Harika's crowning glory

RAKESH RAO

WITH younger players becoming champions in almost every sport, the crowning glory for 11-year-old Harika Dronavalli in the National women's 'B' chess championship at Pune was in keeping with the growing trend.

The youngest ever to emerge as the strongest in the championship, which began in 1988, Harika truly lived up to the reputation of being commendably focussed and fiercely competitive. In this 11-round contest, the second seed Harika scored nine victories, besides a draw and a solitary loss, to tally 9.5 points.

The 11-year-old Dronavalli Harika became the youngest player to win the women's National 'B' championship.-K. R. DEEPAK

In the final round, Harika needed nothing less than a victory against local favourite Eesha Karavade to take the title. Eesha needed just a draw to take custody of the winner's cup since she enjoyed a superior progressive score which would have proved decisive in case of a 'tie' with Harika.

After a fairly long battle, Harika emerged triumphant to put all post-match calculations to rest. She finished a point clear of Eesha and headed the list of 10 qualifiers for the National women's 'A' championship.

Besides Eesha, the other qualifiers were, M. Saimeera Ravi, Swati Mohota, Y. Pratibha, Mary Ann Gomes, Tania Sachdev, Nisha Mohota, J. E. Kavitha and Kruttika Nadig. These players join four seeded players - S. Vijayalakshmi, Aarthie Ramaswamy, Swati Ghate and S. Meenakshi - in the field to decide the National champion in Mumbai.

In all, Harika had just one poor day, when she drew the fourth round with M. Safira Shanaz and lost to Pratibha in the fifth. Thereafter, in a true champion-like manner, Harika came back with six straight victories to claim her first women's title at the National level.

Interestingly, Harika and Eesha were among those talented players recently adopted by Wipro for a year. For someone who is yet to enter her teens, a third straight qualification to the National championship is indeed a great achievement. Even for Eesha, now a two-time qualifier, the runner-up finish was her best effort. Unlike Harika, Eesha was part of the recently held coaching camp organised by Wipro under Kazakh trainer Evgeny Vladimirov in Bangalore.

Though Harika was expected to be among the front-runners, it was Eesha's consistency which was a revelation. This small-made girl took big strides as she scored over seven rivals, including the seasoned Saimeera. However, she failed to provide the desired finish to her gallant run. Eesha's last-round defeat to Harika also meant that there was no unbeaten player in the field.

The 24-year-old Saimeera, surprisingly the seniormost among the qualifiers, came up with her best finish in the championship. In the past, Saimeera qualified as fifth in Mumbai (1997), eighth at Palakkad (2001) and seventh at Vizag (2001). This time, she made it to the third place with a friendly last-round draw with Mary Ann Gomes. Since Saimeera had won the first five rounds, her progressive score was superior to those who tied with eight points.

After a smooth sailing early in the competition, Saimeera suffered two losses in the space of three rounds. In the sixth round, she lost to Pratibha and in the eighth, to Eesha. The victory over Purabi Singha in the ninth was a big one. Thereafter, she drew with Dolan Champa Bose and Mary to attain her goal in a relaxed manner.

Saimeera feels she needs to concentrate more in the third hour of her matches. "I am getting into good positions in the opening but things seem to go wrong around the first time-control. Most of my mistakes have come between 30 and 40 moves," says the Indian Bank employee. Clearly, Saimeera has the game to scale greater heights. All she needs to do is to iron out a few rough edges and get busy with collecting her long-overdue WIM norms.

Swati Mohota, having spent long years under the shadow of her more illustrious younger sister Nisha, finally had her moments. She entered the field as the 27th seed and finished a creditable fourth with eight points. Following a second-round loss to R. Hemalatha, Swati won six matches in a row and drew with Eesha in the ninth round. She lost to Harika in the 10th but by then she had done enough. A friendly draw with Pratibha ensured Swati's presence among the qualifiers.

Like Swati, Pratibha, too, scored seven victories, drew two matches and lost two. But one astonishing feature of Pratibha's performance was her ability to recover. Pratibha, after beating Harika and Saimeera in succession, reached 5.5 points from six rounds, before two straight losses - against Eesha and Anuradha Beniwal - pushed her back. But all credit to this final year student of Computer Science for her spirited comeback at the expense of her Tamil Nadu teammates Safira Shanaz and J. E. Kavitha on the penultimate day. A draw with Swati gave Pratibha her third straight qualification to the National 'A'. By coming fifth, Pratibha matched her effort of Palakkad in 2000.

Among the qualifiers, the biggest surprise was 'Complan Girl' Mary Ann Gomes. This bundle of talent from Kolkata turned 13 on September 19 but gave herself a wonderful present just over a week earlier. Mary was truly the find of the championship. The Asian junior bronze medallist served a warning to the rest of the contenders by cracking citymate and top seed Nisha in the second round. Thereafter, she lost only to Harika and Eesha, but made waves by overpowering two more WIMs - former National champion Mrunalini Kunte-Aurangabadkar and Saheli Dhar-Barua.

So far, lack of resources has restrained Mary's participation in domestic tournaments. Time is just right for the corporate to back this gifted girl and ensure that her immense potential is realised.

If Mary gained the respect of many senior players, Asian junior champion Tania Sachdev managed to keep her reputation intact. Last year's surprise runner-up, Tania made amends for her slow start by coming up with a strong finish. One of her better victories came in the last round against her good friend Anuradha Beniwal. In fact, Anuradha needed just a draw against Tania to make it. Strangely, the 11th seeded Tania neither met any of the higher seeds nor the other qualifiers on way to the seventh spot.

Nisha, too, owed it to her late recovery. Upstaged by Mary in the second round and again by Purabi in the fifth, Nisha also had to share points with K. Chandra Hamsa - the up and coming sister of Koneru Humpy - and M. Rajdarshini. But victories in the last three rounds saw Nisha through. At the same time, it must be remembered that in the final round, Nisha was staring at a drawish position against Dolan. Since a draw would have put both players out of the list of qualifiers, Dolan tried to liven up things by taking chances but they backfired and helped Nisha win.

The last two qualifying slots went to first-timers Kavitha and Kruttika, seeded 25 and 21, respectively. In fact, at one stage, it had appeared that players with 7.5 points would find it difficult to make it. But the last round defeats of Amruta Mokal (to N. Vinuthna) and Safira Shanaz (to Mahima Raj Mohan) helped the cause of Kavitha and Kruttika.

Kavitha, who plays positively and is willing to stretch for victories, richly deserved a place among the qualifiers. She won seven rounds, including the crucial one against Baisakhi Das on the final day. Her losses came against fellow-qualifiers Eesha, Swati and Pratibha while the lone draw was with Anuradha Beniwal.

Kruttika, one among the talented girls emerging from Pune, made a very fortuitous entry to the National 'A'. She drew her last round with five-time National champion Anupama Gokhale and gave the impression of having made the top-10 list. Interestingly, Anupama and Kruttika - both coached by Anupama's husband Raghunandan Gokhale - ended up with identical scores of 7.5 points with matching progressive scores of 47. Kruttika's qualification stood confirmed only after the 'cut' progressive of the two players was ascertained. Indeed, it was the narrowest of misses for Anupama.

Besides, Anupama, some of the other reputed names also failed to live up to the expectations. Among them were, the four-time champion Saheli, former Asian junior champion M. Kasturi and fifth seed M. Priyadarshini and comeback-lady Mrunalini Kunte-Aurangabadkar.

On the organisational front, it was a splendid effort by Buddibal Kreeda Trust. Run by P. T. Kunte, his son Grandmaster Abhijit Kunte and daughter Mrunalini, the BKT came up with a very honest attempt to make things comfortable for the players. A centrally-located venue and a well-knit team of arbiters under Joseph A. D'Souza helped matters. Equally important was the role played by the parents of various local players. Overall, it was a creditable show considering the fact that it was KBT's maiden venture at the national level.

Final standings (with points/progressive score):

1. Dronavalli Harika (AP) 9.5/55; 2. Eesha Karavade (Maharashtra) 8.5/57; 3. M. Saimeera (Tamil Nadu) 8/54.5; 4. Swati Mohota (Bengal) 8/52; 5. Y. Pratibha (Mount Chess Academy) 8/52; 6. Mary Ann Gomes (GNCA) 8/49.5; 7. Tania Sachdev (Delhi) 8/44; 8. Nisha Mohota (LIC) 8/44; 9. J. E. Kavitha (Capa Chess Academy) 7.5/48; 10. Kruttika Nadig (Maharashtra) 7.5/47; 11. Anupama Gokhale (Petroleum) 7.5/47; 12. N. Vinuthna (Champion Chess Academy) 7.5/46; 13. Mahima Raj Mohan (Tamil Nadu) 7.5/45.5; 14. M. Rajdarshini (Chennai Chess Academy) 7.5/45.