Saturday, 9 March 2013

Play-off Poker by Junior Tay

Top finishers in the National Schools Individual Championships will be very familiar with the concept of the Championship playoff, usually comprising of 2 or 4 rapid or blitz matches to decide who walks home with the title. Ties in the National Championships and National Schools Individuals are broken by this method  and I feel it certainly adds to the excitement of the events.

Only once in the history of the National Championships did the event end in a dead heat where 2 players were declared joint winners. In the 1957 Nationals, J.C. Hickey and Tay Kheng Hong (father of ex-national player Watson Tay) topped the field and had to face off in a 4 game playoff. A 2-2 score resulted and both players were declared joint champions. This was both Mr Tay's and Mr Hickey's 2nd National title and Mr Hickey would go on to win the 1958 event as well.

Now, how does one approach the playoff event? The time controls are faster, and the stakes are much higher and naturally, the tension is much more intense. Should one just go ahead and play his typical repertoire and get to the middlegame in familiar ground or should one just throw caution to the win and force the opponent to start thinking on his clock?

I had a look at National Championships playoff games and it seems that the players do take their chances in the opening in their attempts to annex the title of National Champion.

The 2004 Nationals saw Goh Wei Ming down 1-2 to Jason Goh in the play-off when he sneakily punted  the Veresov (1.d4 Nf6 2.Nc3!? d5 3.Bg5) in the final rapid game. I think Wei Ming has played 1.d4 less than 10 times in tournament play and usually goes for the most topical main lines. It didn't exactly worked to a T as Jason got a decent position but later blundered and lost. It took an Armagedon Blitz game which Jason finally prevailed to separate the two.

In 1999, things were even more exciting. NM Koh Kum Hong was leading the field with 7.5/8 and FM Ong Chong Ghee and IM Chan Peng Kong were already in the clubhouse with 7.5/9 awaiting the result of the final game between Steven Tan and Kum Hong. Pushed onto the ropes, Steven decided to offer Kum Hong a draw which basically would clinch the title for the latter. To his surprise, Kum Hong declined and went on to lose the game. In the 3 way playoff between Kum Hong, Peng Kong and Chong Ghee, Kum Hong was a spent force and lost both games, leaving the title decider to the final game between the other two. Due to his superior tournament tiebreak, Peng Kong only needed a draw to claim the title. Peng Kong sprang a huge surprise on Chong Ghee by wheeling out the Caro Kann defence. In the 90s, Peng Kong was well known for his adherence to the Siclian Defence and once in a while, he'll pull up the Alekhine's. He admitted it was a huge gamble as at that time he only had limited knowledge of the Caro. Chong Ghee played, in his own words "like a fish", misplayed the attack and flubbed two pawns. He finally decided to offer Peng Kong the draw and thus with it, the title. Peng Kong revealed that the decision to play the Caro Kann was based on the recommendation of FM Dr Goh Cheng Hong during a golfing session!

1991 and 1992 were also Championship playoff years. GM Wong Meng Kong and NM Lee Wang Sheng contested the playoff in 1991 and after the first 3 games failed to separate the two, Meng Kong decided to skip the opening theory and play a Rossolimo, Larsen opening hodgepodge line and develop sensibly. Although Wang Sheng did not lose ground in the opening, it proved to be a great practical choice as the younger contestant made a rash Kingside pawn rush which lost an important pawn. Meng Kong's relentless technique put an end to the contest.
The following year saw an even more nervy playoff. 10 time National Champion IM Tan Lian Ann (so Wei Ming, you got 5 more to go just to match up) was pitted against IM Hsu Li Yang. In the first game, Li Yang had was a clean pawn up when he outcombined himself by missing a critical check. Instead he lost the exchange and Lian Ann had no problems converting the win. In Game 2, Lian Ann sprang the first surprise by going for the Grunfeld instead of his trusty Nimzo Indian Defence. Li Yang definitely did not expect that. He then returned the surprise by playing the sharpest, most topical line possible, the Rc1 Exchange Grunfeld with h4-h5! I asked Li Yang about this as he is well known for playing safe and solid lines to lull his opponents to sleep. He remarked "Oh! That one was simple. We were at (FM Wong)Foong Yin's house a couple of months before the Nationals, and looked at his newest NIC, which had this line analyzed. So since I was down a game by then, I thought why not?". The choice paid great dividends as Lian Ann blundered early and Li Yang equalised the match. Round 3 saw a draw in the Exchange Ruy and once again Li Yang had the White pieces. Will he go for the theory hack again now that Lian Ann had the benefit of hindsight?
So different strokes for different folks. Peng Kong goes for an ultra-solid opening to win on "away-goals". Wei Ming and Meng Kong threw theory out of the window to get a playable middlegame and Li Yang goes for the big theory hack.


  1. Suggest if four players tie for first, then to play transfer chess playoff. Then random chess between two winners. Better than armadillo and more exciting. Dunno how if three players tie.

  2. Why is it important to have a national schools playoff (and using a very fast time control with many suboptimal moves), when the winner does not get many benefits worth the playoff nerve-wrecking trouble. Adults maybe can wreck nerves, but why children. Joint champions sounds just right, in true Singapore sharing spirit. Or use tie-breaks to determine the winner. Explain the tie-breaks first to the secondary stakeholders so you don't get complaints.
    Personally fail to see anything exciting about playoff. Blitz is exciting by itself, so it does not justify further than that excitement. Then have the event played all rounds through blitz, why only playoff, so all event becomes exciting. Am sure there are very good reasons for how it is now which we don't fully understand, so whatever.