Sunday, May 1, 2011


Having lost my copy of the Singapore Chess Digest August 1986 ( 25 years ago) which this article of mine was published, I took a trip to the Library to retrieve it and reproduce it unabridged:


Dear Sir,
    Chess clubs are created solely for players and enthusiasts to interact and exchange ideas regarding the game. It is often the hive of chess activity in strong chess—playing nations like the USA, Britain and West Germany, where friendly matches and club leagues are most popular.

   However, chess clubs today seem to have lost their grip on the chess scene in Singapore. Poor attendances, little activity between clubs and, judging from the number of clubs that have been formed then closed after some months of hunger pangs, the direction of chess is vague and uncertain. Just what does a chess club serve to do for the interested player?

   Well, it is certain that all clubs want to provide competitions for players, be it friendly matches or tournaments. The Queenstown and Cairnhill tournaments are regular crowd-pullers among chess players with their history and prestige. But if we examine these ‘open’ tournaments closely, we will find that they have dominated chess activity so completely that this leaves the player little chance to practice without having to compete. Tournaments should not form the mainstay of chess for a developing nation; rather, what is really needed is the gradual build—up of a broad base of players and the education of these players to appreciate the game. Chess cannot succeed as  a spectator sport because you need to be knowledgeable to appreciate its beauty, as it is in the case of art. Perhaps this should be the direction that the Singapore Chess Federation should consider in its plans to popularise the to promote the game through chess clubs.

   Simultaneous displays, lectures and friendly matches between all club members can attract enthusiasts to enjoy the game more effectively than organising a major ‘open’ tournament. After all, such tournaments are only meant for average players and a great opportunity for the top players to make some pocket money. Due to the adoption of the ‘open’ tournament in recent years, the average player rarely wins anything and this can turn him away from chess as it offers no returns for the time spent in learning about the game. What is worse is that it breeds mercenaries who will only play if there is a prize. Many of these mercenaries are sadly plentiful within the ranks of the juniors, which explains the high attrition rate of chess players after the age of 20. Only a handful of our past junior champions are still playing; can’t anyone just enjoy the game for the game’s sake? Perhaps the competitive element of the game has taken its toll on local players with the lowering of standards in the play of our juniors. The reason is simple: there is no impetus for them to improve as they were not taught to enjoy and love the game. The emphasis is on winning and if you don’t win, you will feel that you are just wasting time.

   Forgive me if I sound too blunt in my views, but I urge the Federation to review its aims and objectives for chess in the ‘80s. Are we content to simply produce ‘professionals’ who come out of concealment to try their luck and then disappear with the prize after winning, or do we need more chess lovers who never get tired of exploring the vast possibilities that chess abounds with? If there are any remnants of talent left to be savoured and corrected before they turn foul, then may I suggest that we start educating our school children now that chess is a tool for creation and recreation and not like tennis or golf.  Money is NOT the only reward

Signed : One concerned chessplayer

The reason why I signed off anonymously was due to the fact that I am not yet a subscriber of the magazine, so I was not sure if it would be proper to sign myself. The editor Mr Alexius Chang nonetheless thought it interesting of some of the points made and decided to publish this.

So tell me, has anything changed since this article was published ??


  1. Hi John

    Your letter of 25 years ago on the development of chess clubs I feel respectfully would not be suitable in today's environment. We should not stick or attempt to revive means that by virtue of the passing of time have been shown to be unattractive to the juniors of today.

    You should instead be looking towards the future of how we can make chess an attractive sport in primary schools and to eventually spur the growth of the sport to secondary schools.

    I would welcome new and bold ideas on your blog about increasing the participation of children in chess. I think it is to put the cart before the horse when you talk about improving the quality of chess play when you have not suggested ways to create the necessary mass of players that will then lead to an environment where quality can be imposed.

    Chess should be a sport introduced to the young as it teaches many valuable skills and your blog perhaps should be devoting more time to this worthwhile endeavour.

  2. Sivakumar,

    The main intention of re-publishing this letter is to inform the new parents and players currently involved in chess of the state of affairs 25 years ago.

    In my letter I have outlined what I believe to be the key catalyst to spur growth in chess interest - that is to foster it amongst our budding players through organised chess club activity.

    The sad reality is that we are seeing a stagnation, even decline in interest amongst our adult chess players (who were children when my article was written then) today. You may of course claim other factors to their switch of interest to other things due to lack of time, committments etc but these factors also apply to people from the US, UK, Russia or Germany. The strong chess culture in these countries is strongly correlated to the hive of club activity and thus bears witness to my main thrust in the article.

    Look at the SIGC - that is primarily set up as a major meeting place for players of all ages to meet and gather for chess. It is a huge vacant classroom now, owing to a deviant directional change by the SCF in favour of channelling priorities to grooming juniors.

    What is not apparent to you and many,perhaps, is that the juniors today need to have a strong senior crop of players to spar with in order to excel further. Without them, the juniors virtually end up playing within their age-groups year after year against the relatively familiar opponents and winning trophies with relative ease. This breeds mercenarism and sadly, few of them would even dare venture out of their age-group to play against higher rated opponents for fear of missing out of the prize pool. Introducing young toddlers to competition by rewarding them regardless of their result does not at all foster chess interest. They should be allowed to enjoy the game without having to be subjected to the stresses of competition. Who knows, we may have ruined yet many a budding talent when he/she is still young and does not take to losing gracefully?

    Not only does the current state of affairs churn out huge numbers who come into the scene and leaving it (possibly in greater numbers), we are also not able to groom and uncover people who would come forward to help as arbiters and organisers. Arbiters and organisers are very passionate chess people who would sacrifice their time and effort to see to the successful runnning of chess events - they cannot be bought. Our pool of organising talent has shrunk since 1986 and with the passage of time, organisers are becoming an endangered species.

    These are some of the consequences for not making an earnest effort in developing our people (players,organisers)in fuelling their interest. Rather, much of their interest has been butchered when there is no more incentive for them to play (as most adults don't need the prize money). The attrition of chess interest, in terms of numbers leaving the scene and a visible drop in playing standards, in my opinion is already happening and will continue unabated until the root cause is arrested and corrected.

    So my 25 year-old view is very much relevant and critical action called for today more than ever, if we do not wish to see chess gradually sink into oblivion due to the short-sighted policies of our national body.

  3. Hi John,

    I understand your position but I take the more realistic and practical approach that the SCF's focus on the juniors is correct and not a "deviant directional change" as suggested by you.

    With limited resources it makes sense to focus on the juniors and to develop chess in the schools, increase the number of primary schools that offer chess, create an environment where primary school chess players are recognized as sportsmen and their achievements as sporting achievements and then whilst doing this monumental task, also plan for how these juniors can see their involvement carry on in secondary school and the eventual tertiary institutions they go into.

    SCF's role is to provide the plan to achieve this and this is where bloggers, readers, commentators, organizers, arbiters, trainers, chess schools and others can play a role. Having chess clubs can be part of the plan but essentially it is the plan that has to be formulated and pushed through.

    The SCF has to be helped and useful comments and blogs on this issue would be welcome. The chess community is too small in Singapore to have itself pushed in different directions.

    Chess parents are the most important tools in achieving this objective and I think your blog can help by highlighting and pushing on this issue of a plan that identifies how junior chess player should see his/her progression to become a competent chess player.

  4. We started junior chess development since the 70's with inter-school competitions from 1970 till today. Do we see the number of players in Singapore, or interest in chess, increase? No. What this translates to is just a mill churning out players generation after generation but the attrition rate is so high that it is just meaningless to the overall development of the game.

    So unless there's a radical change of direction to not just churn players but to also spawn measures to inculcate the love of the game, this state of affairs will continue.

    Having chess clubs is the first step, like sowing seeds. Then nurturing them to fruition will take generations. We have lost more than 1 generation by forcing planting trees with no roots and plucking whatever fruits are available before it dies a premature death.

    We need to start over, retill the land and start sowing again. Only this time, put in seeds, not trees without roots. Roots take time to grow, to sink in and germinate. Then the fruits will come and I'm sure the others (the older players) will help pollinate the fruits to spawn other trees.

    We must never neglect the experience and passion the older generation of players have for the game. What's even more important is that we need to coax them out of retirement, to rekindle their interest without having them to compete. There lies the meaning having chess clubs. When the older players are inspired to play, they will provide useful training for our budding players, just like they did when they faced the previous generation. That is how chess culture can and should grow in Singapore.

    Going after short term gains in titles will only result in pain and regret followed by total rejection when failure sets in, which explains the high attrition rate of players here.

    Hasn't the last 25 years taught us anything?

  5. I have noted what you have said about chess clubs and once again have to beg to differ.

    I would like to point out to you a recent article that appeared in the Chess Daily News website of Susan Polgar where reference is made to chess clubs being formed in schools to increase the popularity of chess in the United States. The article goes on to say the chess clubs in schools have met with success and that plans are underway to increase the number of schools offering such chess clubs.

    That is precisely the situation i would like to see develop in Singapore. Chess has to be promoted in the schools in order to realise the potential of our chess-playing juniors. Let us not distract ourselves but focus on the issue of chess in schools. That is where the future lies.

  6. I think you should read a more serious report on chess in schools:

    which deals with finer details on the subject.

    I will leave it to readers to read this and infer for themselves if chess clubs for schools will yield the desired results without integrating it with adult involvement in terms of coaching, sparring and mentoring.