Many people that I have met have different views with regards to the FIDE population boom in Malaysia. One person told me that, if we get more and more people to be involved in playing chess, we will eventually find one who will be above everyone else i.e. the volume game. In other words, if we continue to collect huge amounts of stones, someway (and somehow) along the way, we will eventually find a gold nugget. While I can agree that volume will inadvertently produce a one in a million local chess prodigy, I find the method a bit crude as it is not time bound and without any specific direction. In short, we are “hoping” that somewhere along the way, somehow and sometime, someone will emerge. When? Nobody knows. This is almost pure luck and without any tangible nor solid approach.
Another view is that, quantity can also be considered as growth albeit the lack of (or absence of) quality. At least, it is still something for us to boast and brag about but eventually, we may end up as the average guy around the block or at best, the “jaguh kampung”. But for the capitalist – the many chess organizers and entities out there in the open who thrives on getting hundreds and thousands of players to play in weekend events, it attracts good income and wealth. In short, if money is the endgame, then the more people play chess, the better it is for the economy. So, if I can survive and earn good income from the population, why should I care about the quality? I can agree to that as well. A lot more chess organizers can survive better now compare to when it was 10-15 years ago. While many may take up chess as a part time job to earn some side income, more and more people are jumping into a full time venture as it has the potential to generate a steady (and sometimes handsome) earnings every now and then. Aside from organizing events, the huge chess population also opens opportunities for chess trainers, chess officials and chess academies to strive (and survive) in the market. To each their own….
My personal believe is that – both quantity and quality need to go hand in hand. Too much focus on quantity and you will forego the quality, and too much focus on the quality, you may not be able to grow at all. And in understanding our local chess population, we may be able to understand how we can balance the two together. But of course, in order to pave our community to a better future, there is a serious need for good quality coaches, world class organizers, experienced officials, excellent support system and well-structured enforcement and management entity in order to bind everything together.
We have seen how we stack up against the global population. Of course, it will be tough for us to chase the global chess superpowers like India or Russia, or the many European countries who are traditionally well-known in chess such as Germany, Spain and Hungary. So, instead of trying to race and beat those who are leaps and bounds above us, let us reduce our scope to within our region and evaluate our situation. Perhaps from then on, we can understand our strength and weakness, and identify the areas that we can focus on for improvement and development. And as we slowly grow to conquer our region, we can appreciate and understand how and what it takes to bring it to the global level.
For the purpose of this study, the 10 ASEAN countries that we will use as comparisons are:
- Malaysia – of course!
Looking at the list, we can still find certain countries within our region that can be considered as chess powerhouses such as Philippines (with Asia’s first GM Eugenio Torre and SEA Asia first ever Olympiad host), Vietnam (GM Le Queng Lim is ranked 31st highest rated player in the world) and Indonesia (GM Utut Adianto was one of the few Asian Chess player surpassing the 2600 ELO rating). In short, the ASEAN region itself is already a challenging platform for us to make our own mark.
As the 16th country with most populated FIDE registered players in the world, it is not surprising that we are the number one country within our region with 11,863 players, followed by Philippines at a distant second with 6,111 players. Singapore came in 3rd with 3,267 players and thereafter, Vietnam with 2,685 players. Interesting to note that in May 2010, Philippines was the leading country with 871 players and Malaysia was in 2nd place with 764 players.
With Malaysia having the highest number of FIDE rated players in the region, it is also not surprising that we are also the country that has the most players with a Standard FIDE ELO rating at 1,949 players followed by Philippines with 1,293 players. But, if we were to gauge the population based on percentages, we are ranked 9th within the region with only 16% of our players having a Standard FIDE ELO rating with Myanmar topping the chart at 48% and Indonesia with 36%. Laos is the only country within the region that has a lower percentage of players than Malaysia at 14%. Do take note that in 2010, Laos had no FIDE rated players at all.
Comparing the countries based on the average strength of all its chess players, Malaysia is currently ranked 9th with an ELO Rating of 1477.7. Comparatively, our average strength in 2010 was 2001.0 – dropping more than 500 points in 10 years. The good news is that all countries in the world dropped their average rating including those within our ASEAN region. In 2010, most if not all the ASEAN countries has an average FIDE rating of 2000+ with Thailand being the exception with an average rating of 1983.7 points. In 2010, the 8 ASEAN countries – less Cambodia and Laos, had only 197.4 points separating between the top country which was Indonesia at 2181.1 points against bottom table Thailand. As of 2020, using the same 8 countries as baseline, the points separating the 8 countries has increased by more than double to 414.0 points with Indonesia still maintaining its top position with 1891.7 points but sadly this time around, its Malaysia who is at the bottom end with only 1477.7 points. While all countries did reflect a decline in performance, Malaysia was impacted the most losing more than 500 points during that 10-year span – at an average rate of more than 50 points a year.
So, we had a good run of increasing our chess population from 2010 to 2020 to emerge as the busiest chess nation in ASEAN but from the quality and performance perspective, we lost the most. Perhaps the sudden increase in our chess population has impacted and flattened our national average – which is not surprising. Looking at the numbers, it is quite satisfying to know that we have a lot of players who are enthusiastic about playing chess but, are they prepared and ready to venture into the “real competitive world”? Perhaps, abolishing the National Rating created the ripple effect – with nowhere to go, willingly or not, players ended up playing in FIDE rated events. And with the cost to run a classical event can run in the thousands, many prefer to take part in one (or two) day rapid events which do not generate impactful results or contribution to our overall performance. To add salt to the wound, those who venture into FIDE events because they had “little or no choice”, ended up not pursuing further their chess ambitions thus further creating a downward spiral of our overall performance. Maybe I am wrong but, then again, I could be right.
Next up – What about our Junior population?