`I have a long way to go'

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

HE was sleeping when we knocked on the door of his room at the Taj Residency in Kozhikode. But Krishnan Sasikiran was happy to keep his word and talk to us, though he had arrived only a few hours earlier from Doha after playing a tough tournament.

He was expected to win the Asian individual championship, which he did outright (without any tie-breakers). He said he didn't rate his latest victory among his best. "But it's always nice to win tournaments."

He has been winning tournaments with an incredible regularity over the last couple of years. There was a time last year when he won six of the nine tournaments he played. The victory in Doha was his second successive triumph, having won the National `A' in Mumbai in January in great style. He had scored an amazing 16 points from 20 rounds. "I probably played the best chess in my career in that tournament. It was the closest I could get to perfection. The only blemish was that last round loss to Suvrajit Saha, though of course it was inconsequential as far as the tournament was concerned. But that game cost me quite a few precious Elo points."

The Elo points are what really matter in chess. And the 22-year-old has plenty of them — 2664 to be precise. Only one Indian has reached that mark before (Viswanathan Anand has progressed way beyond that and has been the World champion).

Sasikiran, thanks to that constant increase in Elo rating, is ranked 32 in the world, which is truly an achievement. But the young man is quite modest about the feat. "I have a long way to go before I could start competing with the best in the world."

The fact though is that he's faced many of the top players of the world chess. Only a few months ago, he played with Garry Kasparov, the World No. 1 and the strongest player the world has ever seen. That was just a few days after meeting, and actually beating, Anand, the World No. 3, at the World Cup in Hyderabad.

"I was nervous on the eve of my game with Kasparov at the Olympiad in Slovenia," Sasikiran admitted. "It was a strange feeling. You know, you don't meet a player like Kasparov every day. He was courteous to me. And no, he didn't give me any stares, neither did he try to unsettle me, contrary to what I was told before. But I felt disappointed that I lost without giving a decent fight."

Sasikiran is slowly approaching the 2700-rating mark. That is in fact his immediate aim too. "But I know I'm not quite ready for that. Having played a few players with that rating I'm convinced that I have an awful lot of work to do. I've found that they virtually make no obvious mistakes. Another thing I've noticed is that they are creative. They can make things happen."

The most striking thing one would notice in Sasikiran's game these days is his professionalism. Now he knows exactly when he should exert himself and when he shouldn't.

Gone are the days when he would overstretch himself for improbable wins. "Though there was nothing wrong with the idea of wanting to win all the games, it was not always the best thing to do."

As a youngster he had this well-known hatred for draws. That did help him sharpen his attacking skills and become a more determined player, but it was also necessary to be a bit more practical. "I tried my new approach at the National `A' in Mumbai, and it worked wonders. I even had a short draw with Abhijit Kunte."

Sasikiran and Kunte have played many scintillating, attacking games in the past. Both have great regard for each other. Kunte is actually the only top Indian player to have a superior score against Sasikiran. "He is in a different level now," Kunte said. "He's made huge progress in the last couple of years."

The main reason for that progress is Sasikiraran's willingness to toil. He works relentlessly on his game. "That's what really separates him from the other Indian players," said Evgeny Vladimirov, the coach of the Indian team who once compared Sasikiran to Anatoly Karpov in his early days. "No other Indian player I have worked with can match Sasikiran when it comes to hard work or dedication."

Sasikiran feels that the media has often failed to highlight the many successes of the Indian chess players of late. "I know ours is a country obsessed with cricket."

But he said he and his teammates enjoyed India's victory in the World Cup against Pakistan, while they were playing in Doha. "The hotel where the tournament was being played had shown the telecast of the match. (Dibyendu) Barua had finished his game early and told us that Tendulkar was batting beautifully and that India could win the match. So all of us watched the game, and it was nice to see our players beating the Pakistanis. Though we chess players do feel that we don't get enough exposure in the media because of the cricketers, we were ready to forget everything that evening. For, it was a victory against Pakistan."