Anand, Humpy add strength

HE is back after a self-imposed exile of 12 years, while she is making her long-awaited debut. The presence of Viswanathan Anand and Koneru Humpy has raised hopes of an unprecedented success for India at the 36th Chess Olympiad, starting in Mallorca, Spain, on October 15.

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

Viswanathan Anand... hoping to include the Chess Olympiad in his rich collection. -- Pic. G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR-

HE is back after a self-imposed exile of 12 years, while she is making her long-awaited debut.

The presence of Viswanathan Anand and Koneru Humpy has raised hopes of an unprecedented success for India at the 36th Chess Olympiad, starting in Mallorca, Spain, on October 15. For the first time in the 77-year history of this huge and prestigious biennial team event — the Davis Cup of chess — the Indians figure among the medal contenders, both in the men's and women's events.

These two teams are indeed by far the best ever from India.

More importantly they are also among the world's best teams. Over 2000 players from more than 145 countries are expected for the Olympiad.

Meet first, then, the six Indian men, who could create history in Spain. Led by the planet's best player, they are ready to take on the world.

Team India: Men: Average FIDE rating: 2634, Average Age: 24, Best performance in Olympiad: Eighth — Istanbul, 2000.

VISWANATHAN ANAND

Age: 34. World ranking: 2. FIDE rating: 2871. Sixth Olympiad.

He is the king. "He's God," India's thousands of chess players would protest.

Viswanathan Anand, by just being Viswanathan Anand, has done more to Indian chess than any other man or woman did to any sport in this country. And the World championship he won on the Christmas eve of 2000 in Teheran remains the greatest sporting achievement by an Indian.

FIDE, the world chess governing body, may say that Garry Kasparov is the No. 1 player in the world, but even the staunchest supporter of the Russian would have a tough time explaining why the Indian maestro isn't in that spot. He has won the Chess Oscar (given to the world's best player every year by the writers on the sport from across the globe). He's performed better than anybody else for the last couple of years. And he has won virtually every tournament he's played. Kasparov is No. 1 because FIDE's rating calculations don't care if a player appears in very few tournaments.

They called him the `Lightning Kid' when he made his opening moves on the international stage. He may be taking more time now for his moves than he did as a teenager who stunned the world. But he still has no challenger when it comes to rapid chess.

There are few people in the world, in any sphere, as naturally talented as him. In chess, he's simply the most gifted player after the American Bobby Fischer. He's an improvement on Fischer, because he has diligently nurtured the gift that he was blessed with.

The World championship, the World Cup, the World rapid championship, the World junior title, Linares, Dortmund, Corus, Tilburg... he's won everything in chess. An Olympiad medal is the only thing missing in his collection. Mallorca could very well correct that anomaly.

KRISHNAN SASIKIRAN

Krishnan Sasikiran... has had a good year so far. -- Pic. ARVIND AARON-

Age: 23. World ranking: 35. FIDE rating: 2668. Fourth Olympiad.

He is the Rahul Dravid of Indian chess. Like the ICC Cricketer of the Year from Bangalore, he makes the best use of his abilities. He's solid as a wall too.

He remains the best Indian player after Anand. He's also the only Indian to beat his idol (Anand) in more than a decade. That victory came at the 2002 World Cup in Hyderabad (Anand went on to win the cup). He's beaten two other World champions, Ruslan Ponomariov and Rustam Kasimdzhanov. He beat them within a space of a fortnight; at Biel (Switzerland), where he finished runner-up and at Vlissingen (Holland), where he took the title.

An uncompromising player, Sasi is known for his capacity for hard work. He doesn't stop, either in front of his laptop as he prepares for his games, or at the gym. He's had two excellent Olympiads, at Elista, where he played on the fourth board, and in the next edition at Istanbul, where he played on the first.

He's had a good year so far, having won some important tournaments, including the Asian championship. He had a disappointing time though at the Category 16 tournament in Pune, but he is sure to get back to top form at Mallorca. India needs him to strike on the second board and he knows that.

PENDYALA HARIKRISHNA

India's chances of a medal will depend a great deal on Pendyala Harikrishna's performance on the third board.-- Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

Age: 18. World ranking: 97. FIDE rating: 2612. Third Olympiad.

The most gifted Indian in chess after Anand. He's just broken into the world's top 100 and three months earlier, had crossed the 2600 Elo mark (only the third Indian to achieve either feat), but he's not yet done full justice to his tremendous potential.

His former trainer Evgeny Vladimirov, who helped Kasparov win the World championship in 1985, once said anything was possible with Hari: he could become the World champion or he could be one of those many strong players. With age on his side, he still could climb up the ladder.

He made the headlines in 1996 when he won the World under-10 championship; it was the first World title for an Indian after Anand won the World juniors in 1987. He became a Grandmaster at 15, breaking Anand's National record.

In 2000, he made a splendid Olympiad debut at 14. He played a crucial role in India finishing eighth, a creditable effort indeed for a team without Anand. At Mallorca, India's chances of a medal will depend a great deal on his performance on the third board. If he could play the way he did at the Category 16 Super GM tournament at Pune in September (he finished third in a tough field), India chances of a medal will get a big boost.

ABHIJIT KUNTE

Abhijit Kunte had an indifferent Olympiad in Bled and he is keen to wipe off that memory in Mallorca. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

Age: 27. World ranking: 289. FIDE rating: 2550. Fourth Olympiad.

He was India's star in Istanbul 2000. A terrific performance on the second board from this amiable player from Pune helped India to record its best-ever performance ever. Playing brilliant chess, he won five of his 11 games, shocking his higher-rated rivals. His rating performance was a career-best 2715.

This former British Open champion may have to play on one of the lower boards this time around, but the team man he is, he would be happy to do that, for the sake of the country. His very presence and experience — this is his fourth straight Olympiad — will strengthen the Indian lower boards considerably.

He's been an integral part of the Indian team for six consecutive years. That's no mean feat with the emergence of so many younger players of late. Neither was his winning the National `A' title in 1997 after finishing last in the same tourney a year before.

Kunte had an indifferent Olympiad in Bled and he is keen to wipe off that memory in Mallorca.

SURYA SHEKHAR GANGULY

Surya Shekhar Ganguly... played consistently on the third board and completed his GM title at Bled. -- Pic. S. PATRONOBISH-

Age: 21. World ranking: 250. FIDE rating: 2559. Third Olympiad.

In a disappointing campaign for the Indian men at the Bled Olympiad, especially in the backdrop of their splendid show in Istanbul, he was the silver lining. He played consistently well on the third board and he was rewarded with a GM norm. In fact he completed his GM title at Bled.

He was only 19 then, but he felt he should have got his title long ago. True, the Kolkatan used to be in the news a decade ago as a young schoolboy prodigy, long before the Harikrishnas and Humpys arrived in the Indian chess scene.

He pipped Harikrishna, and his closest friend in chess, Sandipan Chanda, in a dramatic climax in last year's National men's `A' championship to win India's most important domestic title. In a marathon, 23-round competition, he made just one bad move and lost just one game.

His mother's birthday had fallen during the tournament. He had said the title was the special gift he had promised her for her birthday. Now he's hoping to give her an Olympiad medal as his gift for her birthday this year.

SANDIPAN CHANDA

Sandipan Chanda has made rapid progress over the last couple of years, doing pretty well in tournaments overseas. -- Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

Age: 21. World ranking: 325. FIDE rating: 2543. First Olympiad.

He's probably the surprise inclusion in this team. But nobody would grudge his presence, not even Dibyendu Barua, his city-mate from Kolkata whom he's replaced.

And Chanda made the squad in style too, tying for the title with Ganguly, with whom he graduated from the Goodricke National Chess Academy in Kolkata. He's made rapid progress over the last couple of years, doing pretty well in tournaments overseas.

And he is in good form going into Mallorca. He won the title in the Curacao Chess Festival, in the Caribbean, in August and followed it up soon with a fine effort at the Category 16 Super GM tournament in Pune. He showed he could compete with confidence against some of the toughest players in the world. Two defeats at the death, both to compatriots, saw him finish in the bottom half in the end, but he surely was one of the gains for India from the nation's biggest closed event of its kind.

He's grown in stature and confidence after Pune. India will benefit from that in Mallorca.

Better chance

Now meet the ladies. They are expected to do even better than the men, as the competition, though strong, is not as strong as it is in the men's event. They are hesitant to admit it on record, but it's only the colour of the medal they are doubtful about.

Team India: Women: Average FIDE rating: 2398, Average age: 20, Best performance in Olympiad: 14th place — Elista, 1998.

KONERU HUMPY

Koneru Humpy's sheer presence has turned the Indian women's team from an average side to a serious contender. -- Pic. T. A. HAFEEZ-

Age: 17. World ranking: 6. Elo rating: 2503. First Olympiad.

She's the queen. And she almost extended her empire from India and Asia to the entire world earlier this year when she reached the semifinals of the Women's World championship in Elista. The question about her getting that ultimate title in international women's chess is not if, it's only when.

She may have to wait for another year before she could apply for a driving license, but on the chessboard she took a license to kill long ago. Big reputations and bigger male egos have melted in front of her like ice before fire. She's India's answer to the one and only Judit Polgar, the pretty woman from Hungary, who is the World's No. 9 among men. Fittingly, she broke Polgar's record to become the world's youngest female to get the male Grandmaster title.

And she's sunk more records and won more titles than she could remember. She's the youngest World junior champion ever. She's the only Indian girl to win boys' championships at the Asian and National levels. She's the only female in India — and one of the very few anywhere else in the world — to win an International men's GM tournament. She's the only player till date to win a hat-trick of World age-group titles. She's the only... well, there's a word-limit to this story.

She made it to the Olympiad team in sensational fashion, winning 15 games, and drawing the remaining two, at the National women's `A' championship last year. A couple of months later, she nearly qualified for India's men's team too, from the National men's `A', where she was the first player to take the sole lead.

She's captained an Indian men's team, at the Asian team championship last year, before leading a women's squad. By her sheer presence she's turned this Indian team from an average side to a serious contender — even for the gold medal — at Mallorca.

S. VIJAYALAKSHMI

S. Vijayalakshmi... there's nothing she relishes more than fighting for the country. -- Pic. S. RAMESH KURUP-

Age: 25. World ranking: 44. Elo rating: 2411. Fourth Olympiad.

She is a fighter. And there's nothing she relishes more than fighting for the country. S. Vijayalakshmi transforms herself into a stronger player than she actually is when she sees the tricolour. Much like Leander Paes.

The articulate Chennaiite may not among the world's top players in women's chess. She's ranked 44th in fact. But in the last two Olympiads, she won the individual silver on the top board, pushing behind many of those higher-ranked players. No Indian woman has won a medal at the Olympiad. No Indian, man or woman, has won it twice.

In 2000, she became India's first Woman Grandmaster. She was the National champion for five years in a row from 1998.

Koneru Humpy may have taken the National title, the captaincy and the top board at the Olympiad as well as the throne of the queen of Indian women's chess from her, but she has a significant presence in the sport in this country. And she lends experience to this inexperienced, though hugely talented team.

After playing on the top board in the last three Olympiads, she will be on the second in Mallorca. And she could be even more dangerous there. Another individual medal is very much possible, but she would be happy to trade all her individual glory for that more important medal for the team.

DRONAVALLI HARIKA

Dronavalli Harika... a fearless player. -- Pic. T. A. HAFEEZ-

Age: 13. Elo rating: 2391. First Olympiad.

She is a star in the making. Correction — she is a big star in the making.

We in India have known that ever since she qualified for the National women's `A' at the age of 10. The world could very well discover her in Mallorca.

She wasn't playing in her best form during the National women's `A' last year, the qualifying event for the Olympiad. But she could still make the team. That of course is the mark of a good player. She was placed fourth in the competition and thus just met the qualifying mark.

But she will be playing on the third board in her debut Olympiad (though Nisha Mohota had finished third in the National women's `A'). She's been promoted up the order by the coach Ruslan Scherbakov because she is a fearless player. He'd made his decision during that Women's `A' tourney itself, a year ago. He was impressed by the way she fought against Humpy, who had crushed the rest of the opposition. She was the only one who played the position and not the player; and she stopped Humpy's incredible sequence of 11 straight wins.

Humpy is her hero in chess. At Mallorca she must be feeling a little like what Virender Sehwag felt when he walked out to a cricket ground for the first time along with Sachin Tendulkar.

NISHA MOHOTA

Nisha Mohota... realisation of one of her big dreams. -- Pic. S. THANTONI-

Age: 24. Elo rating: 2286. First Olympiad.

Her e-mail address begins with the word `dreamer'. Mallorca is the realisation of one of her big dreams — the Olympiad.

This small-made, pleasantly-mannered Kolkatan is one of the nicest girls you would come across in chess. She's also one of the strongest players in the women's game in India.

It wasn't easy to make this Olympiad squad. Its qualification event, the National women's `A' championship, was the longest and the toughest in history. And she came third, behind Humpy and Vijayalakshmi. A jinx was finally broken. She could make the Indian team in an Olympiad year.

A few months before that, another of her dreams had come true. She finally became a Woman Grandmaster, thanks also to a laptop she was gifted by a stranger after reading a brief newspaper report. And when she got a laptop of her own, she presented the one that was given to her by that kind-hearted NRI to a promising, young player from her own city.

For her, being in Mallorca is cause enough for celebration. But she is dreaming of helping India win the gold.

* * *

ELIZBAR UBILAVA (Georgia), Coach, Indian men's team, says:

The men's Olympiad is a very tough competition; it always has been. But I feel this Indian team has the potential to do well at Mallorca.

With Vishy Anand leading the team, a medal isn't unlikely, though we should rather be quiet and humble now, rather than speaking of the medal prospects.

Luck also plays a crucial role at the Olympiad, especially with the pairing in the last few rounds. Those rounds in fact could decide the medals.

The Russians are the clear favourites for the gold. They are too good with so many world class players. But I think we have as much chance as any of the other top teams.

Besides Anand, we have two strong players in Sasikiran and Harikrishna.

Then Kunte, Ganguly and Chanda are also very talented. And when they have a captain like Anand, they would be inspired to come up with their best.

* * *

RUSLAN SCHERBAKOV (Russia), Coach, Indian women's team, says:

This team could win a medal. I'm delighted that Humpy is playing on the top board for us. At the Bled Olympiad, we had to depend solely on Viji, and though she worked hard and played excellent chess, our team couldn't get a decent placing, because she didn't get enough support from other players.

At Mallorca though, things are going to be different; this is a very strong team. With Humpy on the top board, and Viji on the second, we could take on any top team in the world. Then Harika on the third board could be a dangerous customer. And Nisha is a very useful player to have on the reserve board.

Compared to Bled, we got much more time to prepare this year. Since the Olympiad is played over 14 rounds and you need to be physically strong, I made the girls do a lot of physical training too.

China, Georgia, Russia and the U.S. will have strong teams at Mallorca. But on our day, we could beat any of them.