THE CASE OF THE SCHOOL GRUDGE MATCH

How can you defy the odds in sport and still come out a winner? Novelist Nury Vittachi challenges readers to solve a mini-mystery short story puzzle.



A storm of tears fell onto the cellphone, short-circuiting it halfway through the call. Sniffing, Mrs. Xie angrily threw the mobile into the bin and phoned again, this time on a land line.

"As I was saying, Wong, you MUST come round right now, and you MUST fix it. We are nearly out of time. There's less than one hour left. I'll be waiting." With another big, watery sniff, she slammed the phone down.

At the other end of the line, feng shui master C.F. Wong slowly lowered his handset, his irritation evident in the lines around his small, wrinkle-nested eyes. "Aiyeeaah," he breathed between clenched teeth. "Why do the gods hate me so?"

His assistant Joyce McQuinnie looked up from the magazine she was reading. "What's the deal, boss?"

The feng shui master explained that he had just been talking to Mrs. Xie, principal of the Factory Road Middle School. For the past six years, the school played an annual netball tournament against Confucius Advanced Private School. And every year, Mrs. Xie's school lost every match.

School staff and children were depressed.

Mrs. Xie had tried everything she could think of to boost her girls' performance, devoting more time on the curriculum to sports, hiring an extra gym teacher, and supplying free milk and fruit to enhance the children's fitness level. But to no avail.

This year, some important officials from the city education department had announced that they would be attending the tournament. Mrs. Xie desperately wanted her girls to win the tournament, but feared they would lose this year as they had every other year.

So she had called feng shui master Wong, hoping that he could do something -- anything -- to change the school's fortunes before the tournament started.

*
Half an hour later, Wong and his assistant arrived at Factory Road Middle School.

Milling around on both sides of the playing field were the various teams of girls, limbering up for the match.

The feng shui master immediately saw what the problem was.

The yellow-shirted girls from Factory Road Middle School were from poorer families and were slightly small, although they were feisty.

In contrast, the red-shirted girls from Confucius Advanced Private School tended to look rich, tall and well-fed.

No amount of feng shui could alter the odds in this unfair battle.

Joyce asked Ms. Xie: "How does the tournament work?"

The principal explained: "Three matches take place at once. On the first pitch, our A Team plays their A Team. Ours always loses, although not by much. On the second pitch, our B Team plays their B Team. Ours always loses, usually by a small margin. On the third pitch, our C team plays their C team. Ours always loses, again by just a few points."

Joyce patted Ms. Xie's arm sympathetically. "It's not who wins that's important. It's how you play the game. That's a saying that Westerners have."

"A miss is as good as a mile. That's another saying that Westerners have," countered Ms. Xie. "The problem is that our opponents have the best team in every class. How can we compete?"

Wong looked at the list of fixtures. "I've got an idea," he said. "We will follow the lead of Ji Tian, wizard of King Qi, a master of sporting odds two thousand years ago."

Just before the tournament started, the feng shui master instigated a small change in the fixtures list that altered the odds and caused the Factory Road Middle School to be triumphant in the annual netball tournament for the first time in history. What did he do? Click here for the answer.