RIGHT after my column last week, I received a short message from one of Malaysia’s international masters.
By all accounts, it can be safely assumed that Wong Zijing is no longer playing in chess competitions. As far as I can determine, he hasn’t been playing much at all since August 2006. In fact, even social chess may have taken a back seat for him as his last known attempt at a serious chess game must have been at last year’s annual chess match between the teams of Cambridge and Oxford universities.
His friends and fellow chess players in the country may want to know that he is now pursuing his Doctorate at the University of California Berkeley in the United States. He asked me to say “hi” to them.
Before going to the States, Wong was at University of Cambridge in England and before that, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. He is now doing research on a specialist area of science called metamaterials.
Anyway, after taking a look at the picture in last week’s column, Wong dropped me a short note to say that it was about time that 12-year-old Yeoh Li Tian, pictured playing a blitz game with former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov, decide whether he wants to be like “Le Quang Liem” or “one of us”.
He didn’t mince his words. The “one of us” refers explicitly to himself and his chess peers, local players like Mas Hafizulhelmi, Lim Yee Weng, Marcus Chan, Nicholas Chan and Lim Chuin Hoong.
The “Le Quang Liem” he mentioned happens to be Vietnam’s top chess player. Liem joined the world’s grandmaster club four years ago.
Today, while only 19 years old but with an international rating of 2681 points, he is already knocking on the doors of that even more elite club of chess grandmasters who are rated at 2,700 points and above. There are not many of them, certainly not more than 40 players currently in this category of super-grandmasters.
I knew fairly well what Wong was trying to say but his note made such a fascinating impression that I wanted to know more from him.
He said that it is well known that to become a grandmaster like Liem, you need to be a professional chess player and the financial support to train abroad.
Recently, the Vietnam Chess Federation stated that Liem would require an annual fund of US$100,000. Then there is the player’s own commitment and sacrifices, especially academic sacrifice. Is our society ready for that, he questioned.
“I have a good friend in China who told me that many of the Chinese grandmasters had quit school early in their lives to take up a professional career in chess. Many of them had not even completed their primary education.
“Are our chess players prepared to make such personal sacrifices?” he asked. “My peers and I had to balance chess with our studies because at the end of the day, we have to think about our own livelihood and our direction in life.”
Livelihood. Indeed, if we look at some of our national champions, I can say that they have ended up very well in life. Mas Hafizulhelmi is today a chemical engineer, both Lim Chuin Hoong and Nicholas Chan are medical doctors, Lim Yee Weng is a lawyer while Marcus Chan is an electronics engineer.
Even Ooi Chern Ee, arguably our highest ranked player not to have become a national champion, is an actuarist. But to get where they are today, they recognise that they had to sacrifice their chess.
According to Wong, only geniuses are able to continue with this fine balance in their lives. He believed that Gata Kamsky, a chess prodigy, was one of them.
(Kamsky was born in the old Soviet Union in 1974 and his family emigrated to the United States in 1989. At 16 years old, he took his first steps towards the pinnacle of world chess and ultimately challenged Viswanathan Anand for the Professional Chess Association version of the chess crown in 1995. One year later, he challenged Anatoly Karpov for the World Chess Federation version of the chess title. After he lost both matches, he disappeared completely from the chess world for nine years to earn his law degree and then returned to top-level chess in 2004 with great success.)
Unless you are like Kamsky, Wong said, it is almost impossible to find that balance between chess and work. Where Li Tian is concerned, he suggested that the boy would have to make up his mind soon.
No doubt, his one-month stint in Beijing last year and his present chess tutelage under Bangladeshi grandmaster Ziaur Rahman would help his chess grow in the short to medium term. But he must either have the courage to make chess his profession or concentrate on his studies and eventually “be like one of us”.
“It’s a tough decision, very tough indeed,” Wong acknowledged, “but there are no two ways about it.”