Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Seremban2 to honour chess masters

In mid-January this year while on a trip to Seremban and Malacca, I had stopped by the Seremban2 city park to take in the view. In recent years, this park with its main feature being a magnificent lake has become a premier oasis for the people of Seremban, supplanting the popularity of the Seremban lake gardens which for many decades had been a principal feature of the town.

Anyway, the city park in Seremban covers a sprawling area of about 15 acres. My wife and I took a slow walk around the perimeter of the lake and observed the many activities going on there: individuals walking, jogging or participating in vigorous mass zumba exercises; families strolling and relaxing with their young children in tow. Feeding the fishes in the lake also seemed to be one of the favourite past-times of the people and mind you, there are probably thousands of fish, especially catfish.

I had noticed a particular junction along the perimeter where three pathways joined up. A small, relatively flat space that overlooked the lake. I was told that there were plans by the developer of the sprawling Seremban2 township, IJMLand, to make something out of this land very shortly, possibly to complete before the Chinese New Year. It would be one of their CSR projects.

In the weeks that followed my visit to Seremban2, many curious people would have wondered why this 15-foot statue of a chess knight was being erected in that vacant space. But following its completion with no inkling of news on why the statue was there at all, curiosity has made way for quiet acceptance of its presence.

But of course, there is a purpose to this project. Very soon, I am told, possibly come the middle of May, there will be an official ceremony to dedicate this statue and the area around it to chess.

Chess may not be one of the more visible games in this country but I can assure you that the game has a sizable following. If we consider that:
  1. Chess is not exactly a spectator sport for the masses, 
  2. There are chess tournaments all year round ranging from higher-end internationally-rated tournaments for the more serious-minded players to the frequent much more popular lower-end rapid-chess tournaments that attracts 100 players on an average per tournament, 
  3. On the assumption that the chess population in the country consists of 10 percent hardcore chess players who have been playing the game all their lives, 25 percent of chess players who have been at the game for more than 10 years, 35 percent of chess players who have been playing the game for more than five years and the remaining being chess players who have competed in local chess tournaments (including at school level), and 
  4. There are unknown players who only play socially among themselves without ever participating in tournaments, plus an unknown number of people who read chess news off the Internet, 
  5. A growing chess coaching industry throughout the country ensures that more children, getting younger all the time, and their parents and guardians are getting exposed to the game,

Taking all the points above, I would venture to guess that the chess enthusiasts in the country would conservatively number around 100,000. A sizable following for a game that is not often in the public eye, and indeed, does not attract as much support from the Olympics Council of Malaysia as I feel it should.

But for all its grassroots popularity, chess does not have a local hero that the chess players can look up to. Considering that the Philippines have their Eugene Torre, India have their Viswanathan Anand and China have their Hou Yifan - and I'm quoting only three countries - Malaysia have none save for our five international masters. We have not grown beyond five because our culture does not permit state support or even provide ample recognition for our chess talents. Is it any wonder then, that our IMs do sometimes question whether it was really worth their while to have spent so much time in chasing their chess dreams and in return, benefit little or at the very least, see scant recognition for their efforts?

For the unheralded chess players in this country, there is now an attempt to give credit to these five international masters. If we need to grow our chess level, these five IMs should be the core of our development efforts. The country shall need to engage them in order for the game to progress further. By right, this should be the responsibility of the Malaysian Chess Federation but even after more than 40 years there is a perception that something is holding the federation back. By this perceived reluctance to fulfil their role and engage our titled players, private individuals and interested companies must instead step into the void created by the Federation.

Thus, I am glad that IJMLand is now prepared to step into this void. As starters, the public-listed company has erected this statue on their property, the Seremban2 city park. Come this May at the dedication ceremony, the company will unveil five park benches around the statue which shall honour our five international masters. Each of these benches will bear a caricature of a player and beside a chess board etched into the bench, will feature the player's most important game. To make this move meaningful, our five players have already agreed to lend their support to this project.

But while these will be the initial set of five park benches, it should not stop here. I am confident that IJMLand will be prepared to commit more of their benches around the statue to honour new international masters should more of our local players attain this title.

But what will happen if someone should go further and obtain the grandmaster title? I don't see this happening soon enough but when it happens, I would dare say that IJMLand may have other plans in mind to honour them. Who knows, perhaps naming their pavillions at their hill park that overlook Seremban2 after Malaysia's future chess grandmasters? When the time comes, that will be a fine gesture indeed.

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