Airlines ends Petroleum's winning streak

A FORGETTABLE week for the mighty Petroleum provided Indian Airlines with memories to cherish for a long, long time.

RAKESH RAO

Tejas Bakre ... architects of Airlines' victory. — Pic. RAMESH KURUP & R. V. MOORTHY-

A FORGETTABLE week for the mighty Petroleum provided Indian Airlines with memories to cherish for a long, long time.

Much to the surprise of all, the 28th edition of the National team chess championship at Pune saw Airlines end Petroleum's streak of seven successive titles. What more, Airlines not only got the better of the favourite in their much awaited showdown but also emerged as an unbeaten combination in the 34-team field.

In the women's section, local girls from Buddhibal Kreeda Trust won ahead of Tamil Nadu and Life Insurance Corporation, just like they had done last year.

But everything else was pushed to the background when second seed Airlines nosed ahead of the Petroleum in the title-race after its 2.5-1.5 victory in the third round. The country's latest Grandmaster Tejas Bakre, International Masters Chandrashekhar Gokhale, S. Satyapragyan, S. Vijayalakshmi and Rahul Shetty joined hands to pull off the biggest upset of the championship in recent years.

Airlines' tally of 21 points stood half-a-point more than Petroleum's aggregate. Airlines received Rs. 30,250 and Petroleum, Rs. 18,700. Former champions Banks' Sports Board and Tamil Nadu `A' were followed by LIC to form the top-five bracket. But effectively, the championship was more about the close title-race involving the top two teams.

Petroleum, which employs some of the big names of the country's chess, had been justifying its strength by winning every time since 1998 at Moga (Punjab). Even this time, the average rating of Petroleum's top players was as much as 2542, way ahead of second seed Airlines' 2423. But for once, reputation and history did not help Petroleum's cause.

On the other hand, Airlines settled for the runner-up slot at Vijayawada in 2001 and finished third three times ever since Petroleum arrived on the scene. A couple of times in the past, Petroleum had made up for the slow start but this time, things did not quite go its way.

National champion Surya Shekhar Ganguly and National `B' champion R. B. Ramesh never really got going. The vastly experienced Lanka Ravi, the only non-GM in the five-member squad, lost the crucial third-round match to Airlines' S. Satyapragyan and stayed out of action. On the brighter side, Sandipan Chanda and captain Abhijit Kunte contributed to the tally every time but in the end, it did not prove enough.

Individually, Tejas was the pick of the championship. This 22-year-old from Ahmedabad returned to competitions after a three-month lay-off following the completion of his GM-title requirements and led from the front. On the top board, he scored a whopping 5.5 points from six matches. Ironically, he still could not bag the board-prize because Maharashtra's Vikramaditya Kamble scored six points, with victories including one over Ganguly in the second round.

S. Satyapragyan-

Two other stars of Airlines' hour of glory were Satyaprayan and Vijayalakshmi. Satyapragyan duly walked away with the third-board prize by scoring six points, while Vijayalakshmi contributed 5.5 points. This undefeated duo could not be rested since Rahul Shetty did not inspire much confidence in the two matches he played. In fact, Vijayalakshmi's triumph over Ramesh and Satyapragyan's fortuitous victory over Lanka Ravi brought the much-needed belief in the Airlines camp that it could actually go all the way.

"I guess, this time, we had the kind of team spirit like never before," said Tejas after the team's unprecedented triumph. "After we scored over Petroleum (in the third round), all of us were very keen to go out there and play. Usually, the strategy in a team event is to try and hold on the first two boards and strike on the lower boards. Fortunately, my form remained good throughout. With Satyapragyan and Vijayalakshmi doing what was expected of them, I think, to a large extent, Gokhale's loss of form was not felt," observed the winning captain.

Satyapragyan, who has always done well in the team championship, particularly against Petroleum, gave credit to Tejas for winning quickly in most games. "Early wins on the top board makes the other playing members to concentrate harder to consolidate the gains. We all worked hard to see that the result of the top board was not nullified due to our lack of commitment," said the recently confirmed Airlines officer.

For Kunte, too, it was not difficult to point out the reasons for Petroleum's below par performance. "What can a team do when three of its players struggle," said an understandably dejected captain of Petroleum. "Looking back, I feel, I should have played against Airlines. That was a mistake. But then, who would have thought we could lose two games in a match. Even after that, we had our chances but we did not beat the weaker teams with a bigger margin. Having said that, I must also add that many players, when they play us with white pieces, often look for a draw by adopting lines that lead to `dead' positions. This surely puts added pressure on us to pull off victories. No doubt, as Grandmasters, we are expected to win against these players but it is not always possible especially if you are not happy with your form," reasoned Kunte, who played his first tournament after getting married in March and still managed to claim a board prize.

Indeed, Ganguly's form was most disappointing. One does not recall Ganguly going winless for three straight rounds in any domestic competition as he did in this competition. After Kamble declined his draw offer before beating him in the second round, Ganguly drew with Tejas and Central Revenue's Satchidanand Soman — another player who refused Ganguly's offer of peace. Even against South Central Railway's P. D. S. Girinath, Ganguly's position was vulnerable at one stage. Tamil Nadu's Deepan Chakkravarthy was the other player to prove equal to the strongest player of the tournament. In all, Petro<147,2,1>leum dropped 7.5 points owing to three defeats and nine draws.

In the crucial final round encounter, Tamil Nadu `A' drew on three boards to spoil Petroleum's calculations. On the top table, Airlines, which had entered the final round against LIC with a one-point lead over Petroleum, just about managed to come out unscathed.

Vikramaditya Kamble won the Board prizes in the men's and women's sections respectively. -- Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA & V. GANESAN-

In any case, it was never going to be easy for Petroleum with Ganguly and Ramesh far from their best. Ganguly drew with Deepan on the top board and Ramesh did likewise with K. Gunasekharan on the fourth. At this stage, Abhijit Kunte enjoyed a better position against Poobesh Anand and Chanda was engaged in an equal battle with R. Balasubramanium.

Meanwhile, on the top table, Tejas continued his irrepressible form by scoring over Sriram Jha for his fifth victory in six outings. Shortly, Vijayalakshmi drew with Atanu Lahiri by threatening perpetual checks and this result raised visions of Airlines dethroning Petroleum.

Before Gokhale surrendered to Dinesh Kumar Sharma and Satyapragyan drew with Anup Deshmukh to complete a 2-2 result, Kunte's victory over Poobesh did little to raise Petroleum's hopes since Chanda looked in trouble. By this time, it became clear that Petroleum had left itself too much to catch up with. Later, Chanda managed to escape with a draw but Airlines had made sure of the title.

Banks Sports Board finished a point clear of Tamil Nadu to take the third spot. This was despite Pravin Thipsay suffering first-ever defeats to Tejas and Sriram Jha in successive rounds. Thispay's old friend Sharad Tilak provided some solace to the team by scoring 3.5 points from four outings for the reserve board prize.

Y. Prathiba-

The junior combination of Buddhibal Kreeda Trust was the best in its category. Creditably, Tejas Kondedeshmukh won all his five matches and was duly adjudged the best on the fourth board.

The women's section produced performances on expected lines with Buddhibal Kreeda Trust retaining the title. In fact, out of the six teams, three were never in the hunt. LIC, despite the services of Woman Grandmasters Nisha Mohota and Swati Ghate, failed to lift the team from the third spot due to lack of support from the lower boards. Tamil Nadu girls, who finished half a point behind the champion, had reasons to rue the top board draw, lasting 80 moves, of Y. Prathiba against a much younger Priyanka Kumari of Sersa Academy.

Eventually, for BKT, the young combination of Anuprita Patil, Soumya Swaminathan, Amruta Mokal, Devangi Patankar and Priya Upase did just enough to pip the challenge of the more experienced Tamil Nadu girls.

As an organiser, too, BKT did an impressive job. The team headed by Prakash Kunte, Abhijit's father, worked hard behind the scene and the results were noticeably encouraging. The sponsorship support of Indian Oil, KPIT Cummins and Union Bank was a good sign since the team championship, despite the presence of Grandmasters and Woman Grandmasters, has not been getting the attention it deserves.

However, most surprising was the response in the women's section. Considering the All India Chess Federations has over 50 affiliates, the presence of just six teams reflected how the States and academies viewed the only team championship in the country. Improved participation is sure to make the championship more meaningful for the ladies.

The results:

Men's Standings (top 12): 1. Indian Airlines (21), 2. Petroleum (20.5), 3. Banks Sports Board (19), 4. Tamil Nadu `A' (18), 5-6. LIC and Maharashtra (17.5), 7. South Central Railway (17), 8-9. Central Revenue and Sersa Academy (16). 10-12. Western Railway, Buddhibal Kreeda Trust (Jr.) and Tamil Nadu `B' (15.5).

Board prizes: First (Rs. 12,100): Vikramaditya Kamble (Maharashtra) 6/6;Second: (Rs. 9,400) Abhijit Kunte (Petroleum) 4.5/5; Third (Rs. 6,000): S. Satyapragyan (IA) 6/7; Fourth (Rs. 4,900): Tejas Kondedeshmukh (BKT) 5/5; Reserve (Rs. 3,900): Sharad Tilak (BSB) 3.5/4.

Women's Standings: 1. Buddhibal Kreeda Trust (Maharashtra) (16.5 points); 2. Tamil Nadu (16); 3. LIC (14); 4. Sersa Academy (8.5), 5. Chandigarh (3), 6. J&K (0).

Board prizes: First (Rs. 5,000): Y. Prathiba (TN) 4/5; Second (Rs. 3,000): Swati Ghate (LIC) 5/5 ; Third (Rs. 1,800): Amruta Mokal (BKT) 4.5/5; Fourth (Rs. 1,200): C. V. Rajalakshmi (TN) 3/4; Reserve (Rs. 1,000): Priya Upase (BKT) 3/3.

Best junior team (Rs. 6,000): Buddhibal Kreeda Trust (15.5).

Best sub-junior team (Rs. 6,000): Young Masters Academy (15).