Friday, April 30, 2010

Golden Age of Chess Columns

By Lim Chong

Once there was a golden age with practically all the major newspapers carrying a weekly chess column each, filled with reports on everything related to chess. Even the financial daily Business Times then offered a daily chess puzzle.

In the 1980s you can read Quah Seng Sun in The Star, Peter Long in New Straits Times and later The Sun, Mustafa Said and Ismail Ahmad in Utusan Malaysia, Sabar Hashim in Berita Harian and I was writing for Chessmate in The Malay Mail.

Put together, we could have put up a formidable team as the country’s first international master Jimmy Liew was a regular contributor to Chessmate with his reports and game analysis.

Quah, considered the doyen of local chess writers, was the pioneer and he set the benchmark. Being involved in chess as player, writer, official, organiser and arbiter for about 40 years, he has seen it all and was there right from the start.

Many chess enthusiasts grew up reading Quah’s column. How significant it has become could be seen from the outcry among chess enthusiasts when The Star abruptly stopped the column in February 2007 after running it for 27 years.

The threat to chess united everyone and it was blogger Andrew Ooi, alias “Gilachess”, who took the lead in organising an online campaign calling for the column to be reinstated. Possibly due to the passionate petition from those involved in chess, the column returned the following year.

As the pioneer, Quah started the country’s first chess column and now his column appears to be last still running in the newspapers. Currently, we find many chess blogs coming up in place of the chess columns and some have been able to make their presence felt. For the chess columns, it seems that resistance was futile against the “invasion” of the blogs.

“I always tried to look at the big picture and be balanced in what I wrote,” Quah summed up his viewpoint in what was supposed to be his final column in February 2007. When he resumed his column, he remained true to his raison d’etre.

Long also wrote what he saw but the picture was a different one, generally of shortcomings, mediocrity and not enough being done for chess. With his forthright, direct and fearless style, his columns always made interesting reading.

“I do not seek office, or national selection in chess. I seek the promotion of chess, something which is desperately lacking at the moment,” he declared in one of his articles.

With him, chess writing entered a new frontier, particularly in the areas of criticisms. He was not afraid to name names and some chess officials dreaded opening the newspapers to see their names being mentioned in unfavourable reports.

In some articles, Long highlighted the lack of long-term development for our promising players who were not provided with systematic exposure together with proper training and guidance. He was also upset with what he called the cult of mediocrity which encouraged achievements that were measured only in the local context. Such issues, unfortunately, have yet to be resolved even now.

Obviously, there were repercussions to his daring views, with frequent calls to the editors from furious officials. Still, to his credit, Long was the only one to have his chess articles appeared in three newspapers -- New Straits Times, The Malay Mail and The Sun.

The columns in the Bahasa newspapers were less controversial, with attention mainly given to coverage on tournament results.

Utusan’s Mustafa, the gregarious one, and his more reserved counterpart Ismail of the Public Works Department were not only writers but also played regularly in competitions, and so did the soft-spoken and knowledgeable Sabar of Berita Harian, and the three of them often finished in the top placings. Ismail went on to start another chess column in the short-lived Watan newspaper.

In the pre-Internet days, getting chess news was not easy. Major news agencies like Reuters and Associated Press only carried reports on the world championships and little else about chess.

I often had to wait for the editors to finish reading British newspapers like The Times and The Guardian so that I could cut out the chess columns. There were also regular visits to the British Council library to go through the newspapers and chess magazines available.

Before the emergence of chess engines, analysing chess games was really hard work and I was fortunate to have the services of Liew and Long in tackling the tough task. Both were meticulous were in their work and sometimes we were forced to cut out a few parts of the analysis due to space constraints.

Another regular contributor to Chessmate was Hamid Majid who filed in on-the-spot reports from international competitions like the Olympiads where he was present.

Chessmate had started with national player Christi Hon who later however found difficulties in the deadlines for a weekly column with his busy tournament schedule and social life.

Generally, the chess columns have played a part in generating interest that led to the flourishing of chess activities, casting the spotlight on each new generation of promising players.

Yes, those were the days and that was the golden age. Now the many has become just one with Quah still the only one and still going strong.

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