Gopal basks in glory

MAHESH HARILAL

Before Gopal, nobody from Kerala could make even a GM norm. Kerala’s poor show in chess is in fact one of the biggest ironies of Indian sport as for many years the State used to host the highest number of National and International tournamentsin the country, with the All India Chess Federation headquartered in Kozhikode, writes P. K. Ajith Kumar.

Even as Indian pace bowler S. Sreesanth was dominating the sporting headlines, for reasons right and wrong, another Kochi lad was making remarkable progress in an entirely different game. G. N. Gopal became India’s newest, and Kerala’s first, Grandmaster (GM) recently.

He was rated with 2520 Elo points in the October rating list of FIDE, the world chess governing body, thus meeting the requirements — he had already made three norms — for the GM title.

From G. N. Gopal to GM Gopal, it truly has been a sensational journey for the 18-year-old. He made his three norms within a space of six months — at the International Open in Kolkata, the Lake Sevan in Armenia and the Asian Zonal in Dhaka. A year ago, in FIDE’s 2006 October list, his rating was just 2397.

He had won his International Master (IM) title only last December. Good players are like that — they don’t take too much time to turn from IM to GM. And Gopal is a very good player.

He is also the most improved Indian player in the last one year. “No doubt about that,” says the Mumbai-based veteran GM, Praveen Thipsay.

“I have been noticing him for a while now, but he has stunned even me with the kind of progress he has made of late. He is a very resourceful player and is capable of breaking into the 2600 mark. The best thing I have noticed about him is that he is focussed always. He reminds me of Krishnan Sasikiran when it comes to single-minded dedication to the sport.”

True. Chess has been the only passion in Gopal’s life.

“My first memory of Gopal is that of a young boy memorising the moves of Ruy Lopez, during a tournament in Kozhikode many years ago,” says K. Ratnakaran, the only other Kerala player to get the IM title. “Even then I knew he was precociously talented, but the way he has improved his game during the past one year is amazing. He plays with a lot more spirit these days, fights for a win till the last minute and is no longer afraid of losing.”

Gopal has indeed come a long way since the 2003 National sub-junior championship in Kozhikode, when he squandered his chances of winning the title, opting for a short draw in the final round; he could have won the title had he beaten S. Arun Prasad, who required only a draw to become the champion. Gopal was reprimanded by his coach Varugheese Koshy for that lapse. Like a good pupil, he never repeated that mistake.

With chess thriving in India, an addition to the fast growing list of GMs (16 now) is not that big a deal. But Gopal’s feat is special, because he comes from a State which has no great tradition in chess.

Before Gopal, nobody from Kerala could make even a GM norm. Kerala’s poor show in chess is in fact one of the biggest ironies of Indian sport as for many years the State used to host the highest number of National and International tournaments in the country, with the All India Chess Federation headquartered in Kozhikode.

Very few players from Kerala have been able to make a mark in the mind sport in the past. Before Ratnakaran won the bronze medal in the Asian juniors in 2001, the proudest moment for Kerala chess was when N. R. Anil Kumar represented India at the 1982 Olympiad in Switzerland.

It is difficult to see another Gopal in the making in Kerala. But he could well inspire a few young minds.

And Gopal came through only because he was talented, hardworking and had the backing of his family. His parents, B. Narayana Pillai and Geetha Prakasini, both college lecturers, took loans from their provident funds to pay Gopal’s coaches — coaching doesn’t come cheap in Indian chess — and buy his air tickets. His elder brother Gokul quit his engineering job so that he could manage Gopal’s career.

“We had to make a lot of sacrifices to make Gopal a GM,” says Narayana Pillai. “There were even times when we wondered if we had made the right decision to allow him to play chess instead of taking up a course in medicine or engineering. But when we saw his love of the game, we thought we should encourage him to play.”

To play chess was all Gopal wanted. He won his first National title in 2001, the Under-12 rapid. In 2004, he won the bronze at the Asian under-14 championship in Tehran. The same year, he won the National junior title too.

This year of course saw him coming up with fine performances in international tournaments. He finished fifth at the Kolkata Open, second at the Category 12 Lake Sevan, second again at the Asian Zonals and qualified for the World Cup from the Asian individual championship in the Philippines.

About the only wrong move he has made in his young career was when he got into an eminently avoidable controversy shortly after his arrival from Dhaka. He had made statements against the officials of Chess Association-Kerala at a press meet and had to apologise for his action later.