Sunday, December 4, 2011

SEA Games 2011 - Looking back (Part 1)

At the 2005 SEA Games in Tagaytay City, Philippines, Vietnam swept all eight golds available. For the next two Games, chess was excluded. Both Thailand (host in 2007) and Laos (host in 2009) did not have the capability of winning any medals in this sport.

At the 2011 SEA Games in Palembang, chess was re-instated with some stipulations. No player could enter more than 2 events. Even so, Vietnam won 6 golds out of the 9 events contested. In the women's event they took all three golds (Standard, Rapid and Blitz). Such a depth of talent every country should be envious of.

Thailand won their first chess gold in the newly created Asean Chess event. No surprise here as this chess variant is closest to Thai chess ("makruk"). To this day, I still cannot fathom why this new chess variant was created and included in the 2011 Games. I guess that this was created so that chess will again be included in the next Games in Myanmar. But I also heard that Myanmar chess ("sittuyin") is already going to be part of chess there so Myanmar will have chances at a few medals.

The Team

The chess delegation was led by Greg Lau, MCF Secretary and he did a great job. In an outing like this there are many minor details which have to be taken care of. You need someone to take on this as a leader. From arranging transportation , attending briefings to scheduling training sessions for the women's team , Greg took care of all this, leaving us chess players to worry only about the chess.

Another mention must be made , this time for Haslinda Ruslan.  Four 12-14 years old teenagers in the women's (girls?) team can be quite a handful. Haslinda's optimistic nature and calm demeanor is a great asset to the girls. Even though most of them are already experienced tournament players, there were still times when an unexpected loss proved to be too much for the girl's to handle. Haslinda and Zurin (Camilia's mother) were always around to console them and these two ladies deserve to be applauded.

Bronze medal

Our only medal came from the mixed pair of IM Lim Yee Weng and WFM Nur Najiha Hisham. Before we left, someone asked me who amongst the girls were the most talented. I picked Najiha without hesitation. There are reasons and it will be too long to go into here. All the girls have their strengths and weaknesses. In order to improve and get better results, they have to get better at what they are good at and eliminate their weaknesses. This is a job for their coaches if they have any.

The pairing of Yee Weng with Najiha worked very well. Yee Weng is always a conscientious player and prepares hard for every game. Here, he also took on the responsibility to prepare and inspire Najiha for each game. I believe Najiha became more confident with his help.

The medal hopes became real when Yee Weng beat Megaranto. We had a minimum drawn match against the host, Indonesia. Now Yee Weng is only rated 2253 but he is really at least a hundred points stronger than that. But to defeat Megaranto was a big upset (the Indonesian GM went on to beat GM Wesley So  to take the gold medal in the Standard chess event later). And Najiha drewing against the very experienced WGM Irine Sukandar shows that Najiha has a bright future, but more on that later.

The last round of the mixed pair event was like being in a pressure cooker for all of us watching. We had to beat Myanmar if Indonesia somehow managed to win against Vietnam. If Indonesia drew or lost than a draw would be enough to win the bronze.

Yee Weng was the first to finish, agreeing a draw in an opposite colored bishop position. He soon regretted it when I pointed out a possible winning plan. In any case, he should have played on just to give Najiha the moral support (players who finished have to leave the playing area).

Najiha appeared to be winning when her opponent overlooked a simple tactic that lost a pawn. Then she lost another pawn and now Najiha was two pawns up in a Rook + Bishop v. Rook + Knight ending. This is normally easily won but Najiha , very short of time, allowed the opponent's king to penetrate into her position.

By now, Megaranto had lost his game and we needed only a draw in this match to tie with the Indonesians. The tie would be in our favour, having defeated them in our individual match, thus the bronze would be ours with a draw. My fear was that Najiha might blunder or lose on time. I asked Greg to find out if we could inform her to take a draw (in team events like the olympiad, the team captain is allowed to communicate with a player to offer draw for strategic reasons). The answer came back, nobody is allowed to interfere in the game.

We were all gnawing on our nails watching Najiha. Nothing is worse than watching the clock count down the final seconds while your team-mate thinks and thinks. Yee Weng could not stand the tension and left the playing hall repeatedly.

The opponent's king, rook and knight were surrounding Najiha's king. At one point, we thought Najiha was allowing a repetition. Then she made a brave decision to continue playing although very short of time (for the most of the game she had less than two minutes for each move - there is a 20 second increment for each move).

May Hsu - Nur Najiha
42.... Rg2 

Black can take the a-pawn but afraid of tactics after  42... Rxa2 43. Rf5+ Kg6 (In time trouble one could even fall for 43...Ke6?? 44. Ng7 mate which would be most tragic) 44. Kd7  Re2. White's pieces look menacing but black has everything covered.

43. Kd7 Rd2+ 44. Kc6 Rd6+ 45. Kb5 Rd2 46. Kc6 Rd6+ 47. Kb5 Re6 48. Rd5 Kg6 49. a4 a5 
50. Rf5 Bd8 51. Rf8 Rd6 52. Rf5 Rd4 53. Rf8 f3

Najiha finds the most straightforward plan. Another way to win is  53... Be7 54. Rf5 Re4 (White is in zugzwang. 55. Rd5 allows 55...f3 ) 55. Kxb6 Rxc4 56. Kxa5 Re4 57. Kb5 c4 58. a5 c3 59. a6 c2 and black queens first and mates white.

54. Rxf3 Rxg4 55. Ng3 Rf4 56. Rd3 Rd4 57. Re3 Kf6 58. Re8 Kf7 59. Re2 Rd3 60. Ne4 Kg6 61. Kc6 g4 62. Rg2 Kf5 63. Ng3+ Kf4 64. Nh5+ Kg5 65. Ng3 Kh4 66. Ne2 g3 67. Nxg3 

The sacrifice is inevitable. Black still have problems to solve as the white king is nested in the black pawns on the queen side.

Rxg3 68. Rd2 Rg8 69. Rd1 

Now we were really sweating wondering if Najiha saw the tactic of Rh1+ and skewer the rook on g8.

69...Kh3 70. Rf1 Kg2 71. Rf7 Kg3 72. Rf1 Rh8 73. Rf7 Kg4 74. Rf1 Kg5 75. Rf2 Rh4 76. Rf8 Rd4 

The first part of the plan has been achieved. The rook sits well on d4 defending the bishop on d8 which defends the pawn on b6. Now to bring the king over to the queen-side.

77. Kb5 Rd6 78. Rf7 Kg6 79. Rf8 Kg7 

Faster way is 79... Bf6. Maybe Najiha was afraid of  80. Rb8 but now Mas demonstrated 80... Bd8 locking the white rook on the queen-side. Black wins easily by transferring king to the queen-side.

80. Rf3 Bf6 81. Re3 Kf7 82. Re1 Re6 

At first we were worried that rook exchange might not win as white creates a passed a-pawn. Analysing on the sidelines we (IM Mok/IM Mas/IM Liew) found the winning idea.

83. Rxe6 

It must be very tempting to exchange rooks since white wins two pawns. However the most testing defence is to retain rooks.

83...Kxe6 84. Kxb6 Kd6 85. Kxa5 Kc6 86. Ka6 Bc3 87. Ka7 Kc7 88. Ka6 Kc6 89. Ka7 Ba5 

Najiha has found the winning move.

90. Ka6 Bb6!  91. a5 Bd8 92. Ka7 Bxa5


All smiles after winning the bronze game


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