FM Ryan Harper added the sixth national chess championship title to his bag of trophies last weekend when he topped the field of 11 finalists, finishing two points ahead of his closest rival Ravishen Singh. After an early setback, losing to Singh in the second round, the champion ploughed through the opposition to finish on ten out of eleven points. Harper’s dominant performance reinforces his position as the country’s strongest chess player; but it also provokes the fascinating question, will he continue his winning streak to match and possibly overtake FM Christo Cave’s phenomenal record of 13 national championships?
As far as Double Rooks can see, the prospects look good. Harper has both the time and the ability to do it. The champion is still relatively young, 34, and his chess strength, if anything, is quite likely to increase now that he has given up his bank job to devote his energies to his new career, the country’s first full-time professional coach. With respect to his motivation, however, Harper confesses that he has no special desire to set a new record in national championship titles.
As he has told Double Rooks on more than one occasion: “All I can say is, I will continue to play and whatever happens happens.” Still, in keeping with the competitive nature of all sports, the possibility of a top performer attaining a new standard, whatever the challenge may be, always makes for an intriguing story. It’s no secret, however, that the T&T FM has set his heart on another and far more significant objective. He has, in fact, been campaigning over the last few years in foreign tournaments seeking to gain the norms that would earn him the mantle of the country’s first International Master.
Heartbreakingly, that goal has remained an elusive dream. While the T&T champion has held his own in this formidable international company, even outplaying a number of GMs and IMs, the required norm remained just outside his grasp. At the Guelph Pro-Am International in Toronto, for example, Harper triumphed over two GMs but missed the IM norm by a half a point. Alongside all this, he has outscored the region’s best at the Heroes’ Day International Masters in Barbados and earned his highest rating, 2270, at the 2006 Olympiad, one of his five outings at this premiere event.
Harper’s next opportunity comes up at the Umada Cup in Barbados later this month. This annual international tournament, launched by FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov in Trinidad and Tobago last year, is again expected to attract a number of GMs and IMs from within the hemisphere. The event is an open and valuable one as it presents players from the Caribbean region with a convenient opportunity of boosting their FIDE rating. While the T&T sporting community will be hoping that Harper realises his dream of entering the ranks of IMs, it must be recognised that the 34-year-old FM has already made a unique contribution to the sport, not only in his outstanding achievements over the chessboard but, additionally, in his administrative activity as the association’s second vice-president and in the coaching assistance he has given to several prominent juniors.
In fact, his decision to quit his job at Republic Bank and set up a chess coaching school, together with national qualifier Alex Winter-Roach, is an unprecedented and courageous move, one that must indicate his love for the royal game and his interest in lifting standards particularly among younger enthusiasts. To gain formal credentials in his new enterprise, Harper will soon be off to Brazil where he will participate in a FIDE training seminar and, at the same time, serve as coach to Boys Under-12 national champion Joshua Johnson, T&T’s entrant in the World Youth Chess Festival. Marcus Joseph, winner of the national title in 2009, took third place in this year’s event, scoring seven and a half points. Behind him were FM Mario Merritt on seven, FM Frank Yee on six and a half and Alex Winter Roach on six.
WNM Aditi Soondarsingh, finishing on seven and a half, maintained her hold on the women’s national chess crown, edging out Javanna Smith by half a point. Gabriela Johnson placed third on five and a half. This year’s national finals were somewhat marred by the unexpected first round withdrawal of young FM Keron Cabralis who claimed that the noise of cadets training at the venue, St George’s College, Barataria, made it difficult for him to concentrate. Whatever the merits of his case, DR believes that, basically, the incident has lessons for the association in its unsuitable siting of such an important chess event.
Happily the contest was shifted to Cascadia Hotel, St Ann’s, for the final round, the blitz tournament which Harper also won and the prize giving function. Association president Kamla Rampersad De Silva, in her closing remarks, thanked sponsors PKF Chartered Accountants and Business Advisers for their “strong support over the last two years.” She felt that after 75 years of T&T chess history, “we really ought to have grown more”. To hasten development of the sport she said the Association would now be placing its focus on younger players.