Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Chess archive: Malaysian goodwill tour of China, 1-16 Apr 1978

It was not very apparent to many people that the People's Republic of China had applied to join the World Chess Federation in 1974 and their application was accepted at the FIDE Bureau Meeting in Penang. It was the Malaysian Chess Federation that sponsored the Chinese into the world chess fraternity, and it was something that the Chinese Chess Association did not forget. An invitation was soon given to the Malaysian Chess Federation to send an official delegation for a playing tour of China but it was not until 1978 that it materialised.

Apart from Fang Ewe Churh who was both the vice-president of the Malaysian Chess Federation and the president of the Penang Chess Association, Penang was offered two places in the Malaysian delegation. The choice fell on me who was then the honorary secretary of the association, and Tan Bian Huat who had won the national closed championship in the previous year.Unfortunately, at the last minute, Fang Ewe Churh's place in the delegation was rejected by the Federal Government.

Here is my account of the Goodwill Tour, as extracted from the Catur Magazine.

Finally, after almost a two-year wait for the opportunity to visit one of the last few inaccessible places in the world, a Malaysian chess team made an official tour of the People's Republic of China. And what a hectic tour it was for the chess team. The players were exposed to the uncomfortable onslaughts of their Chinese counterparts over the chessboards while away from the chessboards, they were exposed to the wear and tear of the weather. This will be explained later on.

But first, about the team itself. Led by Wan Ahmad Radzi and Abdul Rahman Yaacob from the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, and Datuk Tan Chin Nam and Victor Vijiarungam, the players spent a total of 16 days inside the land of 900 million people.

The choice of the players was more like a selection of King Arthur's famous round-table knights. From all over the country, the players assembled in Kuala Lumpur on March 30, the eve of their departure for Hongkong.

From the south, Hu Yu Kuang came representing the Johore Chess Club, from the east came Abdul Rahman Ahmad of the Persatuan Catur Kelantan, from the Penang Chess Association came Tan Bian Huat and myself, the Chess Association of Perak sent Chan Swee Loon while the Chess Association of Selangor was represented by Christi Hon and R Subramaniam.

Efforts to secure an eighth player from Negri Sembilan failed when the selected player proved more elusive than attempts to get Bobby Fischer to play in any tournament nowadays. So, it was in Kuala Lumpur that this group of players met each other. Never before had there been such a gathering of players from different states that constituted a greater strength than the group that assembled at Subang airport on March 31 morning.

Tan Bian Huat was the 1977 national champion, Chan Swee Loon was the 1975 national champion, Christi Hon had been playing in New Zealand and the Philippines and seemed to be Malaysia's best chances of getting onto FIDE's rating list, Hu Yu Kuang was by far one of the most impressive student players from Johore, Abdul Rahman Akimad had consistently performed well in the national championships as well as having participated in the 1974 Asian Team Championship in Penang, R Subramaniam had always been known for his fighting spirit in local chess events although not lucky enough to win any tournament, while I had played on Board Two in the Asian team event four years ago.

Apparently our group was in high spirits and, except for myself, was in brimming good health. For two weeks, I had been knocked out with a bad bout of influenza and the doctor had warned me to take things easy. But how could I take things easy when the prospect of an exciting tour of China was before me?

We entered China through Hongkong and flew from Guangzhou to Shanghai. Reaching China's most populated city at about 8 pm, Yu Kuang and Subramaniam practically shivered from the moment they stepped outside the Trident jet. and before long, all our teeth were chattering in unison in the near 40F temperature. The daytime was only a wee bit better with the temperature reaching a maximum of only 60F in the sun.

Our first match was against the Chinese national team. The venue was in one of Shanghai's most prominent areas, but unfortunately nothing had been done to warm up the hall. Luckily, our hosts were able to provide us with some Custom-made overcoats. But unluckily enough, the coats were heavy and by the third hour of play our shoulders began to sag as the overcoats seemed to get heavier and heavier.

To escape the cold, nothing was more gratifying than to warm our hands by grasping the cups of hot tea with the palms of our hands; but tea was there to be drunk and we did drink the tea. We must have consumed more tea in 16 days than we ever did anytime in the past.

By our own expectations, the team performed fairly. The Chinese had fielded one of their strongest combinations with their talented Chi Ching-hsuan on top board. By the third hour of play, Bian Huat reported that play was even but time trouble slowly crept in. By the adjournment, Chi had the upper hand. Our other players fared about just as badly, and apart from a draw each by Christi and myself, the rest lost.

Our second match would be against the Shanghai team. Now was the time, most of us thought, to improve on our results. However, a surprise awaited us when we learnt that their lineup was basically unchanged. Chi Ching-hsuan was still playing first board and Hsi Hung-hsu had been promoted to second board.

Further inquiries showed that the Shanghai team had won their national championship last year and it seemed that the bulk of their national players were from Shanghai.

Undaunted, we plodded on but surprisingly enough found that resistance against their onslaughts was better than expected. Chi Ching-hsuan won his game easily, as did Hsi Hung-hsu, but the draws came on third and fourth boards from Christi and Yu Kuang. However, an unexpected turn of luck came on seventh board. In time pressure, the Chinese player blundered his position and allowed me to win material after a forced exchange of queens.

On April 5, we boarded the train for Hangzhou. The next day, we were taken to the West Lake and following a breath-taking tour of the area, the third encounter with the Chinese began in the afternoon.

We ended up with the score 2 1/2 - 4 1/2 in their favour. Only two games were decisive. Christi and myself lost on the second and fourth boards while the rest drew their games. One of the hardest fought games was on sixth board between Abdul Rahman and Wen Ken-hung. Chances favoured Abdul Rahman slightly at the adjourned position but further analysis showed that the win was not so easy for him. Yu Kuang had the other adjourned game in a difficult position but the draw was also there.

By this time, the whole team was more than grateful for the Chinese hospitality. Most of the time, we would be taken on sightseeing tours of the region in the mornings and afternoons and immediately after a satisfying lunch we would be whisked to the tournament room where between the chessboard and endless cups of tea, the opponents would gradually break up our resistances as we nod sleepily over a piece of their cake.

But Suzhou proved just as difficult for them as it was for us. Their 18-year-old prodigy, Liang Chin-yung, who the day before had won easily, had obtained an overwhelming position but in the critical stage of the game had missed the correct line and allowed Swee Loon to defend the position adequately.

Christi came up with a head-splitting toothache but the ache was forgotten in his game with Li Chu-nein as he succeeded in pressuring his opponent almost to the point of constricting the king. The win came at an apt moment and allowed us to slowly creep up with a score of 3-4.

Surely then, we thought that we must be getting better, for if you will notice, the team started out with a 1-6 score in Shanghai and gradually improved with a 2-5 result in Shanghai, a 2 1/2 - 4 1/2 in Hangzhou and a 3-4 in Suzhou. Hopes were high for an outright win in our fifth and last match. Yes, we did reach a new high in Peking but it was only as high as scaling the Great Wall, about 30 miles north of the Chinese capital.

I drew my game easily and then saw Yu Kuang, Swee Loon and Abdul Rahman lose theirs. Subramaniam had a good position but it gradually turned bad before another dramatic switch of luck converted the game into a draw. Only Bian Huat and Christi had any chance of winning but by the fifth hour Christi's game was drawish and Bian Huat followed soon by agreeing to draw with his opponent.

The tour therefore ended without the Malaysian team winning any match except that Christi and myself won a game each and that there were quite a number of hard-fought drawn games. But for us, it had been a very revealing opportunity to play against a nation which by Asian standards was second only to the Philippines. One only needed to know that the Chinese was second at the second Asian Team Championship in New Zealand in 1977 and that Chi Ching-hsuan performed well at the zonal tournament in Japan in February 1978, although he just missed qualifying from the preliminary group by only half a point.

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