By Lim Chong
This year has not seen much of international master Mok Tze Meng in competitive play so far but he is not lying low. Instead, he is preparing for his new mission: to gain a grandmaster norm.
After taking about 10 years to collect the three international master norms required for the title, Mok realises that an even tougher struggle lies ahead in his quest to move up to the next level: becoming a grandmaster.
But he does not feel that the task is beyond his capability. And he is ready, now at 41 and in probably the best form of his life after having been in chess for the past 26 years.
Mok is aware of the need to play regularly to polish his skills and maintain consistency, and he is not afraid to lose rating points as he is confident of his playing level. However, he feels that he has to be selective about tournaments in his target for the grandmaster norm.
“There are very few tournaments offering GM norms in Malaysia but I will prepare thoroughly when I’m sure of playing,” he says, adding that he will also consider playing overseas when given the opportunity.
One of those opportunities is this year’s Olympiad in Khanty Mansiysk, Russia, for which he has been selected. He has been a regular member of the Malaysian team for the Olympiads after making his debut at the 1990 Olympiad in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, and was in the team at the 2008 Olympiad in Dresden, Germany.
There was a time when some thought the IM title might just have passed by Mok. This was when younger players like Mas Hafizulhelmi Agus Rahman, Wong Zi Jing and Lim Yee Weng have succeeded while he was still struggling.
Still, Mok never gave up and he showed perseverance to get the title in an effort streteching over a decade. Of inspiration to him was Jimmy Liew, the country’s first international master who has continued to play strongly.
As an individual with his quirks and ideas, Mok tends to provoke mixed emotions from the chess community. While some accept him as he is, there are others who just cannot stand him. And his uncompromising determination to win has sometimes led to disputes with tournament organisers whom he feels “don’t respect local players”.
Not contented to be just a player, Mok is also contributing his services as a chess official. As deputy president of the Chess Association of Selangor and a committee member of the Malaysian Chess Federation, he hopes to do more to advance the interests of players.
With his flair for coaching, Mok has helped a number of promising players, including Lim Zhuo Ren, Justin Ong, Muhd Izz Saifuddin, Muhd Tariq Amru, Thaw Chee Yin, Song Wai Cheong and Edward Lee.
Not surprisingly, he finds that teaching his own children – nine-year-old daughter Shu Zing and 11-year-old son Khye Zen – is a more difficult task. “You tend to be less patient with them because they are closest to you,” he explains.
Still, he is pleased with the commendable performance put up by Shu Zing in the Under-12 section of the National Schools Sports Council (MSSM) chess finals this year. With the two children showing keen interest, he is helping them to improve, and one way is to get them to enter the moves after each game into a laptop. He then goes through the game with them.
When Mok first started coming from his hometown Kuching to play in tournaments in Kuala Lumpur, his performance was erratic. Though he was sure of himself, many were not sure of him. He was brash but he learned fast from his mistakes and losses, and gradually improved. Soon, he was able to take on higher ranked opponents and showed that he was no pushover.
With hard work, he made his way up to national ranks and could no longer be ignored. “I don’t think I am less capable than them (the top national players), only less experienced,” he says in an interview in 1989. That was the year he finished second in the national individual championship, behind Mohamed Kamal Abdullah.
Always optimistic, Mok then relocated to Kuala Lumpur, combining studies and chess before deciding to commit himself fully to chess. Asked whether he has any regrets, he says: “No, I never regretted. You can put me in jail with chess books only and I will not complain.”
Through intensive coaching from the late Russian grandmaster Eduard Gufeld, Mok gained useful lessons on chess techniques and understanding about the Russian school of chess. “It really benefited me a lot. And I am the only one in Malaysia who practices and uses these principles to teach my students,” he says.
As a player, Mok is known for his narrow opening repertoire, relying invariably on the Modern Defence which has been his main weapon with the black pieces. While this may make it easier for opponents to prepare against him, Mok is constantly working towards fine-tuning and improving his openings. This has made it difficult for opponents to catch him by surprise. “Yes, my openings are limited but I can understand any opening reasonably well,” he says, adding that it will be an uphill task to change his opening repertoire.
Through the years, Mok has managed to win most of the major local tournaments. About 20 years ago, he was described as having raw talent which needed to be developed through greater exposure to serious competitions and systematic training. Now that he has polished his skills, it is time for him to shine and realise the dream he had when he first started playing chess.