Another feather in Sasikiran's cap

RAKESH RAO

SUCCESS is proving to be a loyal companion for K. Sasikiran. Performing with the kind of consistency seldom shown by an Indian sportsperson, the 21-year-old won his fifth straight title by claiming the honours in the Rs. 3.5-lakh International Grandmasters chess tournament at Raipur.

GM K. Sasikiran with the Chief Minister's Trophy.-R.V. MOORTHY

Following title-triumphs at Hastings, Kozhikode, Nagpur and Bikaner, it was natural to expect Sasikiran to extend his string of success. And he did that with another defeat-free performance. The twice National champion never trailed in the 11-round competition and signed off in style by beating the top-seeded Kazakh Kotsur Pavel in the final round to rightfully lift the Chattisgarh Chief Minister's Trophy.

The title was worth Rs. 1 lakh, but Sasikiran chose to view the gain of 12 Elo points as the bigger benefit. "The Elo points mean more to me. The title is nothing special," reiterated Sasikiran. In fact, even after winning the Asian Open at Bikaner in the previous fortnight, Sasikiran had felt the same way.

Though Sasikiran's Elo rating as per the latest list stands at 2569, his gains from the last five tournaments have now raised it to around 2625. Without doubt, Sasikiran is playing at a different level than any other player in the country.

Sasikiran went about his task in a business-like manner. He won the first five matches, drew the next five before overpowering Pavel in what was a virtual final. A tally of 8.5 points put him half-point clear of Russian Andrey Shariyazdanov and Iranian Ehsan Ghaem Maghami, who received Rs. 60,000 each.

Pavel, along with Russians Alexander Fominyh and Ruslan Sherbakov tied for the fourth place with 7.5 points each. Sandipan Chanda and Uzbek GM Marat Dzhumaev were next with seven points apiece, just ahead of the 12-player Indian pack at 6.5 points.

The field of 63 included 11 Grandmasters, 13 International Masters, a Woman Grandmaster and five Woman International Masters. Clearly, among the open tournaments hosted in the country, the field should rank as the toughest outside the annual Goodricke tournament in Kolkata.

Pavel, who reached the city after the second round had commenced, replaced Sasikiran as the top-seed and almost went on to justify his stature. It was indeed creditable that Pavel, despite playing a round less than Sasikiran, caught up with the eventual champion on the top board in the final round. Shariyazdanov, the third leader after the penultimate round, drew quickly with teammate Sherbakov and left the field open for Sasikiran and Pavel to fight it out for the title.

In fact, this tournament once again brought forth the lesser-known fact about the Indians being grossly under-rated as compared to their western counterparts. None could have backed this statement more than Maxim Sorokin, a Russian who represents his once-adopted country Argentina. As a trainer, Sorokin likes the attitude of the Indian players but as a player, he must have learnt a thing or two about their competitive nature.

Sorokin, seeded three, faced only Indians with an average rating of 2377 and posted victories over K. Visweswaran, P. D. S. Girinath and P. Konguvel. His defeats came against N. Sudhakar Babu and Lanka Ravi. As a result of scoring just six points, Sorokin ended up a distant 23rd.

Sherbakov, who matched Sorokin step for step even after eight rounds, also agreed that the ratings of many Indians were surely misleading. Unlike Sorokin, Sherbakov managed to come up with a fairly strong finish, scoring three points in the last four rounds and gaining the sixth spot.

Even as the foreigners continued to struggle, more so in the first week, quite a few Indians had their moments. Players like Chanda, P. Magesh Chandran, Deepan Chakkravarthy, Neeraj Kumar Mishra, Prathmesh Mokal, S. Kidambi, P. D. S. Girinath, N. Sanjay and C. J. Arvind were among those who managed creditable results against the overseas GMs.

Another glorious reason that made the tournament memorable was the fact that it gave the country its 30th International Master. Magesh collected his third IM-norm - second in succession - to live up to a long-standing expectation.

The genial 18-year-old Magesh, fresh from playing his first National 'A' and gaining his second IM-norm from the Asian Open at Bikaner, revealed a lot of grit on way to gaining the title-norm. Though he had four victories, no less significant were the draws with GMs Sherbakov, Kotsur, Thipsay and Barua. Creditably, Magesh drew with Thipsay and Barua from seemingly inferior positions and that too, when squeezing out a draw was a must for him. This teenager, for sure, is promising a great deal more.

Madurai schoolboy Deepan Chakkravarthy and Pune's college-student Prathamesh Mokal were the others to benefit from this norm-making opportunity. They made their maiden IM-norms, though in contrasting styles.

The 15-year-old Deepan, sponsored by Sterlite Copper, began in a rock-solid manner. He humbled S. Vijayalakshmi, dumped Sriram Jha and upstaged Uzbek GM Marat Dzhumaev. Successive losses to Sasikiran and Maghami did not dampen his spirits. He drew with Kidambi, lost to Sherbakov before splitting the point with Saptarshi Roy Chowdhury. He met P. Konguvel next and a quickly-agreed draw gave him an IM-norm. The following day, Deepan celebrated the feat by defeating Jayant Gokhale. In the final round, Deepan lost to Tejas Bakre. But by then, Deepan had already accomplished the job he had come for.

Unlike Deepan, Mokal had a topsy-turvy journey enroute to his norm. A missed round against Bakre and the defeat to Lanka Ravi in the second resulted in a nightmarish start to Mokal's campaign. A draw with S. Satyapragyan, followed by victories over youngsters Abhijeet Gupta and unrated Himanshu Kumar surely made him feel better. A point shared with Deepsen Gupta and the one gained from Yogesh Gore kept his hopes alive. Then came the loss to Alexander Fominyh which he made up by beating Anup Deshmukh in the next round.

At this stage, Mokal needed to face two higher rated overseas players, from different federations, and gain at least 1.5 points to fulfil the technical requirements of the norm. He drew with Sorokin before getting extremely lucky to win on time against the double GM-norm holder Uzbek IM Tahir Vakhidov. In fact, it was a seemingly lost position for Mokal when the 'faulty' clock rescued the youngster just in time. It was Mokal's turn to play when the clock showed that Vakhidov had run out of time. The Uzbek was obviously peeved. He protested both vocally and in writing. But the Appeals Committee turned down the protest citing absence of any witness and insufficient evidence. So the last decisive match of the event gave a much-relieved Mokal his first IM-norm.

On the other hand, GM-norm aspirants Sandipan Chanda and Lanka Ravi were not as lucky and missed their goals narrowly. Chanda, the best Indian on view after Sasikiran, could not encash on a must-win situation against Maghami in the final round. In the penultimate round, Ravi overlooked a simple winning continuation before losing to Pavel.

On the brighter side, Chanda gained 14 Elo points after finishing seventh while Ravi, who finished 12th, added 20 points.

But the man who gained the most was the seasoned Neeraj Kumar Mishra. He made an addition of 30 points following his 10th-place finish. Mishra, whose inconsistency has kept his rating down to 2321, performed like a player with rating of 2521!

Though Mishra lost to Sasikiran and Abhijit Kunte, he had victories against Magesh, R. B. Ramesh, Ravi Kumar and Vijayalakshmi. Of the five draws that Mishra was involved in, the one against Shariyazdanov was most creditable. Even the friendly draws with long-time friend Varugeese Koshy and a struggling Sorokin added to Mishra's gains.

Among the major losers were Sorokin and Swati Ghate. Sorokin, a familiar name in Indian chess circles due to his frequent visits to the country as a trainer, failed to get his act together and lost 20 points.

Swati's slump in form continued. In a continuation of her dismal performance at Bikaner, the 25th-seeded WIM collected just 4.5 points and crashed to the 56th spot in the field of 63 competitors. She lost the first four rounds, opened her account with a bye, before surrendering to inexperienced youngsters like Vijay Keerthi and unrated K. Narayanan. A tally of just 2.5 points against eight rated rivals reflected the unenviable position that Swati found herself in. The bigger blow was the loss of 26 Elo points.

However, in spite of the tears Swati sheds after every unpleasant outcome, her tenacity over the board is sure to script a strong comeback in times to come.

The performances apart, the event will also be remembered for the manner in which the organisers made the players feel so special. No wonder, these players so eagerly looked forward to coming back.

Superb organisation

A TEAM of dedicated people made the International Grandmasters chess tournament at Raipur what it eventually turned out to be - a phenomenal success.

In terms of organisational skills, the team set an example of sorts. What they lacked in experience of holding a mega chess event, they made up with their passionate approach. With the Chief Minister, Mr. Ajit Jogi, as the Chairman of the Organising Committee, there was ample motivation for other members to give off their best. And they did.

A couple of reasonably good hotels, an air-conditioned playing hall and a promptly available transport facility were there for everyone to see. But what touched the players and the officials alike was the affection shown by those they came in contact with. Clearly, the warmth of the people behind the show could not be missed. The players were given their due and that is what separated these organisers from the rest.

After the successful conduct of the National sub-junior championship last year, the organisers took up the challenge of holding a Grandmasters tournament for the Chief Minister's Trophy. Considering that most people were not directly associated with chess in the past, their motivation-level witnessed during the event was commendable.

No effort was spared to make up for the absence of a five-star hotel in Raipur. On most evenings, dinners were organised at different places, including one at an amusement park. Party games were thrown in, in good measure, to keep the players in good humour.

The centrally-located Union Club threw open its doors for the players to avail of the facilities. Eventual champion K. Sasikiran, along with a bunch of equally enthusiastic youngsters, could be seen at the badminton hall every afternoon. Players from Bengal were more comfortable playing table tennis. Some others chose the swimming pool to unwind. No wonder, the players were all praise for Mr. Gurucharan Singh Hora and his friendly team at the Club.

The arbiters, headed by the soft-spoken veteran N. Ghalib, ensured that each evening, the pairing sheets reached the players in quick time. But it was the daily bulletin (of the games played) that gained the organisers maximum appreciation.

According to Mr. Anil Tuteja, Joint Collector and Vice President of the Chhattisgarh State Chess Association, it was decided to print the bulletin every day and not hand over photo-copies of the computer print-outs. "It did mean enhanced cost of production but we did not want to compromise on quality," said Mr. Tuteja, a former player keen to remain associated with the sport in any capacity.

These impressive bulletins, produced by using the Chessbase pagination, pictures and diagrams, were delivered to the players every evening. "These bulletins are just like the ones compiled at the Olympiad," remarked GM Abhijit Kunte.

In fact, the participants felt that no organiser in the country had ever taken so much pains to provide quality treatment, in all respects, to the players.

On the final day, when the players reached their respective tables, a personalised memento awaited them. This silent but thoughtful gesture capsuled the fact that apart from mind, a lot of heart, too, was put into planning the show.

Using the manpower and resources to the hilt, the All-India Chess Federation Vice President, Mr. V. K. Rathi, ensured the smooth conduct of the event despite remaining in the background. "I am only a small part of this wonderful team which has done its bit to uphold the prestige of our Chief Minister and the people of Chhattisgarh," said Mr. Rathi, with utmost humility, as he acknowledged the hearty contributions made by every individual concerned.

A make-shift media room, complete with internet facilities, was made full use of by the overseas Grandmasters. The camp office by the Telecom department at the venue made it easier for the players to stay in touch with their family and friends.

During the prize-distribution function, Pravin Thipsay, Varugeese Koshy, Dibyendu Barua and S. Vijayalakshmi whole-heartedly complimented the organisers. In their own words, they conveyed to all present that it was one of the best organised tournaments ever in the country.

GMs Ruslan Sherbakov and Maxim Sorokin, too, showered praises. "It's a fantastic job done by these people. They all are very helpful and concerned. I'd love to come back," said Sherbakov. Sorokin went a step ahead and said, "I'll be back as and when they hold another such tournament. But not alone. I'll get my family along," before pointing out, "some of the GMs did take time to get adjusted to the food available here but I have no complaints. I just love Indian food."

It is not often than an organiser receives so many accolades from all quarters. Equally, credit is due to the AICF for encouraging and supporting committed organisers like the ones at Raipur. With Mr. Jogi assuring continued patronage to what promises to become an annual feature on the Indian chess calendar, the event is sure to grow in status in times to come.