India is my second home — Maghami

EHSAN GHAEM MAGHAMI is relieved that the war in Iraq is finally over. The 20-year-old, who is the first — and till date the only — Grandmaster from Iran, was in India to wage an entirely different kind of war from what George Bush did in Iraq, but that doesn't mean he could close his eyes to the miseries caused by the second Gulf war. "It was miserable watching those terrible pictures on television of young children suffering," said Maghami, during the Commonwealth chess championship in Mumbai.

"There's a genuine concern among the Muslim nations that countries such as Syria and Yemen could be the next targets," he said. "And who knows it could happen to Iran also. You know I have many friends in Iraq, and I'm in constant touch with players such as Ahmed Azeez and Ali Amjed."

Of course it's the war on the 64 squares — where also you have to capture the king to win — that Maghami is more interested in. He had a disappointing outing in Mumbai after a promising beginning and he finished 14th in the end. "I just could not play well in the second half of the tournament," he said.

This was his 12th visit to India. He came to India for the first time in 1997. And duly fell in love with the country. "I came here in '97 for the Asian sub-juniors and have enjoyed all my subsequent visits. I love India so much that I call it my second home."

He is impressed by the importance chess gets in this country. "All the top players here are taken care of, and they are respected for their achievements. It's so unlike Iran in that respect."

Maghami feels he hasn't received his due from his country. "I know how Anand was honoured by India when he became the country's first GM, but my feat wasn't recognised properly back home."

Fittingly he became GM ("My biggest ambition till that time") in the country so close to his heart, during the Asian men's championship in Kolkata in 2001. "It was a very strong tournament and I finished sixth on the tie-breaker, though I feel I should have done even better. But I was very happy that I got my GM title and qualified for my second straight World championship."

He didn't do anything spectacular in the World championship in Moscow. The story was hardly any different in his first World championship in New Delhi in the winter of 2000. But for someone who began playing at the age of nine and who never had a coach, this curly-haired youngster has done wonderfully well. He had won a GM tournament when he was 16 in his hometown of Teheran. At 14 he was the senior men's champion of Iran.

Maghami has a lot of respect for the Indian players such as Krishnan Sasikiran, Pendyala Harikrishna and Surya Shekhar Ganguly. "I get along well with the Indian players, so it's always nice playing with them."

He's respected by his Indian rivals as well. "I've always enjoyed my battles with him," says Sasikiran. — P. K. Ajith Kumar