The popularity of chess in the UAE is gaining steam, as evidenced by the scene at the World Youth Chess Championships in Al Ain, writes Ali Khaled.
Chess making rapid moves in UAE
Judging by the level of enthusiasm at the World Youth Chess Championships in Al Ain, the game has a bright future
The parents could barely disguise their nerves. Their children, on the other hand, were merely restless.
It is 10 minutes before the start of the sixth round of the World Youth Chess Championships 2013 in Al Ain, and the countdown has begun.
“Nine minutes left,” says a voice over the tannoy. “Parents, please take your pictures now.”
Soon, all family, friends and coaches will be ushered out of the hall.
“Don’t cause a scene,” a twitchy wife says to her husband. “You’ll only make him more nervous.”
A little girl memorises moves from a playbook. Time runs out.
The UAE University hall is imposing enough; 900 chess boards for 1,800 contestants, across six age groups, from 120 countries around the world.
For most, like Nastassja Matus of the United States, it is the biggest competition in which they have taken part.
“She started playing when she was six and then took part in tournaments when she was close to seven,” father Aleh Matus, an American of Russian origin, says as the action gets under way. “Initially I played with her, but after that she joined chess clubs and was trained by coaches.”
It goes without saying, the younger they start, the better they are.
“I could see right away that she had talent,” Matus said of his daughter’s first competitive matches in the US. “In the first few tournaments she was struggling, but then very quickly she started winning school competitions.”
Everywhere you looked, there was a different nationality, a different language.
“There are more than 4,000 people present: players, management, coaches and parents,” said Nasser Al Amri, the tournament’s general director. “It’s the first time that a tournament this size has been hosted in the UAE or the Middle East, and this is something we are very proud of.”
The kaleidoscope of nationalities raises certain communication issues, certainly for the likes of eight-year-old Matus.
“This is a very different experience for her, primarily because there are so many different cultures involved,” her father says. “So even if you offer a draw, sometimes the opponent doesn’t understand what you are saying.”
Still, once the action starts, the children seem to be all right, and Matus credits the organisers for their efforts.
“Getting this many kids together from all these different countries is amazing,” Matus said. “Nastassja’s in the Under 8s, so for us it’s the first world championship. The first few games she was a little nervous, but once she settled down she was OK. She speaks English and Russian, so that helped.”
Other children, like Priya Sawant of India, are almost veterans by comparison.
“I play chess for a hobby, and I noticed that she started to play a little bit. I encouraged her to join local tournaments and she started doing very well,” Dharmanand Sawant said of his now 13-year-old daughter. “She’s been playing chess for the last six and a half years, and last year she won a bronze medal in Slovenia.”
Now in the U14 category, she has continued to excel in Al Ain.
“She’s playing in her fourth World Championship, and already she has four points out of five,” he said. “I hope she’ll turn professional one day.”
Al Amri is in no doubt that this competition will prove a breeding ground for future stars.
“The players here are of international standards. These are champions in the making,” he said.
Of particular interest are the Emirati contestants.
“There are about 200 Emirati boys and girls, and we have faith that these players will become champions,” he said. “Chess is not a new game here. We’ve had champions before like Saeed Ahmed Saeed [World U14 champion, 1979], and there are others who have achieved other successes.”
Ibrahim Sultan has been the pick of the Emiratis, drawing his U16 sixth-round match with Tuan Minh Tran of Vietnam to accumulate four points, one behind the leaders.
Chess may not be as popular as team sports in the UAE, but Al Amri believes that its biggest selling point is it accessibility. Age, size and gender are no barrier.
“This game does not require physical skills like football or volleyball,” Al Amri adds. “It’s about thinking and attaining high levels of concentration.”
Across the Emirates, Nasir is convinced that chess clubs are on the right path.
“There are chess clubs all over the country, in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Dubai and Ajman,” he said. “Some are stronger than others. For example, Al Ain Club has organised international events in the past, Abu Dhabi Club held the last Arab Championship, and Sharjah is one of the biggest clubs in the world.”
This event, though, is the largest by some distance and could significantly raise chess’s popularity in the country.
“There are many kids who come and watch these tournaments,” Al Amri says. “And then they fall in love with chess.”
If these competitions continue to attract talent like Ibrahim, Nastassja and Priya from around the world, they’ll need bigger halls, too.
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