How I became Singapore's top chess player - a tribute to Grandmaster Zhang Zhong
Well, on the December 2017 rating list at least. I had always been hovering around the 2nd or 3rd spot for as long as I can remember and I've never really cared about topping the list because 1) the GM title matters a lot more and 2) there was never a realistic chance of that happening anyway.
Unfortunately, I was greeted recently with the news that Grandmaster Zhang Zhong and his wife International Master Li Ruofan, who were the Republic's undisputed best male and female players for the last decade have decided, in the wake of recent controversies, to switch their federations back to their homeland China.
Being teammates with both Zhang and Li in recent years, I found this recent event particularly difficult to accept and there is of course no reason to celebrate at all. (Please forgive the slightly narcissistic title of this article - its supposed to serve as click bait. I honestly don't care much about local ranking given how low Singapore is ranked as a chess nation). As a teammate and a friend of Zhang, I have nothing but only the highest compliments for him in terms of everything that you can say about a person: a complete role model as a chess player, a chess trainer and as a person.
There's a truckload of insanely absurd nonsense said about elite players in this country, from those who have no chess playing ability and have never played competitive chess. This article is meant to recognise my personal opinion of Zhang Zhong's contributions to Singapore chess and I hope that after reading this, readers will realise just how one-sided and absurd these allegations are.
My first meaningful experience with Zhang happened during the Asian Continental in 2010. I had the black pieces in what appeared to me like an extremely harmless and quiet Semi-Slav Meran:
During the game, I had thought that Black's position was completely fine due to White's isolated Queen's pawn and the fact that the blockading d5 square was under lock and key. A few moves later, we arrived at the following position:
Clearly, White has seized the initiative and went on to win after a few ups and downs during the game. I was bewildered as I didn't think I did anything particularly wrong but after the game, Zhang had this to say:
"This is an old system that I play from time to time and I guessed that you might not be familiar with it due to your lack of experience. The point of this elaborate manoeuvre Nc3-b1-d2-c4 is precisely to allow you to put a pretty knight on d5 but if you look carefully, its scope is fairly limited. The d7-knight is also rather misplaced and would be better on the c6 square and White's over-protection of the e5 square was more important than the d5 square. Also, White has a little more space and hence it makes sense to avoid exchanges. In the game, your pieces started to step on each other's toes and it became awkward for you to defend an attack on the kingside."
I find simple comments like this extremely insightful not just from a positional perspective, but also from a psychological point of view. Zhang Zhong knew that his understanding of chess was far superior and hence it was much more practical not to enter into mainstream theory and instead go for a line where he could display that superior understanding. At the time of the play, Zhang's elo was 2603 but despite being a full-time coach and becoming a father of 2, his rating would eventually grow to 2650 as we shall soon see.
In 2012, we were teammates at the Asian Nations Cup in Zao Zhuang. Back then, we were tasked with the mission of finishing in the top 6, a challenging target given the presence of several much stronger teams in the tournament. In round 2, we were paired with India which had a formidable line-up of Grandmasters P Harikrishna, K Sasikiran, A Gupta, P Negi and G.N. Gopal. At the time of play, Zhang Zhong had not played any tournament chess for a long time and he was tasked with the job of holding the 2720-rated Krishnan Sasikiran with the Black pieces. He had to suffer a little but eventually managed to hold a relatively comfortable draw:
After the game, I commented that the number of ugly moves he made was truly amazing and he replied with a laugh that he agrees, but "Black's position is very solid and he couldn't do a thing!".
The rest of the tournament would follow in the same vein. Zhang's rustiness was clearly evident and he often obtained inferior positions from the opening. However, he would always dig deep and display his extremely combative fighting spirit from difficult positions. Here are a couple of other examples from the tournament:
This was a truly remarkable save. After the game, Zhang told me that he was of course perfectly aware that he had a losing position but there was no harm in making his opponent find one more move. Just keep fighting, and who knows what will happen?
4 years down the road, we were paired with Kazakhstan at the Baku Olympiad and Zhang was once again paired with Rinat Jumabayev but this time with the White pieces. I reminded Zhang of this game and how Rinat tortured him for hours. He laughed and said "this time I'm White, and I will make him suffer!" He went on to win a great game and Singapore managed to win a glorious match....
Team Singapore at the Baku Olympiad: From L-R: IM Li Ruofan, GM Zhang Zhong, IM GWMK, WIM Gong Qianyun
Zhang Zhong is highly skilled at the game but what sets him apart in my opinion is his fighting qualities and resilience. He often told me that if he felt he had a better position, he is afraid of no one and will try to win regardless of his opponent. In the penultimate round of the Asian Nations Cup in 2012, we were paired with a super strong Chinese team. That team had Wang Hao, Wang Yue, Li Chao, Ding Liren and Yu Yangyi, an insanely strong team which eventually finished the tournament as convincing winners. Before the round, Zhang briefed us and he said "Ok, obviously our opponents are very strong. I will try to play solidly against Wang Yue and maybe make a draw, and the rest of you, prepare and just fight hard!"
Zhang Zhong played an extremely solid line against Wang Yue's Petroff Defence and a draw seemed to be on the cards. At one moment, he looked over to my board and saw that I was somehow winning in my game against Li Chao. A few moves later, Wang Yue sighed and offered a draw, knowing that the position was dead equal and that a player of Zhang Zhong's class was never going to slip up. To his (and my) utter bewilderment, Zhang calmly made a move, and played on! He even declined a repetition at some point and started taking some risks in the pursuit of victory.
The game ended in a draw anyway but not before some scary moments. I asked him "What were you thinking? Why didn't you stick to the game plan?" He chuckled and replied "I saw that you were winning so I decided to play for the win. If I win, we draw 2-2 with China! Singapore's best result ever!"
Zhang Zhong's performance at the 2015 Qatar Masters. The Singaporean put up a great show and had Sergey Karjakin on the ropes before succumbing during the time scramble
Zhang did the same against Polish superstar Radoslaw Wojtaszek when he took some risks from a equal-ish position in a bid to help the Singapore team hold the mighty Polish to a 2-2 draw at the Baku Olympiad. Unfortunately, it back-fired this time....
Zhang Zhong was a full-time trainer before he came to Singapore and he had a popular chess academy which he managed together with Ruo Fan. He was at one moment, National Coach when he was working in Singapore. I worked with him for a while and he will always advise me to focus more on chess analysis rather than opening preparation. I don't know if anyone else benefited from working with him but I believe our top junior Tin Jingyao became an International Master while Zhang Zhong was coaching the now defunct Dream Team.
During the 2014 Olympiad, our captain then, IM Leslie Leow insisted that we hold a team post-mortem analysis after every round. Despite the great disparity in strength, he would always enthusiastically analyse with us and was always generous in sharing his insights.
Zhang Zhong's love for the game of chess and the pride he takes in representing the Republic cannot be disputed. One has to remember that being a self-employed chess trainer, any time that he takes to play for the country means that he has to forego any income during the tournament period. The guy has represented China in several Olympiads and World Cups in the past which means he is not really desperate to play in these events. Yet, he is always enthusiastic while playing for Singapore, despite the fact that the rest of us are much less proficient in the game than he is.
He once told me that he deems it his responsibility to do his absolute best to bring honor to Singapore chess. Sadly, it now looks like that is not going to happen anytime soon.
Singapore chess has been mired in controversies for as long as I can remember. Many often like to blame the insane amount of politics in the chess scene but I sometimes wonder whether there is a bigger problem in hand. While we admire the master classes and brilliant games that Zhang Zhong brings to us, we often look away when our top players were not treated in an equitable manner. Is this because perhaps we simply do not wish to be involved in matters that do not concern us? Or is it the simple fact that we simply do not appreciate or respect world-class talent?
In an age where ambitious federations recruit and sign up world-class talent at the very first chance they get, why is Singapore allowing elite athletes with full citizenship and impeccable expertise drift away when such assets are so chronically needed? To become world-class, we really have to start recognising and respecting world-class.
I think it is time that the local chess community take a long and hard look at ourselves.
While I am saddened that I will no longer have the honor and privilege to play alongside Zhang Zhong and Ruofan, can anyone really fault them for making principled decisions and for choosing to fight for their rights?