which is not the case today with many local nationally rated events.

Selection needs to be carefully done from now onwards as in the past there has been endless backdoor deals, a case in point being the team that went to last year's Baku Olympiad. Till today, we are still hearing of parents independent of MCF getting together to plan their kids' next event overseas!

MCF has to categorise the various international competitions ― both World and Asian ― and to prioritise them in line with stated objectives before setting the minimum standards for national representation.

I agree that all national champions have the right to represent Malaysia in the appropriate if not the corresponding international event, but the extent of financial support given should depend on how competitive they are and so perhaps this policy should start with Asian rather than World events.

At the same time, I think there are a number of international events such as the Asian Schools Championships ―- if not given to MSSM ― can perhaps be designated as not officially recognised for assistance and support but instead be given lower standards of qualification and participation by those interested, and accordingly facilitated.

If someone is not good enough, why should that person ― just because he or she can pay ― be allowed to be called a Malaysian player?

3.4 National team

A top grandmaster once famously referred to Malaysia as one of those countries without a grandmaster and given how much we have invested in international competitions and participation for decades, that is indeed an embarrassment, and all the more so when this title is so much more easily attained today.

I have long advocated the creation of a national team that commits to training and participation in international competition year round with a backup squad of younger players but what has happened is that the old MCF instead created a national squad which perversely gives direct qualification but without any obligations required on the players' part.

There should be real benefits and this is not so difficult as already many individuals have gotten (and are getting) university scholarships for chess on top of the many grants and special awards given by schools, ministries, and politicians for winning nothing meaningful.

Only then can we talk of excellence and having that long overdue grandmaster so much talked about in the local chess community.

3.5 Award of international titles

Candidate Master is not a title and certainly not Arena Grandmaster or Arena International Master as they have no value in the eyes of FIDE as criteria in events which give norms for the serious titles like that of Grandmaster, International Master and FIDE Master that are earned through achieving title norms and/or minimum rating standards.

Of course, there are now many events that are giving a valuable title away directly but at least that is on the basis of winning an international competition and at the end of the day if the minimum rating requirement needed is never reached, everyone knows what the real level is.

The bigger problem ― and this is all FIDE's doing for political favour and money ― is the now prolific giving away of international trainer and arbiter titles, and this is blatantly abused in the case of the giving away of high trainer titles while of course, the problem with the arbiter titles is that simple attendance in enough events will do.

In Malaysia, this is now out of control and needs some serious thinking to separate the capable from the many who basically cannot do.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.