Much room for improvement
By Quah Seng Sun
MOST readers know that we have an annual match with our Singapore friends every year. It is either the Malaysians going south to Singapore, or the Singaporeans coming north to Kuala Lumpur.
Either way, our players always cherish playing this match because in the last few years, we normally come out big winners. Even though our senior players lose on the top boards, our juniors always carry the day. We feel good about the success of our junior players because they are the future of Malaysian chess.
As our juniors mature into senior players, perhaps the day is near when Malaysia will finally beat Singapore at senior level.
Well, I have news for you. The writing is there that we are wrong, very wrong and getting complacent about it. In one very recent regional event, the cream of our junior players, except for a few exceptions, were shown to be as ordinary as our average adult club players.
When the Malaysian Chess Federation decided to send a group of 22 boys and girls to the first Asean age-group chess championship in Vungtau, Vietnam, hopes were rather high that our players could give a good account of themselves.
In a field that consisted of an even bigger group of 44 players from Singapore and 76 juniors playing in front of their home audience, the feeling was that most of our players could end up in the top half or even the top third of the standings. Perhaps with some hard work and good luck, a Malaysian player could even top an age-group event or two.
However, the results proved otherwise. In almost all the age-groups, our players were placed badly. The main beneficiaries were the Vietnamese themselves but generally, the Malaysian juniors had rather uninspiring results.
Just consider these points:
The best Malaysian in the boys' under-12 event finished 13th, behind 10 Vietnamese players and two Singaporeans. The event was won by a Vietnamese player but the best Singaporean went home with the third prize. Near the bottom of the table languished two other Malaysians.
A Singaporean won the boys' under-18 event. Then, there was a long list of names of players from Myanmar, Vietnam and Singapore before our the name of our sole representative was reached.
In the boys' under-10 event, Vietnam took the top eight spots and our player only managed to slip into the ninth place. After him was another Malaysian boy, but it was basically the Singapore players that dominated the middle standings.
This trend was repeated in many of the girls' events. In the girls' under-10 event, the Vietnam girls shut everyone else from the top half of the standings. Our local girl was 10th in a field of 14.
Similarly, in the girls' under-12 and under-16 events, Vietnam ruled the top half of the tournament. For the under-12 event, Malaysia's current national women's champion, Siti Zulaika Foudzi, could only place eighth while another girl was even further back. In the under-16 event, the Malaysian was ninth among 12 players.
It was only in the boys' under-14 and under-16 events that there were some redeeming factors.
Singapore's Luke Leong played with such confidence to grasp the first prize of the under-14 event that even our former national champion, Jonathan Chuah, could only give chase, while failing to catch up with him. The most pleasant surprise was the good show of young Nicholas Chan who finished joint second with Chuah. But apart from these two players, the other four Malaysians finished poorly in the second half of the 23-player field.
Also in the under-16 event, Deoh Moh and Marcus Chan played reasonably well to finish third and fourth respectively among 14 players. We had two other players in this event but they could only end up in sixth and 10 positions.
As a final summary of the Asean age-group tournament, Vietnam's girls made a complete sweep of the five girls' events while of the five boys' events, Vietnam won the under-10 and under-12, Singapore won the under-14 and under-18, and the Philippines took the under-16 prize.
My opinion of the Malaysian juniors' performances may seem rather harsh but the stark reality is that our junior players, save for a handful, are really going nowhere. Even when they play among their peers, it seems that other countries are progressing faster than us.
So what can be the solution to this problem? Various suggestions have been made, including the traditional solution of training on one's own, learning from chess books and using the modern approach of using computer chess and chess database programmes, and then taking part in competitions within one's own geographical sphere.
This, however, has its limitations because the player is not exposed to the wider practical challenges of playing with enough human opponents of varied playing styles and skills.
There has been talk of organising centralised training sessions in Kuala Lumpur for selected junior players. But while this is a plausible solution, it cannot be sustained over a long period of time due to various reasons.
Outstation junior players, for example, cannot be expected to invest too muchtime away from their homes and normal studies. Then there is the aspect of getting suitably qualified local coaches. While there are a few local players who are attempting to make a living from coaching and organising some chess activities, they do not have the necessary experience to take their students far. They are competent, yes, but up to a certain standard only, after which the students are on their own again.
Perhaps we can do what the Singaporeans are doing: employ foreign grandmasters and other titled players as coaches. For the past years, Chinese grandmaster Wu Shaobin and Vietnamese grandmaster Tu Hoang Thong have been among other foreign chess professionals coaching the Singapore boys and girls regularly, and their efforts are starting to show good results.
I am told that their professional fees are not cheap. Wu, for example, charges between S$60 to S$70 (about RM135 to RM160) for a two-hour private tutorial.
Perhaps the Malaysian Chess Federation could have instituted a similar programme years ago when the Georgian grandmaster, Eduard Gufeld, was such a regular figure darting in and out of the country. At that time, the MCF's honorary life-president, Datuk Tan Chin Nam, had offered Gufeld's services to the federation but sadly, this offer was never taken up.
It was a missed golden opportunity because the MCF will not be able to afford paying for Gufeld now. Gufeld has already set himself up in the United States where he runs a popular and successful coaching service. Needless to say, he now "talks'' in US dollars.
Perhaps where we are going wrong is in the types of tournaments we organise. Rapid chess events may be cool and popular but they do not train our players to play and pace themselves correctly. We certainly need more local tournaments at longer time controls so that our players can learn what it is like to think more deeply.
And finally too, it is about time that the MCF gets down to the urgent task of persuading the Education Department to reinstate the MSSM chess programmes. It has been a few years since chess disappeared from the schools' activity calendar; it is time for the game to reappear if we want to rejuvenate scholastic chess interests nationwide.
THE Penang Chess Association will organise the fourth leg of this year's Penang Chess Grand Prix circuit at the Bayan Baru Residents' Association clubhouse on Dec 31 at 8.30am.
This tournament will comprise six rounds and the entry fee is RM10 for PCA members. Anyone interested can contact Ooi Kiem Boo ( 04-226 2209, office; 04-658 0809, residence / e-mail: email@example.com).
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