India `A' lets China off the hook

INDIA is fast catching up with China in chess. In the latest edition of the Asian team championship at Jodhpur, China might have managed to elude India's grasp but there were enough indications that the change of guard would take place before long.

RAKESH RAO

INDIA is fast catching up with China in chess. In the latest edition of the Asian team championship at Jodhpur, China might have managed to elude India's grasp but there were enough indications that the change of guard would take place before long.

The Chinese men's team, which won the title, fighting it out against India `A'. The top Indian team finished runner-up. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

In the 13-team field, including three from the host, China's combination was its strongest ever in the continental championship. In contrast, India's first-ever all-Grandmaster team was without the services of its ace Viswanathan Anand. The former World champion stayed away from representing the country, making it clear that he did not like the Swiss format. One cannot help thinking that if only Anand had been part of India's campaign, the country could have well won the championship.

For the record, China aggregated 25 points from nine rounds, followed by India `A' with 23.5 points. Surprisingly, India `C' gatecrashed into the medal-bracket with the help of some very consistent performers right through the competition.

Looking back, the Indians did not have much to rejoice even though they bagged their first-ever silver and retained the bronze, won four years ago. The reason was simple. The Indians needed no reminding that they had missed their chance to win the gold. After all, India `A' led China by a point on the morning of the penultimate round.

China, forced to taste its first ever defeat in the competition by India `B', made up with a vengeance. The Chinese brigade comprising Ye Jiangchuan, Zhang Zhong, Xu Jun and Zhang Pengxiang crushed holder Uzbekistan 3.5-0.5.

India `C', which was included just before the start of the championship, sprang a surprise by finishing a creditable third. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

India `A', undefeated since then, crashed to a surprising 1.5-2.5 loss to Kazakhstan after Surya Sekhar Ganguly suffered his first defeat and K. Sasikiran, P. Harikrishna and Abhijit Kunte drew. This listless display from the Indians helped China finish the penultimate day with a one-point cushion.

The following afternoon, China gave nothing away against Malaysia and made sure of the gold while India `A' collared Turkmenistan 3.5-0.5 for the silver. India `A' could have slipped from the second spot had Dibyendu Barua not scored a fortuitous victory.

Kazakhstan looked good enough to take the bronze until Sri Lanka's G. C. Anuruddha pulled off a big surprise on the third board against IM N. Ibraev. The loss of a crucial point forced Kazakhstan to settle for a 3-1 victory. Kazakhstan's reduced margin of victory helped the cause of India `C'. The seventh seeded Indian combination also scored a 3-1 triumph over Iran to maintain its overnight half-point lead over Kazakhstan and took away the bronze.

The last-minute turn of events helped generate some excitement. However, by then, the title-race was long settled and the chance for India `A' to deny China the gold was well and truly lost.

Though China could not beat even one of the three Indian foursomes, what separated it from the India teams was its ability to gain more points against weaker opposition. Also, the six individual losses in nine rounds kept India `A' on the backfoot.

Kazakhstan (right) playing against Iran. The Kazakhs caused a major upset, defeating India `A' in the later stages of the championship. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

Like India `A', India `C' also held China before India `B', headed by Koneru Humpy, did one better and became the only team to score over the eventual champion.

India `B', seeded five, looked good to make the medal-bracket but faded out in the eighth round in the most unexpected manner.

A day after upsetting the Chinese — with captain Koneru Humpy letting Ye Jiangchuan off the hook, Pravin Thipsay bringing down Zhang Zhong on the second board and R. B. Ramesh beating reserve Yu Shaoteng — India `B' suffered a heart-break.

Against Sri Lanka, Humpy and Thipsay won as expected. But Ramesh ran into trouble against G. C. Anuruddha and Tejas Bakre found himself busy finding a way to win an ending involving a knight each and pawns on the fourth board. Ramesh's loss followed by Bakre's draw not only forced India `B' to drop 1.5 points but also made it a candidate to receive a bye for the final round. This meant that the team's campaign came to an abrupt end and also denied it a chance to fight for the medal.

India `C' was truly the `find of the championship'. Before the team got into the act, there were some anxious moments for its members. Since a third team from the host could have been accommodated only in case of the odd-numbered overseas entries, it was obvious what the India `C' players were praying for.

Mercifully, on the eve of the championship, there were question marks over the arrival of teams from Iran and Uzbekistan. This situation worked in favour of India `C' teams in both sections. Iran's men and women reached before the first round and Uzbekistan men made it on the second day. Therefore, India `C' benefited the most from the uncertainty that preceded the arrival of Iran and Uzbekistan. But to the credit of India `C', which had late replacements in Neelotpal Das and Lanka Ravi, it performed like a team possessed.

India `B' (right), headed by Koneru Humpy, became the only team to score over China, but had to be content with the sixth spot. -- Pics. R. V. MOORTHY-

Lanka Ravi made the most of the opportunity to make his maiden nine-game Grandmaster norm. What more, his stupendous score of 7.5/9 also helped him walk away with the third-board honours, ahead of China's two-time Asian champion Xu Jun.

Dinesh Sharma's run on the fourth board was no less significant. This man from Kanpur surely gained the respect of some of the better-known players with some truly business-like performances. Unbeaten throughout, Dinesh collected 7/9 points and took the second prize behind China's Zhang Pengxiang.

If India `C' performed better than expected, its team members did not forget to thank Lanka's Anuruddha for his timely `contributions' on the last two days. After all, it was Anurudha who exceeded all expectations of his teammates and stopped Ramesh. A result, which put India `B' out of medal contention. Anuruddha then took a point off Kazakhstan in the final round and in turn helped India `C' win a medal.

Though India `C' performed above its known potential, some of the other teams struggled to justify their seedings.

Uzbekistan, seeded three, headed the list of those who disappointed. After gaining a first-round bye, worth two points, Uzbekistan failed to perform like a team consisting of four GMs and highly-rated as a reserve. It all started from the top board where World Cup winner Ruslan Kasimdzhanov struggled right through. GM Marat Dhzumaev's four defeats in five rounds also did not help the team's cause.

Vietnam could not hide its weak players on the last two boards and never appeared as a threat. Dao Thien Hai was a fine performer on the top board and rightly walked away with the first prize. Dao's crushing victory, with black pieces, over K. Sasikiran was clearly the most satisfying moment for the Vietnamese. Dao was well assisted by fellow GMs Nguyen Anh Dung and Tu Hoang Thong.

Vietnam's Dao Thien Hai won the gold on the top board. -- Pics. R. V. MOORTHY-

Iran was expected to trouble a couple of teams but with GM Ehsan Ghaem Maghami, the Asian runner-up, failing to lead from the front, the team lost its way early on. China blanked Iran, while Malaysia pulled off a 2.5-1.5 victory towards the end of the competition. Iran's only saving grace came from the performance of Morteza Mahjoob who took the second prize, behind Pravin Thipsay, on the second board.

Fourth seed Kazakhstan had to rely on Darman Sadvakasaov, fourth in the recent Asian championship in Doha, and Pavel Kostur on the top two boards. However, they could not raise their levels. The duo had an encouraging finish but could not help the team move into the medal-bracket. Kotsur had the satisfaction of winning the third prize on the second board while reserve Bakhtiyar Askarov walked away with the top prize.

Teams such as Turkmenistan, Malaysia and Kyrgyzstan did just enough to stay ahead of Sri Lanka and Macau. For Turkmenistan, Handzar Odeev grabbed the third prize on the fourth board. More important for Odeev was the completion of his nine-game GM-norm.

It would have been fine if a team such as Bangladesh had made it. Since the event clashed with Bangladesh's National championship, the players had reason to stay away.

Still the competition attracted the strongest field ever since its inception in 1974. It turned out to be a fruitful outing for the Indians. But each team member, while leaving Jodhpur, knew that it could have been even better.

The final standings: 1. China (25 points), 2. India `A' (23.5), 3. India `C' (23), 4. Kazakhstan (22.5), 5. Vietnam (21.5), 6. India `B' (21), 7. Uzbekistan (20), 8. Turkmenistan (19), 9. Iran (17.5), 10. Malaysia (16), 11. Kyrgyzstan (11.5), 12. Sri Lanka (9.5), 13. Macau (4).

Prizes: First board: 1. Dao Thien Hai (Vietnam) 7/9; 2. Ye Jiangchuan (China) 5.5/8; 3. K. Sasikiran (India `A') 5.5/8.

Second board: 1. Pravin Thipsay (India `B') 5.5/7; 2. Morteza Mahjoob (Iran) 5/7; 3. Pavel Kostur (Kaz) 5.5/8.

Third board: 1. Lanka Ravi (India `C') 7.5/9; 2. Xu Jun (China) 6.5/9; 3. Tu Hoang Thong (Vietnam) 6/9.

Fourth board: 1. Zhang Pengxiang (China) 7/8; 2. Dinesh Kumar Sharma (India `C') 6.5/8; 3. Handsar Odeev (Turkmenistan) 7/9.

Reserves: 1. Bakhtiar Askarov (Kazakhstan) 4.5/5; 2. Abhijit Kunte (India `A') 5/7; 3. Tair Vakhidov (Uzbekistan) 3.5/7.