He started off by taking on 'uncles'. Now, Singapore's Chinese chess champion eyes success at SEA Games
SINGAPORE: As a child, one of Alvin Woo's frequent haunts was a Ghim Moh senior citizens' corner near his home.
There he would hone his skills in xiangqi (Chinese chess), take on all comers and build his confidence.
"I was quite regular. It was not only me, there were quite a lot of other students that would go there," he told CNA, ahead of the 31st SEA Games in Hanoi, where Chinese chess is making its debut.
"They were always open (to us playing). Unless you beat them too many times, if you did that then they wouldn’t want to play with you!"
More than just winning or losing, these friendly matches helped him to boost his self-belief.
He explained: "That grew my passion. Because if you keep losing, you will feel sian (bored) after a while."
Woo, 38, will be one of four players in action for Team Singapore starting from Saturday (May 14) and he will feature in both the individual and rapid team events at the Games.
A REALITY CHECK
Woo's interest in xiangqi started when he was about seven.
"I was influenced by my father. He started playing with my (older) brother, and then I was just observing and subsequently I got interested," he said.
"I was always into Chinese culture … Last time we didn't have all these things like iPhones, you have less things to play with. And it seemed to appeal more to me than computer games, and then my parents thought that it was better than playing (those) games."
Encouraged by his parents to pursue this interest, he would play with anybody and everybody.
"Last time there was no reliance on the Internet so ... you just have to find someone that is maybe slightly better than you (to challenge)," he said.
There were also clubs which would host annual competitions. And at the age of 13, Woo would take part in his first one, where he faced off against adults.
"That didn't work out well, I was nowhere," he said. "It just gave me some reality to know that there are actually people that are very good."
Then a year later, he would get his second reality check after participating at a national youth level competition, where he finished 13th.
"A lot of younger players were much better than me," he said.
"Once you keep winning, you think you are very good. And then you get to play with the much stronger players in Singapore. And then you realise that ... those who play competitively are much stronger than those 'outside'".
But the competitive fire was lit.
"After you lose, you will try to find somebody you can beat to win again. So that builds your confidence, and you don't get demoralised," he explained.
A "DUTY" TO THE SPORT
Woo would go on to represent Singapore for the first time in 2006. Coincidentally, the Asian Xiangqi Championships - a team competition - was also held in Vietnam.
"(During that) first time I was definitely more nervous, but subsequently you get used to it," he said.
"I had gone overseas for smaller competitions before but this was a more recognised event."
Woo would perform well in the event, playing six games - winning five and drawing one.
A year later, he would win his first national title, the first of eight he has won.
Preparation for major tournaments means spending hours analysing phases of the game such as the opening, mid-game and end-game. Woo looks at the position of pieces on the board and then thinks about what he would do in this particular situation.
"Basically, it is like a math question. I give you a math question, you look at it for ten minutes. Can you solve the question? If you solve the question, there will be a working," he said.
"After that, you refer to the answer to see if it is correct. If it is wrong, why? Or is my answer better?”
YouTube is also another resource that Woo utilises during his match preparation.
"We look at competitors' recent games, we go through them and we try to spot mistakes they have made ... Hopefully during our actual games we are able to capitalise on those mistakes," he said.
One of the skills needed to be a good Chinese chess player is good judgement, noted Woo.
"That comes with practice with the right people," he added.
Given how thorough preparation is, it can be mentally taxing, noted Woo. It has also meant giving up time with family and friends. And while he has experienced much success, there have been times where he has felt like calling it a day.
"Xiangqi is just like any other sport, you have to maintain your particular form," said Woo who also competed at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou.
"There were definitely times where I thought I would stop because it is very time-consuming to maintain (my standards) at a certain level."
But at the same time, he feels that he also bound by duty.
"I think people are not aware of this community (of players that play Chinese chess competitively). When you see people playing xiangqi, it's in the parks (or elsewhere), so you can't erase off that perception," added Woo.
"At the end of the day, I feel that I have a duty to try to promote the game because I have played this game for so long."
It is a sport he believes can be picked up by anyone, as long as they put effort into it.
Said Woo: "Anybody can pick it up. It's just a matter of the right method of training and whether they want to actually train. I believe anybody can do well in it, it is just about the commitment."
At the Games, Woo believes that a medal is not out of the question. While he believes Vietnam are the favourites, Singapore and Malaysia can duke it out for silver and bronze.
He added: "I feel that we have a chance to get into the top three, or even the gold. That's why I've really pushed myself to as much as I can."
And if Woo and his team succeeds, Singaporeans will no longer only see the sport played in parks, but showcased on the SEA Games podium for the very first time.