Friday, August 21, 2009

Malaysia's Main Man of Chess

The Star OnlineBy By QUAH SENG SUN
Datuk Tan Chin Nam is regarded as the driving force behind chess in Malaysia.

IT’S been nine months since I last met Datuk Tan Chin Nam in Penang. That Sunday in November, he was still basking in the glory of winning the 2008 Melbourne Cup in Australia. It was an unprecedented and historical win for him: the only horse owner ever to win that coveted cup four times.

Prior to the Malaysia Chess Festival starting tomorrow, I sat down with him again and this time, it was at his office at Menara Tan&Tan in Kuala Lumpur. This time, instead of horses, he turned his attention to the other interest in his life, which is chess.

This game of kings has taken up much of his free time, effort, and money since 1974. In that year, he was elected president of the Malaysian Chess Federation. But despite stepping down in 1986, he could never get chess out of his life. He remains the main engine behind chess in this country. It is estimated that in the past 35 years, he has poured at least RM10mil into the game.

“People remarked that I am stupid to put so much of my money into chess when I cannot see the return from there,” he remarked. “They say that if I had invested this sum and the time I’ve spent on chess into my business, I would have earned back my capital many times over. Am I stupid? Of course, I’m stupid!”

Then, as he leaned forward as if to confide in me, Tan boomed: “But you know what? It’s not all about money. I did it because of personal joy. I enjoy chess just like I enjoy horse racing. But I’ve already achieved the peak in horses.

Grand plans: ‘I am embarking on the Malaysia chess project to take the Malaysian chess culture to a higher plane,’ says Datuk Tan Chin Nam.

“In chess, there’s still much to do and I like to see other people enjoy the game and succeed in the game. There’s the joy of watching a young child of seven or eight beaming when he succeeds. I think that chess is valuable to the community as an intellectual sport endeavour. It’s incomparable.”

How does he see the direction of chess in Malaysia in the next five to 10 years?

“I am very certain the progress will be phenomenal. To achieve this, I am embarking on the Malaysia chess project to take the Malaysian chess culture to a higher plane,” he said.

“Various Asean governments already support chess to a great degree, including Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. Malaysia is the one exception that can do better. So my proposal is that the Government can help chess the same way that it already supports other sports. For example, let foreign professional chess players into Malaysia to raise our standard to the full international level.

“Our neighbours give strong foreign players permanent residencies or even citizenship. Singapore has about 10 of them. In Vietnam, even more. For instance, China’s grandmaster Zhang Zhong is a permanent resident in Singapore and plays for Singapore.

“In Malaysia, we don’t even have a grandmaster. If we get a competent core of grandmasters here, I believe the effort will be self-sustaining. You have the grandmasters teaching younger players and once they reach that level, it doesn’t go back down. For example, England achieved it in the 1960s, same with Indonesia, India and China. Self-sustaining, so that it continues on its own.

“The Malaysia chess project also involves organising high-level tournaments. We already have some success putting Malaysia on the international chess map. Saturday is the start of the sixth Malaysia Chess Festival. I’m committed to the next five years of the Arthur Tan Malaysia open, which is the festival’s centrepiece.

“Making it a success means it’s a great chess festival for tourism. We put Malaysia on the chess map and we have people coming from all over the world to take part in our tournaments. But it’s very expensive for them just to come: plane fare, accommodation, entry fee.

“Why should it be so expensive? What if the entry fee is reduced? The numbers will increase. I foresee 2,000 players in the future. It’s not impossible. Make it free even, and we’ll have 3,000, including friends and relatives. That’s chess tourism.”

But all these plans would require money and a lot of fund-raising, I remind him.

“Right now, my Tan Chin Nam Foundation awards scholarships to needy university students. I’m asking my people to see how a separate fund can be set up and properly administered within the foundation specifically for chess development.

“I’m considering a decent donation to the chess part of the foundation. It’ll be a challenge, if I give a donation, to persuade the Government and the big corporations to back me up ringgit for ringgit. I estimate the chess portion of the foundation will require several million to make chess self-sustaining in Malaysia. One idea is that if I offer one-third of the amount, then the Government can add its third and corporations and others can provide the remainder. So that’s the challenge.”

I asked about the chess centre that was set up on the fourth floor of the Wilayah Complex in Kuala Lumpur in February this year. This centre, as well as the Malaysia open, was dedicated to Arthur Tan, his son who passed away in Australia in 2004.

Arthur grew up in a chess-playing family, competing against siblings and relatives, and playing across the board and over the Internet. People who knew him said he could talk business 24 hours a day, reminding them of his father.

He had a similar business management style. In Malaysia, his projects included the Bukit Belimbing residential project and the Sierramas. In Australia, he managed and developed portions of the Como Hotel shopping and residential project in Melbourne.

“The Dato’ Arthur Tan Chess Centre was set up near the beginning of the year. I realised that the Malaysian chess public would need a practical centre to take part in activities and raise the level of the game. It’s something that my son himself would have liked to do.

“The chess centre is a focal point of the Malaysia chess project. It’s also meant for enjoyment, with plans to create a congenial coffeehouse atmosphere for everyone – from students to businessmen – to socialise. For too long, I’ve been in chess organising that I haven’t even begun to enjoy myself more in my chess games. Starting soon, I want to be a playing member. I will play more chess.”

What would Tan consider as his biggest achievements on the world stage?

“I value greatly the award of Commander of the Legion of Grandmasters given to me by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the president of the World Chess Federation, when Fide celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1999. Only 20 people worldwide were recognised. And a few years earlier, I was given direct membership in Fide. Very few people are direct members of Fide, all others are national chess federations.

“I was also a deputy president of Fide for four years from 1982 and was part of its executive board until 1990. In 1990 and 1994, the leading members of the exco – the main representatives from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and South America – offered me, in effect, the Fide presidency. But I declined to run both times. I couldn’t be visiting a hundred or more countries. The time wasn’t right. There were other priorities in my business back here.

“Rapid chess was proposed by me, so that more people can take part in short tournaments and events. It took years for rapid chess to be accepted. If I remember, countries in the West, like Bulgaria, objected to it but after several years, the Fide family has come around to support it. Today, rapid chess is used not only for weekend events but also as a tie-break system at high-level matches.

“So you see, all these efforts have been good public relations for Malaysia,” said Tan.

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