Dressed to Impress: How IM Kevin Goh prepped and persevered for his final GM norm
The recently concluded QCD-Prof Lim Kok Ann GMs Invitational saw one of Singapore's most talented players, IM Kevin Goh, earn his final GM norm after a six-year-long hiatus! In the tournament, Kevin showed some excellent preparation coupled with resourceful play to finish second whilst achieving his final norm. All that stands between Kevin and the GM title now are seven rating points; he is currently rated 2493. Besides being a master-class chess player, Kevin is also a Chartered Accountant. In this interview with CM Junior Tay, Kevin discusses some of his games, his mindset during the tournament, how he juggles chess and work, his future goals and his dazzling dressing sense!
It took 6 long barren years for Singaporean IM Kevin Goh Wei Ming before nailing down the final GM norm at the QCD-Prof Lim Kok Ann GMs Invitational 2018, but it was all the sweeter for him in achieving it on home ground. Here he relates the good, the bad and the ugly that he went through before and during the event and a bit of his future plans.
JT: So, 6 years to finally clinch your 3rd and final GM norm. What were the first thoughts that went into your mind when IM Liu Xiangyi reached out his hand to accept the draw offer that gave you the required half point? What is the first thing you did after handing in your scoresheet?
KG: I am just relieved that it is over. Around the point where we were exchanging pieces on d5, I kind of understood that my opponent was agreeable to a draw and it was even clearer once we reached the rooks and opposite-coloured bishop endgame. After the game, I switched my attention to the clutch game between WIM Gong and IM Tin where the former needed to win in order to complete her WGM requirements.
JT: During the event, you were constantly plagued by insomnia and you also mentioned the stress of being unable to ‘breathe properly’. Can you describe what transpired (why did you feel so pressurized) and how did you overcome this tension?
KG: I always have a lot of pressure when I am playing in GM events given the fact that I already have 2 norms and that I had come close on several other occasions. This event was extra special to me since I was playing in my home country and it would have really meant something if I could turn in a good result. It got really bad after round 4 when I was sitting on plus 2 and I was going to take 2 whites on the next day knowing that I needed to score at least 1 win in order to keep the momentum going. I didn’t really manage this stress very well and could only sleep at 2 am despite feeling really tired from all the preparatory work. Thankfully, it somehow all came together in the end.
JT: How sure were you of making the norm before the event? At which stage did you realize your goal was within reach and how did you approach the situation?
KG: Not sure at all! I understood that a lot of things have to come together in order for me to successfully achieve a norm. I think luck is definitely important in events like this. I was certainly not taking anything for granted going into this tournament.
My initial strategy was to start fast by scoring 3/3 and then take it from there. I mean no disrespect to my fellow Singaporeans but it is always important to start well in a GM norm tournament as the confidence that you gain will almost always prove to be invaluable. At one point in my game against Gong, I honestly thought my chances of losing were substantially higher than my making a draw which is nothing less than what my play had deserved. I understood that losing that game would be absolutely detrimental to my chances and I told myself that no matter what, I had to find something to hang on to. Fortunately, I managed to find sufficient tricks to hold on. But it is not all good fortune, as some had commented - it is also skill and resilience that allowed me to salvage a draw. In many ways, I am more proud of that game than my victories.
I understand there were some puzzled comments on why we agreed to a draw in the final position. Well, if you have only looked at the game superficially and with the engine on, you would think that white is winning but of course, the position was already very close to being drawn.
I was severely rattled that I was so close to losing against the bottom seed but there was very little time to feel sorry for myself as there was a second game in the afternoon, this time against co-National champion Tin Jingyao. Obviously, I had played Tin many times in the last few years and it is getting very difficult to surprise him with anything. My main preparation was to take a shower and have a good sleep as I figured that our game was likely going to be an extremely long one. As it turns out, Tin was the first to surprise me by playing a system that as far as I know, he has never tried before in official tournament games.
And then in round 5, I took the white pieces against the combative Mongolian player, IM Munkghal Gombosuren. I had known the guy for many years and he is a really talented player who works very hard on and off the board and I knew it will take something special to beat him. He was very close to making a double norm at the Baku Olympiad and it is clear that he can beat anyone on his day.
Before this event, I had prepared 3.Nd2 against the French extensively as a surprise and he wanted to counter surprise me with the rather dubious Guimard variation. Thankfully, I had studied this line in some detail and managed to catch my opponent off-guard. Again, the game appeared to be a rather smooth one but I speak from my own experience that the position is just really difficult to handle and it is easy to go downhill quickly. After the game, I was eager to tell my opponent that I had faced this exact set-up before, but with the Black pieces against GM Thomas Luther in 2013! People were puzzled with some of his moves but trust me, I knew exactly what he was going through!
After this rather nerve-wracking game, my approach was just to take it slow and try and push for a win at opportune moments. I made an early draw offer against GM Nguyen Ahn Dung as I didn't like my chances in that endgame although I probably should have played a few more moves just to see how the game can go. Both Thomas Luther and Nigel Short questioned my decision and probably they are right since they have been around much longer than me!
It was especially difficult to play against Irine, given that we have known each other for more than 10 years and she is almost like a chess sister...if there is such a thing. I guess I had some luck in that round given that she had just beaten GM Timur Gareyev famously...under the most unlikely circumstances possible which meant that she retained a sliver of hope of making a GM norm. She had to win the last 3 rounds so she really went after my throat. Luckily, her sacrifices were a gamble that I would crack under time pressure but fortunately, those sacrifices were over-speculative.
JT: You completed a marathon right before the event. What made you take up running and was it geared towards improving your chess results or concentration?
KG: It has been well documented in many works that physical fitness is absolutely critical to a chess player's performance, especially in the final phase of the game. I am going to be 35 very soon and my opponents in my most recent tournaments seem to be getting younger and younger.
Clearly, I had to find an equaliser and see how I can keep up in terms of energy and concentration level and I eventually decided on running. I had always been an avid runner and my best 2.4km timing was just under 9 minutes. A chess game is very much like a marathon and you have to keep telling yourself to push forward. Stamina and not speed is critical. Under the advice of fellow chess-club Balestier members Li Yang and Chong Ghee, I installed the RunKeeper app and started going on regular 10km runs. Then, my colleagues from Lucence Diagnostics had set up a running club and so we all signed up for half-marathons and full marathons this year. Funnily enough, I saw the pairings for this tournament on the day of the Sundown marathon so my thoughts during the 7-hour gruelling run were mainly a mixture of deciding when to give up and what openings to play!
JT: Was there a different approach you took towards this event and the previous other GM norm attempts you made during the barren years that made your chances better (preparation, mindset, living conditions etc)?
KG: No, not really. Knowing the pairings in advance obviously helped and I spent a long time considering my options in the opening. Otherwise, it was the same type of regime that I had used in the past – solving an hour of calculation exercises every day and delving deeply into opening preparation. The only issue is that none of my opening prep proved to be really useful as everyone had decided to do something abnormal against me. I would highly recommend anyone about to play a GM event to work on Chapter 9 of GM Preparation – Calculation by Jacob Aagaard. It is a collection of exceptionally difficult exercises and it was fun for me trying to solve them.
In terms of conditions, it was a matter of making my life as comfortable as possible. Booking a room at the official hotel was a good idea as that saved me a fair amount of time and energy – I didn’t fancy driving to Stevens Road during peak hours at all.
JT: How do you juggle work as a CFO for Lucence and chess training/studying at IM/GM level? Can one really multitask like this without consequences?
KG: My CEO (Dr. Tan Min-Han) is really understanding and supportive and he also wanted me to achieve my dream of becoming a Grandmaster. I do whatever I can during workdays, having shorter lunches and looking at some chess in the evening to the best of my ability.
JT: Of course, there is the matter of the 7 additional elo points to complete the GM title requirements. Aside from that, what other chess aspirations do you have subsequently?
KG: I still enjoy playing and I still want to improve my game. I no longer have any major ambitions, like breaking 2600 but I would like to maintain my strength of around 2500-2550. Breaking IM Tan Lian Ann’s incredible record of 10 National Champion titles is my immediate goal and in the long run, I would love to work with our most promising juniors.
JT: We noticed that you were dressed very spiffily (coat, formal attire) for the entire event. What gives?
KG: Well, I figured that if I can’t play well, at least I am dressed for the occasion! All jokes aside, this is the strongest and best tournament that was organised in Singapore for a few decades and I just wanted to show my respect.
JT: How do you deal with losses? There were some really heart-breaking ones weren’t there, which rendered your chances for the norm into toast?
KG: I have gone through what many others have gone through before me – suffer one heart-breaking loss while being on the brink of making a norm. I don’t really have any specific recommendations on how to deal with it, except to talk to your friends and hope that they have encouraging things to say? IM Tibor Karolyi told me that the fact that I have come close on a few occasions already means something, and the experience I gain will be invaluable when dealing with the next clutch game.
I guess the most important thing to do is to keep believing in yourself and keep working at it. Most of the time, hard work will pay off.
About the Author
Junior Tay has been a chess author, editor and coach for the past three years after being a school teacher for 17 years. He is a former National Rapid and Cairnhill Open Champion and has represented Singapore in international events including the Asian Team Championships. He lives in Balestier, Singapore.