SINGAPORE - Cleaning toilets and studying classical chess games is how Gong Qianyun explains the secret to her success. That was the penalty for seven-year-olds in her chess academy in Guangdong, China, if they failed to memorise the moves of past champions.
"I was punished like that a few times, and it was terrible because which kid wants to wash toilets?" Gong recalled with a laugh.
"But I persevered because I enjoyed the winning feeling and the ability to find solutions in difficult situations."
The determination was evident as she fended off the challenge of nine other players to emerge top of the women's rapid chess category on Tuesday (Dec 3) to become Singapore's first SEA Games champion in the sport.
Under this format at this Games, each player has 15 minutes, with 10 seconds added after every move, starting from the first. Games typically last for about 40 minutes, with a point for a win and half for a tie.
Gong, 34, got off to a fine start with three victories and a draw in her first four matches on Monday at the Traveler's Hotel in Subic, before losing to Ummi Fisabilillah.
It meant the Indonesian would finish above Gong if both ended tied on points on Tuesday, but Ummi could only draw with Filipino Catherine Secopito, while Gong beat Pham Le Thao Nguyen to snatch the gold medal, also coincidentally the Republic's 900th gold at the Games which began in 1959.
Singapore Chess Federation general secretary John Wong paid tribute to Gong, the country's sole chess representative in the Philippines.
He said: "Being a veteran in the chess scene, Qianyun knows how to handle pressure well. Rounds 6 and 7 could have gone either way, but she found a way to win after some tense moments, which prove vital in the end with such a narrow margin.
"We are very happy with our first SEA Games gold, and we hope this can inspire more people to pick up chess, and more players to aim for greater heights.
"Currently, we have grown to about 1,500 competitive players over the last five years, and we don't have a specific number to hit; the more the merrier."
Gong arrived in Singapore in 2009 to work as a chess coach, and became a citizen after she got married in 2012. She and her husband Tay Shi Hao have two children.
Despite her achievements, Gong, who was awarded the Woman Grandmaster title by the World Chess Federation in 2018, the highest-ranking title in chess exclusive to women, remained modest about her abilities.
The quicker formats were initially not her forte, she said. "I was not competing much because I was more involved in coaching, and I was losing to kids in the faster formats, which took getting used to.
"Chess is tiring both mentally and physically as there is a large amount of concentration and focus involved."
In the lead-up to the Games, she juggled her responsibilities of coaching more than 10 primary school pupils with daily practise of two to three hours.
Winning the gold has whetted her appetite, she said. "I am very happy and honoured to have gotten the 900th gold for Singapore. I want to thank the supporters back home for all their encouragement.
"I'm still surprised that I won the gold medal, but this is a motivation for me to carry on competing."