‘Glad to have contributed to Gukesh’s first GM norm & now hosting his match’ - Hindustan Times
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‘Glad to have contributed to Gukesh’s first GM norm & now hosting his match’

Jul 09, 2024 03:51 PM IST

In an interview with HT, Singapore Chess CEO GM Kevin Goh Wei Ming speaks about winning the World Championship bid and his role in Gukesh’s first GM norm

Bengaluru: Grandmaster Kevin Goh Wei Ming has kicked a ball with Ding Liren, the reigning world chess champion, and played a key role in D Gukesh winning his first GM norm. Currently the Singapore chess federation CEO, Kevin was instrumental in his country winning the right to host the World Chess Championship between Ding and Gukesh later this year, beating New Delhi and Chennai to it. The World Championship will be held in South East Asia for the first time since The Philippines hosted the 1978 match between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi.

FIDE Candidates 2024 winner Grandmaster Dommaraju Gukesh. (PTI)
FIDE Candidates 2024 winner Grandmaster Dommaraju Gukesh. (PTI)

In this interview, the 41-year-old spoke about how it unfolded, his relationship with both players, and what the match means to Singapore.

Excerpts:

Why do you think Singapore was picked over two Indian cities?

I was watching the Candidates final round and a few minutes after Fabiano (Caruana) and (Ian) Nepomniachtchi drew, and Gukesh won, I had a fleeting thought that ‘why don’t we host the World Championship’? At that point it didn’t seem very realistic. We needed government support, private sponsor support, and a major venue. Then I received many texts from chess enthusiasts suggesting the same. They asked me to give it a shot and see what happens. I’m sure all three bids were competitive and serious. Neutrality was certainly a key factor but I’d like to think it wasn’t the only factor and our proposition was at least as attractive as the competing bids. I’m just pleased and surprised that everything came together and we won the bid.

How are you placed in terms of funding?

Sports Singapore, which is our government agency, will back us in operations. They have a lot of experience in hosting big sporting events. I’m counting on their expertise. From the financial point of view as well, I take their advice on how to best approach sponsors. We have been in talks with private sponsors and now that we’ve won the bid there’s certainty that the match will take place in Singapore and the government is on board. We wish for private sponsors to come forward and to see how we can work out a solution together with the government.

You know Ding fairly well I suppose…

I speak Chinese and know Ding’s friends a bit better. I played football with Ding once during the Asian Indoor Games in Incheon. We were rotating positions and it was his turn to play goalkeeper and he asked me, ‘where should I stand?’(laughs) I told him just stay out of the way. If the ball comes towards you, you run, you dodge, don’t let the ball hit you because you are getting the gold medal tomorrow. I played defender, so I was trying to block all the shots towards him.

Ding and I exchanged messages on WeChat recently. He was playing the Norway Open I suppose and I told him that I’m trying to host the match and hoped he’d come if Singapore wins the bid.

Ding did say he is not keen on playing in India...

He did us a favour, I guess. I’m not sure how much impact his comment had on the decision but I suppose it’s natural for players to want a neutral venue. I understand that Indian chess fans might be a bit disappointed.

How long have you known Gukesh?

Oh, I contributed heavily to Gukesh’s path to greatness (laughs). He won his first GM norm after I lost to him in the 2018 Bangkok Open. I was chasing my final GM norm and was not pleased at all to be paired against this young chap. He was 12 and his rating was around 2400 and everybody was raving about him being a top talent. He could barely reach my side of the board but he did well. I’m very happy that first I contributed to his GM norm and now I’ll be bringing him to Singapore for the World Championship.

How do you look at the match, Gukesh being seen as an early favourite?

More than anything else, we don’t want the match to end early! Ding will want to play well I suppose. Hopefully, the skeptical comments about him from fellow GMs might trigger something in him. I think he needs a bit of confidence. We’ll see what happens. I wish them both well and hope the match is as competitive and interesting as possible.

There’s hope that a match of this magnitude can accelerate the growth of chess in Singapore. We can think back to the Fischer-Spassky match and how chess in Iceland has grown since. Of course, you can’t take that sort of thing for granted. We hope to bring more interest into the game and more attention to how useful it can be for different social groups. We don’t think this is going to be a one-off major chess event in the country.

Singapore reportedly struck a deal with Taylor Swift this year so that it was the only SE Asia stop of her Eras tour. Is there a conscious effort to bring major international events to Singapore?

I don’t think our government has been planning for these events for the last couple of years or anything. I think it’s more on the lines of an opportunity coming up and us deciding to run with it. It’s very much in the spirit of how we decided to bid for the World Chess Championship as well.

Are there plans to make it an immersive fan experience and are there ideas to be borrowed from other major sports?

We have a few ideas. Some of it might be tied to the title sponsor. Apart from things like fan zones, master classes for players, simultaneous exhibitions by chess legends, we hope to put together something hopefully a bit different and innovative.

I watch a lot of football. It’s such a fast-paced game and for some reason they are trying to slow it down, with VAR and so many layers of referees. In chess, it sort of feels that people are trying to speed it up. The classical World Championships has been around for over 100 years. There’s a certain respect we have to give it.

Are you expecting an influx of Indian chess fans?

We want to welcome friends from India to come and watch the match. We understand that there might be quite a bit of a turnout. It’s a happy problem for us. We are not far from India and flights are plenty and not particularly expensive. Singapore has always been a tourism spot for Indians. This year we’re forecasting 1.5 million Indian tourists. It might be a good idea for them to visit during the World Championship.

The game has grown in Singapore since the pandemic…

There has been a significant growth in the game’s popularity and interest. There’s also a gradual mindset shift and understanding in what it takes to build an elite player. In the past, most chess parents would think that chess is something you learn once a week, you take part in the tournament and if you win, you win, you lose, you lose. Now that’s changing. We see it being reflected in some of the players’ results. Siddharth Jagadeesh for instance, he’s our youngest GM at 17 and has been doing quite well lately. I think parents have come around to the idea that even though you go to school, you can still pursue excellence with some discipline in training. That’s the first step. The second step is participation because if you don’t play, you don’t improve. We are seeing a gradual improvement in that respect as well.

Whatever number I give will be laughed at in India because we are so small, right? For example, in our scholastic event this year, we have 1,600 school children playing in the national age group, in the national school tournament. In Singapore at least that’s considered really huge because a few years ago, it was not even a thousand. It’s consistent in that respect and to the extent that the tournaments are oversubscribed. In the coming year, we have to find a bigger venue. There’s definitely a potential for growth. More and more parents have come to find out about the benefits of chess. Sometimes for themselves as well. The beginner classes are attended by both the child and the parent. We don’t have enough trainers at this time. We are still pretty short. We have a structure and we can maintain the kind of demand that we have but in order to grow, we need to have more trainers and of course for that we need more funding.

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