China wins by a whisker

ARVIND AARON

CHINESE women's consistent performance landed them the prize in the chess Olympiad. In a marathon 14-round event, they won the gold medal while Georgia which dominated in the first 10 rounds faltered in the end. The champion took home the Vera Menchik Cup, after finishing first at Bled, in Solvenia, on November 10. China, the dominant force in world women's chess, is winning the Olympiad for the third time is a row.

The triumphant Chinese team (r to l): Zhu Chen, Xu Yuhua, Wang Pin and Zhao Xue.-ARVIND AARON

China almost lost to Georgia in Bled. The manner in which the Chinese won the title was dramatic. The top teams slugged it out till the end. When Georgia started falling, there was fierce competition between Russia and China for the gold. In the end, China, with 29.5 points, finished half a point ahead of silver medal winner Russia. Poland won the bronze.

Like in the men, the women's event also saw a record number of entries, 90 teams. Slovenia gave visas to all people connected with chess on their arrival. Probably this was responsible for the increase in teams. At Istanbul 2000, a record 85 teams took part. And the numbers are heading upwards and in Menorca 2004 one may not be surprised if the number crosses the 100 mark.

The women's event was held on three boards and each side was permitted to have one reserve player and a non-playing captain. The new four-hour time control landed many slow players in trouble. This event was held in the same hall where the men's events were conducted. There was a joke in the Olympiad bulletin. "If there are more than hundreds of women in a hall and if not a word is spoken, it means the Chess Olympiad is in progress."

The Indians landed with hope, but were more cautious than their male counterparts. They had finished 13th at Istanbul and hoped for a place in the top ten. "Our performance depends on Vijayalakshmi's form," said Pravin Thipsay before the event. "if she is in form, nobody can stop her,." he added. In the end, he accepted that it was a mistake as Vijayalakshmi was consistent and the team's placing depended on what others did to compliment her show. Vijayalakshmi performed well as she did last time, even picking up a silver medal in the process. The Indian performance depended more on what the other three players did as Vijayalakshmi continued to be the mainstay of the team.

Indians were seeded 18 by average ratings and finished 19th, which is a expected result by ELO standards. But the fact is that the team played better than it was expected in the first 12 rounds and failed to put its acts together in the last two rounds. India faced the best teams, put up better resistance than it did in the previous years. Rightly the team trainer Russlan Scherbakov said that the last two rounds did not reflect on what the team did earlier.

The holding of the World Cup in India, prior to the Olympiad, had taken a lot out of the players. The scores of the three medal winners last time was five points more than this time, showing that the competition was more fiercely fought this time. Or, probably the players were tired this time. In the second half of the event, Meenakshi Subbaraman, Aarthie Ramaswamy and Swathi Ghate all together won only two games and never came close to the woman Grandmaster norms they were expected to achieve here.

Vijayalakshmi's rating is on the upswing and the silver medal she won should boost her confidence before the next Olympiad at Menorca in 2004. Normally she plays all the matches but this time she rested herself in one, after losing to Georgia's Nana Ioseliani. India looked vulnerable without her, but she kept the positions clear and looked more sure of her play this time. She scored 9.5 points from 13 games, winning seven games, drawing five and losing one. She did not play against Cuba and without her the team struggled. She was unlucky not to win against Stefanova of Bulgaria and Kachiani of Germany. She was lucky against Skripchenko.

Vijayalakshmi's younger sister, Meenakshi, our second best player in the team, failed to spark this time. Last time, she made a norm but this time her surprising poor form left the team with less options.

Meenakshi's (3.5/8) slow play may be the reason. She faced tough oppositions in the early rounds with many teams holding their best player's for the second board instead of the first. Debutant Aarthie Ramaswamy (6/12) enjoyed playing with the white pieces and the coach preferred her to play with white. Her win against Germany in the 12th round was important as the team recorded a 2-1 upset. Swathi Ghate (4.5/9) who returned to the Olympic team after a gap, started very well with a spirited score, but faltered in the end, when she did not win any of her last four games. Fitness and training may be the ingredients for her future success. If the Federation is able to convince Koneru Humpy to play for the country, the transformation will be visible and the team will have greater winning force.

India beat Turkey 2.5-0.5, Mongolia 2-1, drew France 1.5-1.5, vanquished Azerbaijan 3-0, lost to Georgia 0-3, drew Cuba 1.5-1.5, vanquished Ecuador 3-0, lost to Bulgaria 1-2, beat Belarus 2.5-0.5, lost to Russia 1-2, drew Yugoslavia 1.5-1.5, beat Germany 2-1, lost to USA 1-2, lost to Israel 1-2. Overall India recorded six wins, three draws and suffered five defeats. The team made 23.5 points. India had scored 24 points in the previous Olympiad. Aarthie and Swathi replaced Saheli Barua and Pallavi Shah from the previous team.

The Georgian team failed in the final four rounds. The way the Georgians were racing, a Chinese official told The Sportstar, "three points is too much, we can't catch them." After round eleven, when Georgians were humbled to a 0.5-2.5 defeat by Poland, the Chinese were relieved. Again, the Georgians took the lead but were at a reachable distance. They crumbled from a 24/30 score at the end of round ten, to 27.5/42. The team did not win any of the last four matches, scoring 0.5, 1, 1, 1 against lower ranked Poland, Vietnam, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. It was unfortunate that India played Georgia at the start. Importantly, none of the four players, Chiburdanidze, Ioseliani, Khurtsidze and Arakhamia won any of their last four rounds. Call it fatigue, tension or nervousness at the tape... the dismal show at the end left them outside the medals list for the first time in chess history. Saddened by the poor form of the team, Chiburdanidze did not attend the closing ceremony to pick up her bronze medal for the board one performance. She started well, beat the best players on top board, even world women's champion Zhu Chen of China but she and her team collapsed at the end. The scoring indicates that had they even offered draws in the last 12 games, Georgians would have won the title with 30 points.

Another team which attracted the attention was the United States. Under the captaincy of Grandmaster Ilya Gurevich, this team started very well and faded with defeats in the round eleven and twelve like the Georgians. The United States with Irina Krush, Jennifer Shahade and Elena Donaldson did well to inflict 2-1 defeats to China and Georgia. Except for China, the other top placings were taken by the eastern bloc countries.

China was without their former world champion Xie Jun who had championed the country to gold medals in the past. She gave birth to a baby on October 9, 2002 and could not make it this time. The reigning world women's champion Zhu Chen (6/11) was in rusty form and had problems in many of her games. However, the Chinese reserve player Zhao Xue had an excellent tournament, scoring 11 points from 12 games. China recorded a rating performance of 2707 and she won the Best Player award.

World Cup champion Xu Yuhua (8.5/12) was in good shape for the Chinese in the second board in her second successive Olympiad. Wang Pin had the lowest score for the Chinese. Zhao Xue, debutant, has an entertaining style and may be in line for greater achievements in the future. The Chinese won 10 matches, lost two to the United States and Georgia and drew with two teams on their way to third title triumph.

Russians had two new young players, Alexandra Kosteniuk and Tatiana Kosintseva, on the two lower boards to help their older players, Kovalevskaya and Matveeva. This was useful for them. The 16-year-old debutant Kosintseva notched up an impressive 11/12 score on the reserve board. Russians lost only one match, to China, the lowest in the entire competition. They won 10 matches and drew three for the silver medal. They recorded 29 points.

The truth is all the medal winners capitalised on the Georgian team's failure. Poland scored a 3-0 sweep in the final round to take the bronze medal with 28 points. Georgia ended empty hand. Poland had Monika Socko (nee Bobrowska) on the third board with a massive score which helped her to win the gold in her board.

The women's Olympiad is much more fun outside the event. The dresses, the hairstyle of the players, perfumes... added up to the attraction. There was no official Miss Olympiad this time. The Bermuda party (dance and music) happened on the night of the penultimate round with a free day to follow.

The two most promising debutants were Zhao Xue of China and Tatiana Kosintseva of Russia. Both scored 11 points from 12 games. Strangely, when the two teams met in round three, both these teenagers were given rest by their captains, as they were the lowest in ratings and experience.

At Bled, women were seen all over the places - like in parks, alongside the lake, souvenir shops, casino. Most women preferred to come to their tables about 10-15 minutes before the start of their games.

Many of the players, especially from Latin America and Venezuela, in particular, wanted to be snapped along with Kasparov and other prominent players. Many were seeing Kasparov for the first time as he had last played in the Olympiad at Yerevan 1996.

The final placings: 1. China 29.5/42 (gold medal), 2. Russia 29 (silver medal), 3. Poland 28 (bronze medal), 4. Georgia 27.5, 5-8. Hungary, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Azerbaijan 25.5 each, 9-10. USA, Czech Republic 25 each, 11-13. Bulgaria, vietnam, Israel 24.5 each, 14-18. Romania, Armenia, Germany, Slovakia, England 24 each, 19-22. India, the Netherlands, Iran, Turkmenistan 23.5 each.

Board Prizes:

Board One: Hoang Thanh Trang (Vie) 77.3% (gold medal), Vijayalakshmi Subbaraman (Ind) 73.1% (silver medal), Maya Chiburdanidze (Geo) 72.7% (bronze medal).

Board Two: Svetlana Prudnikova (Yug) 73.1% (gold medal), Leili Piarnpuu (Est) 73.1% (silver medal), Svetlana Matveeva (Rus) 72.7% (bronze medal).

Board Three: Monika Socko (Pol) 80.8% (gold medal), Zeinab Mamedjarova (Aze) 76.9% (silver medal), Patricia Llaneza Vega (ESP) 75% (bronze medal).

Board Four: Zhao Xue (Chn) 91.7% (gold medal), Tatiana Kosintseva (Rus) 91.7% (silver medal), Boikhutso Mudongo (Bot) 87.5 (bronze medal).

'We were just lucky'

HER time away from chess and not preparing for the Olympiad nearly cost the Chinese their gold medal. It was unusual to see a top board Chinese player being defeated, the way world women's champion Zhu Chen was in Bled 2002.

Against the odds, she made a fighting draw in the final round to earn a half point that made all the difference between the Chinese and the Russians who took the silver medal. World women's champion Zhu Chen, 26, had a poor event, scoring six points from eleven games. The Chinese are known to make tall scores. Playing in a new role on the top board, Zhu Chen even looked little vulnerable. She replaced former world champion Xie Jun on the top board. Despite her poor form, Zhu Chen, a grandmaster title holder playing along with men, won gold medal even as China won the third Olympiad in a row.

Zhu Chen, who looked tired, was waiting to board a flight back to China when she spoke to The Sportstar.

Question: How was this Olympiad? The race was very close till the very end?

Answer: Yes. We were just lucky. We just made 2.5 points in the last game and it was enough to win the Olympiad.

Where the Georgians tired or did they collapse?

They are much older and you can understand the amount of tension for them. Their average age may be above 35. Anything can happen like that.

How was your celebration after your team's hat-trick of wins in the Olympiad?

We won three times in a row and it means something for the Chinese to celebrate.

When Georgia was in the lead, did you miss Xie Jun in the team?

No. We four are quite strong. I think she will be having her baby now.

Obviously Zhao Xue was the best performer for the Chinese. What about your own performance?

This is personally my worst Olympiad ever. I managed only plus one from eleven games (6/11). Zhao Xue had a great tournament this time.

Did the Chinese do any preparation before coming to Bled?

We had the World Cup before this (in India). I was busy with something else outside chess and that is why I did not play well. I should have trained a lot. Now I have finished my University.

This time the competition was quite close. The Russian women too have joined the top league?

Actually we expected the Russian women to do better than before. They had some strong players and they played well.

Which were the most interesting matches for you?

I was playing well in the first few rounds and then not so good. Okay, the games I played with Kovalevskaya and Skripchenko were good.

Were you little lucky against Stefanova in the last round? You lost a pawn for nothing.

No. Okay, I was not in very good shape. I made some mistakes but the rook ending is only a draw.

What is your impressions of Bled?

I liked it very much. It was very quiet. I have played in five Olympiads right from Moscow 1994. I actually like Istanbul and Bled for good organising.

What was new about the Chinese victory this time?

It was not so convincing as before. How serious is this drug testing?

"ONE person pulled my hand and dragged me. I was afraid. Then I realised it was drug testing. It was normal. I was scared that they will use injections. But I had to give urine sample. Luckily that day I had not taken any syrup for cold. They said after three weeks the result will come, after they do the test in Germany," said Meenakshi Subbaraman in a chat to The Sportstar.

After finishing her 12th round, a quick draw against Elisabeth Paehtz of Germany, Meenakshi thought that she could take some rest. No! She had to undergo the test. They offered her some juice and water. There was a man and no lady doctor. "I had to give the urine test," said Meenakshi. "I was totally scared when I entered but now I am not at all bothered."

Testing for dope among chess players is not new. It was done for all the quarter-finalists during the World Championships at Moscow last year. Now, they have introduced in the Olympiad as well.

Each day, four men and two women were randomly picked by lots. During one of the rounds, Chief arbiter Geurt Gijssen announced that two players did not comply with the procedure but refused to disclose their identities. The tests, according to Dr. Jana Bellin, were done with a high degree of confidentiality. In the end, no financial penalty or punishment was suggested and FIDE awaits the results of those who underwent the tests.

Talking to The Sportstar, Garry Kasparov of Russia said he would not have taken the test even if his name was picked. He made this statement with the organiser of the Olympiad, Boris Kutin, also FIDE President for European affairs, by his side. It is not known whether the top stars were exempted from this test. Kasparov cited several points to justify his case like the drug testing was required only if chess could get its way into the Olympic Games. "I don't see it happening in my lifetime," said 39-year-old Kasparov. But FIDE's official Emmanuel Omuku feels that "we have to keep trying till we prevail and should not lose heart." Kasparov thinks that someone should prove that taking drugs can help the chess players. Only then a drug test will be meaningful, he says. Many think drugs will not help the chess players.

The director of this drug testing Dr. Jana Bellin, who is an International Woman Master herself and played in the Olympiads says "there is nothing to worry". She says the drug test will show positive if a large dose of coffee and coke are taken prior to the test and players were scared of this. Many chess players drink coffee, normally in Europe, and enjoy coke during lunch. This is enough to trigger the alarm. Fear exists and many Grandmasters at Bled sent a memorandum to the FIDE President and the revolt was led by Alexander Baburin of Ireland and Jonathan Speelman of England. There were several claims and counterclaims of what was decided at the captain's meeting, to decide the fate of the policy on drugs. Nothing conclusive has been done in Bled except scare many. Maybe in Menorca 2004, FIDE might graduate with the experience gained from here. The problem about Menorca is, it is an island and such testing facilities may exist only in the nearest Spanish city, Barcelona.