A rare display of grit and skill

S. Vijayalakshmi was the unlikely hero of the Commonwealth chess championship held in Mumbai recently. Her stunning show overshadowed the performances of the Open champion Nguyen Anh Dung of Vietnam and the Commonwealth men's winner Dibyendu Barua.

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

REMEMBER that hundred Canada's John Davidson made against the West Indies in the World Cup in South Africa?

"I would like to make the GM norms as quickly as possible," says Vijayalakshmi. — Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

Remember the incredible run the South Koreans had at the last football World Cup in front of their home crowds?

Sport has this great capacity to throw up unlikely heroes.

S. Vijayalakshmi was the unlikely hero of the Commonwealth chess championship held in Mumbai recently. Her stunning show overshadowed the performances of the Open champion Nguyen Anh Dung of Vietnam and the Commonwealth men's winner Dibyendu Barua.

It was a heroic effort because Viji, a woman player who was seeded 35th, came second in the Commonwealth men's championship. It was a heroic effort because she tied for the runner-up spot in a field that had 137 players, including 23 Grandmasters (GM). It was a heroic effort because she defeated two men GMs in as many days, after drawing with two other men GMs in the two previous games.

It was the kind of performance that Indian chess doesn't get to witness every day. Not that Viji is a completely unheard sportsperson such as the cricketer Davidson. But, to actually do that well against opponents of that level was something even she did not expect. It normally happens more often in dreams than in real life.

"It does seem a bit unreal," she told The Sportstar the next morning. "I think it will take me some time to realise the magnitude of what I have achieved."

But those who saw her do that, and those, who suffered at her hands, admitted that it was a rare display of grit and skill. "This girl is a dangerous player," said Uzbekistan GM Marat Dzhumaev, one of the lucky men who didn't run into Viji in her murderous mood. "I have played her before and I had a tough time."

Vasillios Kotronias wasn't as lucky as Dzhumaev. The third-seeded Greek GM, who is representing Cyprus these days, met the 24-year-old Chennai player in the final round and was offered a draw twice. He refused both times, and promptly lost. "She is already playing like a GM," said Kotronias, generous in defeat.

A day earlier, Viji had shocked Zhang Peng Xiang of China, who also said he was impressed by her. Before that she had drawn with two Indian GMs — Krishnan Sasikiran, who admitted he was lucky to have drawn a game which he easily could have lost, and Surya Shekhar Ganguly, who came face to face with her fighting qualities.

Viji, a Deputy Manager at Indian Airlines, didn't have a flying start to her campaign, though. She had to share points with the lesser-rated players such as Kruttika Nadig and Vikramaditya Kamble in the earlier rounds. But as it turned out, she was saving her best for the later stages.

She had come to Mumbai in good form. She helped the India `A' team win the bronze medal at the Asian women's team championship in Jodhpur. She had shocked the World champion Zhu Chen there. And she had won her second successive silver medal at the Olympiad in Slovenia late last year.

Excerpts from an interview with one of India's most articulate chess players.

Question: How do you feel now, a day after?

Answer: I feel great, but it hasn't sunk in yet. I know it is a big achievement, but I think it will take some time for me to realise its full importance.

Have you ever played as well as you did here?

Possibly not. Rating-wise too, this was my best performance. I feel the only time I have played as well as this was perhaps the Olympiad in Slovenia. There too, I faced strong players and I did well against them. Of course, I played only against women there (smiles).

This is your best show in an Open tournament after the Wipro GM tournament in Hyderabad in 2000 when you beat three GMs, Sasikiran, Abhijit Kunte and Maxim Sorokin.

Yes. That tournament was also special because I had completed my Woman Grandmaster (WGM) title there.

Don't you think you played better chess here than you did in Hyderabad?

Definitely. I may have beaten three GMs in Hyderabad, but the quality of my games here was much better. I think I also played well at the GM tournament at Kozhikode in 2001. I had come close to a GM norm there as well.

Do you regret the half-a-point you lost against Sasikiran?

Probably yes. I know that I should have won that game and the half-a-point there could have given me the GM norm. At the same time I am also happy that I was able to force a strong player such as Sasikiran into trouble.

Which one do you think was your best game here?

The one against Ganguly in the eighth round. I thought I played a near flawless game. I had to fight for the draw. I was playing black and I offered an exchange sacrifice — which would fetch me equality — but he did not take it. But after a few moves I forced him to accept it. And of course I enjoyed my wins against Zhang Peng Xiang and Kotronias. It is always great beating strong players like them.

What were your expectations for this tournament?

To be honest, none. I came here with an open mind. I didn't think about norms or Elo points. I didn't want to put any kind of pressure on myself. I just wanted to play good chess, that's all. Come to think of it, it was also the way I approached the Slovenia Olympiad. And there too I had an excellent tournament. (Smiles) May be that's the way I should play in all my tournaments.

How do you look back at the Asian team championship at Jodhpur?

I feel we could have done better, though we did win the bronze. It was great to beat China. Personally, I will cherish the win I scored against the World champion Zhu Chen.

How tough was losing the National women's `A' crown to Aarthie Ramaswamy in January? You were losing the title after winning it for five years in a row.

It was very tough. Not just because I lost it. You know, Meenu (Meenakshi) took it very personally. You may recall that it was her loss against Aarthie in the final round that spoilt my chances. And she was actually winning that game, when she messed up. She felt she was responsible for my losing the title. And that made me feel bad. The entire family was very upset.

Don't you feel that your rating has never really reflected your real strength? Anyone would agree that you are a much better player than your current rating of 2414.

Yes, my rating has never been a true indicator of my true strength. I would be getting a few points here, so I do hope to improve my rating a bit.

Do you think the women's game is getting its due in the country?

The All India Chess Federation is doing a good job, holding so many tournaments. But I would like to have some tournaments exclusively for women so that many of our players could try for their WGM norms. And there should be more Open GM tournaments like the one we had here.

Are you planning to play some GM tournaments so that you could go for your norms?

I'm not thinking about tournaments now. Of course I would like to make the GM norms as quickly as possible, but right now I am more concerned about my Master of Financial Management examinations.