Taking Bangladesh to new heights

Niaz Murshed: South Asia’s
first Grand Master

Quazi Zulquarnain Islam

"AS a child I was always a very restless person,” reveals the demure but effervescent Niaz Murshed.

“Chess was not really my first or only love it was something I got into mainly because of my surroundings. I was lucky to have people around me who instilled the thrill of playing this game from the very beginning.”

There can be little doubt as to the greatness of the man. Niaz became national champion at the age of twelve and a Grand Master at nineteen -- and all in an era where age was considered paramount to success.

He finished third in his first National Championships in 1978 before winning the event in 1979. Niaz then went on to earn an International Master title just two years later when he finished second in the Asian Zonal tournament in Sharjah. A brief five-year wait later, the Bangladesh chess prodigy entered the 'promised land' by becoming a GM in March of 1987. He was at that time the first person from South Asia to do so and the fifth overall from Asia. And Bangladesh had a new sporting icon of its own.

But Niaz is quick to downplay the fact. “Bangladesh's greatest talent in terms of chess was Sadek Hossain. He was the most gifted player of that generation but unfortunately he was killed during the Liberation War in 1971. He was only 18. If he had not been a martyr then it would have been him instead of me winning all those accolades.”

“I started playing very early as almost all chess players must do. I used to live in Eskaton and at that time we had a team with Farhad and Jamil bhai. The three of us playing together won the Inter-Locality Championships in 1976. That was basically the start of my chess career.”

Niaz had accomplished more by the age of nineteen than most people do in a lifetime. Therefore, it could be said that it might all have arrived a little before its time. In the fall of 1986 he was faced with the agonising choice of staying put in Bangladesh and carrying on his affluent chess career or moving abroad to take up admission in the prestigious Ivy League school of UPEN.

It was the first crucial juncture in his life and Niaz admits that it was here that he made his first critical error.

“I was always a very independent person and my mother left me alone to make most of my own decisions. Although that helped me become the person who I am, it was also the result of a certain lack of direction.

“Maybe if I had a father figure to guide me during that time, I might have chosen differently. But as they say hindsight is 20/20. I believe I weighed up all options carefully and I chose what I thought was best at that time,” relates a reflective Niaz.

Niaz's four years at UPEN was not a complete loss however. He graduated from Pennsylvania with a degree in economics in the summer of 1990.

His post college years started well enough with good performances in international tournaments in Calcutta in 1991 and a solid 25-25 record in 1992 and he also cracked the top 200 rankings. But then disaster struck.

In November of 1992, his mother passed away and that heralded the beginning of a desolate period in his life. With almost no immediate family, excepting his brothers, Niaz felt lost and depressed -- a very understandable reaction. His passion for chess cooled to such an extent he became recluse.

Still with little or no practice he managed to win the Zonal Championships in 1993. But he admits that during that time he was playing chess more out of habit.

The next three years saw Niaz in the wilderness and he played at best two to three tournaments a year. However, it is testament to his talent when he still managed to qualify for the World Championships at the end of 1995 -- a feat that he did not manage during the previous edition.

During this time Niaz switched his attention to setting up a business. Besides, he got married and so providing for his family became his first priority.

He still went to the World Championships in 1997 but without any form of practice or training whatsoever results were disastrous. He relates a hilarious incident from the World Championships when his opponent came up to him and said that they had been looking for previous matches of Niaz in the last two years and had not found enough to even signify a distinctive pattern or style of play.

Niaz soon found himself in the chess wilderness and it was not until the year 2000 that he attempted another comeback. But the glory days were long gone. Various family commitments and business matters left him little time for the game and although he performed decently in almost all the matches that he played he never reached the dizzying heights of his pre-university years.

Occasionally though he makes headlines like when he beat Russian GM Sergey Iskusnyh in the 2004 Commonwealth Games in Mumbai.

What does the future hold for Niaz Murshed now?

“I still love the game very much. If this had not been the case I would not have attempted to make those comebacks. For the moment, I want to continue to playing for as long as I can. If in the process I can increase my rating (which stands at 2750 now) then so be it. But the real achievement would be if I managed to inspire others into taking up the game.”

Niaz also wants to set up a chess school in the near future. “As far as our society goes, chess is a sport that I feel that women would identify with more than men. It does not concern going out or any sort of physical activity and it can be both intellectually stimulating and a challenge. I want to set up a chess club mainly for women and young girls so that they too have someplace to go and engage in social activity while at the same time developing the thirst for challenges.”

As far as coaching ambitions go, Niaz is keeping his options open. “I would love to coach. I believe I can give a lot to younger players and even more than most foreign coaches that are hired.”

When asked about the dearth of quality chess players in the country, Niaz had much to say.

“The first thing is that there is not too much incentive to playing chess. Frankly, the money isn't great and since chess has fallen off the map somewhat it's hard to attract sponsors that would willingly pay players to pursue their interest. Although India is an extreme example it can show us the way to a certain extent. We have probably five to six quality players at the moment and not even all of them are personally sponsored let alone young upcoming players.”

Niaz admits that the lack of role models is a huge factor in the decision of many talented men and women not to take up the sport.

He feels that the Bangladesh Chess Federation can also do its bit in order to ensure development of its current crop of players. Although coaches from abroad are being paid handsomely, Niaz doesn't believe that it will help unless players themselves get to play in top tournaments against quality opposition.

Niaz is not really hopeful however of improvements in the near future. “Start early during the ages of four and five. That is when your mind is most receptive and when you can learn the most. If you want to play professionally it's important to cultivate chess during that period.”

Niaz also draws comparisons from his own life. “If you have a special talent in anything I would always advise you to pursue it no matter what anyone else says.”

The story of Niaz Murshed's life is a shining example of what could have been. He is however still only 40 years old. The time has come to put arguably Bangladesh's greatest ever chess player to good use.

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