By Lim Chong
As a promising schoolboy player, Mas Hafizulhelmi was so shy that I could only get a few words from him each time we met. But his father was always around to fill the gap.
The late Abdul Rahman Abdul Halim could talk for hours about chess development in general, his specific plans for Mas to advance in chess and any issue related to chess.
Once when we met outside his home in Kota Baru for what he promised would be a “short discussion”, he talked for close to two hours while my hungry father-in-law was waiting in the car to go for dinner.
Abdul Rahman started showing his son how the pawns moved at the age of three and within a few years, he realised that Mas was already ahead of him in chess.
Unquestionably, he believed that Mas had the potential to become the country’s first grandmaster and was completely devoted to the cause, even giving up his teaching job.
Regularly, he would drive Mas and other interested schoolboys to take part in tournaments in Kuala Lumpur, the hub of chess activities. He felt that Mas needed to gain constant exposure by playing against strong players.
This was in the early 1990s when road conditions from Kota Baru to the city were extremely challenging and the journey was a very tiring one, either way. And there were also expenses to take care of, such as accommodation and food.
Still, Abdul Rahman never gave up. He was always optimistic though at times he may be a bit disheartened when financial aid from the authorities for Mas to continue progressing in chess was slow in coming.
Education was not neglected and he ensured that Mas, the eldest of five children, continued to do well in his studies, always ending up among the top students in his school. In fact, chess helped Mas to excel in his studies, he once remarked.
Based on progress made by Mas by becoming national master at 12, FIDE master at 14 and international master at 17, he should have been a grandmaster in his early twenties.
But just as he was close to reaching his peak, a decision was made for him to focus on his further studies and it’s hard to argue against that. The dream of becoming a grandmaster was put on hold.
His recent 18-month campaign may not have ended in the success hoped for but the experience gained should be useful for him in making improvements to mount another challenge.
Undoubtedly, Mas is still the country’s best chess prospect at present. He remains the country’s top player, based on ranking, rating and results.
As Eugenio Torre has shown in the Philippines and Viswanathan Anand in India, producing the first grandmaster can make a vast difference for a country’s chess development.
If we are to wait for one of our current promising juniors to make the breakthrough, it’s going to take a long time and there’s no guarantee that those with potential will continue to focus to chess.
Like his late father, there are many in the chess community who believe that Mas, at his best, is capable of winning the grandmaster title.
Ultimately, it’s up to Mas and whether he can cope with the challenge of balancing his commitments to family, career and chess. He has been carrying the grandmaster dream for the past 20 years and hopefully, more resources and support can be provided to help him achieve the goal.