Saturday, 6 October 2012

My thoughts on the Chess Olympiad - Part 2

As most chess players should know by now, the Singapore team finished 59th out of 157 teams. Given that we were seeded 55th, this is not exactly a disastrous result. However, I believe a more objective evaluation is to look at how we got there, and a general assessment of the games that were played, regardless of the eventual results.

Grandmaster Zhang Zhong again proved what a valuable addition he is to the Singapore chess community. Even though he is now predominantly a coach, he is still capable of churning out 2600 TPRs as indicated by this result and the Asian Nations Cup. Maybe these results were not that surprising given that Zhang Zhong was number 16 in the world at his prime but having to take care of his two children and teaching a school of kids mean that his dedication to competitive play has largely decreased since his professional playing days. 

Zhang Zhong lost his first game against Kenny Solomon of South Africa, with the white pieces no less, in a rather depressing manner. However, he showed great resilience and determination and scored a resounding 8 out of his remaining 9 games. This is something that we can all learn from, the art of picking oneself up and quickly moving on after a defeat. 

A closer look at his games will indicate another remarkable aspect of his play. Zhang Zhong is not afraid of entering into big mainlines even though he only had the morning to prepare these variations. For example, he played both the Bayonet Attack and the Fianchetto variations against the King's Indian, both big mainlines in their own right, and he duly won both rather smoothly. We also went through a line he prepared in the Caro Kann as Black and when I asked him what he intended to do in a particular dangerous recent attempt, he immediately quoted a recent top GM game as the antidote. 

A recent interview with Zhang can be found on Olimpiu Urcan's refreshing new website here.

Li Ruofan did not have her best tournament but a lot of credit has to be given in the way she fought for wins in positions where most would have given up and offered a draw. Her last tournament was the 2011 Zonals which was more than a year ago and hence a certain degree of rustiness was to be expected. 

Ruofan has a very positional style which means most of her games tend to be grinders and typically lasted 50 over moves. I think this caused her to tire more easily and clearly cost her towards the end of the tournament. However, in observing her games and during our team analyses, it is clear to me that she is a classy player and I get the impression that had she had the chance to play preparatory games and devote some time to prepare for the event, she would most certainly have done much better. 

This is Ravindran's debut in a major team tournament and I believe he learnt much from this experience. I personally feel that Ravi's opening repertoire is too narrow and hence too predictable, and this exposed him to specific preparations in a number of games during the event. I also get the impression that his opening preparation was a tad out-dated but I suppose this can't be helped as he is after all not a professional and has to cope with his studies in Oxford. 

As Junior has reported on this blog, Daniel Fernandez has played in a number of warm-up tournaments prior to the Olympiad. This was also not his best tournament and I get the feeling that he may have put too much pressure on himself to do well. The issue here, as pointed out by many back home, is again his opening choices which sometimes borders on the bizarre. I must say I was a little frustrated when he essayed the obscure Petroff Gambit in Round 2 but fortunately, he went back to something more mainstream in the rest of the games (under the advice of both Zhang Zhong and Li Ruofan).

Daniel clearly has the potential to become a Grandmaster based on the quality of some of his games and his obvious love for chess. He is extremely creative in solving problems over the board which may explain his tendency to vary his openings. However, I personally think that this approach can only bring you to a certain level and that his results will improve greatly if he studies just one or two solid mainlines, in great depth, and play them as a primary repertoire.

Ultimately, we did not do as well as we could given that we lost to some lower rated teams (South Africa, Krgystan, Turkey 2016) and only played one higher rated team (Belgium). Part of the reason has to be attributed to my absence for large periods of the event and that as a result, there is a lot of pressure on the rest of the team as they knew they have to play every game even if they are not on their best form. Under such circumstances, it does feel a little awkward writing an evaluation of our Olympiad team but ultimately, I am still a chess fan and I hope that all involved will see this article as my personal objective evaluation of how we did.

The results indicated the degree of preparation that is required for such a major event.  My opinion is that preparation should begin way in advance and not just before the tournament. Team training sessions can be held on a weekly basis regardless of whether there is a major event to prepare for as such training will be beneficial on a long-term basis. If there are budget constraints, the players can all arrange to work together without the need of a trainer. Of course, it certainly will not hurt if an experienced trainer sits in once in a while to guide the players towards the correct direction but my point is that there is nothing stopping players with approximately equal strength to work together on their own.

The problem with our current National Men's Squad is that we have players located all over the world and as such, it is impractical to hold joint training sessions together on a regular basis. A solution will be to approach and group the top 5 - 6 rated, active, and locally based players and organize a joint session, say once every fortnight. Players located overseas can be kept abreast of developments so that they can keep up on their own. This is certainly do-able for the Women's squad since all our players are home. Naturally, the next issue will then be the level of commitment from the players which is really up to the individual. Anyone who is not committed to the cause should not be considered to represent the country at the Olympiad.

The big question: how many senior players do we really have who are motivated enough to work on chess on a consistent basis towards the common goal of playing well in major team events? Regardless of the answer, I hope the SCF can consider my suggestion for both the Men's and Women's squad as a step in the right direction. This approach is simple, cost-saving, builds team building and also forces players to show their level of commitment. In the end, joining this "elite" group may also be an incentive for the younger players as one of the goals to work towards excellence.

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