Monday, 15 September 2014

World chess champions in our midst

As always, simultaneously with the publication of my story in the souvenir programme of the annual Malaysia Chess Festival, I shall reproduce the same here on my blog. But first, a disclaimer of sorts: Some of the facts or dates mentioned here may need further verification from MCF records, if indeed they are available.

The former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, visited Malaysia some five months ago in April 2014. At that time, his trip to these shores was meant to drum up support from Malaysia of his candidacy for World Chess Federation president's position at the FIDE elections scheduled for last month in Tromso, Norway.

As we know now, Kasparov failed in his quest to unseat the incumbent, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, by quite a wide margin.

I am not going to go into a speculative assessment of why Kasparov failed or why Ilyumzhinov succeeded, because frankly, FIDE politics are complex and beyond me. Either you are with Ilyumzhinov or you are not and it was clear that many chess federations worldwide preferred the devil they knew over the devil they didn’t exactly know, despite the latter being so well known during his time at the chess summit as the greatest chess player alive.

Many people here do not realise it but actually, Kasparov’s visit in April was the second time that he had visited Malaysia. I remember that in November 2009, he had made his first visit to our shores. However, it was a visit totally unrelated to chess. He had been invited as one of many speakers at the Youth Engagement Summit 2009 (YES2009) at the Putrajaya International Convention Centre. I was there to hear him deliver his choice words to about 1,000 youths from around this region. He spoke little of chess but gave lots of inspirational advice to the youth on how to succeed in life. If you have read his book, How Life Imitates Chess, you will have a general idea of what he talked about.

Just a few days ago as I was wondering what to write for this year’s Malaysian Chess Federation souvenir programme, it struck me that Kasparov certainly wasn’t the first former world champion to visit or pass through Malaysia.

Only four years ago in July 2010, his predecessor as world champion, Anatoly Karpov, had come swinging through Kuala Lumpur basically on a similar mission. In 2010, there was also a FIDE general election for the president’s position, and Karpov was mounting a challenge to Ilyumzhinov. Karpov came and tried to convince the Malaysian Chess Federation to vote for him. Whether he succeeded or not in getting his message through, I wouldn’t know too, but as we all know, Karpov also failed at the ballot against the incumbent FIDE president.

Like Kasparov, this too was Karpov’s second visit to Malaysia. The first time he came to Kuala Lumpur was in March 1990. It was a singularly big occasion for chess in Malaysia at that time because Karpov was playing Jan Timman in the final of the Candidates match. I remember that the world’s chess press had practically camped in our capital city to watch not whether the Dutchman could get the better of the Russian but how much he could salvage from the match. We know the answer was no, right?

A few months after that, in June 1990, I was alerted to news that a contingent of Soviet chess players (the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991) was going to transit through our then-international airport at Subang while on their way to the Manila Interzonal.

Through some good luck, I was there in the welcoming party to document their brief sojourn in the transit lounge. Among the former world champions present were Vassily Smyslov and Mikhail Tal. Among them was also a future FIDE world champion in Alexander Khalifman.

I would also like to mention that two other future world champions had also played in Malaysia, long before they attained that ultimate success in their chess careers.

Viswanathan Anand had played here on at least one occasion, if my memory serves me correctly, and that would be the Asian team chess championship at Genting in 1989. The other future world champion that played here was Rustam Kasimdzhanov. He had participated in an edition of the Asian cities team chess championship in 1998. I remember being pleasantly caught by surprise when Kasimdzhanov, from Uzbekistan in Central Asia, spoke just about the most excellent English when he spoke at the closing ceremony.

Going a little further back into time, Dr Max Euwe, world chess champion from 1935 to 1937 and FIDE president from 1970 to 1978, had visited Malaysia twice. The first time was in April 1972, and I remember that occasion just too well because it had more or less coincided with the start of my chess-playing days.

Through dint of good luck, I sat down before him together with some 23 other schoolboy chess players in a simultaneous match in Kuala Lumpur. I remember too that I got the better of him in the middle game but world champions being world champions, even ones that were long retired, he ground me down at the end. Euwe’s second visit came two years later in December 1974 when he was present at the inaugural Asian team chess championship in George Town, Penang.

However, all these visits by Euwe, Karpov, Smyslov, Tal, Khalifman, Anand and Kasparov came either before they had attained the chess summit or after they had become a former world champion. Was there any player that had visited this country while he was still a world champion? There was one, and the visit happened 81 years ago.
Long before there was Malaysia or the Federation of Malaya, British Malaya consisted of a set of sovereign states on the peninsula which together with the Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca and Singapore) were under British control between the 18th and the 20th centuries.

At the end of 1932, the reigning world chess champion, Alexander Alekhine, had announced that he would be undertaking a world tour in the following year to play exhibition matches. It was a tour that would take him to the Far East. Among the countries in his itinerary would be the United States (Hawaii), Japan (Tokyo), China (Shanghai), Hong Kong, the Philippines (Manila), British Malaya (Singapore) and the Dutch East Indies (Djakarta). There was an attempt to get Alekhine to Australia too but negotiations fell through.

His tour reached Singapore on 26 Feb 1933 where he battled 25 chess players in a simultaneous match at the Adelphi Hotel, and won all of them. According to a news report, “Dr Alekhine was merciless with men and women alike and gradually broke up all attacks.”

Alekhine left Singapore for the Dutch Indies after this display but one month later, he found himself back in Singapore. Not one to miss this golden opportunity, the Singapore Chess Club announced a second simultaneous match with the world champion willing to play blindfold against 10 players. So on 27 Mar 1933 at the Adelphi again, Alekhine sat with his back to the players as he methodically picked apart nine of his opponents. However, he had to resign a game to one of them when he found himself a piece down with no chance of salvaging even a draw.

But this was not the end of the story. While on his journey home through India, Alekhine made a brief stop at George Town. However, he did not give any simultaneous match there presumably because the chess community in Penang could have been poorly organised or non-existent at that time. Of course, it would be hard to blame them but all the same, what a waste of a good opportunity 81 years ago, I would think!

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