On Coaching the Women Olympiad Team in Istanbul
The obviously facts are that while starting a lowly 83 ranked from 127 teams, the Malaysian Women Olympiad team finished 18 places better with 61st spot which was also good enough for third place in Group D and in doing so winning our first ever category prize.
It can also be easily seen that all members of the team improved their ratings while Li Ting has now joined Mi Yen and Najiha as Candidate Master (although candidate for the Master title is the better way to put it) and of course Camila is now, together with Nabila, also a FIDE Master.
Perhaps not all would have fully appreciated that after 10 rounds the team had 11 match points and so achieved a 50% score irregardless of the outcome of the last round which we are usually dependent upon, and that in 9 of the 11 matches they played teams higher ranked from which 4 were upset with 3 wins and a draw.
So all in all a good outing but could we have done better (or worst?) and where will we be two years from now? I think these are questions we need to ask now and as coach (and captain making decisions in consultation with other team officials) I will restrict myself to technical matters.
When I agreed - through Polgar Chess Asia - to sponsor the training of our Women Olympiad Team, I naturally had some reservations notwithstanding it was also an honour and privilege and so here I must thank the Malaysian Chess Federation for the opportunity.
The first reservation I had was that the team of Najiha, Nabila, Mi Yen, Li Ting and Camilia were very young and relatively raw even after taking into account that Nabila and Mi Yen had played in the previous Olympiad held in Khanty-Mansiysk and that four of the players, Najiha and Nabila, and to a slightly lesser extent Camila and Li Ting, all seemed to be playing chess all year around and that too included numerous international events.
Of course there was no question that this was the best team available so my second concern was that the team had no leader, that one player who could hold top board, and while it was the logical decision to play the current National Champion who is arguably our best player at the moment on top board, we all knew it was going to be tough on her and remember this was also her debut!
Training is usually divided broadly between general preparation - those lessons that over time provides the necessary knowledge and helps develops the player - and the more specific and individual preparation for sporting success at a particular competition or tournament.
Here my third and most serious reservation hit hard because our most experienced players Najiha and Nabila have a chess education based on just playing and playing with little differentiation between types of competitions and to be frank have shown almost no progress since I had a one month and probably around twice or so a week stint with them before the World Junior Championship in Chennai some two to three years ago.
Of the rest, veteran(?) Mi Yen, who at a young 20, is incredibly between 5-7 years older than the rest, but has hardly played in the last two years while Li Ting after winning the National Championship at 12 and so briefly threatened to be the dominent force among local women cannot be happy at her progress since then, while Camila who is starting to breakthrough and become a permanent member of our national teams was coming off a poor performance at a weak Asian Youth Championship.
I understood very quickly even without looking at too many of their games what the limitations of each player was, and while serious in many respects, we much also remember that the women game is only comparable to men amongst the top 20 (or perhaps the top 30?) teams.
Again let me remind the reader again that this was the strongest team we could have assembled and then to add that everyone gave their very best, the team spirit was excellent and it is clear all the girls have talent and excellent prospects if all concerned (parents, child, etc.) are prepared to do what it takes and that has always been any real trainer's challenge with their pupils!
We tried very hard to organise 10 days training before the Olympiad but with the realities of the fasting month, that finally worked out to between 3-5 days and unfortunately only 3 of the 5 players in the team could attend. But in any case it would have taken easily a year if not two to properly put in place the foundation from which to target a successful outing for such an event like the Olympiad.
Our approach then had to be to try and find a way to get the players the positions (good or bad!) that they could reasonably play while plugging (as best we could) the huge gaps in their opening knowledge.
In doing the first I think we were largely successful and in the second I think it really helped that a framework of sorts in the form of a basic reference opening repertoire for each of those attending had been put in place at the very short 3-5 day pre tournament camp but generally it had to be hit and miss and so it was!
From the very first day we tried to make the players responsible for their results - reminding them all credit for success was theirs alone but that the flip side was that they had to be prepared to own any failure and this showed its best side after six rounds of play when the team's selection from then on until near the end was largely driven by giving four of the five players every chance for individual honours.
The girls can be proud of their effort and all in all a commendable result but they should also ask if this is enough or if instead they want to be up there competing with and even beating the professionals or semi-professionals from Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines, whom each as they are ranked today would represent one successive and ever bigger step up.
Of course the answer is that we can - but only if we want enough to really do as opposed to dream or talk - and that is the question Malaysia asks of itself all too often nowadays as money with these girls does not seem to be a problem!
If I had these five girls to work with seriously (giving proper training, planning systematic exposure in competition, etc.), ideally under the umbrella of a national training and development scheme, by the Tromso Olympiad in Norway we could be fighting for top 30 and most of the grils would be WIMs and maybe even one would already be an WGM. And they would not need to be semi-professional like their many young friends from our ASEAN neighbours, instead needing just to be as hungry for success as the fourth placed players in the Indian team surely are!