Chess: Kevin Goh becomes Singapore's first grandmaster in 21 years

Kevin Goh was driven by the will to prove that an amateur like him could achieve it. PHOTO: KEVIN GOH WEI MING/FACEBOOK

SINGAPORE - Thirteen years after chess player Kevin Goh began his journey to reach the pinnacle of the game, his efforts finally came to fruition this month, when he became Singapore's first male grandmaster in over two decades.

Only three Singaporeans have previously been named grandmaster by the International Chess Federation (Fide). It is the highest title a chess player can attain.

China-born duo Wu Shaobin and Zhang Zhong earned the title in 1998, before they became citizens, while Wong Meng Kong achieved the feat in 1999.

Goh, 36, told The Straits Times on Friday (April 10) he was driven by the will to prove that an amateur like him - he juggles a career as the chief financial officer of oncology company Lucence - could achieve it.

Out of about 1,700 players who attained grandmaster status, Goh estimates that only 20, including him, do not train full-time.

"The obstacles and hurdles you have to overcome before you get to grandmaster are extremely difficult... it's hard to put into words," he said.

"At one point of time, I was stuck at (the second-highest rank of) international master, and the gap was so big I thought I might never get to grandmaster."

To be a grandmaster, an international master must attain a high performance ranking at three events with at least three grandmaster opponents from the chess federations of three different countries, called "norms".

He must also reach 2,500 in the Elo ranking, the chess ranking system, which Goh did when he climbed to 2,501 on March 3 after defeating top Myanmar player Wynn Zaw Htun.

He had attained the rank of international master in 2007, and got his first two norms in 2011 and 2012.

But Goh took a year-long break from competitive chess in 2013 to focus on his career, a move he called a "huge mistake" to his grandmaster ambitions.

He lost momentum, and spent "lots of money and time taking leave from work" to travel the world competing in tournaments in search of the third norm and ranking points.

Goh recalled "painful moments" of coming close, only to choke, even breaking down in tears after one loss in Hungary.

Despite the setbacks, the seven-time national champion and three-time SEA Games bronze medallist kept plugging away and won his earned his third norm in June 2018. The ranking points earned from his recent win in Myanmar meant he fulfilled all the requirements, and he was officially recognised as a grandmaster by Fide on April 1.

Even though he has made history, Goh was modest about his achievements, considering himself "very normal... not much smarter than anybody else".

He also expressed his gratitude to his backers and supporters, like Ang Hao Yao, Mark Choong, cyber protection company Acronis, local charity the Trailblazer Foundation, and the NTU Alumni.

He wants to help guide up-and-coming local players climb the international rankings.

"If the Singapore Chess Federation are able to identify young, talented players, I would be very pleased if I could play a part in helping them grow," he said.

"I've made many mistakes over the years, and I feel I would be able to share my experience and give advice to them."

Chris Lim, president of Singapore Chess Federation said: "We have not had a home-grown chess grandmaster this century and Kevin has shown through his perseverance that even in an academically-oriented Singapore, you can still excel in sports.

"His attainment of the highest title in chess will be an inspiration to our younger players."

Goh is also hoping to use the attention from his newly-attained grandmaster status to help those whose livelihoods have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and plans to launch a #ChessAgainstCovid charity drive that will involve online events and programmes.

"The goal is to rally enough support from within the chess community and from friends and corporate sponsors to raise $100,000 for needy families to help them weather the storm," said Goh.

"Ultimately if I can do my part to achieve that goal, my grandmaster title will be even more special."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.