IM Giam Choo Kwee (1942-2018) - Fearless Tactician, Respected Organizer and Trainer

IM Giam Choo Kwee (1942-2018) - Fearless Tactician, Respected Organizer and Trainer

CM juniortay
Aug 16, 2018, 9:50 AM |

The game was way past its 4th hour at the 1995 Asian Teams Championships and there were only a handful of people left in the NUS tournament hall. The Singapore 2 and Malaysian representatives on board 4 were right smack into a drawish-looking ending. There was much pride at stake for the locals as we were down 1-2 against our neighbours and 53 year old IM Giam Choo Kwee kept the pressure on against young Malaysian student Abdul Haq.


After the win, I congratulated 'Giam' on winning the difficult ending and earning Singapore the draw. He acknowledged that Haq had played well and he had to keep pressing with the hope that the teenager would make mistakes in exhaustion- -which came to past. This was Giam past his prime, he was deadly in the 70s, a still powerful force in the 80s (I recall reading about him him playing in an open event held in London 1980 where he tied for 8th with the likes of  future GMs John Nunn, Keith Arkell, Borjan Kurajica, Tony Kosten and Glenn Flear) but yet he rescued the Singapore team en-route to a bronze medal Board prize a decade later.

This was not his first Asian Teams Board prize. In the inaugural event in Penang 1974, he inspired the Singapore team to  a stunning 3-1 upset of India (we were like out-rated close to 100 pts on average) with this swift crush of IM Ravisekhar on board 2. The following game showed the typical Giam style, his favourite Closed Sicilian, giving up his bishop for knight to establish the Giam Knights, sacrificing material merrily and whipping up an irresistible kingside attack.

Giam won the Board 2 silver medal eventually. When Giam was poised to play a typical pawn or piece sacrifice, he would let out a sigh as in bidding goodbye to the offered chess-bit and then fold his arms and observe stoically as his opponents decide whether it is a legit sac or a scam. In casual games, he would punctuate the move with the refrain "Scared?!...scared don't play chess!" If there's anything to describe his play, it is fearless and swashbuckling.

One particular memorable win was in a National Championships against Mark Tan Keng Yew, a top junior then who reached SCF 2100 way before his peers. He offered the b2-pawn yet again and even spent a tempo to lock up the bishop which nabbed it before launching a slow motion kingside attack during which Giam gave up his entire queenside. And what was the piece responsible for the Black's king's denouement?  The Giam knight of course. And like the Ravisekhar game, a rook sacrifice ended the proceedings.

Giam could also pull off some fine finesses from unexpected angles. Take this position against Iranian IM Harandi. 


Giam had just slid his rook from a8-d8. What is the point of this mysterious rook move, putting the dude onto a closed d-file?

Let Prof Lim Kok Ann, who annotated this game in the Straits Times explain it to us.

By today's standards, Giam  (a naval architect by profession) could be considered a relatively late starter in chess but half a century ago, he became a top contender rather swiftly. In 1960 (when he was already 18), he was placed in the Class 1 Category of the Malayan Championships  whereas the Championship Category was contested by the likes of Hickey and Fontana. Soon, he became a regular tourney topper. By 1962, he had already finished 3rd in the National Championships.  Giam won the National Champion title in 1972 and 1973. He also represented Singapore in 4 Olympiads and 2 Asian Zonals and was the 2nd Singaporean to make the IM title  (1975) after Tan Lian Ann. Among his prestigious wins were the 1980 Singapore International Festival title and the 1971 and 1975 Pesta Sukan Championships.

Giam also aided Prof Lim in running SCF events, assuming many portfolios including the VP post, especially in organizing events and taking charge of youth development, most pertinently after Prof took up FIDE postings.

GM Wong Meng Kong recalled helping Giam with events in Cairnhill, Siglap and Kampong Kapur CCs in the late 60s and early 70s, carrying tables and chairs. Those were the days of pairings done by hand, and instead of lists, tournament bulletins with tables and schedules were prepared before the events for all participants. 

When Terence Wong achieved Singapore's greatest junior feat up to date in finishing 2nd in the 1975 World Cadets, he gave total credit to his coach IM Giam, stating "I owe it all to my coach, Mr Giam Choo Kwee, whose encouragement, advice and help have made all these possible" (Straits Times, Aug 7 1975).  Prof Lim also reported that two years after Giam chaired the SCF junior players' training, the members started to sweep awards at national competitions. Giam however commented that the standards were up to his expectations, clearly not wanting them to be easily contented.

In 1992, Giam served as the women's team captain for the Manila Olympiad squad, and he was also their regular sparring partner, playing simultaneous matches against them. My wife (girlfriend then) recalled him organising the sessions at the Serangoon Gardens Country Club where excellent finger food was served amidst the intensive training. At the Olympiad, in the final round, Singapore was paired once again with Malaysia. Giam was confident enough of his wards' ability to make a bet with Dato Tan Chin Nam that the unrated Singapore team would hold their own against the Malaysian ladies who had a WIM and 2 players rated above 2000 in their fold. Dato decided to give Giam draw odds and the 1.5-1.5 result thus decided the bet in the latter's favour. He shared his winnings with the team members gladly.

One of the first chess clubs I joined after learning chess in the mid 80s was River Valley CC and it was run by Giam. Apart from casual blitz games, he organized simul exhibitions with GMs Gufeld and Taimanov for club members to challenge, formed teams to compete in National Interclubs and my favourite was his 20+ player River Valley league event where any member could play each other once in a long time control game during the course of the year and there was no requirement to complete all the games. This ensured a steady pool and mix of players ranging from  SCF/ELO 1500 to 2300. I liked that format very much and used it for the Balestier League event two years ago.

Giam spent more time in Malaysia than his homeland in the past two decades. The tributes and accolades from our neighbours flowed freely after news of his demise spread. In particular, the chess players from Johor remembered him fondly and consider him a significant figure in Johor's chess development.  NM Mohd Kamal Abdullah noted ' I have lots of fond memories of him in my early chess playing years. He helped in many ways to develop chess in Johor Bahru'.

Giam competed way into his 70s, playing regularly against the top juniors in the HPE league, seniors' events at ASEAN Age group and Malaysian Open Senior tourneys. His favourite joke was that the kids had wisened up, often waiting for him to doze off on the board before playing their moves.  In recent years, he even helped out in the Sports Hub and Tanglin Club's chess outreach to encourage youngsters and the curious to play chess. 

My last face-to-face contact with him was in June at the SG City event where he was following the progress of those he mentored. He often spoke fondly of the kids, especially those who played fearlessly for wins. He spent an hour going through my slides for the QCD-LKA opening ceremony and helped me to add/edit/correct the details. These were details that I could only have gotten from one who had shared the chess-ventures of the Prof Lim era and the least I could do was to accord him the credit of helping with source material.


He did ask of a favour, that was to help locate the game score of his 1969 Singapore Asian Zonal Round 10 game against the late GM Walter Browne. That was the only one missing from his collection of international matches. I was glad to be able to dig it up and email it to him...and he followed up by asking what I thought of what happened during the game. It was a game he had lost and he was still interested in analyzing it after nearly half a century later!  IM Giam is clearly Mr Chess through and through.  IM Kevin Goh had related on his FB post  "Giam had a hyper attacking style, loved the Closed Sicilian (and his knights!) and played strong and aggressive blitz. A couple of years ago, we had a mini blitz session and he beat me convincingly in one game, completely taking me by surprise. After the game, he kept saying that he was lucky but it was quite apparent that he was delighted with his play, and that he still clearly loved the game". Significantly, Ignatius Leong considered Mr Giam his 'First Mentor', the one  who inspired him into chess organisation. 

On 13 August 2018, Mr Giam passed away. He had chest pains and fainted before the ambulance could arrive. His orbituary can be read here.

Here are some recent photos of IM Giam, kindly provided by Esther Koh (the first two) and (the back two).