Thursday, April 1, 2010

Advancing Among Asia’s Best


One night while having a late dinner with friends in Kuala Lumpur after playing in the DATCC Chess League, Singapore’s international master Tan Lian Ann admitted: “Yes, there is some regret”.

This was in response to a question and he was referring to the period around the early 1970s when he was reaching the peak of his chess strength and could have went on to attempt for the grandmaster title.

Tan was then involved in a close race with Eugenio Torre of the Philippines to become Asia’s first grandmaster. Both were the strongest players in the region and from the 1972 East Asian Zonal held in Hong Kong, both qualified as Asian representatives for the 1973 Interzonals.

This was the first time the World Chess Federation (FIDE) had awarded an additional place to the zone and one English chess writer wrote derisively that the move caused a “slight watering down of the strength of the interzonals”.

But Tan almost caused a sensation in the first round of the 1973 Interzonal at Petropolis, Brazil, when he came close to beating former world champion Vasily Smyslov of the Soviet Union.

Playing the white pieces, he reached a good position and on his 24th move missed a four-move mate that was even apparent to some spectators. In the end after 37 moves, the experienced Smyslov (who died on March 27, 2010) managed to win on time.

After this scare, his opponents who comprised the top grandmasters from around the world became wary and showed new-found respect for Tan, the lowest rated player in the tournament.

Though tied for 16th to 18th at the Petropolis Interzonal which was won by Brazil’s Henrique Mecking, Tan did much better than expected with draws against Romania’s Florin Gheorghiu, Switzerland’s Werner Hug, Yugloslavia’s Ljubomir Ljubojevic, Argentina’s Oscar Panno, Czechoslovakia’s Vlastimil Hort and Canada’s Peter Biyiasas.

After this, Tan faced a tough choice between concentrating on his studies and chess. Even chess officials advised him to focus on his studies. Chess then increasingly took a backseat as he gave priority to his university studies.

Still, Tan managed to qualify for the 1976 Interzonal held in Manila, the Philippines, where he made an impact by defeating grandmasters Wolfgang Uhlmann of East Germany and Walter Browne of the United States.

Upon completing his studies, the capable Tan soon became a successful entrepreneur with various business interests around the region. However, chess was still on his mind and he made occasional appearances in tournaments.

As for his chess career, he consoled himself that at best, he could only become a strong grandmaster like one of his contemporaries, Gheorghiu. And he is happy for Torre, who came Asia’s first grandmaster, for what he has achieved.

From an early age, Tan was already known for his chess skills. At 14, he became the national champion and he went on to win the title six times.

Modest, unassuming and soft-spoken, he is not one to boast about his chess achievements or encounters with chess legends like Smyslov, Mecking, former world champion Boris Spassky, David Bronstein, Paul Keres, Lajos Portisch and Lev Polugaevsky.

Still, Tan makes it a point to compete regularly at the annual IGB Datuk Arthur Tan Malaysia Open Chess Championship, saying it’s more out of fun as he claims to no longer has the “killer instinct” to win games even with favourable positions. And this year, one of his companies will also be sponsoring prizes for the Malaysian Chess Festival.

In a way, Tan will always be linked to Malaysian chess development for it was his loss to Jimmy Liew Chee Meng at the 1984 Parkway Parade International Open in Singapore that provided Liew with the final norm and Malaysia with its first international master.

Postscript: Last week’s subject matter received some rather strong feedback. Though there are rumours and allegations concerning the player, I felt it would not be fair to include them in the article without hearing his side of the story. If what has happened is true, then it’s a tragedy for Malaysian chess. But we should not be too quick to judge and condemn. Everyone, especially a chess player who has already contributed in his own way through the years, deserves a second chance.

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