Friday, October 15, 2010

The Culture of Chess

Replying to John.

Associating Malaysia with prestige is always a dangerous issue. Malaysia has been a nation of prestige-seeking for more than 30 years. Just think about the Petronas Twin Towers, our very own national car, Proton, etc, biggest this, tallest that, longest this and that.

These prestige and glamorous achievements have come at huge costs to the country. Inciting such a "feel-good" environment is not only costly, but is also a myopic goal. It creates interest in the short run, but fails to address the long-term structural issues. I think you would agree that the fundamental issues have to come first. The foundation for Malaysian chess has to be strong, before we start creating a big hoo-hah and show off with big scale events. We must first lay the proper foundation. Just like you cannot construct the building first and then think about reinforcing the foundations as you build.

Chess in Malaysia is at a critical stage because it is at an all time low. You can do no wrong because any change can be considered an improvement. So it is time to lay down the proper foundation. Think about the kind of federation and environment you want to have in 5-10 years. Work towards that.

While organizing the K visits is a huge achievement that commanded a great deal of effort, the fruits of its labour is rather short term. This is by no means belittling your achievements. It is indeed an experience of a lifetime to bring the 2 ex-world champions here. I agree that publicity is important, but Malaysia is not at that stage yet. While publicity can popularize chess, what is more important is not to make chess "cool". Yes, becoming a chess hub can certainly bring in the coolness factor, but it is not the children that you need to convince. It is the parents. To make chess a national past time is just a part of it.

The more important issue is to create an awareness on why chess is beneficial to children. Nowadays, parents willingly send their children to piano lessons, Kumon math classes, ballet lessons and other such extracurricular activities. That is a good thing. It has evolved from the past where most parents prevent their children from pursuing extracurricular activities as they feel it might be a distraction. The question is, why not chess?

Among chess players, it goes without saying that the benefits of chess as a vehicle for developing intellectual competence are a given. But how do parents know this? I suppose in my limited capacity, I have yet to think of how to publicize the benefits of chess. But I strongly believe that this is the key way to create sustainable interest in chess. Not some big hoo-hah event. I am glad you brought up Bilbao. Yes, Bilbao is a chess city. The next question is, how many GMs does Bilbao have? No doubt, it creates interest and a spectacle, but is the interest in chess or in the event? Those are 2 very separate things. Just like football. Everyone loves to watch football, even in Malaysia. You can bring in teams like Manchester United, Arsenal and what not to Malaysia, but how does this improve the quality of football in Malaysia? The people's interests are in the event. Not in the game itself. We must focus on creating an interest in the game. The big events are just window-dressing.

Nonetheless, your point is most certainly valid when it comes to organizing events. Networking is crucial. But these micro-factors come later, after we have set the correct macro-landscape.

As for your query with regards to the multitude of tournaments, it is simply because of geographical reasons. While it is true that there are only 52 weeks, there are also 14 states in Malaysia. Having a tournament in KL and having a tournament in Penang attracts different groups of players. There is no shortage of players when it comes to events. In fact, I might even say that the spread of these events are good. These events keep the competitive spirit alive among states. The Penang-KL-Selangor rivalry has been going on for decades, although it has somewhat waned in recent times.

Nonetheless, I was lucky to have witnessed the following events that I would like to share:

In Penang, in the early 1990s, the only school to organize a chess open was Penang Free School. Now, many other schools have followed suit. I was informed that in the MSSPP (Penang State Schools Championship), there is a prize offered for "Best Overall School". This prize not only takes into account the best results during the tournament, but also awards points for schools that organize open tournaments, publish chess bulletins, etc. This encourages a positive chess culture.

I have personally participated in these tournaments that are 99% run by students. The chess association does assist in the logistics (i.e. providing arbiter, chess sets and clocks, etc). These are not small tournaments. The biggest of such tournaments I attended was one of the PFS Opens, with a grand total of over 250 participants. Penang is a small state, and a team of school students with the guidance of teachers and little help from the chess association managed to organize an event of such scale. That is impressive. This is the kind of culture that we should hope to inculcate, where the students not only benefit from playing the game, but learn other important skills from organizing these events, and publishing chess bulletins etc.

In short, to promote chess, we need to have the right culture and mindset. Organizing events, buying chess books etc. are just actions derived from the culture. We must first get that right. Only then, can the growth be sustainable.


  1. Seems to me its like a chicken-and-egg situation.

    We need the publicity to get the public interested, but how do we generate that? Chess is not part of our culture unlike the Filipinos or Indonesians (thanks to their conquerors) because there's Chinese Chess before Chess existed. Today, more are playing chess because of our Western education.

    There is nothing wrong in my opinion to stir the public interest with world class events. It's the FOLLOW UP. Orchestrated events and strategy to ride on the events is just as important. Hosting an F1 event in 1 year is certainly not going to get people interested in racing. Doing it year after year, splashing news of F1 events and broadcasting it (till everyone gets it in their heads) will.

    Chess is unfortunate that it is a not really a spectator sport, so it will be hard to generate mass appeal for it. To convince the parents that chess can help in the children's thinking is the way to go, so we should show this correlation to them with clear examples. I believe there are enough examples amongst the top Malaysian players to prove this. Getting a first GM in my opinion will never serve this goal.

    So why shouldn't children play chess over computer games? Why not start from there? Win the computer game-playing generation over first? At the moment, chess is not cool. Our pieces do not kick like StreetFighter, unless chess tactics can be graphically presented (like BattleChess). Someone should design an interactive chess game with graphics to show the variations and I'm sure it will be a hit.

    Foundation for chess culture will take years to lay down. Russia took 30 years, from 1900-1935 with the birth of a world champion level player in Botvinnik. Again, with state support because of Lenin. The English Chess Explosion in the 80's was fuelled largely when many top CEOs were chess players and wanted to sponsor top-class events in London in the 80's-90's. But after Kirsan came onboard, it all disappeared.

    The golden era for Singapore Chess in my opinion happened in the period 1972 - 1987, with many international tournaments, lots of participation in local tournaments and 2 active chess columns. This was driven primarily because of Bobby Fischer. Sad to say, having an Asian World Champion in Anand has not helped us here. He is not doing enough to promote the game in India, let alone Asia by basing himself in Spain. So how else can we spur interest, if not by educating our kids and their parents? If you have produced top CEOs and tycoons like Dato Tan who love chess in years to come, they will be the potential sponsors to spark off the next chess renaissance. You will need the big-scale events to keep those who are keen busy and interested, generate media interest, convince parents to let their kids play. Sustaining their interest in chess throughout their lives is another matter. Sadly, I don't have a solution for that.

  2. Time off! Before we go any further on how we can improve chess in Malaysia, let me throw this question to you guys:

    How do you define success?
    a) Getting a GM?
    b) Becoming the top Asean country?
    c) Making chess more popular than badminton or soccer?
    d) Having a lot of people making chess their career?
    e) Having more and more kids play chess in school?

  3. Of the goals that you've covered, I would pick in priority

    1 Having more and more kids play chess in school
    2 Becoming the top Asean country

    as I believe these are achievable targets.

    As for the other 3, they are either impossible to achieve (c and d) or not relevant (a).

  4. Dear John,

    We have met recently and I do share the same view that (1) is not only achievable but must be done asap!

    For a start, we must hold the belief that each and everyone of us can make a difference...