Local chess international master (IM) Wei Ming GOH called a time-out on his career to play 4 tournaments in Europe this summer. He had previously achieved 2 grandmaster (GM) norms, and will require another 10-game GM norm (or 2 more GM norms under 10 games each) plus a bunch of FIDE rating points to become Singapore’s second local-born GM.

These tournaments were:

  1. XXXVII Open Internacional Villa de Benasque (6-15 July in Spain) – where he scored 6.5/10 with a performance rating of 2413, playing and losing to 2 GMs: Tamas Banusz (2600) and Eduardo Iturrizaga (2664).
  2. Xtracon Chess Open (22-30 July in Denmark) – where he scored 6.5/10 with a performance rating of 2388, playing and losing to eventual champion GM Baadur Jobava (2714) and GM Marin Bosiocic (2616).
  3. Riga Technical University Open (7-13 August in Latvia) – where he scored 5.5/9 with a performance rating of 2450, playing and losing to 2 GMs: Ilia Smirin (2634) and Alexei Shirov (2648).
  4. XIX Open Internacional d’escacs de Sants (18-27 August in Barcelona, Spain, starting right after the terrorist incident) – where he scored 7/10 with a performance rating of 2561, narrowly missing his last GM norm after a heartbreaking loss in the penultimate round. He played 6 GMs in this tournament: Aryan Tari (2591 – draw), Simen Agdestein (2604 – draw), Karen Grigoryan (2570 – draw), Vladimir Dobrov (2510 – draw), Jan Schroeder (2539 – loss), and Ruslan Pogorelov (2348 – won).
IM Wei Ming GOH at the chessboard in Barcelona. This photo and the one in the “featured image” were both kindly contributed by Wei Ming.

One should not take the final event as an outlier where he performed much better – in the other 3 events, he was still in the running until losses to the second GM or meeting too many lowly-rated players put paid to earlier efforts. Having followed his games over this period, and also having played a handful of training games against him (where he essentially wiped me off the board) in Singapore prior to his European trip, I found his opening preparation remarkably deep, but the level of play fluctuated significantly, especially in the first two tournaments. Only in the final tournament – after a close shave in the second round – did he exhibit consistent strength and pragmatic decision-making.

This is unsurprising. At his current age (34 years according to the FIDE site), it is quite a sacrifice to train hard and then take two months off work to play in these events. Because there are no equivalent events in Singapore where he might spar against strong GMs on a regular basis, it is also difficult to train and be at a high level of playing strength prior to and during the tournament series. Wei Ming’s commitment to the game is undeniable, and the almost Sisyphean effort to make his final GM norm is commendable, especially since there is no clear financial reward or prestige for making the GM title in Singapore. Why this is so has already been expounded on by top local chess coach Junior Tay as well as chess national master and historian Olimpiu Urcan (I would recommend his work with Dr Shashi Jayakumar on Singapore chess here). We have little in the way of “chess culture” – however it is defined – in Singapore, and chess is not a way out of poverty the way it is for many in certain less developed countries.

However, there are many chess enthusiasts in Singapore, and the game also seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance among young children (perhaps because their parents feel that the game is useful for them, although there does not seem to be a clear link between chess skill and cognitive development). Wei Ming is not the only – although he seems to be the oldest – local chess player gunning for the GM title, while there are others where the IM title may well be within reach. Perhaps something more can be done locally to help them achieve these aspirations that is less financially costly than repeated trips overseas to play in GM or IM norm events. The population of Norway is similar to Singapore’s (approximately 5.3 million vs. 5.7 million), but even before the emergence of world champion Magnus Carlsen, the country already boasts an impressive depth of chess playing strength, with multiple strong GMs and IMs playing in events around Europe and internationally.