Thursday, 15 December 2011

Two little boys

Today's story is meant to complement my article in The Star newspaper tomorrow. Obviously with space constraints in the newspaper, I cannot include all these pictures there. So it has to be here that you will see the images and read more about the story.

Well, as you know, the Penang heritage city open chess championship ended last Saturday. There were two sections to the championship, the open tournament and the challenger tournament. Separate events but being played at the same time. This year saw a Singapore invasion. Someone counted more than 70 Singaporeans taking part in either the open or challenger events. That's good enough for me; don't have to know the exact number. Most of the Singaporeans took part in the challengers, ranging from very young kids to the adults.

When I arrived at the Tanjung Bungah Beach Hotel last Thursday, the fifth round was almost over. But then I learnt that there was a dispute in the challenger event and the Appeals Committee was being convened to hear out the matter.

When I entered the tournament hall, the chief arbiter, Hamid Majid, was already seated at a chess board and playing through the moves of the disputed game right until the point of contention. Actually, the crux of the appeal was that his decision to declare the game as drawn was being challenged by the young player and his mother. Here is the mother's appeal letter:

You may have to click on the image to see the content up real close. And for good measure, here is the boy's own appeal that accompanied his mother's letter. By the way, his name was Shawn Foo and he was playing with the white pieces. Alexander Chan was his opponent. Both boys were about the same age. And by the way too, this appeal letter should be read as just one side of the story. Alex was not appealing the chief arbiter's decision. Why should he? He already got his precious half point.

Cute; Shawn has even drawn a little smiley next to his name. So, the Appeals Committee was called in. There were seven members elected before the start of the championship. Five of them were around to form the committee sitting to consider this appeal. One of them was a Singaporean chess trainer. I actually questioned Hamid why he was allowed into the committee since both parties to the dispute were also from Singapore. Hamid said it was precisely for that reason that he was allowed in. He could hardly afford to take sides to favour one player over another. Or could he?

So this was the Appeals Committee that met. Except for Steven Hoh (in blue tops) who was an arbiter in this event and sitting in to assist the deliberation, the others in the picture were Lahiri Atanu (India, IM), Watson Tay (Singapore, trainer), Martin Greenwood (England, player), Mas Hafizul (Malaysia, IM) and Nguyen Van Huy (Vietnam, IM).

I didn't want to get myself involved so I went to sit at the back of the hall to watch. There were lots of arms waving around but the most animated and vocal of the group was the Singaporean trainer. Apart from the less animated Indian international master, the rest were pretty quiet. To me, it looked as if the Singaporean was trying to assume the mantle of leading the group towards a conclusion. It was okay with me, somebody had got to take the lead and if nobody else wanted to, why not him?

Eventually a decision was reached. The committee had decided to uphold the boy's appeal and let the game continue from where it left off. Personally, I was surprised. It was not often that a perfectly reasonable decision of an experienced chief arbiter was overturned by an appeals committee, but here was one. Since I did not venture near the committee to listen to their deliberations, I do not want to say more about how they arrived at the decision.

But I do have something else to say. I have my own opinion. Rightly or wrongly, allowing the appeal and overturning the arbiter's decision is one thing, but both players had already had the time and benefit to talk over the position with their coaches and parents. In all probability, with the help of some computer programs too. If there were any initial doubts as to how the game should be won or lost, both players would have definitely found that out by now. This can't be an equitable solution to the problem, can it? To me, it was grossly unfair to Alexander. Alexander himself might not have behaved like an angel in this game but the decision was still unfair to him.

In hindsight, I still believe the decision to include the Singaporean trainer in the committee that deliberated the appeal was questionable. It may be true that directly, he could hardly take sides in this matter but there are indirect benefits to him. After all, he was a trainer and he had his own players playing in the challenger event. The committee's decision, one way or another, would also benefit some of his players, for example, affecting the pairings in the subsequent rounds or the calculation of tie-breaks. That's why it was best if he had realised it and excused himself from the committee.

After the resumed game was really over, I peeked into the score sheets of both players. I was amused. There, at the top of Shawn's score sheet, he had written out a warning or reminder to himself: "do not say the word draw!!!"

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