Ganguly has reasons to smile

The 41st National `A' championship, held at the Chess India Complex in the Northern Kerala city of Kozhikode, wouldn't be remembered just for Ganguly's maiden title, but for the drama it produced in the final stage.

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

The cream of the players at the championship. From left: P. Harikrishna, Abhijit Kunte, Sandipan Chanda, Surya Shekhar Ganguly and Dibyendu Barua. — Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

"I'M sorry," said S. Satyapragyan as he exchanged the score sheets with Pendyala Harikrishna. He was sorry because he didn't lose that game. Only if he had lost, his rival could've become the champion. The game had been drawn, and Satyapragyan was gracious in his half-victory against the teenaged prodigy.

Surya Shekhar Ganguly was watching that game closely, even as he was waging his own battle elsewhere in the same hall. The 20-year-old Kolkata player almost allowed himself a smile when Harikrishna, the top-seed, and Satyapragyan drew their game.

He knew that nobody could stop him from registering the biggest triumph in his career yet. He felt so happy. But as he sat before his board again, suddenly he became nervous. Of course he'd already got into a winning position against Suvrajit Saha. But what if he made a mistake?

He was really worried for a moment. Then he calmed himself down. He decided he would be very cautious and tried to suppress his excitement. It was of course easier said than done but he managed to do that somehow. A few moves later, Saha extended his hand to congratulate his fellow-Kolkatan, who'd just become India's new National men's `A' chess champion. There was a new champion for the first time since Abhijit Kunte's stunning success in 1997.

The 41st National `A' championship, held at the Chess India Complex in the Northern Kerala city of Kozhikode, wouldn't be remembered just for Ganguly's maiden title, but for the drama it produced in the final stage. It was one of the closest finishes ever in the 58-year-old history of India's premier domestic tourney.

The final day began with the overnight leaders involved in a three-way tie — Ganguly, Hari and Sandipan Chanda. Any of the three could have been the champion. If all of them had won their games — as they were expected to, pitted against less-rated rivals who were not in the best of form — Hari would've finished first according to the Koya System, which was used to break ties.

Chanda too won his game, against Sriram Jha, who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The lucky win helped Chanda to take his tally to 17.5 points, the same as Ganguly, who had a superior tie-break score. The third-seeded Ganguly may have had some luck on the final day, which came in the form of Satyapragyan's steady performance against Hari. But nobody would say that it was sheer good fortune that fetched him the title. For, he simply played the best chess in the tournament, probably the best in his entire career. Actually he made just one bad move in the whole tournament and this wasn't exactly a short tourney. With 23 rounds, featuring 24 players, it was one of the world's longest chess events ever played on league basis.

Ganguly's mistake came in the 20th round, against Tejas Bakre. It came at a time when he had pushed his rivals far behind. He was in the lead by a 1.5-point margin and nobody seemed capable of spoiling his dream. At that stage only Ganguly himself could've stopped his brilliant run. And that's what happened as he went for the queen-exchange in search of a non-existent victory against Bakre. The game was heading for a draw when he overstretched himself and paid the penalty.

Suddenly the tournament became wide open. Ganguly was still in the sole lead — he had been on top from the ninth round onwards — but the margin was down to just half-a-point, with three rounds remaining. Harikrishna and Chanda were following him closely and they caught up with him a round later.

The confident smile vanished from Ganguly's face. He always knew his main rival was Hari and the teenager was playing brilliant chess.

In the 21st round Hari showed why he is rated as the most gifted Indian player after Anand. He defeated T. S. Ravi with a stunning queen sacrifice, in what was the game of the tournament. His former coach, Evgeny Vladimirov, who was present throughout the tournament as a commentator, approved of it. "It was an amazing move," he said. "We didn't know if it was a correct sacrifice at the time but later, after analysing the game, we could find out that it was; for even with the best defence from Ravi, Hari was to have an advantage."

Harikrishna and S. Satyapragyan exchange score sheets after their game. In a must-win situation to clinch the title, Hari was held to a draw. The teenage GM finished third in the end. — Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

Even Hari admitted that it was one of the best games he had ever played. He said he wasn't feeling too disappointed that he could only finish third in the end. "I'm happy that I was in the race for the title till the final round," he said. "It was really pleasing, given the disastrous start I had."

Indeed, he began in horrendous fashion, losing to Saptarshi Roy Chowdhury on the opening day. He lost in the third round too, but to a more accomplished Kolkatan, Dibyendu Barua. So he had just half-a-point from three rounds.

But he made up for that with that strong finish. He posted six straight wins from the 17th round, and scored 9.5 points from 10 rounds, going into the final day. "Yes, I did feel Hari was going to win," admitted Ganguly. "He was playing unbelievably well during that period. But I was more consistent in the tournament."

Even Hari agreed on that point. "Ganguly deserved to be the champion."

Ganguly came to Kozhikode with the sole aim of becoming the champion. "My goal in the previous National `A' championships was just to finish in the top six and thus make it to the Indian team. This time, I was determined to win the tournament."

He began his campaign in a confident frame of mind, as he had won the last tournament he played, the Asian zonal championship in Dhaka, where Hari finished runner-up. "My games here were better than those in Dhaka," he said.

Everyone could see that. He was never in a minus position in any of his games (except the Bakre game of course). His best wins came against Barua and R. B. Ramesh, two quality players.

But it wasn't Ganguly who took the sole lead first. That honour went, notably, to Humpy, who was returning to the city where she had won the National women's `A' championship with an astonishing score of 16/17 a few weeks before.

The debutant moved into sole lead after the sixth round and stayed there till the end of the eighth round. In the ninth round she met Saptarshi, who offered her a draw. She refused that and went on to lose, her first defeat.

She met another Kolkatan in the next round — Neelotpal Das, who also proposed a draw. She rejected that too, and she went on to lose again. One of Humpy's few weaknesses is her inability to recover quickly from a reversal during a tournament — if she loses one game, often she loses a few more. "I've noticed that myself," she said. "And I know I have got to do something about it."

She did one sensible thing though after her loss to Neelotpal, who went on to finish eighth, taking the last place in seeding for the next National `A'. She went for a quick draw with Bakre in the following round. Admirably, she fought in all her games — except the one against Bakre — till the bitter end; she was the only one to do so. And she ruffled many a male ego while she did so.

Not many of them had counted her as a serious threat before the tournament began. Some of them had always believed that she was overrated. But then, her pet hobby is proving her critics wrong.

Koneru Humpy battles it out with Srinivasa Rao, watched by her father Ashok. Humpy finished a creditable sixth in her maiden appearance in the National men's `A' championship. -- Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

She finished sixth in the end, on tie-breakers, and thus just missed out on the Indian men's team. It was her loss to Chanda in the penultimate round that let her down (all her three defeats were at the hands of boys from Kolkata). She was disappointed she couldn't make it, but she should take heart from her great show. It was a brave performance in a tough and long tournament. She showed she had the stamina. She could proudly claim that she made the National `A' a bit more interesting.

"It was an incredible performance by Humpy," said Vishal Sareen, one of her victims, who himself accounted for two GMs, Barua and Praveen Thipsay. "Honestly, I didn't think she would do this well."

Chanda, too, did better than he was expected to. It was one of the best performances of his career in only his second National `A'. "My main aim was to get into the Indian team," he said, "and I'm glad that I have done that." He added he had no regrets about finishing runner-up to Ganguly, his best friend. "He played far better chess," he said.

Chanda, though, gained more in terms of Elo points from the tournament. He was the biggest gainer in fact, with a whopping 35 points. Ganguly collected 26, Bakre, who finished seventh, and Roktim Bandyopadhyay took 15 each and Humpy 14. Jha was the biggest loser, with 47 points. He couldn't quite recover from his opening round loss to Vikramjit Singh, the Manipur youngster, who was the revelation of the tournament.

Vikramjit may have finished only 18th in the end, but he won hearts for his natural skills and fighting spirit. He nearly beat two GMs — Harikrishna and Ramesh. His lack of experience and proper technique stood against him and he had to settle for draws in those games. He drew with another GM — Barua.

The 21-year-old had to spend five days on train to reach the venue from his home in Imphal, where there's no infrastructure for chess. And he became poorer by Rs. 15,000 because of travelling expenses alone.

Some of the participants are curious onlookers as veteran Evgeny Vladimirov gives live annotations on the AICF's website. — Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

Second seed Abhijit Kunte was the only unbeaten player of the tournament. He finished fourth, playing some smart chess. The reigning British champion drew with tougher players, but won enough games against weaker rivals to ensure that he could celebrate his engagement, which followed the tournament immediately, in a happy state of mind. He looked relieved to retain his place in the Indian team for the Olympiad.

Barua also looked happy at the closing ceremony, after finishing fifth. He would make the Indian team if Viswanathan Anand, who, along with Krishnan Sasikiran, has been selected directly, decides to keep away from the Olympiad yet again.

The 37-year-old's show was another proof of his endurance and fighting spirit. Players much younger than him were finding it tough to cope with the demanding schedule — two rounds on alternate days. It's time the All India Chess Federation (AICF) did something about the double round system for important tournaments like the National `A'. India's finest players deserve a less punishing schedule; there should be less number of double round days, if they cannot be done away with completely.

The tournament attracted a lot of global attention through the net, because of the large number of rounds. This, by the way, wasn't just the first National `A' with so many rounds; it would also be the last. A change in format from next year would see a lesser number of rounds.

The placings (23 rounds):

1-2. GM Surya Shekhar Ganguly (PSPB 2531) and GM Sandipan Chanda (PSPB 2504) 17.5; 3. GM Pendyala Harikrishna (AP 2570) 17; 4-6. GM Abhijit Kunte (PSPB 2528), GM Dibyendu Barua (TISCO 2528) and GM Koneru Humpy (AP 2485) 15; 7. IM Tejas Bakre (IA 2443) 14; 8-9. IM Neelotpal Das (PSPB 2443) and IM Sunderrajan Kidambi (PSPB 2446) 13.5; 10. GM R.B. Ramesh (PSPB 2466), 13; 11. Saptarshi Roy Chowdhury (Ben 2421) 12; 12. M.R. Venkatesh (PSPB 2401) 11.5; 13. GM Praveen Thipsay (BSB 2486) 11; 14-15. IM Roktim Bandyopadhyay (Ben 2352) and IM Prathamesh Mokal (Mah 2379) 10.5; 16. S. IM Satyapragyan (IA 2415) 9.5; 17-18. Vishal Sareen (LIC 2367) and Vikramjit Singh (Man 2342); 19-20. Arghyadip Das (GNCA 2299) and Suvrajit Saha (Ben 2387) 8.5; 21-22. IM T.S. Ravi (PSPB 2380) and Sriram Jha (LIC 2458) 8; 23-24. M. Srinivasa Rao (AP 2329) and V. Hariharan (BSB 2245) 4.5.