ANJU SACHDEV was a happy woman on that humid Thursday afternoon earlier this month. Not just because her daughter Tania had qualified for the next National women's `A' chess championship but also because Bhagyashree Thipsay had won the National women's `B' championship.


ANJU SACHDEV was a happy woman on that humid Thursday afternoon earlier this month. Not just because her daughter Tania had qualified for the next National women's `A' chess championship but also because Bhagyashree Thipsay had won the National women's `B' championship.

The National women's `B', the 30th edition of which was held at Hotel Asma Tower in the Northern Kerala city of Kozhikode, is primarily a qualification tournament. The top 10 from the meet will become eligible to compete at the National women's `A', India's premier domestic tourney for the fairer sex.

So, rather than winning the championship, everyone's primary aim at the National women's `B' is to finish inside the top 10. Nobody would mind winning the title of course.

Bhagyashree, 41, had ensured her qualification at the end of the penultimate round itself. But Tania, the defending Asian junior champion, hadn't. The 16-year-old, a hot favourite with the local press photographers, required at least a draw in the final round. And she was up against Bhagyashree, the woman in form, on the second board.

The Mumbai veteran, a five-time National women's `A' champion, agreed to a quick draw, and Tania was through. But Bhagyashree's chances of the title depended entirely on the outcome of the top board clash between M. R. Sangeetha from Chennai and Koneru Chandra Hawsa from Vijayawada, better known as former World junior champion Koneru Humpy's younger sister.

If only that game had ended in a draw, could she have become the champion. As for Sangeetha and Hawsa, it was nothing less than a final: the winner would be the champion.

Bhagyashree preferred not to watch that game, and she stayed away from that board, even as she followed the other crucial games — for that place in the women's `A' — walking around the venue. After a while, she went back to her room and was sitting at the lobby when a journalist told her what she wanted to hear: The game between Sangeetha and Hawsa had ended in a draw.

So Bhagyashree had pocketed her third National women's `B' championship, in what was only her fourth appearance in the tournament. She is an experienced campaigner and very rarely she has had to play the women's `B' for the qualification (if a player finishes among the first four in the women's `A', she is seeded directly for the tournament's next edition as well). "I am very glad that I have won the tournament," she said later.

That's why the Delhi-based Anju told this writer, almost whispering (because many of the games were still in progress), "I'm so happy Bhagyashree has won."

She deserved to win because nobody else played with more confidence. And nobody else played on the top board as often as she did.

Sangeetha, who finished runner-up, did look better at one stage in that final round encounter against Hawsa, who was placed third in the end. But she could not quite convert her advantage to a decisive edge.

Sangeetha had reasons to believe that she was a bit unlucky. She was in fact the sole leader after the sixth round, with 5.5 points. She could anyway take heart from the fact she was only one of the three women who had confirmed their `A' berths with a round to spare (Hawsa was the third one). The three had scored seven points each, and progressive scores were applied to break the tie.

Bhagyashree (2237 Elo points), who was seeded third behind Swati Ghate (2280) and Tania (2245), opened her campaign with an easy victory against Anila Shah from Ahmedabad, whose daughter Arpi — on a temporary break from chess, following the birth of her child — is comparatively a better player. Bhagyashree was never really stretched in any of her games, as she scored fluent victories against Madhuri Patil, N. Vinuthna, M. Priyadarshini and M. Safira Shanaz, the unfortunate Tamil Nadu girl who's still without a job despite an engineering degree and some achievements in chess.

Bhagyashree took it easy in the second half of the tournament, drawing most of her games, including the one with arch-rival Anupama Gokhale. She was determined to get back into the National `A', after missing out on this year's tourney, which was held in her hometown of Mumbai. That was the first women's `A' she didn't play after making her debut way back in 1979. A proud Marathi woman, she wasn't prepared to be `slighted' like that.

"I'm happy to have qualified again for the National `A'. And it's nice to do it in such a convincing manner," she said.

Sangeetha and Hawsa were the most convincing qualifiers from Kozhikode, besides Bhagyashree. And Hawsa was a revelation. Nobody expected her to be in the race for the title. Not many people would've thought that she would even qualify from a strong field, especially after a disastrous show in a much weaker competition at the National sub-junior championship, which concluded in the same city just a day before the women's `B' started.

But it was a completely different Hawsa one saw at Hotel Asma Tower. She put the sub-juniors horror behind her, and seemed determined to prove that she was something more than being Humpy's sister. This was, by a long mile, her best performance in any tournament.

Like her celebrated sibling, Hawsa is a cool customer. Though she's not as naturally gifted as Humpy, she can be a tough player to beat at the next women's `A', where she'll be making her debut. (Only one other new player met the qualification mark at Kozhikode — Saheli Nath from Kolkata).

There was the smile of a proud father on Koneru Ashok's face. "I'm pleased with the way she handled the opposition here," he said. "But she needs to work harder though."

Sangeetha also has a more talented sibling at home. M. R. Venkatesh is in fact one of the most talented players in the country who hasn't fulfilled his potential yet. He was in Kozhikode to help his sister, as he extended his stay after attending Evgeny Vladimirov's coaching camp.

"He was very helpful here," said Sangeetha. "I found his suggestions in my opening preparations rather useful."

This is her best performance after she won the runner-up place in the National juniors at Thalassery in 1998. Kerala seems to be a happy hunting ground for her, for she had qualified for her maiden women's `A' from the National women's `B' at Palakkad in 2001. Swati Ghate was the champion of that tournament. She had beaten the competition as well as the heat at Palakkad, in great style. She had won the tournament with a round to spare, after scoring six wins in the first six rounds.

At Kozhikode, though, it was a totally different story. She failed to qualify for the `A'. The first time she hadn't made it since 1996.

It was really a tournament to forget for the top seed from Pune. Her beginning was ominous enough, as she was held to a draw by lesser-known Aneeqha Thaseen from Chennai. Worse was to follow.

Aneeqha's sister, Nabeela Farheen, caused the biggest upset of the tournament, when she shocked Swati in the third round. Rather than Nabeela shocking Swati it was actually Swati shocking herself, as she blundered a piece.

Though she did recover somewhat from that debacle, her fate was sealed in the penultimate round. She was beaten by the promising Chennai girl, H. Nilavoli. In a tense game, with both players under time pressure, it was an unwise exchange of queens that led to her exit from the women's `A'. For Swati, who had made history by becoming the first woman to qualify for the men's National `A', life had come a full circle on the 64 squares.

Her conqueror, Nilavoli, was one of the many players who went into the ninth and final round with hopes of qualifying. After all only three places had already been decided.

Nilavoli though could not quite make it, as she was held to a draw by Eesha Karvade, the Pune girl who was the runner-up in last year's women's `B' held in her hometown. This time Eesha just scraped through, taking the 10th place.

Ten players finished with 6.5 points, and on progressive scores, three went out — Nilavoli, Dolan Champa Bose and C. V. Rajalakshmi, who was the unluckiest of them all. The Chennai lass, who wears a cap while playing (like Krishnan Sasikiran did in his earlier days), finished 11th and her progressive score was the same as Eesha's. And it was on `cut' progressive scores that she lost out, by half-a-point.

Anupama, who played solidly to finish fourth, Kruttika Nadig, a promising performer from Pune, Y. Prathiba and Saimeera, who won her last three rounds in <147,4,0>do-or-die situations, took the remaining places. Tania took the fifth place as she ensured her qualification for the women's `A' for the third straight year.

Another teenager, Saheli Nath was delighted to make the grade for the first time. "To qualify for the `A' has been one of the goals in my career," she said, shortly after beating fellow-Kolkatan Supriya Maji in the final round.

It was a disappointing tourney for another Saheli from Kolkata, the much better known Saheli Dhar Barua. The former champion, who was seeded sixth, ended up 34th. One of the less fancied girls who beat her was local lass N. Sandhya.

The bespectacled Kerala girl could only finish 31st in the end, but she had a great start, scalping three seeds inside the top 10 — Eesha, Prathiba and Saheli — by the fifth round.

Ruslan Sherbakov, a Russian Grandmaster on a coaching assignment currently in India, said the quality of the games was not high. "I found the players were more often than not just waiting for the opponent to make a mistake," he said. "This method may bring success in a tournament like this, but against good players, this wouldn't work."

Perhaps you can't blame the ladies really. After all they were playing for the qualification. And at the National women's `A', these very players have often produced excellent contests.

Sherbakov was one of the speakers at the closing ceremony. His female fan following in India must surely have increased after his public request to the All-India Chess Federation to include more players in the National women's `A'. The ladies were cheering him loudly.

The qualifiers: 1-3. Bhagyashree Thipsay (IDBI), M. R. Sangeetha (TN) and Koneru Chandra Hawsa (Champion Chess Academy, AP) 7, 4-10. Anupama Gokhale (Bharat Petroleum), Tania Sachdev (Del), Kruttika Nadig (Mah), Y. Prathiba (TN), Saimeera Ravi (BSB), Saheli Nath (Ben) and Eesha Karvade (Mah) 6.5.