My afterthoughts on the recently concluded THOMSON CUP INTERNATIONAL tournament is focused on this topic.
It comes as no surprise that the majority of the 103 players in the Silver Section were children under the age of 14, many even below the age of 10. As parents of young children, they would naturally want the chess-playing experience of their kids to be pleasant and memorable. Hence it would be a traumatic episode should the child face someone bigger than his size or older, as the prospect of winning quickly evaporates with the daunting resignation written on their minds even before the first move is made. Hence there was surprise that there are a few adults milling in between the rows of schoolchildren, metaphorically seen as vultures or predators preying on the innocent young players and depriving them of a much desired prize.
My principle in hosting the THOMSON CUP tournament is firstly to uphold the sanctity of the rating. All chess players playing in a chess tournament should compete based on one matter - to determine for each of themselves HOW GOOD, not HOW OLD they are. Chess playing ability is measured by the rating, which is computed primarily on the performance of each chessplayer against another rated player and so long as the wins keep coming, the rating goes up. Of course if you fail to perform, your rating goes down rightfully. It is the fairest way of determining your chess-playing progress.
Giving prizes to children based on their age-group by pairing them within their categories may seemingly make the path to winning easier. Some say that it encourages them to play. However I maintain this is merely a placebo effect. The effect soon wears out when the winners of the respective category continually end up winning at every age-group tournament. The complacency sets in and they start believing that they are good enough (of course, beating those in their age-group).
When these winners start playing alongside someone rated higher, the security of the age-group pairing is taken away and you can see the apprehension and self-doubt emerge. They may not necessarily be worse players than the older or higher rated opponent, but somehow many psyched themselves to lose.
The whole purpose of this.tournament format is to help the young players overcome this fear and mental block. When the budding players taste victory after their harrowing encounter with a stronger player, it is a great feeling of achievement no prize can buy. The euphoric sensation will also lend confidence to the young budding player that he/she is capable of overcoming his/her own fears and respecting the notion that in chess, only the skill and ability of the player matters in bringing in the point once the nerves are taken care of.
In my youth, there was no concept of age-group pairing and therefore my generation of players only understand that what matters is your ability to find good moves on the chessboard to beat your opponent. There was never any notion of fear. In fact, we used to look forward to playing older players and if we lose, we will pester them to tell us how we lost. Many valuable lessons were learnt in discussing the game after it was over. Our determination to win the next time round made us tougher mentally to face the same opponent at the next tournament.
If the young chess community are to grow in terms of maturity of thought and mental strength, I feel it is high time that organisers have a change of direction. Let's bring back the old tournament format of pairing by rating. Let's wean off the practice of awarding age-group prizes. Many of course will give up once the trophies they used to win are gone, but I believe that those who stay the course will be the ones that will continue to love and play the game for years, like I. Perhaps we can revive the chess culture that we once had in the 70's and early 80's that the current generation of players never knew. Some returned after years of inaction and can still win! That speaks much of the depth of players in the past that the previous system produced.