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Asia's chess factory: Vietnam trains its youngest to be world-class players

Vietnam adopted the old Soviet model and offers a monthly salary to children as young as 4 who excel in tournaments.

By Julie MasisContributor / July 9, 2010

‘Human chess’ in Hanoi, played during celebrations of Lunar New Year in February, hint at Vietnam’s love of Chinese and Western versions of the game.

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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Le Quang Liem cannot remember all the countries he's been to, but he can play chess with his eyes closed. For this, he says, you need to have an excellent memory – an ability to keep the position of all the pieces in your head.

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This year the 19-year-old resident of Ho Chi Minh City – with a shy voice and big glasses – became the first person from Southeast Asia to win the Aeroflot Open in Moscow, widely regarded as the world's most difficult open chess competition.

Mr. Liem left Moscow with a $28,280 prize and a ticket to compete in an elite, invitation-only tournament in Dortmund, Germany, later this month, where he will play against a former world chess champion, among others. Another player from Vietnam tied for third place in the tournament, while the best American player landed in 20th place.

"What a shock to Russian chess fans to see dozens of their heroes surpassed by two Vietnamese teenagers!" exclaimed a Los Angeles Times writer in a story titled "Vietnamese Surprise in Moscow," while The New York Times named its article about the chess tournament, "Big Surprises in Europe."

But Liem's success is not an isolated victory for Vietnam. In December, the Vietnamese women's chess team won Asia's championship, while the men's team placed second, and in 2008, 7-year-old Tran Minh Thang became the world chess champion for children under 8.

So what is Vietnam doing right when it comes to chess?

As it turns out, the country's socialist government adopted the chess system of the former Soviet Union, which produced five undefeated world champions between 1948 and 1972.

"Sports clubs are spread throughout the political structure of provinces and cities," says Casto Abundo, deputy president of the Asian Chess Federation. "Each club has its own budget at its disposal and they concentrate on the development of the youth. They are now harvesting the fruit of their labor."

The chairman of Vietnam's Chess Federation, Dang Tat Thang, says he learned to play chess in Russia when he was a student there.

The coach of Vietnam's national chess team, Mikhail Vasyliev, is originally from Odessa, Ukraine, which he describes as the "world capital of chess." The elderly Ukrainian, who does not speak Vietnamese, explained that the Vietnamese government's approach to chess works because efforts are directed at the most promising players from a young age, rather than at those children whose parents have the most money to pay for classes. Many of Vietnam's best players, such as Nguyen Ngoc Truong Son, 20, who tied for third place in Moscow, are from poor families, Mr. Vasyliev says.

In Vietnam, children as young as 4 who do well in tournaments receive monthly salaries, free chess instruction, and monetary prizes for winning competitions. The Vietnamese government spends $3 million a year to promote the game, which includes covering players' travel expenses to domestic and international chess events.

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