It is Friday, early afternoon, and Al Reef mall in Dubai is all but deserted. Descend a few levels, though, to the glass atrium that divides the car park, and you are met with raucous peals of laughter. That and a strange, frenetic clicking sound. The source of hilarity is the small group of people who are congregating, as they do here every last Friday of the month, on long, paper-covered tables. They are hitting stop clocks at regular intervals. I have stumbled across the Filipino Chess Players League's monthly chess tournament. And its players are just warming up.
"Chess is not a just game," explains Larry Dolor, the FCPL's vice president, earnestly. "It is a sport." Though not a sport that anyone appears to be taking too seriously at the moment, apparently. "This is just the chess clinic now," he says. "The tournament won't start until later." Chess, generally regarded by non-players as geeky and intimidating, is thriving in the UAE. Clubs in Dubai, Sharjah, Al Ain and Abu Dhabi boast healthy membership numbers. At the end of July, the Al Ain Culture and Chess Club won both the Asian Club Chess Championship and the Asian Chess Federation titles, and from tomorrow, all eyes will be on the capital, when the 18th Abu Dhabi International Chess Festival will draw around 300 local and international players.
Among them will be the great and good of the sport: grand masters (players with a skill rating of 2,500), international masters (those with a rating between 2,400 and 2,500) and FIDE masters (those with a rating of more than 2,300) will descend on the Al Jazira Sports Club. Five categories of competition will allow anyone to participate, from children as young as five, to adults. The UAE even boasts its own grand master: 17-year-old Salem Abdul Rahman from Sharjah, who will be taking part, together with the current under-10 Arabian and two-times UAE champion, eight-year-old Moza al Mansoori, from Al Ain.
But aside from hosting the glitterati of the chess world, the tournament has another focus - to promote the game among the next generation, says Ismail al Khouri, deputy executive manager of the Abu Dhabi Chess & Culture Club, which is running the event. "We have a long-term goal at the chess club to have an under-10 or under-12 world champion," he says. "Chess is more popular here than ever, but we used to have more talent."
The game has been played in the region for over 1,000 years. Having originated in India in the sixth century AD, it spread to Persia before being adopted by the Muslim world. The lapse, al Khouri says, has occurred in a generation. "If you go back to 10 years ago, there was nothing to do. After work, you just played chess. But now there are shopping malls and the beach. It is much harder to get kids' attention." To be a professional chess player, it seems, requires plenty of that - to the tune of six or seven hours a day. "The only person doing this is Salem," al Khouri adds. "He is very well organised and he has a goal. He wants to reach the top five in the world."
The solution has already been trialled in Abu Dhabi with twice-weekly lessons in several private and state schools. "We are looking for talent," says al Khouri, "and as soon as we find it, we work on it." Aside from unearthing champions, the drive will also provide children with skills that go beyond the chess board. Studies have shown that the tactical and strategic skills required to play chess can help children develop logical thinking powers. "This was only the first step," says al Khouri, "but it was very successful. We got the attention of a lot of parents and schools."
Promotional activities in the form of giant chess boards in malls, as well as plans to include chess puzzles in newspapers, will hopefully inspire more children to play, he says. "We want more people to know about chess and to generate more interest." Two years ago, the thriving Al Ain Culture and Chess Club adopted a similar approach. As a direct result of its efforts, membership has reached a staggering 5,000. "We now have between 40 and 50 members aged eight to 14 who participate in tournaments," says Mohammed Saif, the club's media relations officer. "This year, we got a total of eight medals in the UAE Championship."
Having formed in 2003, by 2005 the club had acquired a number of high-level coaches, opened several chess centres in Al Ain schools, and were offering three lessons a week to anyone who was interested. Crucial to the project was that tuition was free. "We do it as community service," says Saif. "Not all of them participate in our tournaments. But now, when you coach 5,000 players a week in the several centres, every talent you see you grab them and bring them to the club."
Incorporating chess into children's education is nothing new. In some parts of Russia, a country which historically has produced some of the best players in the world, chess is compulsory. In Turkey, a recent drive to promote chess in schools has resulted in hundreds of thousands of children taking up the game. And in India, where chess is taken very seriously indeed, there is a lucrative reward system for talented young players. This year, for the first time, chess will be incorporated into the Filipino schooling system, something Dolor is resoundingly in favour of. "I am very excited about this," he says. "I believe it could help children. Even if they don't continue to play, it's a kind of training, just like maths. It's like a discipline."
Dolor is now training his own 12-year-old son, who recently took part in the Dubai Junior Open. "I taught him to play when he was seven," Dolor says. "But he was just a child and not that focused on the game. I didn't want to force him though, or he might rebel. Now he is older and he sees other children playing, he loves it." There are no plans for chess to become compulsory in the UAE. In fact, Mohammed Saif believes it is important that the game remains a choice for children. "It has to be chosen," he says. "You cannot make it obligatory. It's a talent, like playing music or being able to draw."
For some children, who have been talent-spotted and channelled into the competition circuit, the balance ends up tipping in favour of their time-consuming hobby. "I don't go to school," says Ulvi Bajarani, the 14-year-old from Azerbaijan who won the Dubai Junior Open, "I only play chess. I don't play sports. I can't do anything except chess," he says. Madhurima Shekhar, 13, from Delhi admits that her school work and social life suffers, as well. "It takes a lot of time," she says. "I don't have time for anything else." At two hours a day, her playing time is only half that of Vahap Sanal, 11, from Turkey, who plays with his coach every day. It appears to have worked, since he now holds the Junior World School's title and is European champion, as well as the two-time Turkish national champion.
To make the big league, says Ravi Kumar, the national coach for the UAE juniors, "it's about the player who has the practice, the passion, and who wants to be good at chess". Computer programs and the internet, he says, have made that easier to achieve. "Internet games are very good for improving. You have a choice of opponents. Everyone has a rating and you can challenge people." "The internet and computerised chess is the best thing that's happened to the game," says Dolor, who admits to having spent up to 24 hours at a time playing speed or "blitz" chess online. "Kasparov, who is even now the best player in the world, the IBM computer beat him!"
Not everyone is so effusive, though. "It's a good and bad thing," says al Khoury. "Now, most players play on the internet, but they play a very fast game. Five minutes. Not a serious or long game. This can have a bad effect, I think. But it's good because you can play chess everywhere." And what about the social aspect? Surely, all this playing with virtual opponents can't be good for one's interpersonal skills. Well, this is where weekly meetings and monthly tournaments like the FCPL's come in. "I come here twice a week," says Jerry Lababo, a member of the FCPL who works for the Filipino consulate. "A lot of people come here after work to play. Not only Filipinos but also Indians, Pakistanis, Emiratis? they all play here. It's expanded my network."
"It's important to have the tournaments to gain friends and for camaraderie," says Dolor. Al Reef mall allows the FCPL the use of the space free of charge. "You can come at any time of day and the chess tables are always here," he says. Besides their love of the game, it is in the Filipinos' nature to want to congregate, says the FCPL's president, Jobannie Tabada. "Filipinos are very socially oriented people," he says. "They love to build groups. In the UAE, the Filipinos probably have the most number of groups - there are chess clubs and dance clubs and basketball clubs."
Such behaviour sounds far from nerdy. "I don't believe chess is for nerds," says Dolor. He does, however, concede that a certain level of intelligence is required. "Because it is a logical game," he says, "that requires a certain thinking process. If you don't have a high-enough IQ, you can't improve." Al Khouri agrees that the game is not as elitist as people think. "It's not difficult," he says. "There are many levels. You don't need to be clever. We used to have some very bad students and they were very good chess players."
In fact, according to Saif, we could all learn a thing or two from the board. "If you know how to play chess, you know how to play the game of life," he says. "In chess the first thing you learn is how to think before making a decision. You have to think because every move has consequences, both good and bad. When you learn that in the game, you won't make any surprising moves in life." The 18th Abu Dhabi International Chess Festival will take place at the Al Jazira Club in Abu Dhabi from tomorrow to August 21. For more information and to enter, visit www.abudhabichess.com.