Aronian and Zhao Xue emerge deserving winners

RAKESH RAO

UNLIKE most other sports, being the World Junior Chess Champion holds a special meaning. It is a benchmark, when reached, elevates the status of a player by a few notches. Though there are more age-group titles at stake in chess, winning the global under-20 crown truly signifies the arrival of a champion to reckon with.

Levon Aronian, with a masterly display, finished on top in the boys section. -- Pic. R.V. Moorthy-

Again, what makes the World junior chess championship different is that fatigue is never a decisive factor in this 13-round marathon. Till the end, every aspirant gives it his or her best shot. As a result, the per cent of `agreed' draws is low. In fact, the best advertisement for the game, reflecting the tenacity of the youth, came on the final day with the top-12 boards in the boys section and the first nine in the girls, proving decisive.

In a way, chess at this level can be compared to boxing where more punches are traded in middle-weight bouts than in heavier categories. Battles among the junior chess players are fought more fiercely than one gets to watch at the higher level.

Just as expected, excitement was never at a premium once the World junior chess championship — 41st edition of the boys championship and 19th for the girls — got going at the Cidade de Goa, near Panaji.

The favourites may not have won but none can grudge the eventual champions — Armenia's Levon Aronian and China's Zhao Xue. They looked deserving champions much before the verdict became clear. Playing positively throughout their respective campaigns, they struck when needed and beat the field with last-round victories.

Aronian, the Armenian champion, scored 9.5 points to take the title with a half-point cushion. Zhao, tied with holder and home favourite Koneru Humpy at 10.5 points but was adjudged the winner since the cumulative rating of her rivals was higher.

Zhao Xue, who won the gold in the girls section, with Humpy (silver) and Nadezhda Kosintseva (bronze). -- Pic.R.V. Moorthy-

On the final day, both Aronian and Zhao had some work to do since a result other than a win could have shattered their dream. But as things turned out, Aronian brilliantly decimated Russian Dmitry Jakovenko on the top board while Zhao took her time to come out stronger against Dronavalli Harika, India's best hope after Humpy.

Aronian's victory forced England's rising star Luke McShane to settle for the runner-up slot, ahead of our own Surya Sekhar Ganguly. Zhao's triumph dethroned an otherwise undefeated Humpy. The bronze went to Nadezhda Kosintseva, making her the only medallist from Russia in either sections.

The best part of Aronian's masterly display was the confidence with which he reeled off his moves, match after match. In most of his games, he won with more than 30 minutes to spare on his clock. It also reflected Aronian's sound home preparations that saw him wade through the opposition, truly like a champion.

Six out of Aronian's seven victories came with white pieces and four of his victims were Indians, including P. Harikrishna in the penultimate round. Among Aronian's Indian rivals, only S.Kidambi managed to come out undefeated in the second round.

McShane, seeded eight, scored as many victories — the highest in the competition — but also suffered two defeats during his spirited campaign. Despite losing to Aronian in the sixth round and Russia's Artyom Timofeev in the 11th, McShane was never out of the top three placings.

Ganguly, despite taking off with a draw against little-known Akash Thakur, clawed his way into contention after the lone day of rest. He carved out a clinical victory over top seeded Chinese Bu Xiangzhi and remained within striking distance of the title before a couple of more draws held him back. In spite of drawing eight matches, Ganguly made the medal-bracket due to his final round triumph over fourth seed Kamil Miton.

Surya Sekhar Ganguly became only the second Indian to be among the medals when he claimed a bronze. -- Pic.R.V. Moorthy-

"I have been looking to improve my standard of play,'' said an unbeaten Ganguly and continued, "overall I am pleased with my performance. Things could have been better but then, it's okay." Ganguly, who recently met the technical requirements to be eligible for the Grandmaster title, surely looked more solid, if not equally effective, than ever before.

Like Bu Xiangzhi, India's best bet P. Harikrishna also finished among six players tied for the fifth spot. Hari remained in contention with some timely results but fell back after mishandling the opening phase of his crucial 12th-round battle against Aronian.

Among the Russians, Timofeev was the best and took the fourth spot, ahead of compatriots Ernesto Inarkiev and Vladimir Potkin who finished sixth and 10th, respectively.

Unlike in the boys section, the race for the title was fought between just two players. It may be recalled that in the previous edition, Humpy had pipped Zhao on superior tie-break score to claim the title. This time, it was Zhao's turn to return the compliment. Barring a narrow escape against Austria's Eva Moser in the 11th round, Zhao looked rock-solid right through.

The grudge-battle between Zhao and Humpy in the third round ended in a draw. Zhao, who had beaten Humpy in the previous edition, did appear in a spot of bother against the Indian but managed to hold on. Thereafter, round after round, Zhao reinforced her claim as the rightful owner of the title.

Humpy was not unduly worried about losing her title. "I played better chess this time and remained undefeated," said Humpy as she chose to highlight the positives from the event. "I have been getting good positions after the opening but somehow, I have not been able to make the most of it on all days," pointed out Humpy, who has realised the importance of working on more opening choices.

In fact, given a choice, Humpy would love to test her preparations in the boys section. Since the event was at home, the AICF had its reasons to make her play in the girls section and ensure a medal.

Among the rest, the Russians failed to make much of an impression. The Kosintseva sisters — Tatiana and Nadezhda — along with Natalia Pogonia, Ekaterina Ubiennykh and Elmira Khasanova never really posed any threat to the two front-runners.

Among those who followed the elite group, Tania Sachdev, Harika and P. Priya provided some delightful moments for the host. Tania, the reigning Asian junior champion, climbed to the eighth spot and emerged as the second-best performer for the country. With a late surge, Harika made her Woman International Master title-norm while Priya clinched her first norm.

Overall, the strength of the championship could have been more had countries like Ukraine and Georgia entered the fray. Some of the leading juniors, more so in the boys section, stayed away since they have already scaled great heights in the bigger league. Still, the available field was one of the strongest and provided just the kind of fare expected from the champions of the future.

The standings (Indians unless stated):

Boys: Top-10 standings: 1. Levon Aronian (Arm) 10 points; 2. Luke McShane (Eng) 9.5; 3-4. Surya Sekhar Ganguly and Artyom Timofeev (Rus) 9 each; 5-10. Bu Xiangzhi (Chn), Ernesto Inarkiev (Rus), P. Harikrishna, Ferenc Berkes (Hun), Ni Hua (Chn) and Vladimir Potkin (Rus) 8.5 each.

Girls: Top-14 standings: 1-2. Zhao Xue (Chn) and Koneru Humpy 10.5 each; 3. Nadezhda Kosintseva (Rus) 10; 4. Tatiana Kosintseva (Rus) 9.5; 5. Wang Yu (Chn) 9; 6. Ekaterina Ubiennykh (Rus) 8.5; 7-8. Natalia Pogonina (Rus) and Tania Sachdev 8 each; 9-14. Tian Tian (Chn), Dronavalli Harika, Y. Pratibha, Sophie Millet (Fra), Tana Holusova (Cze) and C. Delphin 7.5 each.

They present a contrasting picture RIGHT THROUGH their flawless title-campaigns, Levon Aronian and Zhao Xue presented a contrasting picture. But when it came to giving the finishing touches, the eventual champions found themselves in a similar situation. When nothing else but a victory mattered, they produced it much earlier than expected.

Aronian, truly one of the `colourful' characters of the World junior chess championship, carried off everything from a red shirt to an orange pair of trousers. One could not miss this Armenian even in the crowd of some weirdly turned out youngsters from around the world.

Among the girls, Zhao Xue never screamed for attention even as she strung together noticeable performances. Over the board, she was as ruthless as Aronian but never stood out in the crowd for reasons other than her results.

Aronian was seen everywhere from the swimming pool to the discotheque en route to his biggest career success. A picture of confidence, the Armenian champion obviously had done his preparations well and was thoroughly enjoying himself.

"But believe me, for the first time I felt nervous in any championship," confessed Aronian soon after ensuring the title, which eluded him in the previous edition. Joint runner-up in 2001, Aronian pointed to the `luck' factor every time he spoke of his matches. Even after winning, he sounded no different when he quipped, "one has to be lucky."

Contrary to his flamboyant image, Aronian may have sounded a bit insecure at times. But then, he has set out to chart out a new course for himself by defying the system available in his country.

Due to "problems" with the American federation, Aronian has moved to Germany to pursue his chess. The youngest Grandmaster in his country, Aronian was also peeved at not being considered for the Armenian Olympaid squad. In this background, he surely found a very effective way of proving his point by winning the World junior crown.

Zhao, a product of the state-run chess centre at Beijing, came to India looking for her third world age-group title. Zhao had missed out on the honour last year when, despite beating Humpy and matching her score, she was adjudged second on tie-break.

Like Aronian, Zhao also has a very attacking game. She loves to have a `go' at the rival rather than wait for things to happen. Recently in Bled, the Chinese girl had emerged as the best player in the Olympiad by contributing 11 points to her country's title-triumph. Interestingly, Zhao and Russian Tatiana Kosintseva — the second seed who finished fourth — had scored an equal number of points in the Olympaid on the reserve board. But Zhao was placed ahead since her rating performance was that of 2707, ahead of Tatiana's 2661.

Zhao, who chose to play table tennis with her teammates after her day's round, was no less resolute than Aronian in her bid to claim the title. "After what happened last year, I did not want it to repeat. This time, I played better. Only against Eva Moser, I was lucky to get a draw. Otherwise, I am pleased with my performance," said Zhao, who was joy personified after scoring over Dronavalli Harika in the final round. She came out of the tournament hall, clenching her fists, and hugged her team manager Yu Shaoteng.

What has helped Zhao in recent years is the rigorous training she gets in the company of country's leading 15-20 players. The elite group studies chess for around seven hours a day, spread over two sessions, with the help of five coaches at the Centre. Since she studies chess full-time, her consistency is not surprising.

Aronian, too, has taken chess as a profession. Never mind if he appears most unlike a champion in a cerebral sport like chess. When it comes to making the moves, Aronian is no different from Zhao.