Indians way ahead of the rest

INDIA'S domination in Asian chess is becoming more pronounced. By monopolising the medals at stake in the Asian junior (under-20) chess championship at Marawila, near Colombo, the Indian aspirants once again proved that when it comes to age-group competitions in the continent, they are well ahead of the rest.

Deepan Chakkravarty, who won the boys' crown, also gained a nine-game GM-norm besides the IM title.-R. V. MOORTHY

Last July, in Teheran, India had won five of the six medals on offer. The one which eluded its grasp was the boys' singles crown. This time, India ensured that nothing slipped away. In what ended as an unprecedented medal sweep by India, Deepan Chakkravarty and Tania Sachdev led the charge in their respective sections.

These were much more than just titles. By virtue of becoming junior champions in the continent, Deepan gained a nine-game GM-norm besides the International Master title while Tania earned her maiden Woman Grandmaster norm and the Woman International Master title.

In the last couple of years, Teheran is being seen as a home-away-from-home for the Indians, as right from the host of age-group titles to Viswanathan Anand's coveted World title came in the Iranian capital. In the past two years, Sri Lanka, too, has begun providing the Indians with not just fabulous hospitality but also some truly memorable moments. Remember, K. Sasikiran and Pallavi Shah had bagged the two qualifying slots for the World Championship when Colombo hosted the zonal championship in 2001.

When the hopeful Indians left for the emerald island, there was no doubt that a fair share of the medals would be theirs for the asking. But a sweep was something too much to expect. And not without reason.

The highest-rated Indian was the two-times National junior champion S. Kidambi, seeded No. 3. Iranian Grandmaster Ehsan Ghaem Maghami was the undisputed favourite, followed by Filipino Mark Paragua. S. Satyapragyan was seeded four, just ahead of Indonesian challenger Megaranto Susanto. So, with just two Indians among the top five seeds, their optimism was understandably guarded.

But once the action began unfolding at the picturesque Club Palm Bay, a sea-side resort, the Indians gradually took control. Though the competition in the girls' section proved to be a virtual round-robin among the leading Indians, the boys managed a few memorable personal triumphs, as well.

Deepan, seeded six, proved to be the biggest surprise. The 15-year-old from Madurai warmed up for the battles ahead with two easy victories and scalped Maghami, Kidambi and Susanto, in that order, to take the lead with an all-win record after five rounds. Thereafter, Deepan was no longer desperate to win. Sensibly, he drew the last six rounds and tallied eight points and took the title by virtue of having the best progressive score of 55.5. In the process, he gained his second IM-norm though in the end, it did not matter. Significantly, Deepan never trailed in the championship and covered the distance in an impressive manner.

In comparison, S. Satyapragyan who matched Deepan's tally of eight points but had to settle for the runner-up slot due to inferior progressive count, had a sedate start. Though this Indian Airlines employee also remained unbeaten, what really helped his cause were the victories over Paragua and G. Rohit, both with white pieces, in the last two rounds.

Kidambi, an immensely talented lad who remains K. Sasikiran's training partner, justified his seeding while completing India's medal sweep in the section. What denied him the big title were the defeats against Deepan and Maghami. He managed to claw his way back to the medal bracket following his last round victory over Iranian Peyman Mohajerin. A difference of only 0.5 on progressive score, separated Kidambi from the fourth-placed Paragua.

Tania Sachdev, the girls' winner, earned her maiden WGM-norm and the WIM title.-R. V. MOORTHY

If the Filipino lost his way, the Indians had a lot to do with it. Preetham Sharma inflicted a fourth-round defeat on Paragua before S. Satyapragyan progressed at his expense in the penultimate round. However, Paragua, in turn, cracked Maghami in the sixth round and salvaged whatever he could by beating Susanto in the final round.

Maghami could never really emerge as a serious contender for the title after dropping 2.5 points spread over four rounds. He lost to Deepan in the third, drew with Satyapragyan in the fifth and crashed to defeat against Paragua in the next. Though Maghami raised visions of bouncing back with three straight victories, the 10th-round loss to Susanto proved a major setback.

G. Rohit, seeded 10, scored a notable victory over Susanto in the sixth round and eventually finished a creditable eighth despite losing to Satyapragyan in the last round. Susanto could have tied for the top spot with Deepan and Satyapragyan had he won the final round contest with Paragua.

Among the girls, it was an Indian domination like never before. The Indians filled not just the first three places, but six. In fact, if one considers the bigger picture, Indians occupied eight of the top 10 places. In how many continental competitions can India boast of such ruthless performance?

The Indians looked to top seed D. Harika and defending champion M. Kasturi for bringing back the crown. But the surprise packet turned out to be Tania Sachdev, bronze medallist in Teheran last July. She tamed the field with a very consistent showing even as some of the other contenders panicked and lost their way.

In a field filled with Indians and Sri Lankans, the lead changed hands a few times before Tania gripped it well when it really mattered. Kasturi, who had stunned one and all by claiming the honours in the last edition of the championship, ahead of favourite S. Meenakshi and Tania, led with three straight victories before crashing to Harika in the fourth. It was P. Priya, who led the pack with 5.5 points from six rounds, after victories over Eesha Karavade, Harika and J. E. Kavitha. But just half-point from the next four rounds undid most of Priya's good work.

In the meantime, it was Tania who quietly surged into the lead. Victories over Mary Ann Gomes in the second and Pratibha in the fourth, besides drawn encounters with Priya and Kasturi, kept her in the hunt. What enhanced Tania's chances was the three-win sequence ending with the defeat of Eesha in the eighth round. She went on to draw with Harika, Kavitha and Kazakh Dana Aketaeva to take the title.

Tania's task was made easier in the final round with the early defeat of eventual runner-up Pratibha, her closest challenger, to Kavitha. Pratibha, who had lost to Tania in the fourth round, had collected 5.5 from six rounds before crashing to Tamil Nadu Statemate Kavitha. Pratibha, runner-up to Harika in another Indian-dominated field in the Asian under-18 championship at Bikaner in March, had creditable triumphs over Mary, Kasturi and Eesha. But Pratibha is sure to rue the last-round loss.

Mary Ann Gomes, who settled for the bronze, lost only to Tania and Pratibha during her otherwise impressive run. She stopped Priya in the eighth round and drew with Harika and Kasturi.

Eesha, just like in her maiden women's National 'A' appearance at Lucknow in May, displayed her aversion to draws. She did not settle for a single draw and finished with a seven-win-four-loss record. Eesha plays very positively and is the one to watch out for, in the long run. Eesha lost to Malaysian Siti Zulaikha, Priya, Tania and Pratibha, but she had the satisfaction of nailing Harika in the final round.

Harika, the most promising pre-teen girl on the circuit, began well and had 3.5 points after four rounds but, thereafter, things were never the same. A defeat against Priya, followed by two successive draws, pushed Harika to the background. She rallied by scoring 2.5 points from the following three rounds but the last-round defeat to Eesha saw her miss a certain bronze.

Like Harika, Kasturi also lost her final round match, surprisingly to the 19th seeded Vietnamese Hyunh Mai Phuong Dun. A victory could have helped her displace Eesha from the sixth spot.

Overall, this championship showed that there is far more depth in the Indian teenage-brigade than in any other country in the region. Much credit is due to the All India Chess Federation for turning its attention to providing quality coaching to the members of the Indian teams bound for overseas competitions.

By engaging the noted Kazakh trainer Evgeny Vladimirov and making the players go through the grind, the federation has surely done the players a world of good. Such sustained efforts are sure to bear fruit in the future.