A tribute to the ‘friend of Penang chess’

by Edwin Lam
12/5/2018 – The 10th edition of the Penang International Chess Open has just kicked off in the Malaysian state of Penang. EDWIN LAM pays tribute to Dato’ Tan Chin Nam, a key instigator of the tournament, who died in October. | Pictured: Dato’ seen here having a game of chess against FM Ignatius Leong. Next to them were FM Geoffrey Borg playing Black against WIM Li Ruofan at the 2007 Malaysia Open | Photo: Edwin Lam

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“Ideas shape the course of history” — John Maynard Keynes

As the tenth edition of the Penang International Chess Open has just begun, it is apt to recall how this tournament started in the first place. About a decade ago, an idea was put forward sprung from the great minds of the then President of the Penang Chess Association (PCA), Mr Lee Ewe Ghee, and chess philanthropist, Dato’ Tan Chin Nam.

Madam See Swee Sie, the current President of the PCA, recalls, “We wanted this event to be a catalyst for chess development in Penang. More importantly, Dato’ Tan and Mr Lee wanted this to be a sustainable effort that chess players can look forward to year-after-year.”

Dato’ Tan, who passed away recently at the age of 92, was a man of action. Whenever he had an idea, he would share it with like-minded individuals and thereafter assemble a team of doers to bring it to life.

I had once asked Dato’ Tan in 2004 on how he selected key people for a certain task or project. He told me, “I rely on my sixth sense.” As it turned out throughout the last fifteen years that I have known him, his sixth sense often proved correct in whatever projects that I have had the chance to witness.

As with all his ideas — from the ‘Big Dragon’ project to the construction of Mid Valley City and subsequently, the Arthur Tan Malaysia Open and Penang International Open — Dato’ would always assist to germinate and grow the idea in its initial stage. He would lend his weight — be it in the form of hands-on leadership, a network of corporate and chess friends, spiritual support, thoughts and certainly without fail, financial backing to at least get the initial phase started.

press conference

Dato’ Tan in a press conference in 2005, flanked by the Malaysian Minister of Tourism, Datuk Leo Michael Toyad (left) and Olympic Council of Malaysia’s Secretary, Sieh Kok Chi (right)

Dato’ leveraged his corporate and governmental networks extensively to ramp up the promotion of chess. This led to the entry of corporate sponsors, Astro and Chevrolet, into chess.

He also generously donated money to chess in the past four-and-a-half decades. In his memoir Never Say I Assume, Dato’ wrote:

Over the years, I have donated more than US$ 3 million to chess promotion, ranging from sponsoring major international tournaments, featuring the glitterati of world chess, to spending a steady $100,000 a year over a couple of decades to support chess development in Malaysia.

financial support

Financial support from Dato’ (seen here giving a cheque of financial support for chess in 2005) helped turn the Arthur Tan Malaysia Open into a premier chess open event in this region

A friend of Penang chess

In 1974, Dato’ Tan became the first President of the Malaysian Chess Federation (MCF). One of Dato’ Tan’s most important engagements in his first year as President of the MCF was to host chess officials and players at the 1st Asian Team Chess Championship in Penang in December 1974!

Through this event as well as other MCF engagements, he befriended many Penang chess players and officials including 20-year old player and student, Quah Seng Sun. Quah was involved in the inaugural meeting of the MCF besides also representing Malaysia at the Asian Team Championship. He would later become a chess columnist for The Star and an International Arbiter (IA).

IA Quah, who published a personal account of his 44-year friendship with Dato’ Tan, recalled the following, “Around end-1975, Dato’ Tan was involved together with Dato’ Low Hooi Siah in financially supporting the PCA’s efforts to host and run the 2nd Malaysian Chess Individual Championship.”

From that day onwards, Dato’ Tan wasn’t just a friend to chess players and officials in Penang, he also became a ‘friend of Penang chess’. 

As a ‘friend of Penang chess’, Dato’ Tan continued to support various efforts to promote chess there. Besides giving financial backing, Dato’ Tan was also generous with opportunities. “In 1979, two Penangites, Tan Bian Huat and I, were amongst representatives from across Malaysia that travelled on a Goodwill Trip to China to play friendly matches against the Chinese,” added IA Quah. 

Tan with Quah Seng Sun

IA Quah Seng Sun with Dato’ Tan during Dato’ Tan’s 82nd birthday in March 2008 | Photo: Edwin Lam

Penang’s shining stars

Penang became the inaugural winner of Malaysia’s 1st National Team Championship in 1979. They were represented by the talents of Jimmy Liew, Chuah Heng Meng, Fong Foo Khun, Goh Yoon Wah and Ooi Gim Ewe in the team. In the 70s and 80s, talented Penangite, Jimmy Liew, received the support of Dato’ Tan to compete in various international tournaments across the region. Jimmy achieved the three IM norms needed to become Malaysia’s first-ever International Master (IM).

Jimmy Liew and Audrey Wong

IM Jimmy Liew (standing, left) together with Dato’ Tan and WIM Audrey Wong at Dato’s 82nd birthday celebration | Photo: Edwin Lam

In the same year of 1979, the state of Penang also had the honour of representing Malaysia (together with Kuala Lumpur) at the 1st Asian Cities Chess Championship in Hong Kong.

Fifteen-year-old Eric Cheah was one of those selected to represent Penang. The then-teenager Eric had achieved a strong finish of fourth place at the previous year’s 5th National Chess Championship ahead of Tan Bian Huat, Ramli Bahari and Hu Yu Kuang. It was also in the same tournament that Eric first met Dato’ Tan.

Eric would continue to rise and rise in the next decade. At the 1990 Novi Sad Olympiad, he represented Malaysia on Board 1. He scored 5½ points out of 11 rounds, with an Elo performance of 2305.

At the 1992 Manila Olympiad, he again played Board 1 and scored 7 points out of 13.

Dato Dan with Anatoly Karpov Eric Cheah Manila Olympiad 1992

(Left) Dato’ Tan with GM Anatoly Karpov at the Zonal in 1990 | Photo: Eric Cheah
(Right) Eric Cheah playing against IM El Taher of Egypt at the 1992 Manila Olympiad | Photo: Hamid Majid

GM Eduard Gufeld, the coach of the Malaysian team in Manila, accompanied Eric to discuss an idea with Dato’ Tan. The idea then was for Dato’ Tan to sponsor Eric to play full-time. “I was already practising law then but was willing to put it aside temporarily to compete full-time,” recalled Eric.

After verifying Eric’s talent with GM Gufeld, Dato’ Tan agreed to sponsor Eric without hesitation. “He laid out his terms and even said that when I finish my chess stint in 2 to 3 years’ time, I could even join his son-in-law’s law firm in Kuala Lumpur,” Eric said. Dato’ Tan was always willing to support young talents to help them reach their fullest potential.

Eric went back to Penang and discussed this temporary career switch idea with his parents, but they did not look favourably upon it. Being a filial son, he gave in and never took up Dato’s offer.

Continuous support throughout the years

Eric agreed that Dato’ was the most outstanding supporter of Malaysian chess in the last four-and-a-half decades. “I’d say that in his quest for talented players who’d fulfil the Malaysian dream of having our very first Grandmaster, Dato’ looked everywhere and perhaps nowhere as closely as Penang with the likes of IM Jimmy Liew, NM Jonathan Chuah and many others,” opined Eric.  

From the late 1970s through to the new millennium, Dato’ continued promoting chess in Penang with the hope of unearthing and nurturing new talents. Of significant mention were his support for the Penang International Tournament in 1978, the 5th Asian Cities Chess Tournament in 1984 and the Wah Seong IM Invitational tournament in the year 2000.

“The Wah Seong IM Invitational tournament, of which I was the Organising Chairman, provided a good platform for talented local players in Penang, such as NM Jonathan Chuah, Ng Tze Han and NM Ronnie Lim Chuin Hoong to compete against foreign chess masters such as GM Ardiansyah, IM Liu Wenzhe and others,” said IA Quah.   

Fast forward to 2008

When Dato’ Tan and Mr. Lee first discussed the idea of having an international chess open in Penang, I am sure Dato’ had observed how the first five editions of the Malaysia Open had helped promote chess across the Greater Kuala Lumpur area. It thus made sense to have a similar chess open in Penang. The idea became a reality on the 10th of June 2009.  

With a total prize fund of Ringgit Malaysia (RM) 12,500 (~US$ 3k), the PCA managed to attract GM Gerhard Schebler as the top seed of the 1st Penang International Chess Open. He was joined in the tournament by Malaysians, IM Mas Hafizulhilmi and FM (now, IM) Mok Tze Meng. Talented Penangites, Loo Swee Leong, Tan Khai Boon and NM Ronnie Lim Chuin Hoong also joined the fray. IM Mok emerged as the first Champion of the Penang International Open with 8 points out of 9 rounds.

Richard Bitoon and Ngugen van Huy

GM Richard Bitoon of the Philippines and IM Ngugen Van Huy of Vietnam

Over the last ten years, Dato’ Tan would provide financial support to the tournament, via Wah Seong. Throughout this time too, many foreign chess masters — from GMs Dmitri Komarov, Richard Bitoon, Nguyen Duc Hoa, Alex Fominyh, Bong Villamayor, Karen Grigoryan and Neelotpal Das together with formidable IMs like Oliver Dimakilling, Nguyen Van Huy, Ratnakaran, Yeoh Li Tian and many others — graced the Penang International Open as well as the adjacent events of the enlarged chess festival: The Festival Blitz and the Wah Seong Penang Chess League.

Nguyen Duc Hoa and Oliver Dimakilling

GM Nguyen Duc Hoa and IM Oliver Dimakilling — regulars of the Penang Open

Madam See said that, “Each year, we would do our best to attract foreign chess masters to come and play in the Penang Open so that our local and young budding talents could pit their wits against them.” Malaysia’s current top player, IM Yeoh Li Tian who played in 7 out of the previous 9 editions of the Penang Open had benefitted from it.

“The yearly Penang and IGB Dato’ Arthur Tan Malaysia Opens became important training grounds for IM Yeoh. It helped germinate and grow his talents, resulting in his first GM norm at the Zone 3.3 Championships 2017 in Tagaytay City in the Philippines,” added Eric. With his latest FIDE rating at a high of 2508, it will not be long before IM Yeoh becomes Malaysia’s first Grandmaster.  

A decade later

2018 is the year of the 10th anniversary of the Penang International Chess Open.

"We, at the PCA, are forever grateful to Dato’ for his never-ending support for Penang chess. His contributions, directly or indirectly, had helped popularised chess throughout the state. The idea to have a Penang International Open was perhaps his biggest gift to us. We will dearly miss this ‘friend of Penang chess’. May he rest in peace,” concluded Madam See.

Dato's wake

A message of condolence from the PCA and friends of chess in Penang | Photo: IA Quah Seng Sun 


Edwin Lam Choong Wai is a Malaysian chess player and author. He was previously attached to Procter & Gamble doing local, regional and global marketing roles, before joining Pfizer, Essilor and Yeo’s in both Malaysia and Singapore. He had also previously been attached to The Purpose Group, a creative and digital marketing agency in Ho Chi Minh City. He is now based in Malaysia having started an education venture known as My SKOLA+ (http://myskolaplus.com) since end-2017.


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