CHESS: CHECKMATED IN PAKISTAN

January 06, 2019

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The game in dire straits
The game in dire straits

After being the national chess champion for 12 continuous years in 2010, Mahmood Lodhi of Pakistan was hopeful of achieving the grandmaster title. “My rating has been getting better and better with time. I was ranked 2,475 in the world in 1993-4, which was then the highest ever for Pakistan,” he had said in an interview with Dawn back then.

After the World Chess Olympiad held that year his rating points had also risen to 2,400. “Mind you, it’s always a big thing to end up around 2,500,” he had explained, going on to say that he was looking forward to becoming a grandmaster or GM, as they are called in chess lingo. To be a GM, you need rating points above 2,500. “I hope to reach that level within a year,” he had said then. That was nine years ago and Pakistan still doesn’t have a chess grandmaster.

First introduced as a competitive international sport in the late 19th century, the game of chess gained global popularity in the second decade of the 20th century with the formation of the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE). Since then, FIDE has served both as the international and regional governing body of chess, managing regional and national federations and organising competitive tournaments and titles such as the World Chess Championship, the Women’s World Chess Championship, World Senior and Junior Chess Championships and the World Chess Olympiad. FIDE also holds a place in the International Olympic Committee.

Despite a great deal of interest in the game of chess in the country and despite playing competitive chess since the 1950s, Pakistan has not produced a single grandmaster. As usual the game’s management is to blame

Pakistan entered into the arena of competitive chess in the 1950s alongside India. Bangladesh and Afghanistan joined years later. But today, Pakistan stands alongside Afghanistan, far behind India and Bangladesh. It does not have a single player of the highest title of grandmaster, and takes pride only in one strong over-2,400 rating points range International Master (IM) and two FIDE masters, who are rated slightly below that level. Meanwhile, India has earned a remarkable name in the history of the game, with over 43 grandmasters and four world champions of different levels. Even Bangladesh has had five grandmasters over a very short span of participation in international competition.  

Pakistan’s chess history, on the other hand, is characterised by mere occasional local and delayed national championships, featuring an average turnout of players. The handful of players that participate in these tournaments choose to play chess not because of any incentive or as a matter of prestige, but for their personal love for the game. Chess is the most marginalised sport here, with even social taboos attached to it.

The hierarchy of chess in Pakistan is based on a national federation along with four provincial federations. The national body was created in 1957 but it has failed to earn a significant position in international chess. The federation has not yet sent any player or team to participate in any regional or international competition due to a lack of resources. What’s causing this failure includes, but is not limited to, the tussle for positions among members of the administration, poor management and the absence of funds needed to adequately and effectively promote the game.

A few years ago, something positive happened as a gold medal was secured by Pakistan’s men’s team in the ‘E’ category. Even though it was not in the ‘A’ or elite class, it was still a start as players compete in the game according to their strength or ability. ‘E’ may be the lowest category in chess but after achieving superiority there it seemed like Pakistan’s chess players would be promoted to ‘D’ soon. In addition, simultaneously, the women’s team also earned three ‘candidate’ (those with ranking points above 2200 but below 2300) titles simultaneously in the 2014 Chess Olympiad held in Norway.

International Master Mahmood Lodhi (L)
International Master Mahmood Lodhi (L)

But the only remarkable achievements Pakistan has managed on the international circuit besides these recent victories were provided by IM Mahmood Lodhi, who has succeeded in winning gold twice in Asian Chess Federation (ACF) championships.

Pakistan’s chess players were able to participate and do well in these competitions thanks to receiving funding and sponsorships through FIDE and the ACF. But the money coming in also became the cause for other problems. Sadly, it has been noticed, especially in sports here, that whenever there is any money or monetary benefits coming to a sports body there is also a sudden manifestation of more people looking for their share in it. And they come out from all directions. The same happened with chess.

As the Chess Federation of Pakistan (CFP) — affiliated with FIDE since 1957 — felt the burden on its shoulders lessening, thanks to the foreign funding, it turned its attention to bringing up new chess talent within the country through a dedicated grassroots level effort. But then there was the emergence of a new parallel chess body, the Pakistan Chess Players Association (PCPA), claiming the same authority at the national level.

This created a confusing and chaotic situation that started closing the doors on upcoming young talent. The few who had invested their time, energy and even money in the game for the last many years also lost interest while those who remained with the game paid the price by having their names placed on the Exit Control List (ECL) — a result of the Pakistan Sports Board being confused about which national body to recognise and which players representing which body. In fact, Pakistan even failed to participate in the Olympiad held in September last year.

The new government has expressed an interest in developing opportunities for the younger generation in sports. But this is possible only by eliminating acts of political interference and management flaws in sports bodies in the country. In chess terms, the next move is the government’s.

The writer is a chess player, who holds the title of Woman Candidate Master

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 6th, 2019