A matter of priorities

MARCH 23 ― The National Youth & Junior U20 Chess Championships 2017 in Kuala Lumpur has just ended, as has the International Classical Chess Festival 2017 in Putrajaya.

Despite being organised for completely different reasons and held at different places, it was still a surprise to see both events overlap each other over the weekend given that we had most of the Malaysian chess community participating together with the usual foreign mercenaries.

As I have pointed out before, the National Youth and Junior U20 has a captive audience in that the winners in each of the respective age-group categories, from under six years old, under eight years old, and right up to under 20 years old ― both boys and girls ― earn an official spot (plus free hotel) while also qualifying to participate in the many international school, youth and junior events held the rest of 2017.

Of course, all other players meeting minimum national rating requirements can also take part and in dong so also proudly become Malaysian national players!

Given the 16 age-group categories, the 550 or so taking part is not a particularly large number and the breakdown by gender shows a 3 to 1 boy to girl ratio.

More interestingly, but perhaps not unsurprising, the large numbers were in the under ten to under 14 age groups with as few as 10 and 6 respectively in the under 20 boys and under 20 girls.

While the kids played in the modest but sufficient Olympic Council of Malaysia Arena for honour and glory, the 37 in the Open section and the 92 in the Challengers at the International Classical Chess Festival ― even though it is not even nationally rated ― enjoyed the much grander ambience of the Putrajaya International Convention Centre in their quest to share a total published prize fund of RM100,000!

The new Malaysian Chess Federation (MCF) leadership is still finding its way and there are many legacies from the past including that of national team selection which is irrevocably linked to the National Closed Championship which since last year has been more grandly renamed the Malaysian Championship.

In a non-World Chess Olympiad year (this is held bi-annually), there is very little incentive for players who already enjoy the status of national players to play in our national championships which is the start of the qualifying cycle.

It has become absolutely ridiculous that current national team members and reserves have seven of the 10 places in a selection tournament which is called the Malaysian Masters.

When I was Technical Chairman in MCF, the Malaysian Masters was revived and repurposed to qualify as an International Master title tournament and to also break a decades-old and out-of-date system where players with the highest World Chess Federation (FIDE) ratings automatically get selected.

Now it has become little more than part of a highly-compromised selection system where a great deal of collusion goes on and often good friends end up in the team together.

The biggest problem is that once a player is a member of the national team, there are no obligations let alone responsibilities... not even a requirement to participate in a certain number of strong tournaments or to train regularly.

In the recent Zonal Championships, only our No. 1 player Yeoh Li Tian went and so he fought alone.

For me, it was very disappointing that our women who made history with a best-ever (by a huge margin) at last year's Olympiad all decided not to play in the Zonals. And now, rather than win the National Junior U20, many preferred instead to try and win money at the Putrajaya International Convention Centre. What is more, they were joined there by at least two very young players who have been talked up as part of our chess future.

It is, of course, their right... everyone has a choice, and no one can fault them.

But one has to ask MCF if they will continue with a flawed national team selection process that all but ensures there is no meritocracy and therefore a guarantee that outside of having a self-made individual performance like that of Yeoh's to talk about from time to time, we are happy to revisit our men's 137th finish at the last Olympiad?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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