By Lim Chong
Does anyone remember schoolboy sensation Rosazman Mat Rosley? Described as small in size but big in fighting spirit, he made an immediate impact at the Pahang schools chess championship in 1987.
A Standard Four pupil of Sekolah Rendah Kebangsaan Jengka, he was eligible to play in the Under-14 section where his chances of winning were extremely good but he chose to play in the Under-20 group instead.
It turned out well when he finished the tournament with five points from six games, the same as Cheah Eu Gene, but Rosazman was awarded the title on tie-break. Thus, he emerged as Pahang’s top schoolboy player within a relatively short playing period of two years.
He went on to score impressive results in a number of tournaments and was seen then as one of the biggest promises in Malaysian chess. This was before the emergence of Mas Hafizulhelmi Agus Rahman in the junior ranks but after winning the junior title in the 1989 Bank Rakyat Open, Rosazman seemed to have disappeared from the chess scene.
Some said he was disappointed he could not improve further in chess and decided to stop playing. That’s just one version of one story and there may well have been other reasons.
However, this article is not about the long list of promising players lost along the way but what we are doing or not doing in the development of our talented youngsters. The absence of a systematic junior training programme in recent years has basically forced our young players to rely very much on their own efforts and initiatives to improve themselves.
Providing proper training and guidance so that our junior players can compete effectively at international level is a matter the Malaysian Chess Federation (MCF) should consider looking into but it seems more preoccupied with the selection of our representatives for international competitions.
Much time spent and efforts were spent recently on preparations to pick those to represent the country at the Asean Age Group Chess Championship to be held in the Philippines next month, without any focus on long-term goals.
What about planning for the long-term development of our promising juniors so that they have better chances to realise their full potential? Shouldn’t this be a priority too?
According to Singapore Chess Federation (SCF) president Ignatius Leong, who is also general secretary of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), one of the factors behind Singapore being able to overtake Malaysia in the past decade is the presence of an effective and comprehensive junior training programme.
Their junior players have improved through structured and formalised training, being given five hours of lessons weekly, followed by training camps during the school holidays. The SCF also has a full-time technical director to monitor the training programme.
Australia has a similar programme with its elite training squad, in which its top junior players, in addition to regular lessons, are brought together to chess camps for intensive coaching and competition.
Leong also spoke of the need for qualified and good coaches to take the juniors up to the next level. Sometimes, they can reach up to a certain level with the training available but to go further, they need the expertise of more experienced coaches, he points out.
As shown by the results in regional and international competitions, Singapore has been on the right path. Its talented 15-year-old Daniel Howard Fernandez managed to earn his third and final norm at the UKM KL Masters tournament held here last month to become the country’s latest international master.
Another 15-year-old, Daniel Chan Yi Ren, who is also the national champion and described by Leong as currently the most talented in the junior ranks, secured his second IM norm at an international tournament in Singapore last month and is expected to be an international master by year-end.
In contrast, our fifth and most recent international master is Mok Tze Meng, who gained the title last year at the age of 39 after 10 years of working hard on his own.
What are the chances of our junior players in matching their Singaporean counterparts? At the rate we are going, the chances don’t look too good.
Yes, we have 11-year-old Yeoh Li Tian, the bright promise of Malaysian chess, emerging from the junior ranks. But except for a short training stint in China, made possible through the foresight of MCF life president Datuk Tan Chin Nam, he has not been given any special coaching or even the kind of training and exposure that less talented youngsters in Singapore are getting. Are we expecting him to play his way up to international master level, and then attempt for the grandmaster title?
Even his father, former national champion Yeoh Chin Seng who has been coaching him for the past years, would agree that he could only do so much for his fast-improving son and would need expert help.
Resident grandmaster Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh has already been here for two months and so far he has not been approached to help in starting a national junior training programme despite his experience and expertise. He has trained many junior players in his country and neighbouring India, counting the world Under-12 champion Sayantan Das as one of his notable students.
However, selected groups like the Methodist Boys School Kuala Lumpur elite team of Yap Eng Chiam, Albert Ang, Tan Wei Hao and Yap Guo Jie have been making use of the grandmaster’s services and benefited from the process. (Disclosure: I’m not mentioning this just because I am a former student from the school but go forward, MBS)
Imagine how much faster our junior players would have been able to improve themselves if they were given the opportunity to undergo an intensive, comprehensive and year-round training programme and being shown the way to achieve further progress.
The question obviously is not whether we need a junior training programme but how soon can we implement it. We really have to start thinking about the future now.