Chess philanthropist Dato Tan has died

by Edwin Lam
10/21/2018 – It is with sadness that we relay news of the passing of Dato' Tan Chin Nam on Oct 21st 2018 at the age of 92. He was involved in supporting the development of chess in Malaysia as well as in many other countries across Asia. In remembrance of his contributions to chess as well as to many other areas (e.g. the restoration of the famous Queen's Victoria Building (QVB) in Sydney, the development of Mid Valley City (which is still today ranked the 8th largest shopping mall in the world), horse racing, etc, EDWIN LAM (pictured with Dato' in 2008) offers his 2006 article "Grand Maitre de Succes" published in Australian Chess magazine.

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I first got to know Dato' on December 6th 2003. The occasion: GM Yasser Seirawan's visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I had asked permission to interview Seirawan after his 30-board simultaneous display for an article I had promised to do for Hanon Russell's

Seirawan, Tan, Lam

After Seirawan had won the simul 29-1, he adjourned to dinner with Dato' and his chess friends. I had the pleasure of joining them, and I met Dato' for the first time [the trio, pictured at right]. We got along well and over the coming months, he asked for my help to publicise the inaugural edition of the Dato' Arthur Tan Malaysia Open and Malalysian Chess Festival, which was to be held in August 2004.

This year, the Dato' Arthur Tan Malaysia Open had entered into its 15th edition as part of the week-long, multi-tournament Malaysian Chess Festival. Hundreds of kids were playing in various tournaments throughout the week during this year's event in August. Dato's sustained financial and spiritual support helped the Malaysia Open and Malaysian Chess Festival grow and created an annual competitive platform for budding junior players to compete against foreign masters, in the hope of raising the level of chess in Malaysia and across the region. We are forever grateful to Dato' for his support of the game. He will be sorely missed by the chess community here in Malaysia and around the world.

Dato’ Tan Chin Nam: Grand Maître de succès

The Race that stops a nation!

Capablanca. Seirawan. Kamsky. Zhu Chen. What do all these four names have in common? No… no… I am not referring to the invincible Capablanca of the 1920s, or the world title contender Seirawan of the 1980s. Neither am I referring to the comeback kid Kamsky, nor the Chinese ex-Women’s World Chess Champion. Rather, these are names of horses.

Enter, Dato’ Tan Chin Nam, the Malaysian businessman and philanthropist.

Dato’ Tan loves chess, as much as he loves horse-racing. It seemed natural and distinctive to name his horses after chess figures, including such personal friends as Gufeld and Seirawan. “Linking the two pastimes has been enjoyable,” he pointed out in a recent interview with Australian Chess. He cannot recollect the first horse that he named after a player, but one of the early ones had to be Capablanca in 1992.

Aside from chess figures, he has also named a horse Catalan Opening. “Everyone thought of it as being an interesting name,” he added. But Catalan Opening is more than just an interesting name. Catalan Opening proved its championship material by winning the 1998 Doncaster Handicap and the Hong Kong Bowl.

Dato’ Tan is one of the biggest and most successful racehorse owners in the region. A veteran of the annual Spring Racing Carnival Down Under, Dato’ Tan’s associations with the Australian racing scene couldn’t have gotten off to a better start! His first horse in Australia — Think Big — took the Melbourne Cup on the first Tuesday of November 1974!

And, thereby began his partnership with Cups King, Bart Cummings. This partnership, which has lasted for more than three decades, has brought Dato’ Tan another two Melbourne Cups — the world’s most prestigious “two-mile” handicap — with Think Big in 1975 (second successive win) and Saintly, the handsome chestnut, in 1996. 

Having poured more than AUD$ 10 million into the racing industry in Australia, Dato’ Tan’s famed silks — black-and-white checks and yellow sleeves — have been carried by more than 200 winners since Think Big in 1974! “The track has been good to me,” Dato’ Tan wrote in his recently published memoir. His first bet at the racing track in 1948 ended in victory, the winnings of which would later form the seed of his investment in the founding of Wah Seong.

A Powerful Mind

Born on the 18th of March 1926, Dato’ Tan’s childhood days with his parents and eleven other siblings were spent in difficult times — firstly, because of the Great Depression beginning in 1929 and subsequently, because of that patch of bother known as World War II. He received his early education at the Chinese-medium Lai Meng School. He was subsequently enrolled at the Batu Road School, as it was then one of only three feeder schools for gaining entry to the Victoria Institution or V. I. It was at Batu Road School that he picked up the game of draughts and excelled in mathematics. In short, plotting strategies and calculating numbers — two signs of a future businessman. During these exciting days, he enjoyed bowls of his favorite ais kacang while also swimming and playing tops and marbles. The only unhappy aspect was school bullying. Dato’, as he is commonly called, had his Tom Brown moment, taking a beating from a far larger boy until the latter lacked the moral courage to continue.

But, days like these didn’t last too long, as he soon made it to the Victoria Institution. It was both a godsend in terms of career and a luxury back then to get an English education, since the school fees were high in Old Malaya. Dato’ Tan continued to excel in mathematics at V. I. But by 1941, having only completed standard seven, Dato’ Tan had to stop school and go to work because his family could no longer pay the school fees. And, thus began his first venture as an entrepreneur. The rest, as they say, is history.

Dato Tan

Dato’ Tan’s 80-year journey has taken him from modest Kamunting Street in Kuala Lumpur and the mad and bad days of WWII to such subsequent postwar milestones of success as the founding Wah Seong, his friendship with Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, his efforts in the development of the Como Hotel in Melbourne, Shangri-la Singapore and Mid Valley City Kuala Lumpur as well as the restoration of the Queen Victoria Building (QVB) and Capitol Theatre in Sydney.

Dato’s story is one of vision, perseverance, persistence and continuous learning, qualities that helped him to meet the challenges of his early years in business and to become who he is today. We see a powerful mind forever raising the bar of success in business. He has made success a moving target.

In addition to businesses ranging from an Internet venture to major property development, Dato’ Tan is also heavily involved in chess. His leadership of the Malaysian Chess Federation and Deputy-Presidency of FIDE underlined his involvement in chess administration at the highest levels. As he is a business person, who happens to be a chess official, Dato' Tan’s toughest task in chess has been to deal with a pastime in which everyone is a prima donna and the motto, Gens una sumus, is so often forgotten. In FIDE and in other chess organisations, he has often urged chess officials to forget about winning this or that battle and to take a longer view towards winning the war of promoting chess successfully. 

Enter the ‘Big Dragon’

The period of the 1970s and 1980s saw Dato’ Tan playing his most active role as a chess promoter and politician. It was not coincidental that the ‘Big Dragon Project’ was conceptualised at this time. Hatched during the 1st Asian Team Chess Championship on the island of Penang in December 1974, the ‘Big Dragon Project’ is aimed at advancing Asia on the world chess scene.

Aside from Dato’ Tan, the other conspirators included Dr. Lim Kok Ann, Florencio Campomanes and Yasuji Matsumoto. From pushing for the acceptance of the Chinese Chess Association as a member of FIDE to helping to sponsor two USA — China Chess Summit matches, Dato’ Tan’s efforts to breathe fire into the ‘Big Dragon Project’ are legendary.

I asked him, “When the Chinese Men’s team finished second behind Armenia in the Turin Chess Olympiad, would you rank it as among your greatest moments in chess?” He answered that although the silver medal of the Chinese men's team is a signal accomplishment, his greatest feeling of gratification for all his efforts in the ‘Big Dragon Project’ came when Xie Jun’s defeated Chiburdanidze to win the Women’s World Championship in 1991.

Xie Jun’s success ended a 41-year monopoly by the Soviet Union and a 64-year reign by European champions. The sense of helping out to alter the course of chess history is important to Dato' Tan. Xie Jun's victory, for which she of course gets full credit, meant a great deal to him.

A fair dinkum Aussie

There’s no doubt that Dato’s a fair dinkum Aussie! I mean, why not? He is the proud owner of two Melbourne Cup horses that together won the race three times and he has also been inducted into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame. He has many business investments in Australia — the earliest of which were some real estate ventures in the late 1960s. On a larger scale, he oversaw the rehabilitation and restoration of the QVB in Sydney, which prompted Pierre Cardin, no less, to describe it as the most beautiful shopping center in the world.

Queens Victoria Building in Sydney

Queens Victoria Building in Sydney

On the chess front, Dato’ Tan has been a great supporter and friend of Australian chess. In 1999, he sponsored the QVB Chess Festival that included the Saintly Cup GM event. Now, in 2006, he is providing joint sponsorship for the 2006 Myer Tan Australian Chess Grand Prix — in memory of Ken Myer and Arthur Tan. This year-long series of tournaments, besides being a memorial, is also aimed at promoting chess in Australia.

To sum it all up, he said, “Australia is pretty much like a second home to me, and I have as many good friends Down Under as I do here in Malaysia”.

Up Close and Personal

Dato’ Tan’s passions for chess and horse racing are well documented by journalists the world over. But little do they know that he is also a big fan of other competitive sports. He tries to catch major sporting events on TV, including the 2004 Athens Olympics and the recent World Cup. English Premier League matches are an ongoing favourite.

Dato’ is also an avid reader, who is always striving to learn about new things. Aside from getting the daily dose of news from around the world, his insatiable appetite for knowledge includes everything from Kasparov’s My Predecessor series to Gavin Menzies’ 1421: The Year China Discovered America.

“A chess game a day keeps the Alzheimer’s away,” which is often quoted by Dato’, is a paraphrase of the old saw about apples and doctors. Indeed, he walks the talk as he plays through and analyses the latest games from around the world every morning. I asked him who is his favorite world champion and why. Dato’ Tan favored Fischer. Fischer, he noted, brought chess to the entire world by putting it on the social landscape — an achievement that can be claimed by no other champion. As for the chess game that has made the deepest impression on him, Dato' Tan believes that Fischer's games still define top chess play.

Dato’ Tan’s infinite love for the game of chess (“eat, drink, talk and dream chess” is how family and friends describe his attachment) is legendary. Knowing that, I boldly put forth the question, “Having released your memoir, Never Say I Assume! in March this year, would you consider penning a book on your favorite subject, chess?” Dato’ Tan’s reply was succinct. "God willing," he said. Tongue-in-cheek, Dato’ Tan continued that as he is now an OBE (Over Bloody Eighty, that is!), one can make no promises. He notes that his life in chess is already well documented in a lengthy chapter in his memoir entitled “The Gymnasium of My Mind.”

Towards the end of the interview, I asked whether he has any advice for budding chess players. To which, he replied, “Three pieces of advice for those who go into chess. First, don't exult and pump your fist when you win. It is wrong and at the same time, it wastes energy, while motivating the opposition. Secondly, please keep cool and don't lose or loose your head like Zidane. It was said of Lasker that he occasionally lost a game but never lost his head. Thirdly, always stay humble and remember that the greatest players have blundered badly — so will YOU at some point.”

These are words of wisdom from a great man that are meant to be treasured by future generations of chess players. And so, I give you Dato’ Tan Chin Nam: philanthropist, businessman, racehorse owner and chess lover. He is indeed the grand master of success!

First published in the Sept 2006 edition of the Australian Chess magazine reproduced with kind permission.

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+ ( since end-2017.


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