Thursday, 14 March 2013

Singapore chess - a pragmatic view of standards by Junior Tay

I had started playing chess in 1986 and when I heard of the 1987 Asian Teams Championships was to be held in Hotel Miramar, I practically went down every day to watch the event unfold and to root for our players. It was fantastic as spectators could watch the matches from less than one metre away from the playing area. Chess players whom I had played with or encountered in the 1986 National Youth Championships were actually participating!

 I distinctively remembered how IM Tan Lian Ann applied a concept I had just learnt from Batsford books, overprotecting the e5 pawn and thus jamming the lines of communication between GM Ardiansyah's kingside and Queenside. Also how Jeremy Lim and IM Ye Rongguang blitzed frantically in the latter's time trouble with Singapore giving China a hard time. When the Singaporeans won both games, I was really feeling very proud of my countrymen. I mean, these were the top guns in Asia and we were taking them out! I remember being perplexed at the way Derrick Heng developed 1.e4 2.Nf3 3.c3 4.Bd3!? against Uetani's Sicilian Defence. Isn't this like beginner's chess and that's our National champion playing White and he won! Also, how Lee Wang Sheng forgot to exchange his Bogo Indian bishop on d2, and had to struggle the whole game after his opponent made use of the tempo to play Bf4. What made the whole experience even more enriching was the great performance of the Singapore A team, finishing in 3rd position for the team bronze. Also, Mark Lim, who had advised and encouraged me after crushing me in my first event-National Youth 86, was in stunning form, emerging with the 2nd  best overall result in the event.

Here we had the Singapore Team holding its own against Asia's best. Little did I realise back then that this was the best result we have ever attained in the Asian form of the World Chess Olympiad. Any local chess player of my generation would have read about how Tan Lian Ann fought the great Efim Geller from the Black side of the Centre Counter and only missed the draw in the endgame. Or how he beat the World No 12, GM Vlastimir Hort in the 1970 Siegen Oympiad and Wong Meng Kong's besting the English No 2 and World No 14, World Championship Candidate Jonathan Speelman. Now, impressive these feats may be, they represent the highlights in the players' career, not a trend that our players perform on a regular basis. Of course, it would take something very special to beat the world's best. So how good are we, really at chess?

Of late, I had the time and access to chess archives dating back to the 60s and after much digging and updating, my conclusion is that we were never 'world-class' players. In our heydays, we were 'asian-class', although there were sporadic flashes of brilliance, which as I indicated are not representative of top players. It's a given that we're of 'South East Asian' class, with Jason Goh's SEA Games Silver and Goh Wei Ming's bronze settling the issue. I would like to quantify that the results I will be listing are medal winning performances (1st to 3rd) in World and Asian chess meets recognised by FIDE.

It is highly likely that a player who has finished in the top 10 in the World Juniors or World Youth (eg. Tan Lian Ann, Leslie Leow, Alphonsus Chia, Hsu Li Yang, Wong Meng Kong, Terry Toh and Jason Goh) might be considered a better performer than an Asian Junior medalist  However, I am sticking to the acknowledged sporting convention of acknowledging achievement based on the Gold, Silver and Bronze medal standards as a yardstick. Going off tangent - I have recently read in this article how Bronze Medal Winners might be happier than Silver medalists in sporting competition.

OK...Here goes.

Firstly, I'll list the prize winners (Board Prize and Overall Team)  in the Asian Teams Championships. Now, just like in any Swiss system event, the eventual prize winners might not even figure among the top 3 performance rating-wise. This normally happens when a middling or under performing team has one star performer who does not have to face the toughest opposition, thanks to his team constantly avoiding top teams.  Kasparov had once even noted that the Board Prize winners in a certain Olympiad might have a tough time in a simul conducted by a member of the Soviet Team. From the Dresden Olympiad 2008 onwards, FIDE has since awarded Board Prizes according to Rating performances. This is also the case with the Zaozhuang 2012 Asian Nations event. Another thing to note is that things got considerably harder from 1993 onwards where the extremely strong ex-Soviet states such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan could participate since they have become recognised as Asian countries. For example, Hsu Li Yang and Wong Meng Kong had to play world class players such as Vladimirov and Tkachiev respectively in 1999 and 1995 and both nicked draws.

Asian Team Championships
Penang 1974
Bd 1 - Silver - Giam Choo Kwee
Bd 4 - Bronze - Chan Peng Kong
Bd 5 - Bronze - Terence Wong

Singapore 1979
Bd 4 - Gold - Edmund Leow
Bd 6 - Bronze - Wee Khim Him

Dubai 1986
Bd 1- Silver - Lim Hoon Cheng

Singapore 1987  (Bumper Harvest!)
Team Singapore A: Bronze Medal winning team
Members: Tan Lian Ann, Alphonsus Chia, Chan Peng Kong, Derrick Heng, Wong Meng Kong and Winston Williams.

Best overall performance - Silver - Mark Lim
Bd 1- Silver - Wong Foong Yin
Bd 1 Bronze - Tan Lian Ann
Bd 2 - Silver - Alphonsus Chia
Bd 6 - Gold - Mark Lim

Genting Highlands 1989
Bd 6 - Gold - Ong Chong Ghee

Kuala Lumpur  1990
Bd 4 - Gold - Mark Lim

Singapore 1995
Bd 3 - Gold - Hsu Li Yang
Bd 6 - Bronze - Giam Choo Kwee

Zaozhuang China 2012 (Hence renamed Asian Nations)
Bd 2 - Bronze - Goh Wei Ming (also top scorer on Bd 2).

Now we move on to the Asian and World Junior Championships. I have omitted the Asian Schools and World Schools events as a yardstick as I considered them to be substantially weaker events (no offence to the medalists in the event, I hope). GM Wong Meng Kong won the  Asian Junior event in 1979 and Lee Wang Sheng won two medals in the same year. FM Daniel Chan did very well in the Asian Youth in 2007 to finish in a tie for 3rd place (4th on tiebreak). Terence Wong was the only medalist in the World Juniors/Cadets series and that was certainly an incredible result.

Asian Junior Championships 

Sivakasi, India 1979 - Gold  - Wong Meng Kong   (Thanks to IM Jovan Petronic for spotting the error in the venue)

Kerala, India  1990 (actually held in Feb 1991 due to Gulf War)- Silver -Lee Wang Sheng

Dubai 1991 - Bronze - Lee Wang Sheng

World Junior and World Cadets Championships

World Cadets (U18) 1975 - Silver - Terence Wong

The Asian Cities concept was thought up by the Hong Kong Chess Federation in 1979 when they decided that even though there was political tension between Hong Kong and China then, by inviting teams based on cities instead of countries, they can skirt the politics and just play chess. Professor Lim Kok Ann had noted that during the 1st edition in 1979 that had Philippines sent in their top 4 players from Manila instead of IM Cardoso and 3 youngsters and had China not split its Olympiad team between 3 cities, things might have turned out differently. Nevertheless, the event is a FIDE sanctioned team championships featuring top Asian players. Singapore registered a stunning finish to win the event for the first and only time! I will write more about that success in due time.

Asian Cities Team Championships

Hong Kong 1979 – Team Gold - Singapore:
Members: Leslie Leow, Tan Lian Ann, Chan Peng Kong, Alphonsus Chia, Quek Suan Fuan
Board 2 - Gold - Tan Lian Ann

Hong Kong 1985
Board 5 - Gold - Dennis Tan

Dubai 1990
Board 2 - Silver - Teo Kok Siong
Board 3 - Silver - Hsu Li Yang

Dubai 1992
Board 3 - Silver - Tan Chin Hoe

Dubai 1996
Board 3 - Silver - Osric Mooi

Genting Highlands
1998 - Board 2 - Gold - Mark Chan

The World Cities Chess Championships followed the same concept as the Asian Cities except that there are no restrictions geographically. The event survived only 2 editions but a new concept was devised in 2012 with 5 editions pledged till 2020 in UAE. The new edition has the best team in each FIDE zone from the prior Olympiad being eligible to send a team, effectively granting qualification for Russia, Ukraine, USA and Canada. The national teams were labelled as "cities"
Curiously, the only Singaporean medal winner from the World Cities was Ignatius Leong who represented STMK Jakarta instead!

World Cities Team Championships

Jarkata 1997
Board 5 - Silver - Ignatius Leong

The Commonwealth Championships originated in 1951 in Oxford England comprising teams from Commonwealth countries including chess powers like England and India.

Commonwealth Championships

Kuala Lumpur 1992
Top Junior - Ong Chong Ghee

Singapore 2009
Gold -  Enrique Paciencia

Now we come to the World Championships Cycle. Tan Lian Ann twice qualified as Asia's representative to the Interzonals, a feat that Goh Wei Ming, Wong Meng Kong and Wu Shaobin narrowly missed in recent years (though the next stage would have been the World Cup event for them).  Chan Lai Fung, like Lian Ann, made it to the Interzonals but did not compete due to funding issues.  Li Ruofan made the mark and represented Singapore in the World Cup last year where she and American IM Irina Krush fought till the blitz tiebreaks before the latter held off her challenge.

World Championship Cycle.

Asian Zone 10 1972
2nd - Tan Lian Ann (qualified for Interzonals after playoff).

Asian-Pacific Zonal  1975
2nd - Tan Lian Ann (qualified for Interzonals)

Singapore International Women's Tournament (doubling up as an Asian Zonal) 1978
2nd - Chan Lai Fung (qualified for Interzonal)

Asian Zone 3.3 Zonals  2011
1st Li Ruofan (qualified for 2012 World Cup).

Asian Zone 3.3 Zonals 2011 
Equal 2nd - Zhang Zhong

Asian Zone 3.3 Zonals  2006
Equal 3rd - Wong Meng Kong and Wu Shaobin

So do we have a world class player in our midst? Yes we do have a couple (in both senses).  Chinese born GM Zhang Zhong, prior to representing Singapore, won the Silver medal in both the 1996 and 1998 World Junior Championships. He is also the 2005 Asian Champion. Representing Singapore, he won the Bronze medal in the World Mind Sport Rapid event in France (2008). In the 2010 and 2012 Olympiad, helming Board 1, he scored TPRs of 2678 and 2618 respectively. His wife, Li Ruofan is also World No 66 in the Women's ranking and number 16 in Asia.

I am not inclined to analyse the reasons to why we do not produce native world class players nor do I think it is pragmatic or worthwhile to ditch the books or career to go for broke. One notes that in prior interviews, Prof Lim Kok Ann, Tan Lian Ann, Terence Wong,  Leslie Leow and Wong Meng Kong have indicated that they have no wish to go professional and climb the top ranks. Those interested in analysing what it takes for a small nation to achieve chess success might glean something from  NM Olimpiu Urcan's Success and Chess Culture article. As to what it takes for native Singaporeans to achieve that, you might want to look at Li Ruofan's interview here.


  1. Tks for this, it is obvious a lot of hard work has been put into compiling it.
    What do you mean by "we do not produce native world class players".

    1. Hi, I believe Junior meant exactly what it reads, i.e. we have not produced any world class players. We can have world class results once in a while but it doesn't mean that the player is "world-class."

  2. Very objective evaluation.

  3. A lot of success from 1972-2012 for Singapore chess.

  4. The 1975 World Cadet Championship was an U/17 tournament.

    1. Actually, it's U18, according to Straits Times online and Singapore Chess Bulletin. I think Wikipedia is wrong on this.