`I want to break into the top 10'

ON a lovely Sunday morning in Pune, Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu plonked himself into one of those huge chairs in the lobby at Le Royale Residency Club and said, "It's a nice feeling."

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

ON a lovely Sunday morning in Pune, Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu plonked himself into one of those huge chairs in the lobby at Le Royale Residency Club and said, "It's a nice feeling."

It should be, because he had just won a Category 16 Super Grandmaster chess tournament. "You know, I jumped at the invitation to play in this tournament," he told The Sporststar. "Because I don't get invitations for strong events like this."

That is surprising and not surprising at the same time. Surprising because the man is ranked No. 20 in the world and played in the semifinals of the World championship in 1999. Not surprising because the world's elite closed tournaments are just that: closed. Only a chosen few — like the Russians Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik, India's Viswanathan Anand, Hungary's Peter Leko and Judit Polgar — are automatic choices for those events held in various European cities.

"It's a bit frustrating really for players like us who are on the brink of breaking into the elite group," says the 28-year-old from Bucharest. "How can you prove that you belong unless you get an opportunity? So I was delighted to get this invitation from India. And of course, it feels great to win such a strong tournament in my first ever attempt."

The Romanian is very well aware though that this victory alone won't fetch him a place in prestigious tournaments such as Linares and Corus. "For that I have to break the 2700 Elo mark and into the top 10. That's the only way out really; you have to gatecrash into those tournaments by improving your rating. You know, perhaps you can't blame anyone really for this situation; the organisers and sponsors are interested only in big names, which is understandable."

Wasted time

He thought he had got their attention when he made the World championship semifinals. He was wrong. "I wasted my time waiting for the invitations that never came. And I was asked to play in the `B' tournament in Corus. Looking back, I got practically nothing after making it to the semifinals of what was a very tough World championship in Las Vegas."

That remains the high point of his career. He had stunned the world when he knocked out giants such as Vasily Ivanchuk of Ukraine and Alexei Shirov of Spain in back-to-back matches, before going down to the eventual champion, Alexander Khalifman, in the semifinal. "No, I didn't expect to reach that far in Las Vegas," he admitted.

He was seeded 46th, had a rating of 2584 and was aged 23. He was a much bigger name when he played in the next World championship in New Delhi, in 2000. But since sport hardly cares for names, he lost in the second round itself, to Kiril Gorgiev of Bulgaria, after being given a first round bye.

"So this is my second visit to India," says Nisipeanu, adjusting his long hair ("My wife takes care of my hair," he laughs). "I'm impressed by the new young talents in Indian chess. Sasikiran, Harikrishna and Chanda are all good players."

He says the sport back home is not doing as well it is in India. "I'm afraid chess is not very popular in Romania, and looking back, I feel it was indeed a brave decision by my father to put me into chess."

He was six when he learnt the opening moves from his father. "He found that I was really enjoying chess, so he thought maybe I should make a career out of it, though there were not that many professionals in Romania. My father had taken a gamble; and I'm grateful he did that."

Lucky

He was lucky to get a good trainer in Corvin Radovici early in his life. "He was the one who spotted the talent in me, and he predicted most of my successes correctly," recalls Nispeanu. "You know he said I may not have a lot of victories as a junior player and that I would mature as a player little late." One of his first successes in chess came when he won an under-10 championship at Brasov (his hometown then). He did that with a perfect score (not surprising as he is after all a compatriot of star gymnast Nadia Comaneci). "I was very happy to win it with 9/9."

He smiles when he is told that he's been compared to Mikhail Tal, perhaps the most popular World champion ever for his attacking style of chess often featuring sensational sacrifices. "I'm flattered when I hear that," says Nisipeanu, who became a Grandmaster in 1996. "But Tal is not my favourite player. Kasparov is. He's very deep."

This game, between Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu and Sandipan Chanda, was the best in the tournament. "That game made me happy. It's one of my best ever," said the GM from Romania.-

He, however, rates Anand as the best player in the world at the moment. "Kasparov may be seeded No. 1, but he hardly plays."

Ambition

His own ambition is to be the world's best player one day. "Not just the World champion; I want to be what Anand is today."

For the moment, he's looking forward to the Olympiad, to be held in Spain from October 15. "I've always enjoyed playing in the Olympiads, and I hope my country does well this time."

India's entire Olympiad team, minus captain Anand, played him in Pune. And one of them, Sandipan Chanda, got a taste of his brilliance. "I have no hesitation in admitting that I was completely outplayed by him," says the youngster. "I didn't make any big mistake in that game, he just played superior chess. I feel he's one of the most talented players in the world currently. If he gets invitations for big tournaments, he would become one of the top players. Even before meeting him, I've learnt many things studying his games."

Pravin Thipsay, the veteran GM from Mumbai who was playing in the Open tournament in Pune, held along with the Super GM event, also rates him highly. "I had the privilege of watching his game with Chanda live, as I had a quick draw that day. To me, that was the best game of the tournament. He was brilliant."

Nisipeanu, with all modesty, agrees. "That game made me happy. It's one of my best ever."

Allround player

He's truly an allround player. "What impressed me most about him is the way he calculates," says Thipsay. "He knows precisely how and when to strike. And of course he's such an entertaining player."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Nisipeanu's favourite current sportsperson outside chess is Roger Federer, that artist with a tennis racquet from Switzerland. "I also enjoyed watching Pete Sampras and footballer Marco van Basten," says the man who's inching closer to the magical 2700 mark in Elo rating (he's on 2686 currently but had 2692 in FIDE's January list this year). He regrets the game has become shorter. "I feel the ideal time is six hours. You can't get many classic games in four hours of play, especially in ending."

"Yes, I would like to come back to India, to play another tournament like this," says Nisipeanu, as easily accessible and genuinely friendly a sportsman as any.

One had spoken to him about an interview for The Sportstar one day early in the tournament. On the final day, you didn't need to remind him. "Maybe we can do that interview now," he said the moment you congratulated him. "I will be leaving tonight itself."

How many world-class players could be so unassuming?