Aiming for the Team Gold

Watching the opening and closing ceremonies of huge sporting events like the Olympics and the Asian Games on television, Pendyala Harikrishna (in pic), sometimes, used to wonder how it would be to march behind one's national flag in front of the huge audience. Come December 1, he would experience the feeling, first hand.

Chess is all set to make a historic opening move in Doha. It may be a small step for the Asian Games Movement, but a significant one for chess. According to Harikrishna, moving into the sporting mainstream would do the mind game a world of good. "Now more people will follow the sport, and there will be more media attention," he said.

Harikrishna represents a young Indian squad that starts as the favourite to win the gold medal in the team event. Krishnan Sasikiran and Koneru Humpy are his team-mates. That India is able to send such a strong team despite the absence of its best player, Viswanathan Anand, the World No. 2, underlines the country's depth in chess. The best thing about this Indian team, besides its youth, is that it doesn't have a weakness. That is something not many of the 22 countries vying for medals in chess in Doha could claim.

The players in the Indian team are talented, consistent, willing to work hard and, despite an average age of 21.33, experienced campaigners at the international level. Both Harikrishna and Humpy are former World junior champions, while Sasikiran has been India's best performing male player after Anand for the last few years. "This Indian team could come home with the gold — yes, even without Anand," said Praveen Thipsay, the Mumbai-based veteran Grandmaster.

India will be the top seed in Doha. In the individual events, Sasikiran and Harikrishna — World No. 31 and 32 respectively — will be seeded first and second in the men's section, while Humpy, the World No. 2, will be the top seed in the women's section.

"Seeding could mean little when the actual competition begins," warned Sasikiran. "Of course, we have the potential to strike gold in the team event, but it is important that we do consistently well right through the event. We need to preserve our stamina till the end."

The team medals will be decided over nine rounds of classical chess, with three players — two men and a woman — representing each country, while the men's and women's individual competitions will be played over nine rounds of rapid chess (of much shorter duration).

India's main challenge for the team gold will come from China, comprising Bu Xiangzhi, Wang Yue and Zhao Xue. "There could be stiff resistance from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Qatar and Vietnam too," said Humpy. "I am really looking forward to it and am sure that it will be a great experience."

As far as the women's individual event is concerned, there are some strong players like Zhao Xue and Zhu Chen, who is playing for Qatar.

Thipsay, however, feels that Humpy should win the gold. "She is the best female player in the world after Judit Polgar, who doesn't play with women any way. She shouldn't have too many problems in Doha," he said.

Former FIDE world champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov of Uzbekistan will start as the favourite in the men's section though he will be seeded behind Sasikiran and Harikrishna. He is extremely good at rapid chess, as he showed by winning the Corsica Masters in France recently, defeating Anand, the world's best rapid player ever.

"But, then, anything can happen in this version of chess," said Thipsay. "Both Sasi and Hari can play rapid well too."

"It is the team title gold we badly need to win," said Harikrishna. "It would be great to win a medal for the country in an event like the Asian Games," he added.

P. K. Ajith Kumar