China retains title in style

WHEN a team has the services of the reigning World champion and the World Cup winner, other medal aspirants can at best hope to grab the silver.

RAKESH RAO

WHEN a team has the services of the reigning World champion and the World Cup winner, other medal aspirants can at best hope to grab the silver. The chances of any team taking it away from the favourite are even less, especially in a three-player format, as followed in women's team chess.

The Chinese women's team, which retained the title. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

This was precisely how it transpired in the Asian women's team chess championship at Jodhpur. The Chinese women ensured for themselves the gold by opening up a comfortable lead and left the rest to battle it out for the lesser medals.

World champion Zhu Chen and World Cup winner Xu Yuhua may have lost a match each to the Indians but collectively did what was expected of them. Despite losing 1-2 to India `A' early in the competition, China whipped the lower-ranked teams to steady its boat. What more, the team enjoyed the luxury of quickly drawing all the boards in the final round against Turkmenistan and retained the title in style.

When second seed Vietnam nosed ahead of India `A' at the finish, the home team had only itself to blame. Going into the final round with a one-point lead over Vietnam, India `A' played without spearhead S. Vijayalakshmi and secured just 1.5 points against Kazakhstan. On the other hand, Vietnam cleaned up Malaysia 3-0 to snatch the silver medal from the Indians.

The 12-team field had three from India and it was quite commendable that the teams did fairly well. Like in the men's section, the second and third teams justified their inclusion with some very encouraging performances.

A tough battle between China (left) and Vietnam. While China opened up a comfortable lead to ensure itself the gold, Vietnam just about managed to take silver. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

Initially, former Asian champion, Vietnam's Hoang Thanh Trang, raised an objection to three teams being included from one nation especially when the field was so small. But once Trang was made aware of the rules where a third team from the host could be included in case of odd-numbered entries, she withdrew her contention. In fact, when Vietnam finished second ahead of India `A', Trang was quick to comment, "It was good to see all three Indian teams fight it all the way. It was all so fair in the end."

After the Players' Meeting had decided to adopt the round-robin format, Zhu Chen came up with a late objection. Though Zhu had not attended the meeting where the decision was taken, she managed to get the support of a couple of more teams in favour of a change in format.

Luckily, before the matter could be discussed the following day, the Iranian contingent landed. This necessitated a change in format without the need to alter egos. With Iran at the venue and Uzbekistan on its way, it was agreed to adopt a nine-round Swiss format, where teams of equal points are paired in each round.

S. Vijayalakshmi of India `A' defeated China's Zhu Chen on the top board. . Though India `A' defeated China early in the competition, it did not play to its potential against weaker teams and had to settle for the bronze. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

Once the on-board action commenced, it was all very peaceful. It was the Indian victory over China that created the ripples. This historic 2-1 verdict was made possible by S. Vijayalakshmi's complete domination of Zhu Chen on the top board. Surprisingly passive, Zhu Chen tried in vain to defend her exposed king. Vijayalakshmi did not take long to end Zhu Chen's resistance and scored one of the biggest victories of her career. In Vijayalakshmi's admission, she has a poor record against the Chinese players. As a result, the victory over the current World champion was particularly gratifying.

Also encouraging was the ease with which Nisha Mohota held Xu Yuhua and Aarthie Ramaswamy proved equal to Huang Qin.

However, in most of the matches that followed, India `A' did not score as heavily as expected against weaker teams. The 1.5-1.5 score against Iran surely pushed the host back. It could have been worse against Sri Lanka where Vijayalakshmi was staring at defeat against Vineetha Wijesuriya and Harika was defending a near-hopeless position on the third board.

But luckily, Vijayalakshmi managed to wriggle out of trouble and traded her queen for three pieces before working out a victory, which brought more relief than joy to the Indian camp. Meanwhile, Harika was lucky to be declared the winner when her rival ran out of time. Together with Aarthie Ramaswamy's easy win on the second board, India `A' managed a 3-0 verdict.

Overall, India `A' can take heart from the fact that it remained the only unbeaten outfit in the entire championship. But on the other hand, it must also be remembered that India `A' did not play to its potential against weaker teams. The missed silver to Vietnam is also going to rankle for long. Surely, the bronze medal was always in its grasp. So, finally settling for the third place was no great achievement.

Vietnam, despite its topsy-turvy campaign, landed safely with the silver, which left Trang highly satisfied. Trang, who plays all her chess in Europe, had a word of praise for her teammates. "I think chess in Vietnam needs a lot more support and these players require more exposure. They work very hard but lack experience. I see the Indians improving steadily and they did very well in this championship. Similarly, our younger players can also get better provided they have the opportunities."

Trang, Nguyen Thi Thanhan and Le Kieu Thien Kim contributed five points each to the tally, while reserve Vo Hong Phuong scored four. Le Kieu Thien Kim won the top prize on the third board, while Vo Hong Phuong was second among the reserves.

India `B' and India `C' tied for the fourth spot, which was indeed creditable. In fact, India `B', comprising S. Meenakshi, Swati Ghate, Tania Sachdev and Bhagyashree Thipsay, could have done better but for some unexpected individual losses towards the end. Tania surrendered to Kyrgyzstan's Janyl Tilenbaeva in the penultimate round and Swati, playing white, lost to Bangladesh's Zakia Sultana in the final round.

Meenakshi was consistent as ever. A score of 6.5 points from nine rounds gave this Chennai-girl a well-deserved second Woman Grandmaster norm. She also had the honour of winning the third prize on the top board.

Swati could have well gained more for herself and her team had she not lost her last round match to Bangladesh. An added point would have helped India `B' tie for the third spot with India `A' besides guiding Swati to the top prize on the second board.

Saimeera Ravi watches her teammates Eesha Karavade (left) and Anupama Gokhale in action. Eesha justified her presence on the top board and made her second WGM norm. -- Pics. R. V. MOORTHY-

For India `C', Eesha Karavade justified her presence on the top board. The WIPRO-girl went on to make her second Woman International Master norm in style. Anupama Gokhale contributed five points from seven outings on the third board while Saimeera, an eleventh hour replacement for Y. Pratibha, had the satisfaction of taking the third prize on the reserve board for her impressive tally of 4.5 points from six rounds.

Interestingly, if one takes a look at the seedings and the eventual placing of each team, only sixth seed India `C' traded places with fifth seed Kazakhstan. The rest of the placing was in keeping with the seedings.

The results: 1. China (20), 2. Vietnam (19), 3. India `A' (18.5), 4-5. India `B' and India `C' (17.5), 6. Kazakhstan (16), 7. Iran (13.5), 8. Kyrgyzstan (10.5), 9-10. Bangladesh and Turkmenistan (9.5), 11. Malaysia (7), 12. Sri Lanka (3.5).

Prizes: First board: 1. Zhu Chen (China) 5.5/7; 2. Maria Sargeeva (Kazakhstan) 6/8; 3. S. Meenakshi (India `B') 6.5/9.

Dronavalli Harika won the board prize for the reserves. -- Pics. R. V. MOORTHY-

Second board: 1. Xu Yuhua (China) 7/9; 2. Swati Ghate (India `B') 6.5/9; 3. Shadi Paridar (Iran) 6/9.

Third board: 1. Le Kiev Thien Kim (Vietnam) 5/7; 2. Anupama Gokhale (India `C') 5/7; 3. Wang Yu (China) 4.5/7.

Reserve: 1. Dronavalli Harika (India `A') 6/7; 2. Vo Hong Phuong (Vietnam) 4/5; 3. Saimeera Ravi (India `C') 4.5/6.