India's best ever show

GOING purely by statistics, India's silver and two bronze medals in the Asian team chess championship appear a stupendous performance.

RAKESH RAO

GOING purely by statistics, India's silver and two bronze medals in the Asian team chess championship appear a stupendous performance.

The India `A' men's team which won the silver. From left : K. Sasikiran, D. Barua, P. Harikrishna, Abhijit Kunte and S. S. Ganguly. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

Still, Krishnan Sasikiran was not particularly impressed. The country's best bet in the game, after Viswanathan Anand, is known to go by the quality of performance. His judgement is seldom influenced by the final outcome. Perhaps, it is the perfectionist in Sasikiran that makes him such a fine student of the game.

"I'll remember this tournament as just another one. Had we won the gold, only then it would have been great. Overall, it wasn't a great performance (from the host)," said Sasikiran categorically.

Not the one to brag of achievements, whether individual or collective, Sasikiran saw things in perspective. "We didn't play too well and lost the crucial (eighth round) match to Kazakhstan. With it, we lost the opportunity to take the gold. Due to that loss, there was total disappointment among the team members."

Sasikiran knew well that India `A' had a great opportunity to take the gold ahead of China. In the end, the team just about managed to hang on to the silver medal. Obviously, the consolation of gaining the silver could not make up for the disappointment of missing the gold.

Indeed, the penultimate round loss (1.5-2.5) to Kazakhstan put paid to the title-chances of India `A'. Country's latest Grandmaster Surya Sekhar Ganguly, whose lone loss in the championship came against Kazakhstan, had reasons to feel terribly disappointed.

"Personally, I played well until the penultimate round. Till then, I was the only unbeaten player in the team. But I blundered in the most crucial game (against Pavel Kotsur of Kazakhstan) and I cannot forgive myself for that," was Ganguly's candid admission.

Much was expected from the Indians but they failed to score big wins. It is this inability to win by bigger margins against weaker teams that help India `A' back.

Initially, the country's first all-Grandmaster team did not play well. In the first five rounds, India `A' was undefeated but lost a game in match. It was only after blanking Sri Lanka that India `A' led China by a point. But against Kazakhstan, India `A' played its worst. Ganguly lost a game which he could have drawn. Sasikiran and Hari drew the contests which they could have won.

"We were not expected to take so many risks," said Sasikiran as he looked back at the country's best run in the championship. The first-round loss of Abhijit Kunte and later Hari's defeat to Ramesh were examples of players losing from better positions.

Koneru Humpy, the first woman to lead an Indian combination, was lucky to escape with a draw against K. Sasikiran. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

Though China looked like winning almost throughout the championship, its shock defeat to India `B' gave rise to possibilities of a new champion. But the following day, India `B' failed to sustain its good work against Sri Lanka and dropped 1.5 points and failed to avoid a final-round bye.

But despite facing a premature end to its campaign, India `B' had its moments. Humpy added to her never-ending list of firsts by becoming the first woman to lead, that too on debut, an Indian combination in a continental championship. On the top board, Humpy's experiment with new openings gave her mixed results. The debutant had some mixed luck, too. She was lucky to escape with a draw in the marathon 111-move battle against Sasikiran. But was equally unlucky not to win against Ye Jiangchuan. Notwithstanding fortune's balancing act, Humpy's overall performance against some of the better players in the competition was fairly impressive.

Even Pravin Thipsay rediscovered his long, lost form and remained unbeaten to play a stellar role for his team. Sandipan Chanda's inconsistency and ill-health pushed him into the background while R. B. Ramesh failed to live up to the expectations raised after his triumph in the British championship. Tejas Bakre, too, did not have much to be proud of.

India `C' owed it to the remarkable unbeaten runs of Lanka Ravi and Dinesh Kumar Sharma. Together, they contributed 14 to the team's impressive tally of 23. With just one more point from the top two boards, India `C' could have left India `A' deeply embarrassed in the medal race. Truly, India `C' was the surprise packet of the championship for walking away with the bronze medal after being in danger of remaining as a non-starter.

By sheer coincidence, in the women's section, too, Kazakhstan pulled India `A' back. In the last round, with India `A' leading Vietnam by a point in the race for the silver-medal, Kazakhstan allowed the host no liberties.

In this match, Vijayalakshmi made way for Nisha Mohota on the top board with a view to help her take a crack at a possible WGM-norm. However, the ploy backfired as the hard-working Nisha suffered her first loss in the championship. The 1.5-1.5 result, coupled with Vietnam's 3-0 whitewash of Malaysia, saw India `A' slip to the third spot after looking good enough for the silver for the better part of the championship.

India `B' also lived up to its seeding and finished fourth, tied with India `C'. There were several encouraging results by several members of these teams.

Looking back, it is tempting to believe that the host sorely missed the services of Viswanathan Anand. Going by the form, rather the lack of it, of the strongest-ever Chinese team, the best Indian combination surely stood more than an even chance of taking the men's team title away. In addition, only if Koneru Humpy had headed the women's `A' team, then a "golden sweep" was not beyond the capabilities of the host.

However, not much can be said about the existence of "team spirit" among most Indian combinations. Though decisions on board-order were taken in team meetings, more often than not, it was easy to correctly guess the choice of players for the following round. Almost all the teams followed one simple ground rule: The one losing the previous round would take a drop for the next round. Well, nothing wrong with it but the element of surprise for the opposition was surely lost.

There were times when even certain in-form players had to be `persuaded' to play while those struggling insisted on playing. Mercifully, on the last day, none among those likely to miss out on a possible board-prize, in case of a defeat, refused to play.

But truly disgusting was the thought of a fellow-player wishing Vijayalakshmi's defeat to Sri Lanka's Vineetha Wijesuriya. But much to the relief of the Indian camp and to the discomfort of this particular player, Vijayalakshmi rode her luck to victory. So much the team spirit.

It has to be said that a discipline like chess can never really be a "team event" in the true sense of the term. Success does bring the players together for a while. But almost all players would agree that they cannot really afford to share or discuss their ideas at length with fellow players for the fear of it being exploited in their future individual clashes. For strange reasons, this sharing bit is much less among the women players of the country.

On the subject of team spirit and the preparatory camp under Kazakh trainer Evegeny Vladimirov, Sasikiran said, "I think we all gained as individuals but we should have concentrated more on improving the team spirit. We should have worked more on eliminating one's opening problems. We did not manage to do that. Before the Olympiad, we worked together and the team spirit was excellent. But for this championship, most of the time, we were working alone. That really doesn't help in a team championship. I think, somewhere here, there must be a change."

Indeed, individually, most Indians had their moments. Sasikiran brought down Chinese numero uno Ye Jiangchuan, S. Vijayalakshmi extended the same treatment to the Chinese World champion Zhu Chen and Swati Ghate humbled World Cup winner Xu Yuhua. Humpy had veteran Ye Jiangchuan at her mercy before Pravin Thipsay stunned Zhang Zhong, the man-in-form who steam-rolled a formidable field on way to the prestigious Corus `B' title in Wijk Aan Zee in January.

Thipsay's unbeaten run on the second board gave him the top prize on the second board. Similarly, Lanka Ravi, who drew with two-time Asian champion Xu Jun and defeated Dibyendu Barua for a second successive time, dominated the third-board performers. He also made his first GM-norm with the kind of form none had expected.

Following the footsteps the seasoned campaigners like Thipsay and Lanka Ravi was debutant Dronavalli Harika. Her tally of six points from seven rounds — the lone loss came against Saimeera Ravi — was almost a third of the tally of India `A'. This International Woman Master in-waiting richly deserved the top honour among the reserves.

Dinesh Kumar Sharma was the other surprise performer during the event. On the fourth board, Dinesh settled for a well-earned silver behind another unbeaten player, China's Zhang Pengxiang.

Dinesh's LIC teammate Swati Ghate was left to rue her chances of winning the first prize on the second board following her stunning last-round loss to Bangladesh's Zakia Sultana. In contrast, Abhijit Kunte recovered from the first-round loss to take the second prize on the reserve board. Also making it to the second spot on the women's third board was Anupama Gokhale.

Among the third prize winners were Sasikiran, S. Meenakshi and Saimeera Ravi.

But more significant were the norms made by Meenakshi and Eesha Karavade. Meenakshi made her second nine-game WGM norm while Eesha gained her second WIM-norm, also spread over nine games.

Without doubt, Meenakshi and Swati made it possible for India `B' to share the fourth spot with India `C'. In terms of consistency, there was very little to choose between India `C' team members, Eesha, Anupama and Saimeera. As it turned out, trio lost only to Chinese and remained undefeated in the rest of the games. Saimeera, proved a good substitute for a struggling Saheli Dhar-Barua.

S. Vijayalakshmi of India 'A', watched by her sister S. Meenakshi, had her moment of glory when she beat China's World champion Zhu Chen. After looking good enough for a silver the India `A' team slipped to the third spot. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

Overall, most Indians had reasons to be pleased. The members of team `B' and `C' were not only lucky to make the field as additional host entries but also made the most of the opportunity.

Still, most top players of the country agreed that India's best ever performance in the championship could have been better.

Points break-up of Indian players (points/games played):

Men: India `A': K. Sasikiran (5.5/8); Surya Sekhar Ganguly (3/6); P. Hari Krishna (5/8); Dibyendu Barua (5/7) and Abhijit Kunte (5/7).

India `B': Koneru Humpy (4/7); Pravin Thipsay (5.5/7); Sandipan Chanda (3/6); R. B. Ramesh (4/7) and Tejas Bakre (2.5/5).

India `C': Neelotpal Das (3.5/8); Sriram Jha (4.5/9); Lanka Ravi (8/9); Dinesh Kumar Sharma (6/8) and Roktim Bandyopadhya (1/2).

Women: India `A': S. Vijayalakshmi (5/7); Nisha Mohota (4/7); Aarthie Ramaswamy (3.5/6) and Dronavalli Harika (6/7).

India `B': S. Meenakshi (6.5/9); Swati Ghate (6.5/9); Tania Sachdev (2.5/5) and Bhagyashree Thipsay (2/4).

India `C': Eesha Karavade (6/9), Saheli Dhar-Barua (2/5); Anupama Gokhale (5/7) and Saimeera Ravi (4.5/6).