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.
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"They get around $300 per month plus room and board and three or four times a year they can go abroad," Vasyliev says, "[and that's in a country where] $100 per month is considered a good salary."Skip to next paragraph
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Between 500 and 700 young players study chess around the country. The 10 to 12 players on the national team study the game for the whole year with only a two-week break. They live in the sports center and receive salaries and incentives of $11 per day for pocket money when they travel.
Liem, for instance, started making money from chess when he was only 10 years old and won Ho Chi Minh City's children's competition. In April, he took home $4,000 for winning Vietnam's national chess tournament for the second time. He would not reveal how much he made last year from playing his favorite game, but he did say that he now makes more money than all his peers.
My "most important goal is to play and improve," he says. "Because I think if I can live by playing chess I can do what I like most and earn money from that."
Huang Xuan Thanh Khiet, 25, who also competed in Vietnam's national chess tournament, says chess was her first job, and now the board game pays off with an extra $70 every month. Thanks to the game, she also got a chance to see the world – the Vietnamese government flew her to Russia, Spain, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
"The [chess] federation pays for everything," Ms. Khiet says. "In my life, I never traveled on my own."
Mr. Thang says Vietnamese chess players improved after the government increased chess salaries and prizes. The stipends were raised from less than $100 to $300 per month over the past two years, while prizes for winning competitions were introduced five years ago and increased three times since, he says. Now, even children under 12 can take home as much as $500 for winning, he says. And in April, the top four male and female winners of Vietnam's national chess tournament took home a total of $13,500 in prizes, ranging from $250 to $4,000.
"We had good players before, but our economy was not developed," Thang said. "So before, talented children could not be sent to world tournaments."
While the financial side of things clearly makes a difference, some players suggest that chess might be becoming more popular in Vietnam at the expense of another board game. Chinese chess, a game that a visitor to Vietnam will see old men playing on sidewalks, is becoming less popular among youth.
Liem says this is because of the Internet. You can play international chess online with people all over the world, he says, while Chinese chess is known only in Asia. Also, you cannot play Chinese chess with a computer, says Liem, who spends much of his time practicing with electronic partners. "There are a few programs, but they are not strong, not professional," he says.
In fact, several members of Vietnam's national team, including Liem himself, represent a first generation of chess players: Their parents do not know how to play the game.
"We're civil engineers, not chess players," says Liem's mother, Than Thi My Le. (Liem learned chess from his older brother, who learned it from a book.)
So what's in store for Vietnamese chess players?
Liem, who likes traditional Vietnamese music and reading "Harry Potter" (in Vietnamese), plans to start his university studies in September.He says he hopes to become the world chess champion.
And chances are there will be more chess players from Vietnam to follow in his footsteps.
"Nowhere in the world are there children who get these stipends. In other countries, the parents must pay," Thang said in Russian. But in Vietnam, "if the child is talented, all the conditions [for his improvement] are created. That's how we make good players."