Thursday, 16 May 2013

An Interview with NM Choong Liong On - by Junior Tay

Last year, in collecting research, I did an interview with NM Choong Liong On, a top Singapore player of the 60s and 70s. Mr Choong was kind enough to lend us his treasure trove of Singapore Chess Bulletins/Digests from the 60s and 70s as well as a huge stack of bulletins and a nice scrapbook detailing Singapore Chess in the 70s. It was an amazing collection. Choong mentioned that most of the magazines were passed to him by Prof Lim when the latter moved house.

Starting chess
Choong was taught chess by his neighbours at the age of 7 but only started competing in school at 15 in St. Joseph's Institution (in 1962-64) and managed to finish 4th in the school championships. He had a group of SJI chess mates who played competitively. There, he was coached by Noel Hon  until Noel left SJI to join Raffles Institution.

Choong mentioned that in the 60s, inter-schools events were of a different format, akin to the English EPL format. Fixtures were drawn up and and schools either play ‘home’ or ‘away’ league matches in a 5 player (+2 reserves) format. SJI usually finished in the top 4, after RI team 1 and 2 and ACS.
However,Choong trained himself by going through the games of Petrosian (who was world champion then) as well as learning from the strategies of Reti (eg. The Reti/English lines). This largely explains why Choong plays a positional game as compared to contemporaries.

Choong largely played and honed his skills in the now defunct Singapore Chess Club. He recalled that in the 60s, they were based in YMCA Orchard on Wednesdays evenings and Saturday afternoons. Choong, Tan Lian Ann,  Tan Lian Quee Mah Beng Guan, Lee Chee Seng were regulars. Later in the 70s they moved to book a room at Hotel New Otani (the Jjunjuwala brothers owned the hotel). According to Prof Lim in his 1967 National  Championships book – the Singapore Chess Club Championships can be considered the National Championships -such is the strength of its players back then)

Choong Liong On in the early 70s

Local Achievements
With his 1966 Pesta Sukan Open win and his representing of Singapore in the 1968, 1972 and 1974 Olympiad, Choong made the National Master title. He had also tied for 1st twice in the Singapore Chess Club Championships, and in the playoff for the title, he lost one and won the last held Championships, beating Lee Chee Seng.

Choong does not consider the local event wins as significant victories. He felt that representing Singapore in the Olympiads and the Asian Team championships was of far greater value and challenge.

Representing Singapore
Choong mentioned that in the 60s, training in the National Squad involved tournament time control round robin events where they know their opponents in advance and hence, massive preparation will take place before the games

The highlight for him in his chess career was his win over IM Ravisekhar in the Asian Teams Ch in 1977.  They managed to hold India to a 2-2 draw after Pang Kwok Leong won on Board 4 as well. He recalled that the game was adjourned twice and Ravisekhar complicated the game by sacrificing the exchange twice. Choong was determined to win the game as he felt that Ravisekhar did not accord him sufficient respect. Soon Choong assumed the initiative and Ravisekhar was fighting to draw. Choong on the other hand, felt he had to win, being the double exchange up.

 Another key victory was in the 72 Skopje Olympiad where he beat the Canadian Champion IM Lawrence Day. He felt satisfaction especially in the final combination, which came as a stroke of inspiration

Choong retired from serious chess activity after 1979, choosing to play sporadically in local events.  He felt that he reached his prime in 1974/75 (after the 1974 Nice Olympiad, he could not devote more time to the game.  Also in 1976- Singapore did not enter the Tel Aviv Ol because of security-safety reasons and it was too costly for them to go to the 1978 Bueno Aires Ol (would have cost the team 10k per person). By 1979, Choong had started a new job at Inchape and devoted his energies there instead. However, in one of his brief appearances over the board, he managed 2nd place in the Cairnhill Open 1982 behind Koh Kum Hong. He also captained Manila Olympiad team in 1992.

Getting involved in Chess Administration
Choong was acquainted with Prof Lim through Mr Mah Beng Guan. Mr Mah chaired the Junior Clubs Committee which organized events for Junior Players. He also published bulletins for Junior clubs and hence Choong was involved in distributing them to schools. And through this, Choong got to know Prof Lim. Others who were instrumental in the Junior Clubs committee were Giam Choo Kwee and Tan Lian Quee.
As Choong studied Accountancy, it was a natural progression for him to assume the role of Hon. Treasurer in the SCF committee – his contemporaries then were Prof Lim, Mah Beng Guan and Giam. It was Mr Mah who moved Choong into chess organizing, eventually focusing on the financial aspects and running of events. Choong does not consider his involvement significant. He mentioned that Mah contributed immensely and gave up much of his own time and financially too. Prof Lim was instrumental in cultivating and nurturing the chess scene and he had plenty of ideas to sell chess to the public. Tan Lian Quee (now deceased) and Giam was were key chess movers then. Choong’s wife, Michelle Tang was also inducted into the SCF committee and helped out – she was very supportive of Choong’s interest in chess.

The prudence of putting career over chess
When queried if he had any chess ambitions then, he said he was just enjoying playing chess and it was not realistic to go for titles. He was mindful of the advice Prof Lim gave him, that is to “eat first and play chess later” – not to sacrifice one’s career for the sake of chess.

Choong noted that our players in recent generations reach near world class (eg ELO 2300 level) during their schooling days but once past National Service, they lag far behind their contemporaries and after that, they'll remain stagnant at that level or go downhill. Also, once they start work, they will not improve – one or 2 events a year is not enough for them to reach the GM level.

Returning to chess playing after retirement
Choong had every intention to return to chess once he retired from his job (Managing Director-Borneo Motors) and he had hesitated for more than a year before going to Australia to play 2 events (Australian Major and Australian Open 2011). During those games, he realised that he could still recall positions and ideas he had learned in the past despite being away from the game for about 20 years. Hence, this encouraged him to play and compete – culminating in his 2011 Croatian World Seniors Ch stint and the 2012 Pula World Seniors. It took him 17 hours of travelling and the crossing of 2 borders to reach Croatia!

Choong related that  Prof Lim had reminded him in the past   that he was waiting for Choong to reach 60 years of age so that they could play in the World Seniors event together. Sadly, Prof had passed away by then  but at least he had fulfilled Prof's wish for him to play in the event.

Choong felt that in the last 2 years, he had actually learnt more about chess than in his past 40+ years. He has now developed the confidence play into positions which in the past he would discard as they were risky. He remarked that in the past, when playing in team events for Singapore, he would not take chances as team responsibilities weigh heavily but now, since he is playing for himself, there is no such pressure.

The value of chess
Choong stated that he has no regrets whatsoever. For that matter, he felt that chess has taught him a lot about life. He related that “In chess, you cannot take back a move once you have made it and it's the same in business or life. Life goes on and you just have to learn from the mistake you make. Take the bitter pill and use that experience to improve yourself. One must keep positive and look forward to the next game, next tournament or next life event”. In a  Borneo Motors Torque Magazine Interview,  Choong mused  "In a competition, you have to manage time and finish your moves in the time frame. If you can't make it, you lose and you make the worst possible moves in such a situation where everyone else watching can see and laugh but you can't see it" He says it is funny when talking about it later but it is not funny after you have made the stupid move then. He however also draws on the positive values of chess for the way he lives his life.
"It teaches me a lot of things and its principles can also be applied to your working and personal lives like to be rational, to be patient, to think ahead, to think first before reacting and to put yourself in the other person's shoes."

Not surprisingly, some nice chess anedotes came up in our interview.

Prof Lim and Yoga...
During  the National Training team, Mah Beng Guan taught the members Yoga –so that they can learn  how to breathe properly and compose themselves during tournament play.  Prof Lim was a strong advocate and he could do headstands and shoulderstands. In the 68 Lugano Olympiad, sometimes in the course of the game, Prof would leave the ongoing game to go to the toilet to do headstands and an opposing team captain  was worried that Prof would consult someone (no mobile phones in those days) about his game,followed him outside the toilet until Prof was done with his Yoga. Prof would emerged out of the toilet refreshed with his opponents none the wiser.

Prof Lim and innoculation
Before heading for Europe for the international events, Prof would round up the team to go to his office in King's Edward College for smallpox and cholera innoculation – Prof was qualified to issue certs for innoculation. After jabbing Choong, he cheekily handed Choong the syringe in jest and asked Choong to give him a jab instead.

Giving up one's spot in the Olympiad 
When queried about Prof's frequent endorsement of Lian Ann over other players (I brought his attention to a chess article when Alexius Chang inquired why Koh Kum Hong and others were not picked for the 1st  Asian Cities Championships (Lian Ann got the spot) despite Koh dominating the local circuit), Choong said Prof picked Lian Ann not because he liked Lian Ann personally but simply because Lian Ann was the best. He quoted his personal example – Choong had qualifed for the 1970 Siegen Olympiad by merit but Prof told him that he would be sending 13 year old Leslie Leow instead. (Leslie acquitted himself well -scoring a 2300+ TPR and getting Karaklajic's endorsement as a future master) Choong trusted Prof's decision as Prof was a strong player himself and it was his prerogative as the President of SCF. In 1971, where invitations were sent to SCF for representatives to an Adelaide International Open, Prof invited Choong to play and Choong chaperoned Leslie there too!

Chess and David Marshall (Singapore's 1st Chief Minister)
Choong recalled that when David Marshall was in prison, he played chess there and started an event where he donated a nice trophy (King with brass board). The trophy was kept by the Singapore Sports Council and subsequently destroyed during the Farrer Park Sports Hall fire. Choong regretted not taking the trophy in custody as it has massive historical value.

It's all in the family
It is not uncommon to see chess champions among siblings eg (Quek Suan Shiau/Quek Suan Fuan, Teo Kok Siong / Teo Kok Cheng, Edmund Leow/Leslie Leow, Tan Lian Ann/Tan Lian Seng/ Tan Lian Quee) but Mr Choong is part of an extended chess family that I think we do not see elsewhere in the country.

 In 1992 Manila Chess Olympiad, Choong was non-playing captain,  his niece WCM Winnie Tan was playing on the women's team and her future husband,  FM Lim Hoon Cheng was on the men's team and (I recall Choong had also been roped in by Giam to train the women's team – giving them simul matches at tournament time control).

Choong's son , Gregory, is the 1997 National Champion. Regarding his son Gregory Choong's involvement in chess – Choong recalled that Gregory played because his primary school – St Michael's had a parent (Frank Lim) trying to start a chess team in the interschools. Choong had taught Greg the basics. Choong is very proud of his son winning the 1997 National Championships, a feat he himself had never achieved and having done it with such little effort. Although Choong and his wife were prepared to sponsor Greg to play and achieve more in chess, Greg chose to give up. As for Winnie Tan (his niece), she had stayed in his house for a period, and he surmised that Winnie and Greg had played chess. By the time he realised that Winnie was good at the game, she already had impressive results at the Junior events.

1 comment:

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