Barua proves his detractors wrong

Published : Jun 30, 2001 00:00 IST


CHAMPIONS in chess, as in many other sports, are increasingly getting younger. A young winner, ahead of the old and the aging, carries hope of an exciting future. But when an old hand bounces back to prove a point or two, it is a reminder that experience has its place.

Remember how, in the 1991 U.S. Open, a greying Jimmy Connors embarrassed many a young player to reach the semifinal. Let us not forget that 'Jumbo' had landed the first of his five U.S. Open titles in 1974. "Beating these players, half my age, gives me a high," were the words of Connors, one of the greatest fighters seen on a tennis court in the Open era.

John McEnroe was another who defied age and expectations to gatecrash into the 1992 Wimbledon semifinal. This happened 15 years after the three-time champion became the youngest and the first unseeded to reach the last-four stage of The Championships.

If one looks at some of the other sports, examples of golfing greats Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus and boxing legend George Foreman come to mind. They are men who turned the clock back just when the world thought that their time was up.

In the Indian context Grandmaster Dibyendu Barua recently discovered that beating younger, eager and more energetic challengers gave a joy of a different kind.

Barua, the original 'prodigy' in the country's chess history, experienced a rare joy when he conquered the field in the National 'A' chess championship in New Delhi. No wonder, the 34-year-old rates his triumph a "special one" as compared to those won in 1983 and again in 1998.

"For many years, I was finding it difficult to stay motivated. But the emergence of youngsters such as K. Sasikiran, Abhijit Kunte, P. Harikrishna and Suryashekhar Ganguly, among others, has helped me regain my fighting qualities. I have found a good reason to inspire myself and prove that I am still among the best," says Barua.

Indeed, the fourth seeded Barua could not have found a better and stronger field to make his point. In what was the toughest National championship ever in the 38-year history of the premier meet, Barua nosed ahead of favourite Sasikiran to claim the honours.

After the two Grandmasters tied with 13.5 points from a maximum of 18, Barua's tie-break score of 6.5 to Sasikiran's 6 decided the title. Besides a trophy, Barua received Rs. 30,000. Sasikiran had to settle for Rs. 23,000.

One reason for Barua needing the National crown so desperately was the fact that the previous month in Colombo, he was pipped by Sasikiran in the Asian Zonal championship. Barua, who was ahead until the penultimate round, "tried to do too much," and lost the last two rounds and made way for Sasikiran. The Zonal title also carried qualification to the World championship.

The field, comprising eight direct seeds including four GMs from the previous National championship and 12 qualifiers from the National 'B', was reduced by one when Tejas Bakre failed to make it following a bout of jaundice. Bakre's absence led to fresh pairings and a bye for each player in this 19-player round-robin contest.

This edition was also the first after the introduction of the new time-control, though it was not what the world body, FIDE, had recommended. The players were made to make their first 40 moves within 90 minutes on their respective clocks before going into 30 minutes (on each clock) of sudden-death and played till the finish.

In comparison, the FIDE rule states that the first 40 moves be made in 75 minutes, using Fischer clocks. The digital clocks are designed to add a 30-second increment, for every move made, to the time of the player making the move. But this could not be applied as the All India Chess Federation did not have enough digital clocks even for 16 tables!

The new time-control is deemed to favour the younger players since they are more adept at playing faster. But Barua looked comfortable and barring the key game against Sasikiran, he never really had to wage a battle against the clock.

Beginning with a friendly draw against old friend Pravin Thipsay, Barua remained unbeaten. He won nine matches, including three wonderfully executed winning-plans against Sasikiran, Sekhar Sahu and the previously-unbeaten Ganguly. "I think the one against Ganguly was one of my best victories ever," the champion said later.

He galloped from six to nine points and again from 10 to 13 with two hat-trick victories. It was the second spurt that saw him catch up with Sasikiran at the end of the penultimate round.

Sasikiran, winner in 1999, began with a surprise draw with Sahu but gained momentum with four straight victories to reach 8.5 points after the 10th round. By this stage, Sasikiran had drawn with GM-norm holders P. Harikrishna and Ganguly and scored back-to-back victories over fellow-Grandmasters Thipsay and Kunte.

The victory over Kunte was indeed a highly gratifying one for Sasikiran since he shares a very poor head-to-head record against the two-time champion. An early blunder from Kunte made it a hopelessly one-sided match.

It was Sasikiran's 11th round defeat to Barua, with seconds remaining on the clocks of both the players, that saw the championship come alive. The same afternoon, Sasikiran escaped a certain defeat against Sriram Jha and settled for a draw. The day's proceedings showed that Sasikiran was far from invincible.

Sasikiran's dramatic loss at the hands of an increasingly dangerous-looking Neeraj Kumar Mishra in the 15th round proved crucial in the eventual analysis. A miscalculated sacrifice leading to defeat cost Sasikiran the title.

"The defeat was the turning point. From this defeat, I learnt that if you are tired, never plan a sacrifice. I had been playing for a month (at Colombo and at Lausanne) before the National championship. I was tired and could not calculate accurately," was the candid admission from the top seed.

The result reduced the gap between Sasikiran and Barua to one point. Since Sasikiran had played a round more than Barua, it was still anybody's title. In the next two rounds, Sasikiran defeated former Commonwealth champion Atanu Lahiri and early leader P. Konguvel to reach 13 points. Barua remained in hot pursuit with victories over tailender Nassir Wajih and Lanka Ravi. In the 18th round, when Sasikiran had a bye, Barua scored a memorable victory over Ganguly to catch up with the leader.

In the decisive final round, Barua drew against debutant teenager Saptarshi Roy after being convinced that Sasikiran could not win against Neelotpal Das. Since a tie with Sasikiran would have seen Barua take the title by virtue of better tie-break score, the Kolkata Grandmaster offered a draw which Roy accepted.

Even as Barua and Sasikiran made it a two-horse race, holder Kunte fell out of reckoning for honours. The second seed won just six matches but more than his solitary loss, to Sasikiran, the 11 draws slowed him down considerably. He had to be content with the third spot, worth Rs. 15,000.

But the surprise of the championship was Neeraj Kumar Mishra. The 33-year-old childhood mate and Tata Steel colleague of Barua made a mockery of the seedings and gallantly made his way to the fourth spot. The performance also brought him back into the Indian team after 10 years.

Rated only ahead of Roy in the 19-player field, the lanky Mishra stood tall as he dwarfed Grandmasters Pravin Thipsay and Sasikiran on way to tallying 11 points. He lost tamely to Lanka Ravi, Kunte and Lahiri, but made amends by scoring timely victories over Konguvel and Sahu in the second half of the championship to squeeze his way into the Indian squad.

"I came here without the kind of preparations one needs to do well in the National championship. I did not have any specific goal. I would have been happy with draws but if someone wanted to beat me, then I was ready to make him fight. After my lucky victory over Thipsay and later when Sasikiran chose a faulty-sacrifice option, I thought I had a chance to make it (to the National side)," said Mishra and quickly added, "I am also greatly relieved that now I don't have to go through National 'B' to find a berth in the next Nationals."

Harikrishna, who drew with Mishra in the final round, retained his place in the National team despite an indifferent performance. Defeats to Konguvel, Lanka Ravi and Thipsay kept Hari out of contention for honours. But successive victories with white pieces over V. Saravanan, Sriram Jha and importantly D. V. Prasad, helped Hari gain the fifth spot.

Konguvel, the 1995 champion, hit the headlines by making his maiden 10-game GM-norm. He led in the early part of the championship but soon after successfully chasing the norm - reaching 7.5 points from 10 rounds - lost his way. Four successive defeats with white pieces, to G. B. Prakash, Mishra, Sasikiran and Sahu, saw him finish sixth with 10 points.

Ganguly and Prasad, too, matched Konguvel's tally but finished behind in that order due to inferior tie-break score. The fifth seeded Ganguly, perhaps, paid the penalty for agreeing to a few short draws. Beginning with a victory over Prakash, Ganguly drew six straight matches, then beat Sahu and Murugan before getting back to his safety-first methods to again draw six matches on the trot. Then followed the defeat at the hands of Barua and Jha in the final two rounds.

Prasad, who has been amazingly consistent in the National championship in the past 15 years, could have retained his place in the National team had he not chosen to live dangerously against Hari. But then, before this 18th round encounter, the situation did demand Prasad to take his chances. Though in hindsight, Prasad would have been better off had he drawn with Hari before whipping last-man Wajih. Prasad, who had earlier lost to Barua and Sasikiran, had five victories and 10 draws, including those in the first five rounds.

Meanwhile, Thipsay's struggle with the new-time control did not come as a surprise. It was the ticking clock that caused more damage to his chances than his opponents. The seven-time champion crashed to defeat against Mishra after gaining a clearly winning position. A round later, Thipsay again threw away a similar position against Konguvel and lost the following round, on time, to Sasikiran.

After three defeats in four rounds, Thipsay gradually redeemed himself. Three draws, followed by victories over Hari, Lanka Ravi and Wajih, must have served as a much-needed balm to Thipsay's bruised pride. But draws in the last four rounds, including those against Kunte and Ganguly, kept Thipsay out of the National team.

The list of also-rans, headed by Thipsay, had seasoned names such as Lanka Ravi, Sahu and Murugan. Lahiri, who played as a professional in Italy before coming for this championship, promised much but failed to deliver. His victims included Mishra and he drew with Hari, Ganguly, Thipsay, Barua and Prasad. But four defeats in the last five rounds pushed him to the point of no return.

Commendable was Roy's gritty performance. This 19-year-old baby-faced under-graduate remained winless in his maiden appearance in the championship but gained tremendous respect for drawing 15 matches, including the last 11. He lost only to Prakash, Konguvel and Sasikiran.

"I would have been happier if I had won at least one match," said this first year student of Maths (Hons) from Kolkata's Jadavpur University, after finishing 14th. Roy, the least-rated player in the championship, can surely draw strength from the fact that he remained ahead of GM-elect G. B. Prakash, Sriram Jha, Neelotpal Das, V. Saravanan and Nassir Wajih.

Of the lot, Saravanan's showing was most disappointing. "Perhaps, this was my worst performance ever," said Saravanan, who ended up losing eight matches. His lone victory came against Wajih in what was clearly the 'battle of tailenders.'

Final placings (with tie-break score, where necessary):

Men: 1. Dibyendu Barua 13.5 points (6.5); 2. K. Sasikiran 13.5 (6); 3. Abhijit Kunte 11.5; 4. Neeraj Kumar Mishra 11; 5. P. Harikrishna 10.5; 6. P. Konguvel 10 (5); 7. Surya Shekhar Ganguly 10 (4), 8. D. V. Prasad 10 (3); 9. Pravin Thipsay 9.5; 10. Lanka Ravi 9; 11. Sekhar Sahu 8.5; 12. K. Murugan 8 (4); 13. Atanu Lahiri 8 (4); 14. Saptarshi Roy 7.5 (4); 15. G. B. Prakash 7.5 (3); 16. Sriram Jha 7; 17. Neelotpal Das 6.5; 18. V. Saravanan 5.5; 19. Nassir Wajih 4.

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