Sunday, 19 August 2012

So long, and thanks for all the fish

About 10 days ago, I was writing about how I agonised over contributing a story for the souvenir book of this year's Malaysia Chess Festival in Kuala Lumpur. With the competition starting today with the players' arrivals - technically, the competition starts only tomorrow - I am reproducing my write-up here on the blog. So here goes, my version of "so long, and thanks for all the fish."

Anyone who had been following my writings in The Star newspaper all these years will have realised by now that I am finished with my chess column in the Star newspaper. Really. Seriously. I do not anticipate any more chess coverage for them, not now and not in the near foreseeable future.

People have asked me several times whether or not I knew why the newspaper had given up on the chess ghost. Actually, I don’t know. The only reason ever told to me was that they needed a directional change in editorial policy. It happens every few years. The newspaper will review their content and decide which columns to drop and which new ones to introduce. Chess got the chop this time.

But frankly, folks, I have truly enjoyed all my time writing about chess in the local news media. If I were to count my stay from the very first time I attempted writing a chess report, it would have been something close to 35 years.

Do I hear a gasp anywhere? Thirty-five years? That’s right. My very first chess reports appeared in the now defunct National Echo newspaper in 1976 or 1977. Of course, time has blurred my memory but I was employed by this newspaper at that period. Therefore, it was only logical that if I did want to write about chess, I would have to be one of their permanent staff then.

After I left the newspaper industry, I went into the banking line. However, writing was still a very large part of me and one day in 1980, when I read an advertisement in The Star inviting people to apply for a freelance job in the newspaper, I thought to myself: “why not?” Nothing much for me to lose, right? If chosen, it would only be a freelance job. It wasn’t as if I was going to leave my current employment. I would write about my dearest hobby, share my opinion with people and hopefully can lure more people to playing chess.

To my mild surprise, the newspaper wrote back to say yes, they would like me to contribute a weekly column. And that was how I started writing with them beginning in August of that year. I’ve got to make it very clear that my chess column, from the time I started it, had never been about money. Back in 1980, getting paid RM15 or RM20 for every week’s work wasn’t going to make anyone rich quickly or slowly. I was simply doing it for the love of the game. But if the newspaper decided to pay for my effort, I wouldn’t refuse the professional fee.

So the chess column in The Star newspaper started in August 1980, the very first regular chess column in Malaysia written by a chess player and specifically for Malaysian chess players in mind. I still get a lot of satisfaction today when chess players tell me that they grew up waiting anxiously for the Friday editions of the newspaper so that they could learn what was going on in the chess world at large.

I remember that my first story was about the New Zealand chess player, Craig Laird. He had come to Malaysia to play in a tournament and ended up staying in Penang for about a month or so. He was a lucky fellow. Someone managed to book him into the South View government bungalow up at Penang Hill for a month’s stay. It’s unheard of nowadays. The government bungalows up there are no longer accessible to the general public. I have to admit that I have lost touch with Laird. If anyone reading this knows his whereabouts, you can do me a great favour by asking him to write to me at

When I think back on my long freelance writing career, there were only three periods when the chess column took a short break. Other than that, the column was very regular. Even when I was to go on leave, I would prepare my article way in advance so that there would always be continuity.

The first time there was a break was during the brief but dark period during Mahathir Mohamad’s time as Prime Minister which we in Malaysia will always remember as the infamous Operation Lalang. Newspapers were bolder then and transparent in their reporting. And then one day in the midst of a political crisis, the federal government revoked the printing licence of several newspapers for their news reports of events that were seen as not favourable to the government.

When The Star was suspended, so too was my column although I can claim that what I had been writing until then was solely about chess and it contributed nothing to the tension in the country. And yet, my column was affected because the newspaper stopped printing! But several months later, I received a nice telephone call from the editorial desk to ask me to resume my column. “We are back,” the voice at the other end declared. So was I.

The second break occurred not long later. I can’t quite remember the exact time but it must have been after the landmark world chess championship candidates final match between Anatoly Karpov and Jan Timman in Kuala Lumpur in 1990. What I do remember was that someone started giving The Star a series of chess puzzles to use beside my own column.

At first I really did not mind because, well, that’s giving the newspaper some variety but gradually I noticed that the puzzles began eating into my space and my column began getting snipped short until sometimes, I couldn’t even recognise it. What was the use of writing when nobody understands what was written? Worse still, when the writer himself couldn’t make sense of it?

Throughout my writing career, my policy has been very simple. Chess has been part of my life since schooldays. I’ve been writing about the game simply because I loved it. And I had the credentials as a school player, state player and a national player. I understood the game, both on and off the board.

But if anyone wanted to take over the column, I was more than happy to give way as long as there was a replacement. So I decided to step aside and let the contributor submit his puzzles to his heart’s content. But soon later, the puzzles stopped and for several months, again there wasn’t any chess column in The Star.

The lull did not last long. Soon afterwards, another telephone call came to ask me whether I was interested to resume writing. Okay, lah, I replied and that was how I got a third lease of writing life. Remarkably, this was about the longest stretch of writing that lasted through the change of the millenium until the beginning of 2007. It stopped because the new editor who was then in charge decided on a change of content. That brief period of stoppage which lasted until the beginning of 2009, allowed me an opportunity to do other things, like explore blogging for a change.

When I went into my fourth stint as a freelance chess columnist for the newspaper in 2009, I had always felt that this was going to be a short and final spell at writing for them. The world had changed and information was being passed so quickly over the Internet that anything that was in the print media would already be old news.

Then there were the local chess organisers and players who had taken to the Internet like duck to water. Theirs was the new enthusiasm. Theirs was the new way. They provided instant results on their blogs. They updated the latest results on the chess servers. Print media would find it difficult to compete on this score.

So I knew that this time, it was going to be a brief stay although I could never know how long it would be. Whatever, I also knew that I should make the most of this opportunity. I was not wrong. In February this year, I was informed by The Star to prepare myself for another change in their editorial direction. And it has come to pass. My last article appeared in the newspaper on 2 March 2012. And I don’t foresee rising from the ashes again for yet another time.

Regarding the way I submit my weekly stories to The Star, so much has changed since I first started writing for them in 1980. When I first started out on the column, I had to use a typewriter. Whenever it was time for me to prepare a story, I would bang on the beast long into the night and keep my family members awake. Then the next day I would walk to The Star’s office in Penang and pass the story to the editorial desk which would then assign one of their staff to retype the story. And often, there would be unfamiliar words and symbols for their typists to navigate around. We have to remember that everything was done manually three decades ago. As a result, the risk of introducing errors into my stories was rather high.

Conditions improved at the start of the 1990s. By this time, people were beginning to own desktop computers. From the house, I could now prepare my stories electronically and store them conveniently on floppy disks. Ironically, it now took me longer to write because of the ease of correcting and rewriting my articles. But it was definitely more efficient. Moreover, offices were starting to get connected and while The Star still did not have an Internet presence, their offices in Penang and Petaling Jaya were at least connected through a dedicated line. But still, I had to walk to their office and copy my story into their desktop computers. But at least, I had cut out the middleman typists and take responsibility for any typo mistakes that appeared in print later on. Previously, I could always blame them, you see.

Eventually, even that, I no longer had to do. By the turn of the millennium, everyone was already well connected and I no longer dealt with the people at the newspaper’s Penang office. Everything was submitted through email directly to their office in Petaling Jaya.

So, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, friends and non-friends, with this narrative ends my life's work. But it's not like you won't hear from me again. I'm sure you will. In the meantime, it has been a long and pleasant trip. In the words of Douglas Adams, "so long, and thanks for all the fish."

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