24 August 2014

Final Words on Malaysia@Tromso

It is already a week since the Malaysian team returned from Tromso. I started blogging on Tromso with a preview just before the start of Round 1 three weeks ago now. My reviews and analyses, at first on the overall team performance and then on the individual performances have been published, and I have nothing much to add on the analytical side. So this will be my final article on the Malaysian team at the Tromso Olympiad.

The fine performance of the 2014 team has brought me good feelings. Yet at the same time, submerged frustrations from the stagnant Malaysian chess development, rose to the top. If only MCF had competent management in the past, we could be cheering a Malaysian team fighting for a Top 50 place. Anyhow, I am happy for the opportunity to get off my chest some things that have been eating at me for a long time.

The lead-up to the Tromso Olympiad had its controversies over the selection of the team. The final team however was one where the rights of the players to represent Malaysia cannot be reasonably questioned. There were no better qualified players available. I was and am happy with the final team.

Pre-tournament preparation was non-existent except for perhaps Aron's foray in Europe. The other members did not play a single classical event for some 3 months. Yee Weng was busy with his work and then on an obligatory family matter. Yit San had his accounting exams to prepare and then a lack of funds preclude playing in any meaningful events. Sumant and Fadzil had their internship and regular work respectively.

I must admit that I was concerned before Round 1.  With four rookies in the team, I did not know what to think. The bright spark I had was to use past Malaysian performances to set a performance target, which I duly published in my preview. 96th rank was the minimum target. I dreaded the thought of the team finishing below that. My proselytizing days would certainly be over if that had happened.

The First Four Rounds and Criticism
It was all doom and gloom after a poor first four rounds. Malaysian was languishing at 129th place and the knives were out with two prominent Malaysian chess personalities hitting at the team on the internet. I could not do anything to counter the criticism as I was really busy at work that first week with a series of meetings, lectures and deadlines to meet.

Breathing Space and Turning Point
The Round 5 4-0 win over Saudi Arabia team was a breather. The team at Tromso was concerned so much so that Yee Weng put himself in to play. Saudi Arabia was a match-up which usually would have been left to the other players to earn an easy point each. But the team could not afford any risk at all of a slip-up. The rest day after round 5 was a relief.

Round 6 was a good 3.5-0.5 win against Namibia and it was the weekend already. Finally I had the time to write and do my bit to cheer the team on. Still Namibia was a match Malaysia was expected to win. Nevertheless, Malaysia was suddenly up at 92nd place. Two big wins in a row did wonders on Malaysia's tie-break scores.

I see the the 4-0 win over Nigeria as a turning point. Nigeria's no. 107 seeding was just below Malaysia's and thus considered to be a team of about equal strength. 4-0 was thus a big win and the team stated to have a confidence about it and morale was high.

An Excellent Win but Knives Still Out
Round 8 opponents, Pakistan,  was a different kettle of fish as its lowly seeding disguised the actual strength of the team. Jimmy's evaluation of the Pakistan team before the game was as follows:

'The Pakistanis are seeded 159, but this is due to their having three unrated players and they are not weak. On paper it looks like Malaysia have another chance to win their fifth match but the opponents cannot be under-estimated."

It turned out to be a great 3-1 win with all the Malaysian players playing their part. Jimmy's comment after the win was:

"Malaysia had another good round beating a weak Pakistan 3-1,.."

Jimmy contradicted himself and appears to be promoting the view that any team that loses to this Malaysian team must be weak although Malaysia clearly played very well.  Is this how he supports out national team? Well, this Pakistan team finished at 92nd place so we know that it is not weak by Malaysian standards.

A Malaysian team member commented that there are really some sour people out there. The criticisms have lessened but the team was still largely fighting on its own with hardly any cheering on the internet except for this blog.

Outstanding Draws and the Final Round
The Rounds 9 and 10 draws against the much higher rated Tajikistan and Switzerland were the results that finally settled it for the team. They have finally arrived. No doubts about that. The cheering started and the whole country was behind the team. The Malaysian team at Tromso single-handedly pulled the whole country to support them with their impressive 6-match unbeaten streak. The belief is finally there.

It transpired that Malaysia had a high-profile match-up with home team Norway in the final round. The well-wishes flooded in and the Malaysian chess community was excited. However, it was not to be. Norway, with an all-GM line-up even without its world champion Board 1, was a step too high for this young Malaysian team. The pressure and nervousness were too much, the young inexperienced Malaysians could not cope and did not perform to their normal level. Nevertheless, the experience gained will definitely help them in the future. An experience that was denied a few generations of Malaysian chess talents.

Hopefully this excellent young Malaysian team has turned the tide for Malaysian chess and we get to cheer stronger properly selected Malaysian teams at future Olympiads fighting for a Top 50 place. 

A Note of Appreciation to the Players
The Malaysian players have been great and worked well as a team. Yee Weng was a very able leader of the team. He maintained a great atmosphere which kept the team together and spirits up when the chips were down. Sumant helped a lot especially with his exemplary attitude when asked to take on the role of reserve. It is not an easy feeling to sit out matches. Aron was a stable Board 2. And Yit San and Fadzil proved that they can play much stronger than their ratings suggest, which should raise the confidence of other 2100+ rated Malaysians.

I salute this 2014 Malaysian team and its members for bringing joy to the Malaysian chess community, giving Malaysian chess fans a reason to cheer, and for a fine mission accomplished.