Taken from The Star newspaper column by Mr Quah Seng Sun. (Friday February 22, 2008)
Chess by Quah Seng Sun
DO YOU know that in the early 1990s – I believe it could be sometime between 1992 and 1994 – there was a Chess Palace in Malaysia?
Well, it was not exactly a palace in the real sense of the word, but a bungalow off Jalan Semarak in Kuala Lumpur that had been converted into a chess centre and used for tournaments and coaching sessions to chess players.
The place has since been torn down for redevelopment but that double-storey building was a very popular place for chess activities.
I was at the Chess Palace in 1993 during one of the visits by the late grandmaster Eduard Gufeld to the country. The Malaysian Chess Federation had organised a big simultaneous chess exhibition and lots of children were running all over the place.
Mas Hafizulhelmi is now working to become the first Malaysian Grandmaster.
One particular kid did not join in the fun. Maybe he wanted to but I don’t really know. Anyway, he took his place at one of the tables in Gufeld’s simultaneous games. That was when Mas Hafizulhelmi first caught Gufeld’s eye.
Gufeld was a chess trainer and he had a knack for recognising talent. After playing with then 12-year-old Mas Hafizul, Gufeld said that the boy had the potential to become Malaysia’s first grandmaster (GM).
So far, 15 years after that encounter with Gufeld and despite progressing well in the game, Mas Hafizul has yet to fulfil his full potential with chess taking a backseat to his studies.
Nevertheless, he is already an international master. For a long while, he was even the highest rated Malaysian player in the World Chess Federation’s international rating list.
Professionally, he is a chemical engineer with Petronas, having returned from the Loughborough University in England with a degree in chemical engineering. But right now, with the blessings of his employers, he is five months into an 18-month quest which would hopefully turn him from a GM-hopeful into a real one.
“I’ve had this ambition to play chess really well since I was 10 years old,” he told me once. “Chess fascinates me like no other game and the fact that there are no grandmasters in Malaysia gives me the impetus to be our first grandmaster.”
During his formative years, he had plenty of opportunities to play with many foreign GMs and international masters. His early results against them made him understand that this aim could be within his reach.
Also, Mas Hafizul was fortunate to have a very supportive father who encouraged him to play as often as he could. I remember the numerous conversations I had with Cikgu Rahman as he tried to rationalise his son’s chess progress, comparing Mas Hafizul’s standard with other junior chess players of his age from around the world.
“My father actually wanted me to take a one-year break after my SPM examinations to pursue my ambition but Tan Sri Sabbaruddin Chik, who was the Malaysian Chess Federation president at that time, advised him to let me complete my studies first,” Mas Hafizul said.
He enrolled in a local college and later obtained a Petronas scholarship to study in Britain.
But chess was never out of his blood. While at Loughborough, he played on first board for the university chess team. He also continued to represent the country in several international chess events, notably the SEA Games in Vietnam in 2003 and the Philippines in 2005.
Since starting this quest, he has already played in five international events in this region, starting with the second Asian Indoor Games championship in Macau last October in which he finished with the bronze medal in the standard chess event. He also helped the team to an overall fourth place in the team event. In addition, he is slated to undergo several training programmes with Australia’s GM Ian Rogers.
Last December, he played in the Commonwealth chess championship in Delhi and finished 40th out of 282 competitors from the Commonwealth countries and also in the Singapore masters tournament where he was placed in 21st position among 44 players.
He then took part in the Indonesian leg of the Asean masters chess circuit in Tarakan last month and earlier this month, returned from the Fajr open chess tournament in Uromieh, Iran.
Mas Hafizul will probably not be the first person to tell you that chess is all hard work but it is especially harder when there is a target to achieve at the end of his 18-month programme. He does have the talent to succeed and there will always be ups and downs in any chess player’s playing career.
Still, there are 13 more months for him to prove himself and ample opportunities for him to improve. As Malaysians, we are cheering him on and rooting for him to get the results he wants.