Asean Para Games: Vision unclear but Tan sees the logic on chess-board

While Edwin Tan is visually impaired, he has learnt how to strategise and make the right moves. He has been training thrice a week for the Asean Para Games and is more excited than nervous about competing.
While Edwin Tan is visually impaired, he has learnt how to strategise and make the right moves. He has been training thrice a week for the Asean Para Games and is more excited than nervous about competing.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

The problem-solving, Chinese music-listening, Saturday-running, logic-using young man gently shuffles his way into a small room at Temasek Polytechnic. He bumps into a chair, he collapses his walking stick, he sits down, he takes his time. Of course he does, Edwin Tan is a chess player.

The legendary world champion, Garry Kasparov, once explained chess "as a language" and it is spoken slowly. It is a game of hunching and staring, deducing and contemplating, planning and conspiring. Then when you make your move, you wait for your opponent. It is a game not designed for the impatient. But it is a game Tan enjoys even if he sees life and the chess board as somewhat of a blur.

As a boy in Primary 6, a routine check-up discovered he had retinitis pigmentosa, which causes retinal degeneration and a slow decline in sight. Now his glasses are thick, his vision limited, but his memory impressive.

Chess is played with 32 pieces over 64 squares and involves - so goes the old and unconfirmed claim - more possible moves in a game than stars in the universe. Certainly players can remember positions from 20 years ago but Tan, 21, must remember the board as the game unfolds. "Thirty per cent is looking (at the board)", he explains, "70 is memory."

Some severely visually impaired players compete on a board where the black squares are slightly raised so that they can feel their way through the sport. But Tan uses a normal board. "I can see the pieces a bit," he says "and I will ask you to tell me your move if I can't see."




    MEN: Edwin Tan, Michael Siong, Giam Choo Kwee, James Lim, Naren Lee Sankar.

    WOMEN: Lee Yuan Pin.

    LAST APG: Singapore have never won a chess medal.

    ABOUT THE SPORT: With a history dating back to the 6th century, chess is one of the world's most popular games and has been part of the APG since the 2003 edition in Vietnam.

    CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM: Split into those with visual (from B1 to B3, the least impaired) and physical impairments.

A teacher at school in Secondary 3 sparked his interest in the game and Tan is now intrigued by the challenges of chess.

He pauses, as chess players must, and then talks fondly about "the strategies to win". People, he says, "stop you from winning and so the challenge is to come out with a plan. You have to use a lot of logic".

No one at his home plays chess and he does not, as chess players do, peruse books or flick through games on a computer. For a young man, his learning is old school. "I learn the hard way," he says. "I lose and learn. I ask the person why I lose." Among the things he has learnt: "Don't give people pieces for nothing."

In blue jeans and blue T-shirt, the son of a taxi driver is making slow, quiet moves. He competed recently in a tournament, the National Disability League, and when asked where he finished, he says "third". Then, his smile spreading as slowly as treacle, he adds: "There were only four people."

Tan meets life as gently as a chess piece pushed forward. He goes running with a guide on many Saturdays at the Runninghour Cooperative. He treats sport as an act of leisure, an activity to "relax my mind a bit", but at the Asean Para Games he will learn to be a competitor. Asked if he is nervous, he prefers to state he is "more excited".

Like his sport itself, Tan's life is about finding solutions. In some ways, his vision restricts him and yet this is the perfect game for him. For it has been said that "there are more adventures on a chess-board than on all the seas of the world".

He has been training thrice a week and soon he will perform in front of his parents. Chess is not the most riveting spectator sport for it is the most unhurried of interrogations, but Tan will not care. He will sit quietly and wait patiently for an error from an opponent.

In a game rumoured to be 1,500 years old and in a sport where Singapore has never won a medal, a debutant knows it takes time to forge a new history.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 26, 2015, with the headline 'Vision unclear but Tan sees the logic on chess-board'. Subscribe