SINGAPORE: White pawn e4, black pawn e5, white’s bishop to c4.
It is one of the most common opening sequences for chess, but even after one move, I could already feel my focus slipping away. Pressured by the endless ticking of the clock and the otherwise oppressive silence in the office, I grabbed the nearest piece and moved it.
“Interesting,” I heard him say.
It was the first of four games I would play with the Singapore Chess Federation president Christopher Lim, on the sidelines of the 72nd National Chess Championships, which started on Dec 4 and continues until Dec 20.
Of course, I lost all four games. But while I expected to lose - and embarrassingly at that - what struck me the most was Mr Lim's confidence and speed in responding to me.
While I took minutes to think, he already seemed to anticipate my every move, illustrating the vast distance between a casual and serious player.
The first day of the nationals started at 7pm. As I entered the Federation headquarters on that Friday night, I immediately noticed the small and slightly cluttered space. Having expected to find myself in a large hall with rows and rows of tables and chess boards, I was taken aback to learn that the headquarters, with its seven small training rooms, would be where Singapore’s best chess players gathered to battle for the championship.
It was nothing like the elaborate set ups in The Queen’s Gambit either.
The Netflix limited series, which follows the rise of a young chess prodigy, has become a global phenomenon following its Oct 23 release. According to figures released by Netflix, it was number one in Singapore for over a week, and remained in the top 10 for four weeks.
Meanwhile, Google search queries in Singapore for "chess" have jumped nearly threefold since Oct 24, while the queries for “play chess online” increased by 180 per cent.
But while its setting was modest compared to the show, the players in the National Chess Championships were no less serious - or intense. I very quickly learned that I should not speak or loiter too much, unless I wanted to be at the receiving end of some dirty looks.
Instead, I flitted from room to room, each separated by a thin partition wall, four to six players hunched over chess boards in each room. The women and men played separately, like most standard chess tournaments.
Only about 20 players compete in the nationals. “Only the cream of the crop, the best players will play,” said Mr Lim.
The event is conducted Swiss tournament-style, where players will play nine rounds with no eliminations. The players with the highest number of points at the end of the tournament will win.
Each person gets 90 minutes of play, with an additional 30 seconds added to their time after each move, starting from the first. This could effectively wind up in a five-hour match between players, Federation general secretary John Wong warned me.
I could believe it. As I watched the players consider their next moves with furrowed brows, each move seemed to take an inordinate amount of consideration. Occasionally, I would hear the thud of a piece being moved, then pens clicking as the players wrote down their moves, but other than that, the headquarters was suspended in a heavy, taut silence.
This would stretch on for a few more hours, as the players played the first of nine rounds.
“PERCEIVABLE INTEREST” IN CHESS
While there has been a “perceivable interest” in chess since the release of the Netflix show, Mr Wong said that it was hard to quantify or definitively attribute it to The Queen’s Gambit.
“I can’t (credit) it to The Queen’s Gambit, because it can also jolly well be that the parents are not travelling this holiday because of COVID and they just wanted their kids to do something,” he said.
However, he noted that the number of parents having their children assessed at the Federation has “doubled” in the recent weeks. Prospective chess learners need to have their chess level assessed for them to be placed in the appropriate class.
Even though class sizes have been cut from 12 to six students this year because of COVID-19 safe management measures, Mr Wong has seen a turnout of about 70 children, as compared to 20 to 30 children in previous years.
General manager of Chess Academy Philip Chan has also noticed a 15 to 20 per cent increase in the number of young children enrolling for chess over the past month, although he believes this could be due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Chess Academy provides enrichment chess classes mostly to young children. It also sells chess equipment and chess training software.
Adults, however, have been purchasing chess sets instead of enrolling for classes, said Mr Chan, with sales of chess sets going up by 15 to 20 per cent. “A few have indicated that The Queen’s Gambit has somewhat piqued their renewed interest.”
He added: “Quite a number when purchasing chess sets from our academy have excitedly shared that they love the series, and it has renewed their interest in chess. These comments largely have been expressed by foreigners working in Singapore not local Singaporeans.”
Mr Wong too noted around a 10 per cent increased in sales of chess sets.
BECOMING A GRANDMASTER BY 16?
One young promising player is Ashton Chia, 12. When I met him at the Federation’s headquarters for the interview, he was in the office playing a game.
He was not scheduled for training, his mother told me. He decided to practice his chess as they had arrived earlier than we had arranged. Even as we spoke, Ashton was focused and precise, with the seriousness of a budding grandmaster.
He started playing chess when he was seven and half, during the June holidays in Primary One, he said.
“My cousin brought a chess board over to my grandma’s house. Then I lost to him - it was during the June holidays - so I asked my mum to sign me up or some classes,” he said.
Although his initial goal was to beat his cousin, he developed an interest after taking classes. As the chess club in his school did not take in Primary One students, he had to write in to ask them to let him join.
While he took part in two local competitions, the real “eye-opener” was his first overseas tournament in Bangkok, Thailand. His family entered the tournament and travelled to Thailand on their own, to give Ashton the experience.
“I wanted to experience other countries’ (chess tournaments), play with new people, because Singapore’s quite small. Once you play one tournament you basically know almost everyone in your age group already,” he said.
“But when I went there, I played with people from countries I didn’t even know. So it was fun to play there with a lot of different people.”
While he initially played two hours of chess a day in the first two years, he has upped this to three hours on school days, and five to six hours during the term breaks. Even up till the day of his Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE), he was still playing three to four hours a day, his mother recalled with a laugh.
When asked what his ambitions regarding chess were, he said he wanted to become a grandmaster by 16 and ultimately dreams of being one of the top 100 chess players in the world. But he acknowledged that he is “quite far” from becoming a grandmaster.
A check on the International Chess Federation’s website showed that Singapore has four Grandmasters - all men - and one Woman Grandmaster. Grandmaster is the highest title a chess player can attain and can be held by anyone. The Woman Grandmaster is a separate title that can only be held by a woman.
But for now, Ashton has a more modest ambition. He just hopes to help his secondary school - still undetermined - to win at the next inter-schools chess tournament, “because ACS (Anglo-Chinese School) always wins”, he said.
“THE MORE I LOSE, THE MORE I ACTUALLY WANTED TO WIN BACK”
Singapore's Woman Grandmaster is Ms Gong Qianyun, 35, who is also Singapore's first SEA Games champion in the discipline. She currently teaches chess as her day job.
She always had an affinity for chess, she said in a phone interview, becoming champion of her age group in her first ever competition. She started as a seven-year-old, in a small city in Guangdong, China, called Lechang.
Starting to play chess was “quite random”, she said. “One day the teachers went to the classes to look for people who might be interested in chess, so they just picked me. Just that I didn’t know anything about chess. I think they just went to choose random people.”
But that started Ms Gong 27-year career in chess, which spans her time in the Guangdong chess team and the Chinese national team, where she represented the country at the World Team Chess Championship in Beersheba, Israel in 2005. They were the only women's team at that tournament, she said, and they played with the men.
Just like Beth Harmon, the protagonist of The Queen’s Gambit, what caught her attention at first - and kept her going - was the heady feeling of winning.
“What I like the most may be the capturing part. Taking the pieces, winning the pieces. I like winning pieces,” she said with a laugh, adding, “The more I lose, the more I actually wanted to win back.”
She left the Chinese teams in 2007, after a string of defeats destroyed her confidence, and she found her way to Hong Kong, where she taught chess for two years. Then she moved again to Singapore, which is now her permanent base.
CHESS AS AN “EQUALISER” BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN
While a show about a young chess prodigy, The Queen’s Gambit also addresses the different attitudes towards male and female players, with Beth Harmon experiencing prejudice and sexism as she makes her way to the top of the chess world.
While Ms Gong has never felt handicapped by her gender, Mr Wong said that the show might have encouraged more women to pick up chess.
As chess is separated into men and women categories, it might give the impression that women are "less equal" in chess. But the show paints chess as an "equaliser" between the genders, he said.
In fact, the TV series might have encouraged more women to pick up chess. Mr Wong recalled a 30-year-old woman coming by to the Federation wanting to learn the game.
“We were quite surprised, because most of the people who come to learn chess at the beginners’ level are either kids … young ones about four-and-half, five-years-old … But here comes a 30-year-old lady walking in and said, I would like to join your class and learn about chess.”
When asked, she cited The Queen’s Gambit as an inspiration for her to learn the game.
“I guess she drew inspiration from the fact that perhaps, it doesn’t really matter what’s your background, in that sense, because the thing about chess is essentially how you take to the game.
“So there is not a question of how rich or poor you are, or what form of background you come from, and eventually the game is now perceived as a great equaliser.”