Ganguly's run continues

Up against Kidambi in the final round with black and needing a victory to pick up his third straight title, Surya Sekhar Ganguly won IN STYLE, writes V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM.

It was sheer class, backed by an intense desire to excel under tremendous pressure, that saw defending champion, Surya Sekhar Ganguly, pull off an incredible hat-trick in the National men's chess championship in Visakhapatnam. He was up against Sundarrajan Kidambi in the final round with black and needing a victory to pick up his third straight title. And he won in style.

Ganguly also benefited from his Bengal team-mate Sandipan Chanda's final round victory against the overnight leader Jeykumar Deepan Chakravarthy. Interestingly, Ganguly, Sandipan Chanda and Diwakar Prasad Singh finished with 14 points each before the top three places were decided by progressive scores.

That the players and the officials heaved a big sigh of relief at the end of the gruelling National Championship was understandable. The tournament was really taxing for everyone, and hopefully it should be the last Nationals in the current format. At the request of the Chess Players Association of India, the All India Chess Federation, at its next annual general body meeting, is expected to change the competition to the 13-round Swiss format.

It was a great recovery by Ganguly, who at one stage seemed to be out of contention for the top prize, especially after his unexpected defeat to IM Sriram Jha in the 16th round. It looked like Deepan Chakravarthy would be crowned the champion to cap what he hoped would be a grand `double' following his Grandmaster title. All that he needed was a draw against GM Sandipan Chanda in the final round. However, as in many other Nationals before, the seniors in the circuit did not let this happen.

It was similar to the situation faced by Pentyala Hari Krishna in the Nationals sometime ago. The Hyderabad lad was scheduled to face Tejas Bakre in the final round. The seniors helped Bakre in his preparations, which gave him the edge. He then outwitted Hari Krishna in the decisive round to deny him the title.

Though Ganguly lost to Abhijit Kunte in the penultimate round, he was fortunate to win the title. "I can tell you that I have never played under such tremendous pressure before. I was a fool to refuse the draw offer from Abhijit Kunte in the penultimate round, which landed me in a crisis," remarked a visibly relieved Ganguly after defeating Kidambi in the final round. "I knew it would not be easy to beat Sundarrajan Kidambi in the final round with black. So my preparations went on till half-an-hour before the commencement of the final round. I am happy that I was better prepared for the match," said a delighted Ganguly.

There were remarkable twists and turns on the last two days of the Championship, all scripted by the big guns of Indian chess. It was unfortunate that for someone who was very consistent right through, Deepan Chakravarthy, 18, eventually had to miss the bus for the Olympiad in Italy after just one loss in the final round. He was like a `King' waiting to be crowned on the last day, but was reduced to a commoner by the solid and experienced Sandipan Chanda.

If one were to pick the star performer here who failed to claim the title, but won the hearts of the chess lovers, it has to be Diwakar Prasad Singh of Tata Steel (Jharkhand). Dubbed `the Dhoni of Indian chess' — a comparison with Indian cricket sensation Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who also hails from Jharkhand, for his unorthodox style of play — the manner in which he stayed focussed in the tournament drew widespread appreciation.

"It is remarkable. He knows the game, but has to learn a lot more. His end-game is very solid," said Kunte in praise of Diwakar Prasad. In fact, even women's World No. 2 Koneru Humpy, after the shock defeat at the hands of Sandipan Chanda, had a taste of Diwakar Prasad's solidity.

It was obvious that Diwakar Prasad, 22, was unperturbed by the reputation of his rivals. He converted even half chances to wrap up games with some winning combinations that often defied the orthodox lines. In the final round he defeated GM R. B. Ramesh, and in the process edged out Abhijit Kunte for the third place by virtue of a better progressive score. This was enough for the Jharkhand player to book his berth in the Indian team for the Olympiad.

International Master P. D. S. Girinath of Hyderabad pulled off his biggest win in the event by defeating Diwakar Prasad.

SWATHI GHATE... champion for the first time in nine appearances.-

One of the silent performers at the Nationals was M. R. Venkatesh of BPCL, who earned his first GM-norm and finished with 13 points. Ironically, his hopes of figuring in the final list of contenders suffered a huge blow when the Andhra veteran, IM Lanka Ravi, beat him in a crucial round. It was a result that didn't fetch Ravi anything, but clearly spoiled Venkatesh's chances of entering the elite group. Ravi also got the better of R. B. Ramesh in the 13th round.

It was a disappointing sixth place finish for Humpy who was hoping to earn a place in the Indian men's Olympiad squad. After an unbeaten run till the ninth round, she seemed to lose her way following her defeat to Sandipan Chanda. Thereafter, she suffered two more crucial losses at hands of Diwakar Prasad and Kidambi. "It is a great feeling to beat the strongest player in the event," remarked Kidambi after the win and this bears testimony to her stature. Perhaps, the absence of her father-cum-coach Koneru Ashok, who stayed back in Vijayawada, affected her performance though she said she was in touch with him daily on phone.

Humpy would do well to ponder whether she was right in accepting friendly draws against R. B. Ramesh, M. R. Venkatesh, Lanka Ravi and Ganguly in crucial rounds.

The women's championship saw WGM Swathi Ghate crowned the new queen. Playing a near flawless game, she emerged a clear champion for the first time in her nine appearances in the Nationals.

"Definitely, if Humpy had played here, may be it would have been difficult for me," she confessed later. But the fact that she brushed aside the challenges from defending champion, Nisha Mohota, and WGM Subbaraman Vijayalakshmi, who both had a miserable tournament, should enhance the value of her achievement.

The star performer in this section, though, was Mary Ann Gomes, who finished runner-up for the second time in a row. With this performance, the 16-year-old player from Kolkata proved a point or two to those who had claimed during the last Nationals that with the big names of Indian women's chess skipping the tournament, it was easier for the lesser-known players like Nisha Mohota and Mary to finish first and second.

Mary, who also got her first GM-norm here, showed that she had come a long way. Definitely, she will not rue skipping the 10th standard examinations to participate in the Nationals, for she has realised her dream of making it to the Indian team for the Olympiad. "It should be a huge experience playing there. I am eagerly waiting for that," she remarked.

It was a creditable performance by WGM Dronavalli Harika, who finished third. Besides the fact that she had to skip her 10th standard exams to play here, she was also under enormous pressure as her mother Swapna was recovering from a serious ailment.

That she was the only player in both the men's and women's sections to be unbeaten was a remarkable achievement too.

The seasoned campaigner Anupama Gokhale might well have played her last Nationals, for she never was in the reckoning at any stage.

Some have expressed the view that inexperience may prove costly for the Indian women's team at the Olympiad, but considering the broader picture, it would be a great learning experience for a young player like Mary Ann Gomes. Perhaps, the time has come to change the face of Indian women's chess.

The top three players in the men's and women's sections earned the right to represent India in the Olympiad in Turin, Italy, from May 19 to June 5.

The top six finishers in both the sections will represent the country in international tournaments.

FINAL PLACINGS By virtue of better progressive score:

Men: 1. Surya Sekhar Ganguly 14 pts, 2. Sandipan Chanda 14 pts, 3. Diwakar Prasad Singh 14 pts, 4. Abhijit Kunte 13.5 pts, 5. J. Deepan Chakkravarthy 13.5 pts, 6. Koneru Humpy 13.5 pts.

Women: 1. Swathi Ghate 14 pts, 2. Mary Ann Gomes 13.5 pts, 3. Dronavalli Harika 12.5 pts, 4. Subbaraman Meenakshi 12 pts, 5. Nisha Mohota 12 pts, 6. Subbaraman Vijayalakshmi 11.5 pts.