Game of chess is king for these children

In a sign of a chess revival in Singapore, 1,087 schoolchildren took part in the National Schools Individual Chess Championships in March, a 20 per cent increase from last year.
In a sign of a chess revival in Singapore, 1,087 schoolchildren took part in the National Schools Individual Chess Championships in March, a 20 per cent increase from last year.PHOTO: COURTESY OF ESTHER KOH
"Chess mums" (from left) Aarti Agarwal and Esther Koh, international chess master Giam Choo Kwee, SCF president Leonard Lau and "chess dad" Chan Wei Hsien at the Sports Hub Library. The efforts of chess enthusiasts and parents are drawing new young p
"Chess mums" (from left) Aarti Agarwal and Esther Koh, international chess master Giam Choo Kwee, SCF president Leonard Lau and "chess dad" Chan Wei Hsien at the Sports Hub Library. The efforts of chess enthusiasts and parents are drawing new young players to the game.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Efforts of a group of enthusiastic parents here helping to fuel new interest in game

So eager is Dixon Tang to play chess at the Sports Hub Library every Sunday that the 10-year-old makes sure he finishes all his homework by Saturday.

"He insists on going," said his mother, Madam Tiffany How, 41, a teacher. "Even during the exam period, he doesn't want to take a break."

Dixon is part of an informal chess club that plays at the Sports Hub Library in Kallang on Sundays.

It is the work of a group of enthusiastic chess parents, who started out last June with eight children playing in the cramped office of one mother, Madam Esther Koh, 41, a business development manager.

Today, the group has over 100 members on messaging service WhatsApp, with about 30 to 40 players turning up for sessions, which are held from 2pm to 5pm in a room in the Sports Hub Library. The room is provided free of charge.

The players are mostly primary schoolchildren but there are always a few parents around for them to spar with. International master Giam Choo Kwee, 74, a Singaporean, often attends the sessions.

Among the organisers is fund manager Chan Wei Hsien, 44, who represented Penang in chess tournaments in his youth, and now coaches his daughters, Amanda, 11, and Alicia, nine.

He said: "These sessions provide something that has been sorely lacking in the Singapore chess scene. They get children playing the game for fun, not just in lessons and competitions."

They are also a way to draw new young players to the game in a friendly and relaxed way.

Jayden Soh, eight, is one example. While shopping at Kallang Wave mall, he decided to visit the nearby bicycle museum with his mother.

They happened to step into the Sports Hub Library next door and he ended up learning how to play his first game of chess.

Madhav Agarwal, nine, is another young player - he comes from a chess-loving family and started playing at the tender age of two.

Although Madhav already takes lessons from a private coach, he loves the casual Sunday sessions at the Sports Hub Library so much that his mother, Mrs Aarti Agarwal, 37, the managing director of a sales and marketing firm, approached community clubs in the western part of Singapore - where they live - to provide free space for a chess group.

Her efforts paid off when Nanyang Community Club in Jurong West launched a chess club last month.

Another "chess mum", Madam Goh Boon Cheng, 43, an office manager, helped organise a two-day chess trip to Batam in March.

Many of the 17 Singapore players, who were aged between five and 12, were taking part in their first "overseas competition" when they took on their Batam counterparts.

Madam Koh, whose three children - Brandon, nine, Bernadette, seven, and Beatrice, five - all play the game, said Singapore is seeing a chess revival.

Indeed, 1,087 schoolchildren took part in this year's National Schools Individual Chess Championships in March. This was a 20 per cent increase from last year's 903.

This was despite the tournament being held during the school term this year, instead of the holidays. The number of schools taking part - from primary to junior college - also rose to 146, from 111 previously.

Singapore Chess Federation (SCF) president Leonard Lau, 46, who recommended the Kallang venue to the chess parents, said it helps when organisations such as the Singapore Sports Hub embrace chess as a sport.

He also lauded the support and engagement of the parent community and said he wants to build on it.

Apart from helping parents find free playing space and providing them with chess sets and clocks on loan, SCF coaches will be going to several schools in the next few months to introduce chess and teach the basics of the game to large groups of teachers.

It will be one way to get schools interested not just in chess as a co-curricular activity but also as a good teaching and learning tool, said Mr Lau.

Given the growing numbers of students attending its courses, SCF also wants more training space and coaches.

And, after a successful stint at last year's Asean Para Games in Singapore - when the SCF organised children volunteers to help visually impaired players - it is now planning to train a Singapore squad for next year's Para Games in Kuala Lumpur.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 09, 2016, with the headline 'Game of chess is king for these children'. Print Edition | Subscribe