His results do all the talking

RAKESH RAO

ON the sands of time, the footprints of Viswanathan Anand continue to serve as milestones for those treading the road to chess mastery in the country. Following the way shown by the great champion from Chennai, a whole new generation of talented players have dared to dream. These days, they all dream big.

-RAMESH KURUP

Since Anand ended the country's wait for its first Grandmaster in 1987, there has been no dearth of dreamers. At various levels, there have been achievers. The list of title-holders is steadily rising. Among these, Krishnan Sasikiran stands the tallest. What more, he continues to grow.

Until late last year, Sasikiran was just another face in the crowd of young, energetic aspirants trying to do justice to their talent. But since December, Sasikiran has remained busy in translating his vast potential - backed with some very hard work - into some glorious results.

By winning six titles from seven major tournaments, Sasikiran has gained immensely what he values the most - Elo points. These points, gained or lost depending on the performance, reflect the playing strength of a player. In Sasikiran's case, his rating soared from 2569 in October 2001 to a career-high 2650 in July 2002. This also gave Sasikiran the 40th spot in the World ranking list. Both in terms of rating as well as ranking, Sasikiran is only second to Anand in India's chess history. For the record, Sasikiran's dream run began in the AICF Golden Jubilee tournament at Kozhikode and continued through the Hastings Congress Premier in Hastings, the National 'A' championship at Nagpur, the Asian Open championship at Bikaner and the Chhattisgarh Chief Minister's Cup title at Raipur. He followed it up by finishing runner-up in the Goodricke International in Kolkata. This was the best finish by an Indian in the premier annual event. In terms of the points gained, it proved to be Sasikiran's most fruitful outing.

All the while, Sasikiran was concerned more about enhancing his rating than winning titles. Therefore, the gain of 22 points in Kolkata surely gave Sasikiran more satisfaction than what he experienced in all those title-winning results. "Winning the title is okay but what matters to me are the Elo points. I want to maintain my rating over 2650 this year and I am working towards it," says Sasikiran, who makes no secret of his discomfort when facing the mediapersons. Left to him, he'd rather let his results do all the talking.

Sasikiran's most recent title, and the most creditable of the lot, came when he played his first tournament as a 2650-player in July. He came out as the strongest from a very tough field in the Tam Chin Nam Cup Open chess tournament at Qingdao, at China. Sasikiran was seeded three in the competition which included 11 GMs with ratings of 2600 and above. Statistics are all fine. The figures reflect a player's form, or the lack of it. But to know the man and the player that Sasikiran is, it is imperative to go beyond numbers.

Sasikiran, a late-starter, is known to work harder than any other player in the country. Much of the credit is due to his father, who has instilled commendable discipline in the young man. No wonder, Sasikiran is away from all distractions and his focus remains unmatched.

A self-motivated player, Sasikiran has a very positive approach and goes all out for a win. He does not believe in 'agreed' or short draws. It is this uncompromising 'I-have-to-win' attitude that makes him vastly different from the rest in the crowd. His positional understanding is deeper than of all his teammates and he always looks for the best move. He toys with new ideas and tries them out when the right opportunity arises.

"His attitude is unquestionable," says GM Dibyendu Barua admiring Sasikiran's ability to stay focussed for long. "For Sasikiran, chess is everything and he is a dedicated performer. Also commendable is the fact that Sasikiran knows that since he works harder and longer over the board, he is bound to get tired. So he also works on his fitness. I see a lot of these younger players recognising the importance of physical fitness and working out accordingly," points out Barua, referring to the seriousness with which Sasikiran sweats it out on a badminton court or the gym, even during tournaments like the National 'A'.

Abhijit Kunte, the only Indian against whom Sasikiran has a less-impressive head-to-head record, is all praise for his arch-rival. "As Sasikiran's recent results suggest, he is playing some of his best chess at the moment. Just look at the way he is coming up with GM-norm performances in almost all the major tournaments (in the last seven months). Nowadays, he sees a lot more on the board. That in turn has helped him minimise his mistakes," observes Kunte. A seasoned campaigner like D. V. Prasad feels that Sasikiran is reaping the harvest of some very hard off-season work. "Even if you look at some of his not-so-impressive performances in the past year, Sasikiran, probably, finished ahead of all other Indians in the fray. Without doubt, his performance-level has only started to rise. He has the right approach to make it big even in the bigger league," is Prasad's view.

Ask Sasikiran about his game at present and he comes up with a very guarded response. With his humility intact, Sasikiran says, "I still feel that I have to improve my opening repertoire, calculate faster in the middle-game and learn more about the end-games. Recently, in the coaching camp under Evgeny Vladimirov (the Kazakh trainer), I learnt a thing or two about end-game tactics." Indeed, such a candid confession can come only from a devoted student, ever-so-hungry to learn more. What Sasikiran needs now is to take part in strong, preferably round-robin, tournaments. Playing against stronger rivals is sure to raise his level further. Of course the time has come for him to test his skills with some of the more illustrious names in the game.

This year, with the Olympiad not very far away, another round of coaching with Vladimirov and hopefully, Mikhail Gurevich, should help Sasikiran iron out a few rough edges in his game. With a series of tournaments lined up before and after Olympiad, Sasikiran should bring more joy to the country's chess lovers. Without doubt, Sasikiran's style of play is very impressive. He possesses a good balance between theoretical preparation and deep, precise calculation. "It is important to improve all sides of your chess," says Russian GM Ruslan Sherbakov and continues, "don't be just a tactician. One has to be good, both in tactics and positional play. Sasikiran should show no hurry. He should go slow and grow stronger."

Truly, at 21, Sasikiran has come of age. He still retains his boyish charms, but make no mistake. He is playing like a man. Watch out for more from this man on a mission.