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Vietnamese chess lacks worthy successors

By Xuan Binh   March 9, 2022 | 11:26 pm PT
The problem with Vietnamese chess is that young players are meeting neither standards nor expectations, which could lead to a future talent shortage.

In the March update of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), Vietnam dropped to 58th, right behind the Philippines and Indonesia. This is the lowest peak of Vietnamese chess since FIDE started a ranking of countries with chess federations in 2015. Vietnam also lost its Southeast Asia throne for the first time, dropping to third.

A country's FIDE ranking is decided by the average Elo rating of its top 10 players. Vietnam has dropped 17 places in 12 months, partially because its top players haven't competed much in international standard chess tournaments during the past two years for different reasons.

Vietnams top chess player Le Quang Liem. Photo by Grand Chess Tour

Vietnam's top chess player Le Quang Liem. Photo by Grand Chess Tour

Their chances to compete and improve in rankings is also slim since HDBank Chess Cup – a FIDE tournament, has been postponed for the past two years due to Covid-19.

Although FIDE ranking is not exactly the most accurate measurement to evaluate a country's chess scene, it's an obvious fact that Vietnamese chess is facing a handful of difficulties.

SEA Games 2019 was the first time Vietnam couldn't claim a gold medal in chess after five consecutive wins prior. Nguyen Ngoc Truong Son (Elo rating 2,641) and Nguyen Anh Khoi (2,520) finished after Malaysia's Yeoh Li Tian in rapid chess, while Vietnam's top chess player Le Quang Liem (2,709) could only claim a blitz chess silver medal. This was a big surprise for Vietnam considering the high Elo ratings of these players. Liem and Son are the only two chess players in Southeast Asia that have an Elo rating above 2,600.

During the past years, Liem has been the only player in Vietnam to have reached the top level. He is not only the pride of Vietnam but also Southeast Asia, with regular appearances at prestigious tournaments that include many top global players. Liem competed in five events of the prestigious grand series Champion Chess Tour last year and finished second in one. No other player in Southeast Asia was invited to participate in the series.

Only 31, Liem still can play many more years at the top level. However, with his current job as director of the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) at Webster University, U.S., and also head coach of its chess team, his time is quite limited to compete in tournaments outside the States.

So who could replace Liem to represent Vietnam at future big chess events? This question remains unanswered.

Khoi used to be the biggest prospect of Vietnamese chess after Son and Liem. However, he is showing signs of slowing and spending more time studying. Tran Tuan Minh (Elo rating 2,533) has just won the national championship for the fourth time but still has to get his Elo to at least 2,600 so he could play in bigger international tournaments. Le Tuan Minh (2,514) has also proved impressive in online chess tournaments but has not shown the same strength when playing face to face.

Nguyen Anh Khoi is considered a great chess talent in Vietnam, but he is slowing down in recent years. Photo by VnExpress/Lam Minh Chau

Nguyen Anh Khoi is considered a great chess talent in Vietnam, but he is slowing down in recent years. Photo by VnExpress/Lam Minh Chau

At youth level, young chess players have not shown signs of progress when competing on the world stage. Eight Vietnamese players have won the world youth championship to date, the last time seven years ago.

The national chess tournament, which concluded on March 5, also showed young players have not yet been able to compete with their seniors for a place on the national team. Liem and Son competed at 2005 SEA Games when they were 14 and 15, but current youngsters are simply not good enough to represent Vietnam at such an event.

Vietnamese chess will have three important tournaments in 2022, namely SEA Games, Asian Games and Olympiad. Chess in SEA Games features 10 events and will take place from May 10 to 21. The roster this time is likely to be no different from the 2019 SEA Games. Liem, Son, Le Tuan Minh and Tran Tuan Minh will still be the core players. In the women's event, there will be familiar faces on the team like Pham Le Thao Nguyen, Nguyen Thi Mai Hung, Vo Thi Kim Phung and Hoang Thi Bao Tram.

At the Olympiads in July and August, Vietnam will have to keep making the top 10 with the same lineup from four years ago. At Asian Games a month later, players will compete in individual rapid chess and team classic chess, with the goal none other than winning gold.

Currently, even if there’s no Covid-19, Vietnam only hosts three major tournaments each year, namely HDBank, national championship and Hanoi Open. Due to the lack of competition, the level of Vietnamese players has not been properly evaluated, especially among young players. Therefore, they keep missing out the opportunity to be invited to international events. If a player wants to compete regularly, they will have to spend their own money to play abroad, and not all players have the resource to do so.

Vietnamese chess might still do well in 2022 and complete its goals, but the long-term problem remains.

 
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