Another proud moment

P.K.AJITH KUMAR

ON Christmas Day at Taj Residency in Kozhikode, Krishnan Sasikiran and Pendyala Harikrishna shared a point in the final round of the AICF Golden Jubilee GM tournament. Little did they know then that they were to meet across the chessboard again just four days later, and across the sea, in England.

"In my opinion he is the best positional player in India," says Sasikiran of Harikrishna, while the Andhra teenager quips, "I like the way Sasikiran looks for a win in all positions." The admiration is mutual.-RAMESH KURUP

And they were not in a mood at the time to imagine that they could share the title at the famous and important Hastings Premier tournament a fortnight later.

At Kozhikode, Sasikiran, though he had won the event as well as Rs. 85,000, was angry with himself after making an inexplicable blunder that allowed his younger rival to escape with a draw. Harikrishna, who finished fourth in the event, hadn't still recovered from a severe cold that had troubled him throughout his stay in the Northern Kerala city. "I am a feeling a lot better," he had told The Sportstar on Christmas night at the lobby of Taj.

He played a lot better too, in Hastings. Sasikiran also came up with a fine performance, as the duo, from whom the country could expect a lot in the coming years, made it a grand Indian double in Great Britain. There was a three-way tie for the first place, with Alexei Barsov of Uzbekistan joining the party.

It is a significant achievement as playing in the Hastings Premier is itself a privilege. The Hastings International Chess Congress is the world's longest running event in the sport, with a history going back to the late 19th century.

It is yet another proud moment for Indian chess. It is heartening to see two gifted youngsters doing exceptionally well in the same international tournament. You don't see that very often in Indian sport (in individual games). "It was great to find both of them playing so well together," said the Chennai-based International Master (IM) Lanka Ravi, who played in the Hastings Challengers tournament, which was held simultaneously.

There was another event in which the two achieved memorable feats. In the Commonwealth championship at Sangli in 2000, Sasikiran had completed his GM title and Harikrishna his IM title.

The World championship in Moscow was a big disappointment for India, with the defending champion and the country's greatest sportsman, Viswanathan Anand, bowing out in the semifinal to Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine. But the success of Harikrishna and Sasikiran in England has put the smile back on the faces of Indian chess followers.

For Harikrishna, who had a great year in 2001 - he became India's youngest Grandmaster (GM) and the youngest Commonwealth champion ever, besides qualifying for the World championship as the youngest Indian - the victory in Hastings was timely. He wasn't so happy about his show at the AICF tournament, though he finished fourth, three places above his seeding. He found himself in weak positions on more occasions than one would have expected of him.

He was, however, able to find a way out of the mess every time, to finish unbeaten at the end of the 11th and final round. He may just be 15, but he is already acknowledged as perhaps the most difficult Indian player to beat. Since last July, he's lost just two games with white pieces (to GMs Maxim Sorokin of Argentina and Pravin Thipsay). He plays in tournaments right through the year, including the age-group events.

He hastened to add when one reminded of that enviable record: "But I have lost with black on quite a few occasions." He said this before he left for Hastings where he did not lose at all.

There has never been any doubt about Harikrishna's talent. He is a natural player. Quite importantly, he is also working on his game always with gusto. And he has a trainer such as Evgeny Vladimirov of Kazakhstan, one of the best coaches around. He has shown a lot of improvement in his game since he started working with his renowned trainer (a former second of Garry Kasparov). He is also fortunate that he has found a generous sponsor in the Bangalore-based software giant Wipro, enabling him to play in whichever tournament he wants to. "One of the best things about the sponsorship is that it has made it possible for me to work with coaches like Vladimirov," he said.

Wipro's three-year contract is valid till the end of this year. "But we would only be happy to help him whenever he needs us," said Rituparna Ghosh, Corporate Brand Manager, Wipro, who takes care of Harikrishna on the company's behalf. "It is obviously gratifying to see him doing well," she added.

For Sasikiran, who celebrated his 21st birthday a day after the victory in Hastings, this is a second straight success in a GM tournament, following the triumph at Kozhikode. He had some mixed results last year, when he had at least two eminently forgettable tournaments, the Asian championship in Kolkata and the Jakarta GM tourney. He had sounded determined that he would fare better this year during an interview to this magazine shortly after the AICF tournament.

For a player who is not entirely satisfied unless he prepares enough prior to any tournament, he has done very well in Hastings for he had no time to work. "I don't rate any of his games that highly this time around in Hastings," he said, after finishing his campaign unbeaten, obviously comparing to the title he (jointly) won at last year's tournament.

Sasikiran doesn't think he's done a good job unless he is sure he's put in his best effort. And when it comes to working on the game, one won't find many in India who spend their time for chess as much as he does. That is one of the reasons why he remains the strongest Indian player after Anand. One recalls Lanka Ravi's words during a chat the other day: "We shouldn't forget Sasikiran when we are all talking about the sensational efforts of Harikrishna and (Koneru) Humpy. He has been very consistent, hasn't he?"

Sasikiran regards Harikrishna very highly. "In my opinion he is the best positional player in India," he once told this writer. The admiration is mutual. "I like the way Sasikiran looks for a win in all positions," Harikrishna said.

The duo had played big roles in India's fine show at the Olympiad in Istanbul in 2000, helping the country record its best ever performance. India could even do better in the next Olympiad, scheduled to be held in Slovenia later in the year, if they continue to play in the same manner.