Players study their next move during the Filipino Chess Players League tournament in Reef Mall in Deira.
Players study their next move during the Filipino Chess Players League tournament in Reef Mall in Deira.

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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.

COMPANY PROFILE

Name: SmartCrowd
Started: 2018
Founder: Siddiq Farid and Musfique Ahmed
Based: Dubai
Sector: FinTech / PropTech
Initial investment: $650,000
Current number of staff: 35
Investment stage: Series A
Investors: Various institutional investors and notable angel investors (500 MENA, Shurooq, Mada, Seedstar, Tricap)

The years Ramadan fell in May

1987

1954

1921

1888

Results:

First Test: New Zealand 30 British & Irish Lions 15

Second Test: New Zealand 21 British & Irish Lions 24

Third Test: New Zealand 15 British & Irish Lions 15

Rafael Nadal's record at the MWTC

2009 Finalist

2010 Champion

Jan 2011 Champion

Dec 2011 Semi-finalist

Dec 2012 Did not play

Dec 2013 Semi-finalist

2015 Semi-finalist

Jan 2016 Champion

Dec 2016 Champion

2017 Did not play

 

MATCH INFO

World Cup qualifier

Thailand 2 (Dangda 26', Panya 51')

UAE 1 (Mabkhout 45+2')

Wednesday's results

Finland 3-0 Armenia
Faroes Islands 1-0 Malta
Sweden 1-1 Spain
Gibraltar 2-3 Georgia
Romania 1-1 Norway
Greece 2-1 Bosnia and Herzegovina
Liechtenstein 0-5 Italy
Switzerland 2-0 Rep of Ireland
Israel 3-1 Latvia

SPEC SHEET

Display: 10.9" Liquid Retina IPS, 2360 x 1640, 264ppi, wide colour, True Tone, Apple Pencil support

Chip: Apple M1, 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine

Memory: 64/256GB storage; 8GB RAM

Main camera: 12MP wide, f/1.8, Smart HDR

Video: 4K @ 25/25/30/60fps, full HD @ 25/30/60fps, slo-mo @ 120/240fps

Front camera: 12MP ultra-wide, f/2.4, Smart HDR, Centre Stage; full HD @ 25/30/60fps

Audio: Stereo speakers

Biometrics: Touch ID

I/O: USB-C, smart connector (for folio/keyboard)

Battery: Up to 10 hours on Wi-Fi; up to 9 hours on cellular

Finish: Space grey, starlight, pink, purple, blue

Price: Wi-Fi – Dh2,499 (64GB) / Dh3,099 (256GB); cellular – Dh3,099 (64GB) / Dh3,699 (256GB)

MATCH INFO

Uefa Champions League last 16, second leg
Liverpool (0) v Atletico Madrid (1)
Venue: Anfield
Kick-off: Thursday, March 12, midnight
Live: On beIN Sports HD

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Blah

Started: 2018

Founder: Aliyah Al Abbar and Hend Al Marri

Based: Dubai

Industry: Technology and talent management

Initial investment: Dh20,000

Investors: Self-funded

Total customers: 40

Heavily-sugared soft drinks slip through the tax net

Some popular drinks with high levels of sugar and caffeine have slipped through the fizz drink tax loophole, as they are not carbonated or classed as an energy drink.

Arizona Iced Tea with lemon is one of those beverages, with one 240 millilitre serving offering up 23 grams of sugar - about six teaspoons.

A 680ml can of Arizona Iced Tea costs just Dh6.

Most sports drinks sold in supermarkets were found to contain, on average, five teaspoons of sugar in a 500ml bottle.

Abu Dhabi GP Saturday schedule

12.30pm GP3 race (18 laps)

2pm Formula One final practice 

5pm Formula One qualifying

6.40pm Formula 2 race (31 laps)

The bio

Favourite food: Japanese

Favourite car: Lamborghini

Favourite hobby: Football

Favourite quote: If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough

Favourite country: UAE

German plea

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the German parliament that. Russia had erected a new wall across Europe.

"It's not a Berlin Wall -- it is a Wall in central Europe between freedom and bondage and this Wall is growing bigger with every bomb" dropped on Ukraine, Zelenskyy told MPs.

Mr Zelenskyy was applauded by MPs in the Bundestag as he addressed Chancellor Olaf Scholz directly.

"Dear Mr Scholz, tear down this Wall," he said, evoking US President Ronald Reagan's 1987 appeal to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.

THE 12 BREAKAWAY CLUBS

England

Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur

Italy
AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus

Spain
Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid

MATCH INFO

Uefa Champions League semi-finals, first leg
Liverpool v Roma

When: April 24, 10.45pm kick-off (UAE)
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Live: BeIN Sports HD
Second leg: May 2, Stadio Olimpico, Rome

MATCH INFO

Uefa Champions League final:

Who: Real Madrid v Liverpool
Where: NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium, Kiev, Ukraine
When: Saturday, May 26, 10.45pm (UAE)
TV: Match on BeIN Sports

MATCH INFO

Chelsea 0

Liverpool 2 (Mane 50', 54')

Red card: Andreas Christensen (Chelsea)

Man of the match: Sadio Mane (Liverpool)

Founders: Ines Mena, Claudia Ribas, Simona Agolini, Nourhan Hassan and Therese Hundt

Date started: January 2017, app launched November 2017

Based: Dubai, UAE

Sector: Private/Retail/Leisure

Number of Employees: 18 employees, including full-time and flexible workers

Funding stage and size: Seed round completed Q4 2019 - $1m raised

Funders: Oman Technology Fund, 500 Startups, Vision Ventures, Seedstars, Mindshift Capital, Delta Partners Ventures, with support from the OQAL Angel Investor Network and UAE Business Angels

The specs

Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo
Power: 190hp at 5,600rpm
Torque: 320Nm at 1,500-4,000rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto
Fuel consumption: 10.9L/100km
Price: From Dh119,900
On sale: Now


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