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Close Up How Singaporean Kevin Goh Achieved The Highest Rank A Chess Player Can Attain

How Singaporean Kevin Goh Achieved The Highest Rank A Chess Player Can Attain

A typical training day for Singapore’s chess grandmaster Kevin Goh begins with an hour-long run followed by a series of chess puzzles for two hours, before moving on to theoretical training (image by James Boban)
A typical training day for Singapore’s chess grandmaster Kevin Goh begins with an hour-long run followed by a series of chess puzzles for two hours, before moving on to theoretical training (image by James Boban)
By Jamie Nonis
July 03, 2020
A life of rigour and a six-figure investment pays off for Singapore’s newly-minted chess grandmaster

Smart is the new sexy, believes chess champion Kevin Goh. A self-professed “non-nerd”, he is quick to debunk the stereotype: “It is possible to be a good chess player without being geeky.”

Case in point: current world champion Magnus Carlsen. The towering Norwegian is known to rock up to the chessboard in a tailored suit, complete with upswept coif and hipster beard. Likewise, Goh makes it a point to be well-turned-out at major tournaments, looking the part of grandmaster well before he was bestowed the title.

In April, the chief financial officer of precision oncology company Lucence Diagnostics was awarded the title of grandmaster—the highest rank a chess player can attain—by the International Chess Federation.

This appointment makes Goh, a seven-time national champion, the country’s first chess grandmaster in over two decades, and the fourth in history. (The last grandmaster in Singapore was Wong Meng Kong, who received the accolade in 1999.)

Scaling the summit has certainly been no easy feat for this 37-year-old, made possible only by a life of rigour dedicated to mastering both mind and body, as he surmounted the innumerable disappointments in pursuit of his ambition.

An Early Start

Goh first discovered chess at the age of 10 in primary school thanks to Khoo Geak Chong, a teacher he remembers fondly to this day.

“He built the school’s chess club from scratch and we had such a large following that if you didn’t play chess and you weren’t in the club, you were deemed uncool. We started winning tournaments and beating the elite schools—and as a neighbourhood school we felt like it was us against the world,” he recalls.

“What intrigued me about chess was the challenge behind solving problems that your opponent poses for you and the fact that you have to use logic as well as your ability to react fast. There’s also an aesthetic element to the game, a certain beauty in the way the game is played; the tactical and geometrical motifs and paradoxical moves that take everyone by surprise.”

Passion and ambition, however, count for nothing without rigorous training. The greatest challenge of Goh’s uphill journey has therefore been balancing a punishing training schedule of between six to 12 hours a day, while holding down a high-level, full-time job.

 

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“The stereotypical notion of chess—that it’s a passive activity played between two ‘uncles’ at the void deck—couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says, arguing that a gruelling day of competition is a lot more intense both physically and mentally than other sports. Most chess tournaments run for about nine days and an average game lasts four to five hours. Goh’s longest? Six-and-a-half hours.

“If you are not physically capable of dealing with that sort of rigour, your results will reflect that. So the days of overweight chess players and chain-smokers are long gone,” he says. Goh subscribes to a training philosophy inspired by Carlsen, who also promotes a healthy lifestyle complemented by physical fitness and a good diet.

“Many aspects of chess are actually very similar to how physical sports are played, in terms of the competitive element, the psychological aspect and the amount of training required. You need to ensure your physical well-being is also taken care of because of the pure stamina that you need in order to play chess well,” he explains. 

In the run-up to achieving the grandmaster title, Goh had progressively participated in half marathons and completed his first full marathon at the age of 35.

“To equalise against the disadvantages as I’m getting on in age,” he says. After all, chess is a young man’s game, with grandmasters as young as 12 years old.

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More support for local players

Now that he has achieved his life’s ambition, what’s next?

“I don’t ever see myself leaving the game in whatever role I play, be it as a chess player or as a coach,” says Goh, adding that he hopes to see more monetary support for Singapore athletes and for more tournaments to be organised here.

His grandmaster title has come at a high personal and financial price—over $200,000 of his own funds were spent hiring coaches and travelling to tournaments around the world over the years—but he has no regrets.

The investment has obviously paid off.

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