MARCH 2 — March is usually when the local chess scene swings into high gear with back to back National Age-Groups and National Closed Championships held during the first school term break of the year.
The National Age-Groups has now been renamed the National Youth & Junior Championships and from last year the National Closed is now called the Malaysian Championships but very little else has changed.
The National Age-Groups, which has categories for both boys and girls from between 8 to 18 years of age, has a captive audience because it is the main basis for qualification and also right (together with the national rating system) to participate in the many international youth events.
In the case of the National Closed, after first having started with representation through state affiliates, for years now anyone can play; not of course for the prize fund but to get the titles of both Malaysian Champion and National Master as well as qualification to the round-robin Malaysian Masters which is really a glorified selection tournament for the national team.
Why are arguably the two most important national championships — where all can take part — being crammed into one school term break?
The answer is, of course, that it has for a very long time always been about children whose participation and entry fees fund competitions. In fact, over 80 per cent (and sometimes as much as 90) of the participation in both events are made up of the same children.
For some time it was not clear why there was such poor response to the National Junior Championships which directly qualified the winner to represent Malaysia to play in the World Junior and Asian Junior Championships.
After all, this is where the very best talent in the world and Asia respectively take part for a chance to win a title that is considered just second in ranking to that of World Champion and Asian Champion.
I am also a bit surprised at how just five rounds can determine our Malaysian Junior Champions!
The fact that the Zone 3.3 Championships being held in Tagaytay, Philippines has just one Malaysian representative — our No.1 player, 18-year-old Yeoh Li Tian — who as of writing is among the leaders, speaks volumes.
Some of our young players are, of course, not without ambition and we have examples of quite a few, who, and rather surprisingly, keep popping up at various big international open tournaments from time to time to pursue their dreams of becoming an International Master.
While they might have both the personal funds and even a plan to achieve this — often with some foreign-employed coach assisting — it all seems rather ad-hoc.
It has been noted by simply too many that have come into contact with us that in chess, Malaysians like to talk ourselves up but are all too often unable to walk the talk.
Perhaps at our stage as a society, we equate status to having positions and titles, and in chess, it is the same but too often, properly earning them, let alone being able or willing to do the work that comes with the job is a much less important consideration.
But if we look at the context of the game in Malaysia and especially how children today are simply everything to their parents, the reality is that besides the known benefits like better social interaction, increasing confidence, etc. and the chance to travel to one of the numerous official international youth competitions, even very limited success in chess gives rather tangible rewards locally in terms of CV enhancement which in turn often results in significant rewards such as university scholarships.
Yes, it is all about the children, and their parents... but in a system where real excellence in chess as a sport might not perhaps yet be something we are yet ready for.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.