Sunday, September 23, 2012

CHESS IN NORWAY...BACK IN 1989

Since I was in Norway for 6 months in 1989 and working in Horten (which is about 30 minutes drive from Tonsberg, the birth place of Magnus Carlsen), I thought I'd shared with you what it was at the chess scene there.

Tonsberg is a very old city but a very vibrant chess-club. I was introduced to the club by the Horten chess convenor, Mr Arild Johansen, a very helpful and nice man (he drove me every week to the club as I did not have a driver's licence or a car). The room was always filled with players, most of them playing standard chess and shunned when I asked to play blitz instead. Those who did were alright, but I won most of the games. Then they realised that they needed to tame the 'foreigner' so the top guns sat down. One was Reidar Weierod, the other was Ivar Charvannes who were both very strong and so I had a hard time. We became good friends during my stay in Norway, often meeting for blitz games during the weekend.

One particular old man caught my eye - he was in his 90's then and yet the spark in his eye as he made his killer moves stole everyone's attention. His name is Gunnar Moe, who couldn't speak a word of English and my Norwegian was hopeless. " Deutsch?" alas, my German was worse. So we end up gesticulating to each other, occasionally muttering some names that he understood.

"Ja, Alekhine!" he pointed to his heart. Ah, so he had a favourite. Then he muttered 1935 and Euwe and pointed to his eye..I now understood that he had witnessed the world championship fight between Alekhine and Euwe in Amsterdam. When we played, he could always grimaced and bit his lip when he made a mistake and generally not a gracious loser. But we laughed as the evening drew to a close and shook hands. 

Towards the end of my stint I managed to find time to play in the local weekend tournament. It costs SGD60 then to take part. The games lasted 1 hr per side and I managed to score 3.5 pts / 6 rounds to win a book prize. Not bad!

Evenings in Norway were long during April so went to Oslo one weekend to meet the chess book-storekeeper and famous arbiter, the late Arnold Eikrem. He spoke fluently in English and recommended me some great books which I spent a small fortune. It felt great when your day ends at 4pm and the peace and tranquility of the Norwegian landscape affords you the time to study chess for hours. I felt that I made big strides in my understanding of the game during this period. 

When I transited back to Oslo from Hamburg, on route to Toronto, I stopped by Reidar's place and we placed blitz with Ivar till the wee hours. When I woke up the next day I'd realised that I was only 3 hours away from the flight and here I panicked. Reidar offered to drive me to Fornebu Airport (though it was about 80 kms from Horten). I was so grateful to him for being a friend.

In summary, the Norwegian chess scene as I knew then was very amateurish, but well run by a group of volunteers and on club nights, young and old would sit and play each other, mostly without clocks. Games lasted for more than 2 hours, and everyone joined in to analyse the games afterwards. The amazing part was that at the tournament, the results were computed and the ratings as well. It was then stored onto a disk which would be sent to the Norwegian Chess Federation for update. Players could see their new ratings if they played at the next tournament. That was before the days of the Internet..today it would be a breeze to do this.

I am looking forward to re-visiting the country again in 2014, having toured the south and up to Bergen. It's a beautiful country with warm and hospitable people then and I hope it still is. Care to join me??

MISLEADING COMPARISONS...INDEED!

Happen to come across a comment made not long ago about how misleading it is to compare Singapore's  chess talent base with that of the chess superpowers China and India . His opinion is simply that we do not have the large numbers and base big enough to have extraordinary talent in chess to produce a world-class talent.

In my opinion, it seems contradictory to me when the writer inadvertently mentions a country like Norway, whose chess demographics and performances in the Olympiad paralleled Singapore in many ways, ie before the arrival of super-genius Magnus Carlsen. Since then, Norwegian chess has taken off from 3 GMs before Magnus to more than 10. Before Norway, there was Iceland, which produced world class GMs like Fridrik Olaffson and Sigurjonsson, before the Norwegians caught up. What about Israel? They had good players in Shimon Kagan (who competed with IM Tan Lian Ann in Petropolis 1973) and Uzi Geller, Moshe Czeniak before the Soviet emigrants arrived. Israel's population is currently 7.8 million, while Iceland's population is about 309,000 as of 2007 estimates. There's also Chile,about 15 million people but its top rated players are about 4 GMs and 6 IMs till date.

I could go on but you get the picture. Yes, the more populous countries have an edge in having the number of people who could become good at chess but that does not mean that small countries like Singapore do not. My previous post clearly showed that we have had world-class players back in the 70's and 80s. In 1982 our top board Leslie Leow (not yet an IM then) managed to beat GM Florin Gheoghiu of Romania who finished 12th while Singapore was 43rd. Dr Wong Meng Kong had the game of his life when he beat GM Speelman from England in the 1992 Manila Olympiad! There's also our "lost" IM Lim Seng Hoo too, who had plus results against Murray Chandler when he took part at the World Junior at Tjentiste in 1975. 

Hence I share the view with SCF that we need to re-look at our current state of affairs in our own backyard, simply because we WERE that good before.  After all, this is our country and we should know our chess history better right??

Saturday, September 22, 2012

IF IT'S FOR A GOOD CAUSE


This dinner would have easily raised tens of thousands in dollars but unfortunately CES is not a charity and hence not possible to do so. This is just from the RI chess family from 1981-1988. No one would resist turning down an invitation to dinner with the 13th World Champion. I am sure all would contribute generously if asked, so long as its for a good cause. The ACS group was there, although a bit smaller. There could have been lots more coming if not for the size of the hall!

There must be many amongst us chess players who are semi-retired, having good jobs, in high places. It should not be an issue in my opinion to raise a good sum assuming you know who your target audience is and the draw you'll need to provide.

A chess related dinner requires a true chess celebrity. We have set the example. Maybe SCF ought to get Anand?!

Here for more.

Friday, September 21, 2012

HOW ABOUT A NATIONAL CHESS CONVERSATION?

Now that our government is engaging all stakeholders (citizens and PRs) on what kind of country we would envision, certainly the time is also ripe for the chess community to rally together to discuss some important issues concerning chess in Singapore?

Some background knowledge may help:

SCF started in 1961. Tan Lian Ann became an IM in 1973 at the age of 26. He was then seeded into the Petropolis Interzonals and finished 16th-18th. Singapore competed in the Olympiads and finished 43rd in 1968, 40th in 1970 (64 countries took part), our best showing was in Dubai 1986 - 33rd out of 108 teams. In terms of individual world-class achievements, Terence Wong finished 2nd in the World Cadets (now the World Youth)  in 1975 while Alphonsus Chia finished 9th in 1976. That year, Leslie Leow finished 4th-8th in the World Junior U20 in Groningen.

These players only had their books, themselves and constant sparring within the National squad but I can say that the number of strong adult players gave them good grounding in the 70s. So we had world beaters within our ranks in chess before without the assistance of computers, coaches and what not.


Question:  Where is our junior scene heading to NOW?

Next, the rapidly dwindling of adults in the chess scene. Many are not keen to come out of retirement to play rapid chess and lose to active kids. Many of these adults are of course well-to-do individuals, busy with their schedules to play chess over-the-board. The number of social clubs in companies and institutions playing chess back in the 80's number about 45. Today it is not over 10. Adult chess-players have been mainly replaced by foreigners who are active in our tournaments organised today. What's worrisome is that without our local adults' participation, the pool of sponsors also shrinks.

 Question: Where are our sources of funding chess programs coming from?

Chess in the secondary schools is experiencing a serious erosion. JC participation has almost disappeared. It is shrinking rapidly in secondary schools due to the weird CCA ranking of chess. If the system does not change, we may not have any players rising from the primary schools continuing their chess career in secondary school. That means our remaining stock of good junior players will die off.

Question: How does SCF intend to arrest this worrying trend?




MORE INVENTIVE WAYS TO RAISE FUNDS??

Someone anonymously remarked that a chess cruise is being organised which may consist of male and female World Champions, past and present, among the guests. This event could make a great fund-raiser for chess in Singapore - definitely a first for this region!

I did not publish the remark,doubting its authenticity, but then, we should recognise creativity when we see it. As an idea, as with the Karpov and Kasparov visits, there is always a possibility of making it happen when a small but dedicated team of volunteers avail themselves to work for the promotion of local chess. CES has done it, so we should not limit ourselves in Singapore on the excuse of lack of talent in this area of event management. I was glad to have been a witness and contributor to the visits which beats organising 10000 tournaments in terms of arousing chess interest here.

Perhaps the timing of events leading to the FIDE general elections may have caused the SCF to react the way it did back in 2010 (see here) , but now? Surely with most of the major events like the World Championship and Olympiads out of the way, the Federation should aim for such mega events in order to stir up interest amongst our new ministers and permanent secretary taking over the Education portfolio. In fact, Ms Chan Lai Fung used to be a National player and if I recall, she was in the SCF EXCO at one point.  CES did not rely on any connections to stage the visits of the 2 ex World Champions at all.  Surely with VP Shashi, SCF can do better than just host 1 dinner to raise funds?


Thursday, September 20, 2012

MY 15 MINUTES WITH KASPAROV

While enjoying some blitz games, I was watching the pieces till someone passed me the phone:

"John! It's Garry..speak to him, he needs your help". 

I noticed that Garry was no ordinary chap given the earlier discussions of him coming to Singapore. So I asked:

" Kasparov??"

"Please...please speak to him" replied the owner of the phone.

I took over the handset and an anxious voice immediately responded " Hello..Hello..this is Garry Kasparov!"

With tingles rising all over, I composed myself and answered : "Yes Garry, this is John Wong. I am in charge of your lecture in Singapore. How may I help?"

Garry asked if I can provide a screen attached to a computer with ChessBase, which of course is no problem. He then asked what should he be speaking?

" How about your game with Topalov in 1999 Wijk Ann Zee?"

"Very good, good choice! That's the one I was thinking of! Please prepare the file thank you."

Some weeks later, I met the man over breakfast at 7am on August 15 2010. He looked tired but was cheerful to discuss the day's events, after apologising for the lack of sleep he had on route to Singapore because of a crying baby onboard. Garry was also briefing us the state of affairs as he saw it in the chess world, why he was keen to promote chess over the next few years and his mission to see chess elevated to a world sport. Thought a little upset at the response of the SCF at snubbing him, he brushed it aside and believed that his name alone would stir the chess-loving public in more ways that we'd imagined. And he was right! The crowds came, the fans came, even the press (who normally bypass any chess events)!

Back to business as I knew time was short - Kasparov asked for a 15min shut-eye after breakfast so I had to run through the chessbase file with him, deleting what's not important comments and highlighting the threats on the chessboard for the benefit of the audience. With that, I excused myself and went about to Thomson CC. The rest of it you can read  here.

It's slightly over 2 years from the day I spoke with the ex-World Champion, a great honour for me. Though we are the same age, one can notice the radiance and the regality he possesses, like an Emperor of the chess world. He was groomed for this since young and he makes no excuses for it. Garry is likely to be on the path again soon, championing his cause for chess in schools. He has succeeded in New York and the EU. Hopefully, we can see him persuading our new ministers what chess can do in stimulating great thinkers and entrepreneurs??

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

WORLD YOUTH UNDER 16: OBSERVATIONS

Here are some of my observations based on the player's reports from Rounds 1 to 6. No further reports after that.

What I find disturbing are the following comments made regarding the junior's conduct of the games when playing against the stronger teams.

Against the Australians (Rd 1):


"Linson played against Justin Tan’s Scandinavian. However, he quickly lost a pawn in the opening after a blunder..." 


"Cyrus played against Mattheson Lawrence. He was outplayed early in the Sicillian.."


Qing Aun as White played a Guicco Piano against Chen Pengyu. Qing Aun was unfamiliar with the idea of preserving his light-squared bishop and it was quickly exchanged..."

Against the South Africans (Rd 2)


"Cyrus lost a knight in the opening..."

Against the RSA Team B (Rd 3):


After playing a 5 hour marathon the previous round, Iskandar played the black side of the King’s Indian Fianchetto variation well and managed to grab a pawn against his opponent. However, due to exhaustion, he blundered a pawn and his position crumbled. He eventually lost.

Against the Peruvians (rd 6):



Round 6 was a badly played round for all players who were outplayed in the opening.

Board 1:

Derek made a mistake in his sicilian and got into a losing position in which his opponent quickly finished him off.

Board 2:

Linson did not know how to play against the accelerated dragon and was positionally down. Finally, after a 60+ move game, he lost to his opponent’s superior position.

Board 3:

After his opponent played an uncommon variation against his Sicilian, Cyrus played ok. However, he was outplayed in the opening and eventually lost.

Board 4:

"After playing against the sveshnikov (he had learnt the opening just minutes before the game), Qing Aun blundered a piece and eventually conceded defeat." 

Most of the above showed that the youth team's opening preparation was suspect. This in spite of the emphasis on playing the main theoretical lines as opposed to individually prepared repertoires. Perhaps my fears on  dangers of the Sicilian Labyrinth is showing?

I was reading an article by FIDE Senior Trainer Adrian Mikhalchishin where I quote : " Another typical mistake is to teach trappy schemes in the openings. Sometimes well-known trainers also make different mistakes. For instance in one certain country all the juniors play the French Defence!" ( the Sicilian in our case). They could not have made a more serious mistake as everyone is aware of the fact that the open positions should be studied first and even more important, the trainer should suggest opening choices according to the style the students play and his/her understanding of chess".

The other issue is stamina - this is linked to the physical conditioning of the players to be able to stay fit and alert. So how are the boy's physical shape monitored? Brings back my point on the conditioning of our players in standard chess where the fight can start as late as the 4th hour. Iskandar's blunder occurred in Round 3 which is hardly gruelling as yet. If he was tired, shouldn't someone take his place instead?

Something for the SCF to mull about perhaps?

Monday, September 17, 2012

WHAT AILS OUR JUNIOR CHESS PERFORMANCE?

I came across the SCF President's remark on the National Junior/Youth Squad performance and an invitation to all stakeholders to give their honest feedback. Well, here's mine.

Chess involves 4 parties : players, pieces, a board and rules (not just the rules of chess, but also the relationships between the pieces which constitutes into chess knowledge and theory). Any improvement in the performance of a chess-player must involve these elements - the state of readiness of a player in terms of knowledge of the pieces on the board and the ability to project their movements in the future to concoct a favourable outcome. So its not just the ability to calculate one's moves in question, but the ability to visualise the opponent's responses as well in the formation of one's analysis of the position. Handling these issues while managing them within the time control is key to chess success in tournaments.

The first question one would ask about any form of chess training is its objective and purpose, then whether the methods adopted would steer the participants towards meeting the objectives. What's spelt out in the SCF prospectus is all very nice, of course, but at the end, the results of their performance would speak volumes of the efficacy of the training. What exactly are the other countries like China and India (or even the Philippines and Vietnam) doing right and we are not??

We may intend to move towards the promotion of rapid chess and other forms of chess played over short time controls, but the reality of it is that only proficiency in classical chess is proof of true chess-playing strength. If FIDE indeed is moving away from classical chess, as quoted in SCF's mission statement , then why is it that every major international chess event like the recently concluded Olympiad and current tournaments still feature it? If this trend is not going to change soon, then we should best prepare our players for acclimatising our junior players to the classical time controls by ensuring that they get total exposure to it. They should refrain from playing in competitions held in other time controls. True simulation of standard chess tournament conditions is vital to the development of the player's thought processes and judgement. Hence the promotion of local competitions of longer time controls, even with increments, will help our juniors in performing their best when they are in international events.So having less rapid chess tournaments and more standard chess events is the way to go.

If swimmers need to get up at 5am to do lap-training, can our national junior chess team achieve regional success with only weekend sessions?  With the emphasis set by the Technical Director on theoretical knowledge over practical play, focusing on playing main lines where lots of study of opening lines is necessary, this saps time that may be required for the playing and analysing of middlegame and endgame positions that can  build the players' judgement of variations. Any player, as Botvinnik remarked, can only be a stronger player if he/she excels in the art of analysis. That requires concentrated effort by each player, drawing conclusions after the computer has crunched the usual variations to pinpoint the errors in judgement, then replaying the positions again to ensure that the right continuation is understood. Do our juniors have the time for this given the heavy workload at school? Or can the approach be tweaked to give more weight on improving game analysis skills and calculation skills rather than spending it on opening learning?? Our junior players should get enough quality sparring/analysing from the SCF Trainers or National Players such as our younger IMs and FMs.

Could it be that our juniors have had distractions - game cards, XBOX, computer games? If our juniors hope to get success over the chessboard, then the chessboard remains their only leisure toy, nothing else. Can't do it? Then these players should quit believing that they can represent the country. In my opinion, anyone who does not put 100% dedication into the game should not be worthy of bearing national colours.

The current SCF trainers simply cannot have their hands tied training the development squad while still tending to the training needs of the Youth Squad. If they need to do this because of the lack of funds, tough luck - then get EXCO members who can be mobilised to create events to get sponsors rather than continuously tax the local chess community for it. There is a dire need for a corporate sponsor to adopt the Youth Squad to provide the funds to pay for quality players to spar with the juniors. 

Parents also play a major part in the equation - many are already paying more than their share to see their children through chess lessons, overseas competitions, sometimes taking leave to accompany them etc. Naturally they too want to see that all this effort will go somewhere resultwise. Here the need to balance studies, chess and physical well-being falls mainly on their shoulders as they administer the daily timetable for the children. Expectations tend to be understandably high. Perhaps the parents can also help in not overloading the juniors' workload with excessive tuition for chess juniors, because they should have faith that chess-players do have the discipline (if taught well) to know when to hit the books and when to play hard.  That will work when the SCF is sensitive to schedule the trainings appropriately, intensifying them in the first quarter and June perhaps but avoiding the exam season in September - October.

Finally, we should choose our battles to fight carefully. Select the right events to participate, prepare for them well, ensure funding for them to have at least 1 SCF trainer accompanying. Otherwise, the discipline of the boys may be suspect and this can affect their performance in the event. We should not have our juniors play more than 50 standard chess games a year. The rest of the time spent should be in preparation.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

53RD NAT'L INTER-SCHOOLS SEC OPEN

This year, our preparations were severely marred by a string of events from the school curriculum. That made it much harder for the team to assemble and work out a consistent training program. The best that I could do was to gather the team for 3 3-hour sessions to drill in tactical play, opening predictions and bolstering their opening choices.

The team started well, despatching Global Indian International 4-0 and RI Team 2 3.5-0.5, with Joven saving a totally lost game when his opponent blundered a Queen. Beating ACI Team B was another good score, though Jonah tried too hard to win and lost. Luck favoured us in the early rounds but not later.

After lunch tension mounted as the next 3 teams were all the prize winners. It was here that champions would be forged and we came up short - not so in preparation, but in practical play. Although we secured a 3-1 win against RI Team 1, the next 2 pairings were undoubtedly the toughest as we sat to meet Hwa Chong Institution. Jonah played his heart out to beat Peter Matthew Chin in a closely fought endgame 2 minutes from the end, when Peter crumbled after allowing Jonah's pawns to race through. Though we've not seen Lee Kah Win in action lately, he held the position steady to coast home against Zhong Yi. Unfortunately late studying of the Dutch did not help as he could not find his bearings and went down eventually. Nicholas did not give problems to Bryan Tan who was calmly waiting for fireworks to happen and when Nicholas's time was short, he decided to win the game on time instead. Elliot panicked in time trouble and lost against Lu Chen. In spite of losing 2.5-1.5 to HCI, we had to play ACI A and had to expect the worst.


Thankfully the lineup was correctly chosen to field Joven against Linson and Elliot against Joel Chan. At one point Joven had a double attack on Linson's bishop and threatening mate. Linson gave the exchange instead and after subsequent play, it was a complex Rook endgame and Linson's experience carried him through when Joven moved his Rook from the last rank and allowed him to promote. It was a heart-rending outcome but then, as I always believed, all in chess is fair. Victory goes to the active and prepared.

Zhong Yi did manage to ruffle Iskandar's feathers when he played the Classical Dutch, but after some moves his unfamiliarity showed as he could not find answers to Iskandar's consistent gain of space and had to resort to tactics which lost him more and more pawns. The outcome was long decided but at first board, Jonah created a stunning upset which seemed to turn tables around by launching a mating attack against his 1692 rated Eugene Wee! With Elliot holding on, Joven an exchange up, it could have gone 3-1 for VS but unfortunately Joven lost and Elliot had to take the draw being short on time though a piece up. That allowed NUS High A to catch up and pip VS to 5th place.


So we had to settle for being East Zone Champions, being ahead of Dunman High and Tanjong Katong Secondary.


Generally I did not think the boys worked harder than they did last year, except for Zhong Yi and Jonah who did their part in regular online practice. When the crunch came in the shootouts, it was obvious that their nerves gave way, or in the case of Nicholas, totally oblivious of his time shortage and lost on time without even rushing. In view of these observations, 5th placing was in my opinion justifiable.

Sadly, this may be the last team outing for VS in the chess scene as there were rumoured plans to shut the Chess CCA in view of poor attendance in the CCA. What really happened was that no one wanted to join it as a 2nd CCA and yet need to be involved in the first CCA. So putting Chess as a second CCA literally condemns it to die a natural death. This is happening across many secondary schools and the erosion is clearly seen in the Sec Open U14 where only 12 teams were mustered. In the Sec Open U14 Girls, only 6 teams took part.

If this state of affairs continues, I shudder to think what the secondary school chess scene may be in the next 5 years? This state of erosion would soon permeate into the primary schools and before long, more schools would stop offering chess as a CCA and where does that leave us ? With a dormant adult chess-playing scene (now most adult players are foreigners), the 4 10-year (from 1969) cohort of 400+ students that have participated in the schools championships would soon start to dwindle. Lastly, the number of arbiters and helpers - nearly all are above 30 years of age. If no new blood comes in to help in the organisation of chess events, we would not be able to sustain the running of chess tournaments in this island soon.

Like the number of spoilt chess clocks discovered yesterday suggests, our organisers, like the equipment are aging. Though we can replace the equipment, organisers cannot be bought. If you have read my posting about this issue here, you've known that we need to foster the love for chess other than just competitions or else the passion for this game will be gone.