Above: Oliver Dimakiling playing Niaz Murshed on his way to winning the Penang Heritage City International Chess Open.

I BELIEVE it is time for our Youth and Sports Ministry and Tourism Ministry to take a serious look at promoting sports tourism in this country.

If the experience of this year’s Penang Heritage City international chess tournament is anything to go by, there is a huge potential for the country to attract quality sportsmen and sportswomen to come play in our regional tournaments and enjoy the best we can offer at the same time.

Never mind if it is only a regional tournament outside of the Klang Valley. If the event is serious enough and big enough, support from the authorities can mean a big difference in attracting players and tourists to come here.

The biggest surprise awaiting me at this tournament last week was the unusually large number of foreigners in the open section. Of course, I had anticipated that there would be foreign players in the field but I had not expected that there would be so many of them.

I counted 29 of them in the 71-player field, almost all from the countries around us but there was even one from distant Uzbekistan. Pleasant surprise, indeed!

Now, having known all that, what didn’t surprise me was that the Filipinos would dominate the event. Not at all. The Filipino players are known to be fiercely competitive, giving no quarter and expecting none in return, and they really made their presence felt.

Can you imagine that when all the dust had settled, nine of them took away the 15 prizes on offer. Four Filipino players among the top five prize winners, led by international masters Oliver Dimakiling and Oliver Barbosa who both finished with equal 7.5 points with Dimakiling adjudged the overall winner by virtue of a tie-break.

Bangladesh’s Niaz Murshed, the sole grandmaster in the field, snatched the third prize, while the fourth and fifth prizes were again claimed by two Filipino international masters, Yves Ranola and Luis Chiong.

Then there were also their other compatriots – Haridas Pascua, Edgar Olay, Julius De Ramos, Ian Udani and Christopher Castellano – among the other prize winners.

It was left to our own Mas Hafizulhelmi to leave the first mark by a Malaysian in the winners’ list. A very honourable sixth place for him, considering the strength of the field. But in truth, I was also very glad to see Tan Khai Boon, Edward Lee and Ng Tze Han finishing among the prize winners; all of them our national champions at one time or another.

There was also a sizeable Singaporean presence in the open section. All juniors, they came with their parents and coaches to play chess first and tour the heritage areas of George Town second.

Among them, I can pick out Andre Jerome Eng and Benjamin Foo as the only two bright sparks among the Singapore players who were capable of mixing it up with the top players but in the end it was only Eng who managed to take home a prize.

Finally, let me say something about Luis Chiong. Now, that was a name that I had to dig out from the deep recesses of my memory. How many years was it since I first met him? Must be 1977 or 1978 when one of the legs of the first Asian grandmaster chess circuit was held here in the same building, the Dewan Sri Pinang.

Physically, he has changed, of course. Everybody has changed. In 30 years, everyone changes. However, he said this building – referring to the Dewan – looked the same to him. Ah, at least he remembered that.