It was a neck-and-neck race at the recent Singapore-Malaysia Chess Challenge 2010.

SO what did you do at the turn of the decade? Me, I went to Singapore. I went there not so much as to watch the fireworks display at Marina Bay but to participate in the latest annual match between Malaysia and our neighbours down south, the 21st in a series that goes back to 1985.

With the Singapore Chess Federation being the hosts this time around, a contingent of about 50 people, comprising players and accompanying officials, travelled there bent on reversing the fortunes of the past few years.

It’s to be noted that in February 2010, when the last encounter was played in Kuala Lumpur, we had lost out to the Singapore team by the narrowest of margins: 76½ points to them and 75½ points to us.

What made it heartbreaking last year was that we as the hosts had taken the lead from the first two rounds of games played at normal time controls, only to see the visitors winning the other two rounds, which adopted rapidchess time controls, and thus overhauling us in the process.

Let’s shake on this: Friends and rivals across the table battle for the Datuk Tan Kim Yeow trophy.

This time around in Singapore, the situation was the reverse.

After the first day of normal time control games, we found ourselves down by an unenviable seven points. The first round in the morning had landed us in negative territory. We had tripped ourselves up. From the 38 games played in this round, we scored only 15½ points compared to the Singaporeans’ 22½ points.

Luckily, the situation stabilised in the afternoon. Here, both sides were unable to find the advantage and the results were split right down the table with the Malaysians and Singaporeans scoring 19 points each. So, collectively at the end of the first day’s games, Singapore were leading us 41½ points to 34½ points.

If you were to suggest that the Malaysians were depressed, that would be an understatement. Not only were they depressed, they were openly asking what it would take to beat the Singaporeans at chess. Seven points was a big margin and an extraordinary effort, coupled with a large dose of luck, would be needed to overturn it.

Nevertheless, it could still be done. Someone mentioned that if ever we needed the luck of the Malaysian football team, this would be the time. If the courage of the plucky footballers can be emulated on the chessboard, of course there was a chance for the chess players to overcome the seven points of deficit. It wasn’t insurmountable.

And so it proved not to be insurmountable. The second day’s matches would be played with rapidchess time controls and here, the Malaysians found back their own self-belief.

Slowly, the seven-point gap was being narrowed. At one stage, the two teams were running neck-and-neck. But eventually, the Malaysians collected 24 points from this third round and the Singaporeans 14 points. At the end of the morning’s third round, the Malaysians suddenly found themselves leading by a narrow three points.

The sudden reversal of fortune caused nerves to set in: nerves that obviously affected not only the Malaysians but the Singaporeans as well. Everything would now boil down to the fourth round. The last 38 games would be crucial.

The Singaporeans, smarting from being dismantled in the third round, were looking not only to win the fourth round but by a big margin as well. As for the Malaysians, they were hoping that the same winning momentum would carry them through till the end of the last game. Whatever, I knew that the match would be very, very close.

And it was! Singapore threw everything at the Malaysians but perhaps because of nerves, maybe they couldn’t find the killer touches. Anyhow, the Malaysians built up a wall and stood firm behind it, despite their own nervousness, too. Eventually, this round finished tied with both sides scoring 19 points.

Overall, the Malaysian team had collected 77½ points to the Singaporeans’ 74½ points. A modest three-point spread, you may say, but it was a fortunate result for us and an unfortunate loss for them. But that’s how chess is like.

So that’s how the year started with a chess win. For this year at least, the Datuk Tan Kim Yeow trophy is finally back in Malaysia’s hands.

Here’s a little trivia to end this week’s story. As I travelled back to Kuala Lumpur by train from Singapore’s Tanjung Pagar station, having purposely chosen this mode of transportation for nostalgia reasons as KTM would soon cease running their trains right through the middle of Singapore, I noticed a lady was still reading last week’s story about Hou Yifan winning the women’s world championship match in Turkey. Suddenly, she pointed to the picture of 16-year-old Hou and blurted out quite loudly to her husband: “Wah, so young, ah!”

I guess in a way, this reaction also pays tribute to the youth in the Malaysian team. Of the 38 games in each round, at least 30 of our players were below the age of 18. Once again, they are proving to be the backbone and the future of Malaysian chess. If not for their determined effort in Singapore, I really doubt that we could have won back the Datuk Tan Kim Yeow trophy.

Meanwhile, here are some of the games from the women’s world championship match between Hou Yifan and Ruan Lufei. Do enjoy them.

Hou Yifan – Ruan Lufei, Game One

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. f3 dxe4 4. fxe4 e5 5. Nf3 Bg4 6. Bc4 Nd7 7. c3 b5 8. Bd3 Ngf6 9. O-O Bd6 10. Bg5 O-O 11. Nbd2 h6 12. Bh4 Qc7 13. Qc2 Nh5 14. h3 Be6 15. Rae1 Nf4 16. Bg3 Nxd3 17. Qxd3 Rad8 18. Bf2 a6 19. Nh4 Nb6 20. b3 Rfe8 21. Qf3 b4 22. Rc1 bxc3 23. Qxc3 exd4 24. Bxd4 c5 25. Bxg7 Bf4 26. Nhf3 Rxd2 27. Nxd2 Bxd2 28. Qxd2 Kxg7 29. Qc3+ Kh7 30. Qxc5 Qxc5+ 31. Rxc5 Ra8 32. Ra5 Nc8 33. Rc1 Nd6 34. e5 Nf5 35. Kf2 h5 36. Rc2 Nd4 37. Rd2 Nc6 38. Rc5 Ne7 39. b4 Kg6 40. a3 Kf5 41. Ke3 Rg8 42. Ra5 Rg3+ 43. Kf2 Rb3 44. Rxa6 Nd5 45. Ra5 Ne3 46. Rc5 Nc4 47. Rc2 Nxa3 48. R2c3 Rb2+ 49. Kg3 Nb1 50. Rf3+ Kg5 51. h4+ Kg6 52. Rc7 Kg7 53. Rf6 Kg8 54. Rf4 Rb3+ 55. Kh2 Rb2 56. Rc5 Na3 57. Rc3 Nb5 58. Rg3+ Kf8 59. Rg5 Nc7 60. Rxh5 Nd5 61. Re4 Kg7 62. Rg5+ Kh7 63. Rc4 Rb3 64. Rg3 Rb2 65. Rg5 Rb3 66. Rd4 Nxb4 67. Rg3 Rb2 68. Rc3 Nd5 69. Rcd3 Ne7 70. Rd2 Rb5 71. Re2 Ng6 72. Rde4 Bf5 73. e6 Bxe6 ½-½

Ruan Lufei – Hou Yifan, Game Two

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6 6. Be2 Be7 7. O-O Nc6 8. Be3 O-O 9. f4 e5 10. Nxc6 bxc6 11. Kh1 exf4 12. Bxf4 Be6 13. Bf3 Qb8 14. b3 Qb4 15. Qe1 a5 16. Rd1 Rfe8 17. e5 dxe5 18. Bxe5 Rac8 19. Qg3 g6 20. Na4 Nd5 21. Bxd5 cxd5 22. Bc3 Qg4 23. Qxg4 Bxg4 24. Rxd5 Bb4 25. Bxb4 axb4 26. Rd2 Bf5 27. Kg1 Rxc2 28. Rxc2 Bxc2 29. Kf2 Bd3 30. Re1 Rc8 31. Ke3 Bb5 32. Rd1 Re8+ 33. Kf4 Re2 34. g4 Bxa4 35. bxa4 Rxa2 36. Rd4 Rxa4 37. h4 Kf8 38. Re4 f6 39. Rc4 Ke7 40. Rd4 Ke6 41. Ke4 Ke7 42. Kf4 h6 43. h5 gxh5 44. gxh5 Kf7 45. Re4 Kf8 46. Kg4 f5+ 47. Kxf5 Ra5+ 48. Kg6 Ra6+ 49. Kh7 Rb6 50. Rf4+ Ke7 51. Rf1 b3 52. Kg7 b2 53. Rb1 Ke6 54. Kxh6 Kf5+ 55. Kg7 Kg5 56. Kf7 Kxh5 57. Ke7 Kg4 58. Kd7 Kf3 59. Kc7 Rb3 0-1

Hou Yifan – Ruan Lufei, Game Three

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Nd7 5. Ng5 Ngf6 6. Bd3 g6 7. N1f3 Bg7 8. O-O O-O 9. Qe2 h6 10. Ne4 Nxe4 11. Qxe4 c5 12. Bc4 e6 13. Be3 Nf6 14. Qd3 Ng4 15. dxc5 Qc7 16. Rad1 Nxe3 17. Qxe3 b6 18. Nd2 Qxc5 19. Qxc5 bxc5 20. c3 Bb7 21. Nb3 Rfc8 22. Na5 Rc7 23. Nxb7 Rxb7 24. Rd2 Rab8 25. Bb3 a5 26. Rc1 a4 27. Bxa4 Rxb2 28. Rxb2 Rxb2 29. Bd1 Rxa2 30. g3 Ra3 31. c4 Bd4 32. Kg2 Ra2 33. Rc2 Ra1 34. Bf3 Kf8 35. h4 Ke7 36. Bc6 g5 37. hxg5 hxg5 38. g4 Ra3 39. Be4 Kd6 40. Re2 Kc7 41. Bh7 e5 42. Be4 Kb6 43. Rd2 Ka5 44. Bd5 f6 45. Kf1 Kb4 46. Ke2 e4 47. Rc2 e3 48. fxe3 Rxe3+ 49. Kd1 Rg3 50. Rg2 Rh3 51. Re2 Kc3 52. Rd2 Rh4 53. Rg2 Kd3 54. Rd2+ Ke3 55. Re2+ Kf4 56. Re4+ Kg3 57. Be6 Rh8 58. Kd2 Re8 59. Kd3 Rxe6 60. Rxe6 Kxg4 61. Re4+ Kf5 62. Re1 g4 63. Rf1+ Ke5 64. Re1+ Kd6 65. Ke4 Bf2 66. Rd1+ Ke6 67. Rd5 g3 68. Kf3 f5 69. Kg2 Kf6 70. Kf3 Kg5 71. Re5 Kg6 72. Rd5 Kf6 73. Kg2
Ke6 74. Kf3 f4 75. Kg2 Be3 ½-½

Ruan Lufei – Hou Yifan, Game Four

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6 6. g4 h6 7. h4 Nc6 8. Rg1 d5 9. exd5 Nxd5 10. Nxd5 Qxd5 11. Bg2 Qe5+ 12. Be3 Qh2 13. f4 Bd7 14. Qd2 Nxd4 15. O-O-O Bc5 16. Bxd4 Bxd4 17. Qxd4 O-O-O 18. Qc4+ Kb8 19. Qe4 Bc8 20. h5 Ka8 21. a4 Rd5 22. Rdf1 Qh4 23. Qc4 Rd7 24. a5 Qd8 25. a6 Qa5 26. Kb1 Kb8 27. axb7 Bxb7 28. Bxb7 Rxb7 29. Qd4 Ka8 30. Rf3 Rhb8 31. b3 f6 32. Rd1 Qb4 33. Qe3 Rb6 34. Rd4 Qe7 35. Qd3 R6b7 36. Re3 Re8 37. Rd6 e5 38. fxe5 fxe5 39. Re4 Qc7 40. Rd5 Qb8 41. Rc4 Rf8 42. Kb2 Qe8 43. Rdc5 Qe6 44. Qe4 Kb8 45. Rxe5 Qf6 46. Rc6 Qf7 47. Rf5 1-0