India has a great time

Viswanathan Anand is still active and Indian chess is doing well. Rakesh Rao takes stock.

In keeping with the trend set a few years ago, Indian chess players made the right moves and took the game to a new high in 2006. From Viswanathan Anand's historic triumph at the prestigious Corus Championship in January to India winning the team gold at the Doha Asian Games in December, it was an eventful journey all the way.

No other sport can boast of claiming five World titles, 10 Asian titles besides loads of other international medals in 2006. Even though the achievers in this cerebral discipline continue to crave for attention and support they deserve from the media and the corporates, their focus remains commendable. They made their best moves with the sole goal of getting better.

Like in the past several years, Anand provided some of the memorable moments for Indian sport. By winning an unprecedented fifth Corus title, he set the tone for the rest of the Indian players. Having tied for the title with top-seeded Bulgarian Veselin Topalov, Anand went on to tie with Russian Alexander Morozevich for the combined title in the Amber Blindfold and Rapid tournament in Monaco. His triumph in the rapid section was a foregone conclusion.

In April, Anand reached his career-best rating of 2803 and became only the fourth man, after Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik and Topalov, to break the 2800-point barrier. However, the joy did not last too long as Anand fell short of expectations in the Mtel Masters. After a great start, including the second round victory over Topalov, Anand somehow lost his way while the Bulgarian recovered to justify his billing before his home crowd.

But worse was to follow.

Anand reached Turin and joined the action in the Chess Olympiad from the third round. India, seeded No. 2, was struggling at this point and Anand's arrival was expected to raise the spirits of the team. However, the team failed to capitalise on its chances and eventually ended up in the 30th spot. The women's team also slipped in the later stages.

Anand's campaign started with an expected victory, produced a series of frustrating draws and ended with a shocking defeat. These 10 off-days took their toll on Anand's rating. It came down to 2779 and stayed there for the rest of the year.

But Anand came out of the blues with flying colours as he went from Turin to Leon and defeated Topalov to retain the Leon rapid title in style. He also maintained his reputation of being the `Master of Mainz' by retaining the title in the German city. Anand defeated Azerbaijan's young hope, Teimour Radjabov, in a close contest to win the title for the sixth successive year.

Although Anand failed to win back the Corsica Masters title after losing to Rustam Kasimdzhanov, he was clearly the best in the Mikhail Tal Memorial blitz tournament that he won by a two-point margin. Amid growing challenges, Anand still had his moments.

For the other leading Indians, K. Sasikiran, P. Harikrishna and K. Humpy, the high points of the year were quite similar. They all hit their career best ratings during the year and finished on a jubilant note by joining hands for the gold in the Asian Games. Humpy, the second strongest woman player in the world, had earlier justified her top seeding in the individual rapid event and brought India's first gold of the Games. However, Sasikiran and Hari, seeded one and two in the men's section, came up with a series of disappointing performances.

For Humpy, it was a fine end to a rather uneventful year. Lack of invitations kept her overseas participation to the minimum. Her second-round loss to French girl Marie Sebag in the Women's World Championship was a huge disappointment. In comparison, the defeats of sisters S. Vijayalakshmi and S. Meenakshi, in the third and first rounds, did not raise eyebrows.

Looking back, one of the best moments for Hari during the year was his winning the Gregory memorial title in Paks, Hungary. Also significant was his victory in the Chess960 final over German Arkadij Naiditch. Down 0.5-3.5 after four games on the first day, Hari staged a dream comeback and won the remaining four games for a 4.5-3.5 verdict in the match at Mainz.

While the established names of Indian chess had a mixed year, the emergence of Parimarjan Negi was clearly the biggest gain of the year. This 13-year old became an International Master on the New Year Day and graduated to be a Grandmaster on July 1. This sensational journey made Parimarjan the second youngest Grandmaster in the history of the game and currently the youngest in the game. Parimarjan became the 15th GM of the country that has 44 International Masters among 108 titled players. Others, whose GM titles were confirmed during the year, include Magesh Chandran, Neelotpal Das and Deepan Chakkravarthy.

During the year, a very high number of players took part in overseas competitions and did pretty well. Abhijit Kunte won the Canadian Open and R. R. Laxman claimed the Central Province International Open in Colombo. A number of norm-seekers also produced encouraging results. Rahul Shetty, a seaonsed IM from Indian (Airlines) created a sensation by beating Evgeny Bareev, finalist to Anand in the 2000 World Cup. S. Satyapragyan, Abhijit Gupta and S. Vijayalakshmi were among those to gain norms to stay on course for GM titles.

The younger players provided plenty of reasons to reinforce the belief that Indian chess was indeed on the right path.

In the World age-group championship in Batumi, Georgia, Girish A. Koushik (boys under-8), Ivana Furtado (girls under-8), Ch Mohineesh (boys under-10), Ch Sahajasri (girls under-10) and D. Harika (girls under-18) brought gold medals to India. In addition, five other medals made it the best Indian performance ever in a world championship.

At the Asian level, India's domination continued. It won 18 medals, including all eight gold medals at stake in the Asian Youth Championship with Sweety Patel (girls under-8), Sahajasri (girls under-10), Padmini Rout (girls under-12), Bhakti Kulkarni (girls under-14), Prince Bajaj (boys under-8), G. V. Sai Krishna (boys under-10), Vidit Gujarati (boys under-12) and S. Nitin (boys under-14) being the winners.

The Asian under-16 title came India's way when P. Lakshmi Sahiti beat the field. Later in the year, Mary Ann Gomes, clearly the most improved female player of the last two seasons, won the Asian junior (under-20) title. In this competition, India also won two silver and as many bronze medals.

At the game's biggest stage, Kramnik overcame Topalov to become the World champion. Kramnik, who dethroned Garry Kasparov in 2000 and defended the title against Peter Leko in 2004, had been given the right to challenge Topalov, the winner of the world title in San Luis in 2005. This much-awaited match aimed at reunifying the world crown was, however, not without controversy. After four games, with Kramnik leading by two points, the Topalov camp protested in writing that the Russian visited the toilet too many times during the games and expressed apprehension over the likelihood of some "outside help" for him.

Kramnik forfeited the fifth game but then continued under protest. The match was eventually tied 6-6, but Kramnik proved stronger in the tie-break rapid games, winning 1.5-0.5. Most of the leading chess players, including Kasparov and Anand, felt that poetic justice was done.

This year indeed proved a great one for Kramnik who returned to action in the Turin Olympiad and walked away with the Best Male Player award. Kramnik's triumph in the World Championship proved he had lost none of his motivation of the past.

PHENOMENAL RISE

Parimarjan Negi's rise has been meteoric. This exceptional talent produced a series of stunning results in 2006. No wonder, he ended the year as the youngest Grandmaster in the game and more importantly, caught of the eye of the chess world like no one else has in the last 12 months.

Truly phenomenal was the way Parimarjan collected the three norms needed for the GM title. Interestingly, the youngster enlarged his final International Master norm into a maiden GM norm at Hastings. In the next fortnight, in New Delhi, Parimarjan picked up his second norm and completed the formalities by adding the final one at Satka on July 1. In the process, he also took his rating past the stipulated 2500-mark.

Experts feel that this is only the beginning of the tough path ahead for Parimarjan. "Remember, he is still too young and finds himself in the big league," says noted trainer Lev Psakhis who has had a couple of sessions with Parimarjan. "He has a long way to go so don't bring too much pressure on him. Allow him to go slow and grow. He is a great potential for Indian chess." Parimarjan's other coaches, Elizbar Ubilava, Nigel Short and Goloshchapov, all agree that the youngster has the right attitude and work ethics to be the next big thing in world chess.

Highlights of 2006

1. Viswanathan Anand becomes the first five-time winner of the annual Corus Chess Championship.

2. K. Humpy wins the women's individual gold in the Doha Asian Games.

3. The Indian team comprising K. Sasikiran, P. Harikrishna and K. Humpy claims the team gold in the Doha Asian Games.

4. Parimarjan Negi becomes the second youngest Grandmaster of all time and the youngest in the game today.

5. Indian players win five World titles and 10 Asian crowns in age-group competitions.

6. Anand wins titles at Monaco, Leon, Mainz and Moscow.

7. Harikrishna wins in Hungary, Abhijit Kunte in Canada and R. R. Laxman in Sri Lanka.

8. Anand, Sasikiran, Hari, Humpy and Parimarjan produce their career-best rating.

9. For the first time, four players — P. Magesh Chandran, Neelotpal Das, Deepan Chakkravarthy and Parimarjan Negi — become GMs in one year.

10. Arjuna Award bestowed on Surya Shekhar Ganguly.