Monday, 27 August 2012

Observations at Malaysia Chess Festival 2012

It is no excuse but the truth. I've been finding myself more difficult to log into the Internet in the evenings ever since my wife started competing with me for the use of the home personal computer. What about the mornings and afternoon? Well, the real excuse is that I'm suffering from a lack of inertia.

Anyway, I was spending several days in Kuala Lumpur last week without my ipad2 or the heavier and bulkier Macbook or the netbook. I only had my mobile with me and I felt that it would be sufficient for me to survive a few days away from Penang. No heavy-scale surfing but just enough connectivity to allow me to check my emails occasionally.

So what was I doing in KL? In particular, at the Cititel Midvalley. Anyone knowing me would know that I would invariably be at the Malaysia Chess Festival. I went there with half a mind to play in the tournament but at the last minute, I decided against it.

The format this year had changed from a long time control to rapidchess games, and I was dead set against short time controls. I play chess to enjoy myself, not to suffer at the chess board, and I consider 25-minute games as pure masochistic. The rush of the adrenalin in the last 10 minutes of a chess game is not to my liking and the pressure has become too much for me. Why should I torture myself unnecessarily? I started realising this more than 15 years ago and that is why I've fought so shy of quick time control games in Penang and now in Kuala Lumpur.

The change in format was primarily due to one man: Dato' Tan Chin Nam through whose big generosity that the Malaysia Chess Festival has now completed its ninth edition. But for the first eight editions, all games were played at long time controls which allowed the tournament results to be submitted to the World Chess Federation for rating.

But this year, he decided that the Malaysia Chess Festival needed to be enlivened up and he insisted that the organisers turn the three signature events - the Arthur Tan IGB Malaysia open, the Lee Loy Seng seniors open and the Ambank chess challenge - into rapidchess events. Privately, I had told the organisers that this shouldn't be done but I guess their hands were tied. So word went out that the Malaysia Chess Festival would be different this year.

Disquiet from the international chess community came when the organisers received a message from China that said they would not send any player to the Festival. Since eight years ago, the Chinese had been fervent supporters of the Malaysia Chess Festival and their close ties with Tan actually went back to 1974. People may not realise it but one of the reasons that China is a chess powerhouse today is because of Tan and his Dragon project in the Seventies and Eighties.

Back to this message, the Chinese mentioned that they had been participating in the Malaysia Chess Festivals of previous years not because of the prize monies. If they wanted money, they already had lots of tournaments in China that now offer significant cash prizes. They told Tan that they came to play because of the title opportunities. Because rapidchess games cannot be registered with the World Chess Federation for title norms and qualifications, they decided not to take part this year. If ever there was a rude awakening for Tan, this must be it.

Faced with this dilemma, it was time for some damage control. It was too late to revert this Festival back to the traditional long time control. So what did the organisers do? They decided to stick with the rapidchess format but they combined all the three signature events into one big tournament. This was a master-stroke that saved the Festival.

I should mention that throughout the Festival, Tan was still trying to justify the change to rapidchess games. Before the first pawn was even pushed, he sought feedback from the participants whether the Malaysia Chess Festival should remain a rapidchess event or change back to its original long format. From among the 180-plus participants, only about 12 players were in favour of rapidchess.

During the course of the tournament, he asked me to show him to some of the Filipino players - they were grandmasters and international masters - as he wanted to know their preferred format, and they all told him that they wanted rapidchess events. Of course they would say that. It did not surprise me. These Filipino players were basically mercenaries. Unlike the Chinese who valued titles and norms above everything else, the Filipinos were only interested to win cold, hard cash. That was all they wanted and if they could win cash prizes in the shortest time possible, so much the better. So why spend five or six days over long time-control games when they could win the same amount of money in three days over short time-control games? See their logic?

Emboldened by the Filipinos' response, Tan again asked the participants for a fresh feedback at the closing ceremony. At first he asked for people who supported the short time control. Only a handful of players wanted that. I didn't bother to see whether or not they belonged to the Filipinos. Then he asked about long time control and the hall was filled immediately with raised hands. Not satisfied, he groped at the last straw and asked whether people would prefer one-hour games. Nobody raised their hands. So I guess that finally, the message sank in that long time-control games are what chess players want when they come down to Kuala Lumpur in August every year. Next year at its 10th edition, the Malaysia Chess Festival should be back to long time-control games and reclaim its stature as a premier chess tournament in this part of the world.

Chess aside, I must say that it was really good to meet up with all those chess fellas again: so many friends from among the chess players and the chess organisers. But of course, when I look at the faces of the younger local chess participants, I have come to realise that we are generations apart and the younger set do not know me at all. My definition of a chess generation is about six to seven years, the time it would take a player to progress through his secondary schooldays. I would not be wrong to risk saying that there were at least six generations - possibly even more when the youngest players were about 10 years old and the oldest players were well in their eighties - of chess players in the tournament hall. But no matter the age difference, chess still remains a game for everyone.

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