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2020 Singapore Public Service Tournament
How does one save an annual team tournament with 20+ years of history? By moving it online!

2020 Singapore Public Service Tournament

ddtru
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Two weeks ago I did live commentary for Singapore Public Service Team Tournament and I decided to share my impressions of this interesting competition. This tournament is organized in Singapore annually since 1997, with the teams representing various Ministries, statutory boards and other public service agencies.

In the past, the players would usually gather at the Singapore Civil Service Club but in 2020 it was obviously not an option. For many months it seemed like this competition would become another victim of COVID-19 pandemic, but thanks to the tremendous energy and the organizational efforts of several highly motivated volunteers, it finally took place online in mid-December. 

Let me start by thanking the people and organizations that helped to make it all happen:

  • Singapore Civil Service Club that supported the event
  • Chess.com that kindly agreed to host the tournament on its platform, and personally IM Rakesh Kulkarni and Simon McNamara 
  • Lim Peck Seah who designed the posters for the event and did tons of research on the history of this competition
  • FM Lee Jun Wei who joined me for live commentary during one of the rounds
  • GM Kevin Goh Wei Ming and CM Junior Tay for advice and moral support behind the scenes 
  • Last but not least, FM Lee Qing Aun and FM Ashvin Sivakumar that took care of the organization and technical support of this event - not a small task, given that many of the players have never played online chess before! Qingaun and Ashvin did a tremendous job in ensuring that the whole event ran smoothly from the beginning to the very end.

It should be noted that proceeds from the event registration and administrative fees are going towards the charity causes supported by Singaporean Chess Against Covid initiative, which raised more than SGD 178,000 so far.

This year there were 11 teams consisting of four players each, competing in a 5-round rapid tournament. The teams represented the following Ministries and organizations:

  • Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC)
  • Ministry of Defense (MinDef)
  • Ministry of Health (MOH)
  • Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA)
  • Ministry of Sustainability & the Environment (MSE)
  • Nanyang Technological University (NTU)
  • People’s Association (PA)

Based on the history of the competition, Ministry of Health looked like a clear favorite - after all, they won it for the last six years in a row! 

The winners and runners-up of Singapore Public Service Chess tournament over the past decade
Report on the 2019 competition

Unfortunately, the Ministry of Health could not field its strongest possible team - not surprising, given how busy the doctors are this year! Still, the team that has the former national player IM Hsu Li Yang on the top board can never be underestimated.

Another team that had high aspirations was Nanyang Technological University, which fielded a strong and balanced team. NTU finished as the first runner-up in 2019 and they certainly wanted to improve on that result.  

And indeed it was these two teams that charged right out of the gate, winning their first two matches and thus setting up a head-to-head showdown between Ministry of Health and Nanyang Technological University in the 3rd round. It was a fierce battle that played a crucial role in the final standings, and so I decided to analyze all four games of this match.

On the first board IM Hsu Li Yang outplayed his opponent in an endgame that looked relatively harmless at first.

NTU equalized the score thanks to the victory on the second board. Here is the key moment of this game:

The game on the third board was actually the last to finish in this match. I was commenting it live and I could not believe my eyes when I witnessed a dramatic turnaround at the end:

However, the "free point" that NTU snatched on the third board was returned to the Ministry of Health in the even more tragic fashion on the last board. In the position on the diagram Black is clearly winnning...

And so this nerve-wracking match ended in a 2:2 tie.

At this point it seemed that both teams are on track to winning their remaining matches and that the fate of the championship would be decided by board points tie-breaker, but there turned out to be a few more twists left in the plot!

In the next round NTU easily proved its superiority over the team of Attorney-General’s Chambers (3.5:0.5) but Ministry of Health only drew its match with the Ministry of Defense (1st team) and thus dropped behind in the tournament standings. 

As a result, the team of Nanyang Technological University was a clear-cut favorite to win it all going into the last round. They had 7 match points (+3 =1) and have already played against all direct competitors by then. In the last round they were paired against the Ministry of the Sustainability and the Environment (2nd team) that had 5 match points with the most curious score (+1 =3). A victory in the match guaranteed NTU an overall victory in the tournament, and given their performance to that point, it seemed like a certain bet. 

Only two teams were within the striking distance of NTU - Ministry of Health (+2 =2) and Ministry of Defense (1st team) (+3 -1) both had 6 match points and could hope to overtake NTU if it faltered. To add to the excitement, the challengers were playing each other in the last round. 

To my surprise, the 2nd team of the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment was completely unfazed by playing against the leaders. They lost the first game to finish in this match, but in fact it probably should have gone the other way!

NTU scored another win on the third board, as Jude Emil Pascua Fronda confidently outplayed his opponent. 

However, then MSE scored its first point on the last board - Li Longxiang got his opponent into a bind straight from the opening and converted his advantage into a full point:

And so this match was decided by the encounter on the first board that turned out to be a real rollercoaster!

This match ended in a tie, 2:2, and suddenly the fate of the championship was to be decided in the encounter between Ministry of Health and Ministry of Defense (1st team). IM Hsu Li Yang duly won his game on the first board, but that was the last hurrah for his team. The Ministry of Defense won the remaining three games, thus winning the match, catching up with Nanyang Technological University on match points and winning the gold medals on board points tie-breaker!

Of course, it was a bitter pill to swallow for NTU and MOH, but the Ministry of Defense fully deserved its victory. Their team narrowly lost to NTU in the first round (1.5:2.5) but went on to win all remaining matches. What a turnaround - Hollywood could not have scripted it better! 

The success of Ministry of Defense team was really an example of great teamwork. None of their players could claim the best individual result on his board but they showed great consistency as a team, scoring 4, 4, 3 and 4.5 points out of 5, respectively.

I would like to illustrate the play of the Ministry of Defense team by showing two fragments of the game that their leader won in the 3rd round. 

In my opinion, the first fragment of this game is worthy of a Sportsmanship award: 

[P.S. After the publication, this fragment has been extensively discussed on Facebook by stronger players. The general consensus was that although the intention behind 14...Nh6 was admirable, it could have backfired for Black if White did not reciprocate. Hence GM Alexey Shirov suggested that "14...Bf8 was more to the point and less risky", and GM Mikhail Golubev concurred: "Yes, Bf8 is the only move which protects the g7 pawn and doesn't spoil the right to castle. Another brilliant Shirov's tactics, what else to say!" IM Jovan Petronic remarked that this could be a new and interesting theme for studies - perhaps something for chess composers to look into! ]

It is only fitting that the honorable refusal to accept a free point resulted in a truly brilliant conclusion of the game:

A game that is inspiring on so many levels!

To wrap it up, I would like to mention the winners on the individual boards:

  1. IM Hsu Li Yang (Ministry of Health)
  2. Alexandru Crivoi (Nanyang Technological University)
  3. Jude Emil Pascua Fronda (Nanyang Technological University)
  4. Li Longxiang (Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment, 2nd team)

All four players achieved a perfect score - 5 out of 5!

I would like to thank the players and the organizers for overcoming the challenges posed by COVID and keeping this tournament alive. It was a great pleasure to comment on this tournament and I hope that next year we will be able to return to its traditional, over-the-board format!

Thanks for reading it to the end! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Tournament links: