A debatable point

RAKESH RAO

THE Asian Open chess championship at Bikaner proved yet another fruitful outing for the in-form 21-year-old K. Sasikiran as he added another title to his list of conquests. His superiority could be gauged from the fact that he had made sure of a fourth successive title in three months with a round to spare in the 11-round competition.

Sasikiran with the trophy.-R. V. MOORTHY

In some ways, this championship proved different. Unusual was the fact that the Grandmasters outnumbered the International Masters - seven against five. Though five out of six members of the Indian Olympiad team, along with three GMs and an IM from Indonesia, Uzbekistan and Iran were part of the 52-player field, the title-race was still bereft of excitement.

Also strange was the decision of the All India Chess Federation to "incorporate" the Asian under-18 championship for boys and girls. The poor response from foreign players to the age-group event, scheduled in December, had made the federation to go for a mixed event but it only proved a travesty.

On the brighter side, in keeping with the expectations of some Indians making their norms, P. Magesh Chandran and surprise-packet Somak Palit made their maiden IM norms, just as Harika Dronavalli achieved her Woman IM norm.

Uzbek GM Marat Dzhumaev looks on as Dibyendu Barua makes a move during their match. Dzhumaev took the second spot with a better progressive score.-R. V. MOORTHY

However, R. B. Ramesh missed his second GM norm by half a point. He needed to win in the last round, with black, against Iranian GM Ehsan Ghaem Maghami, but drew the game. There was some consolation, though, for him in the form of a third-place finish.

Since the gap between the strong players and the not-so-strong was too wide, it did not come as a surprise when most among the top-10 seeds lived up to the pre-event speculation.

Not surprisingly, the second-seeded Sasikiran remained the only unbeaten player and accumulated 8.5 points to claim the honours with a one-point cushion. The reward for his continued consistency was a cheque of Rs. one lakh.

R. B. Ramesh in action against Saheli Barua. Barring a defeat to Sasikiran, Ramesh played very well to finish third but missed his second GM norm by half a point.-R. V. MOORTHY

There was a five-way tie for the second spot. Uzbek GM Marat Dzhumaev, seeded seven, topped the pack on the basis of a superior progressive score. Ramesh, P. Hari Krishna, Dibyendu Barua and Rahul Shetty also scored 7.5 points and took home Rs. 37,000 each after finishing in that order.

Though much was expected from the top-seeded Indonesian Utut Adianto, he could only finish 10th with seven points - half-a-point ahead of the 13th-placed Uzbek IM Tahir Vakhidov. The fifth seeded Ehsan Ghaem Maghami of Iran was another disappointment as he crashed to four losses in the first eight rounds and ended up a distant 19th in the list of 25 prize winners.

Sasikiran remained on top with another disciplined performance. After starting with a draw against P. D. S. Girinath, Sasikiran won four matches in a row and never let go of the lead for the rest of the tournament. Of his six victories, the one against GM Abhijit Kunte in the ninth round was very crucial. Considering his dismal record against Kunte, the timely victory kept Sasikiran well on course.

The top-seeded Utut Adianto of Indonesia and P. Magesh Chandran making an analysis of their game. While Adianto had a poor outing, Magesh gave an encouraging performance and also gained his maiden IM norm.-R. V. MOORTHY

"Really, for me, this title is nothing special. What is important for me is that I gained 13 Elo points," was how the champion reacted after a friendly draw with Dibyendu Barua in the final round. Sasikiran's previous three titles came at Kozhikode, Hastings and Nagpur.

Dzhumaev, too, began with a draw before scoring three victories, including an extremely lucky one against Dronavalli Harika in the fourth round. The Uzbek then lost to Sasikiran before he recovered with victories over Palit, Barua and Adianto to join the eventual champion in the lead. Ramesh spoilt his chances in the ninth round before he battled to draws against Hari and Kunte.

Ramesh, barring a defeat to Sasikiran, played very well. Of his five victories, the one over Hari was the best. Like in the recent National 'A' championship at Nagpur, Ramesh outplayed the youngster and put him out of the title-hunt. In fact, Ramesh's victories over contenders such as Hari and Dzhumaev helped Sasikiran in the final standings.

The winners in the boys' under-18 category (from left): Poobesh Anand (bronze), P. Harikrishna (gold) and Abhijeet Gupta (silver).-R. V. MOORTHY

Looking back, the best chance for Ramesh to go for his GM norm was by going all out with white pieces against Magesh in the penultimate round. Perhaps, Ramesh got his calculations wrong. A draw left Ramesh in a must-win situation against Maghami and he eventually fell just short.

Hari and Barua were left with mixed feelings. Hari never emerged as a serious challenger to Sasikiran after drawing with Magesh and Palit within five rounds. Following the defeat to Ramesh, it became difficult for Hari to catch up with Sasikiran.

Barua began well but the defeats inflicted by Palit and Marat left him licking his wounds. A well-executed victory plan against Adianto did come as a relief in the penultimate round but by then, Barua was left to fight for the lesser spots.

The medallists in the under-18 girls' section (from left): Eesha Karvade (bronze), D. Harika (gold) and Y. Pratibha (silver).-R. V. MOORTHY

If Sasikiran, Ramesh, Hari and Barua made it to the top-five bracket, it did not come a surprise. What was heartening was the late charge by Rahul Shetty. Seeded 18th, Shetty had just 1.5 points from the first four rounds. But what followed was truly amazing. He won six of the remaining seven rounds, including the last four and jumped to the sixth spot. Interestingly, Shetty won all six matches with white pieces. In fact, Shetty and the 12th-placed K. Ratnakaran were the only players with seven victories in the championship.

Even as double GM-norm holders and IMs Tejas Bakre and D. V. Prasad lost their chance of adding another norm, the focus shifted to youngsters.

One singular factor that made the tournament memorable was the performance of Palit, the reigning National sub-junior champion from Kolkata. He made a 10-game IM-norm with plenty to spare. In fact, he was the only player in the tournament to play six of the seven GMs besides two IMs and a WIM.

Though he had a rating of just 2257, Palit performed like a player with 2443 points. After drawing with Swati Ghate, Palit's victims included Barua, Maghami and Bakre. He gained a winning position against Hari before sharing the point, just as he did later with Kunte. He stands to gain close to 35 Elo points from this event.

Abhijeet Gupta, the 12-year-old Asian age-group gold medallist, was the other youngster who caught everyone's attention. Though Gupta, whose rating is 2192, did not have to face the kind of opposition that Palit encountered, the 36th seed still managed to come up with some creditable results. He drew with Tahir Vakhidov (2503) and Bakre besides beating Shetty. His gain was about 40 points.

Magesh, the former National junior champion, gave another encouraging performance following his maiden National 'A' showing. The very fact that he could afford the luxury of losing the last round and still gain a 12-game norm from a 11-round Swiss league reflects his pattern of scoring. He defeated Maghami and Vakhidov besides drawing with Sasikiran, Hari and Ramesh.

Kunte was among those who disappointed. After starting badly and crashing to defeat to Vedant Goswami, the Pune-based GM posted five wins but the loss to Sasikiran kept him out of the title-race.

Among the ladies, only Saheli Dhar-Barua managed to catch the attention, following her praiseworthy draw with Adianto. She also scalped Girinath, seeded 17. Swati Ghate and Nisha Mohota, the other two WIMs, could not make their presence felt following some very ordinary displays.

Overall, there were gains from this very well-organised event. At the same time, it must be remembered that it could have been better. A stronger field including players from more federations could have made norm-making a little easier.

Besides the prevailing situation on the Rajasthan border, another deterrent for the players travelling to Bikaner was the hefty entry fee, including for those IMs with a rating of less than 2350. It was indeed a discouraging factor for many.

THE less said the better about the idea behind "incorporating the Asian under-18 championship" along with the Asian Open event at Bikaner. It would have been acceptable to host a separate championship for those in the age-group but it was decided to hold the inaugural edition of the 'continental' championship in such a questionable manner.

Consider this: There were only 12 boys and 11 girls in contention of which eight players - four in each section - were unrated. Among the boys, the lone overseas entrant, Minhazuddin Ahmed was the lowest rated player. A look at the girls section reveals that two foreign participants - Bangladesh's Shamina Akther Liza and Sri Lanka's Thushari Mahawaththa - were both unrated.

In fact, even the under-18 championships in States such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra would have invited a stronger field than the one at Bikaner to decide the 'Asian' champions.

The titles, as expected, went to P. Hari Krishna (7.5 points) and Harika Dronavalli (5.5). Still, there were doubts raised over the eligibility of Hari since the impression was created that the youngster was "not interested in being awarded the under-18 title" as he was playing for the Asian Open title.

In fact, even after Sasikiran had annexed the title, the AICF Vice-President S. L. Harsh maintained that Hari would not be awarded the under-18 title since his name did not figure in the official list of entries given to him by the federation. The fact of the matter was that since an entry fee of Rs. 15,000 (for those under-18) was not received from Hari, he was not listed by the AICF.

On being probed further, Harsh was quick to concede that if Hari conveyed his "interest" in taking the title, it would be awarded to him. After all, it would be laughable to insist on Hari paying up Rs. 15,000 as entry fee, especially after he was invited to play in the event for an appearance fee of around Rs. 25,000!

Till this point of time, Hari was oblivious of the developments behind the scene. When apprised, Hari, with an amused look, quickly conveyed his willingness to be crowned the Asian under-18 champion.

The title entitles both Hari and Harika to be directly seeded in the World (under-18) championship. The cash incentives from the Union Government is the added bonus for all the medallists.

Bhilwara-boy Abhijeet (7), who, all along, believed that he would be adjudged the champion by keeping Hari out of contention, had to settle for the second spot, ahead of S. Poobesh Anand (6). Following Harika were Y. Pratibha and Eesha Karavade (5 each).

One only hopes that as and when the next edition of the championship comes along, minds, and not just hearts, should be allowed to take decisions.