'It was a new feeling for me'

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

"It was an excellent tournament for our players to make their norms." — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

Last year R. B. Ramesh had made history, when he became the first Indian to win the British championship since 1933. Now a year later, Abhijit Kunte has become the last Indian to win this famous tournament. And he likes that fact.

"I'm the last foreign player in fact,'' says Kunte, chuckling. Speaking to The Sportstar over telephone from his home in Pune, where he arrived from Britain after adding to his kitty the Hilton International GM tournament as well, the amiable Grandmaster (GM) says he was happy to go into record books as the last British champion from outside the United Kingdom. In future, outsiders will not be allowed to compete in the British championship.

In a more serious tone, he says it was unfortunate that the Indian players could no longer participate in the tournament. But he feels there is nothing wrong with the authorities' decision to exclude non-British players. ``It does look strange when an Indian or another foreign player emerges as the British champion. I know they are wary of the Indian players. They very well know that the Indians would always participate, and last year they have learnt that the Indians could win also.

"It was an excellent tournament for our players to make their norms. Even this year, Swati Ghate made a WGM (Woman Grandmaster) norm and an IM (International Master) norm. Besides, we the Indians relish playing at the British championship, because we've become familiar with the participants and the atmospehere,'' he says, sounding a bit nostalgiac already.

He perks up when he is told about the All India Chess Federation secretary P.T. Ummer Koya's promise to send the Indian players for some other tournaments in Europe. ``Of course there are many tournaments in Europe which are much stronger than the British,'' he says. But it was a rather strong field at the British this year. ``Yes, there was some quality opposition. I was seeded 11th and there were some 17 GMs.''

Kunte is delighted that he came first in a such a field. He says he felt nice also because he won his career's biggest prize-money (10,000 pounds). ``Yes it's a nice amount,'' he laughs. He's especially happy that this was his maiden triumph in a GM tournament on foreign soil. ``That's very important for me, winning a good event abroad. It was a new feeling for me, and I liked it very much.''

He says he started thinking of winning the tournament following his victory against Ziaur Rahman of Bangaldesh in the seventh round. ``That in fact was a very good win, and was one of my best games in the tournament (the other ones being against Jonathan Rawson of Scotland and Peter Wells of England. I felt good after beating Zia and it helped me make a strong finish.''

For the 26-year-old, this victory could not have come at a better time. For, it had been quite a while since he won an important tournament. His last significant victory in classical chess was at the 2000 National `A' championship. ``Of course it's important to win. Getting a second or third placing is alright, but there's nothing quite like winning the title. I've been playing reasonably well over the last couple of years, but perhpas the results weren't matching with my performances.''

His result did match with his performance at the Hilton tournament, where he was the top seed in a closed tournament. He tied for the first place with Nigel Davies and John Shaw. ``Actually I should've won the tournament outright. But one bad game, against Colin McNab, which I lost, forced me to share the title,''

He says he was pleased with the way he played in both the tournaments. ``Most of my games were satisfactory, and I was fighting to win. It was so different from my show at the Commonwealth championship in Mumbai, where I made too many draws, which must have been a record for me.''

Kunte's recent outings indicate that he's gaining back his best form. One of India's most aggressive players, he can be a very dangerous opponent even for players rated much above him, when he's at his best, or thereabouts. Like he did at the 2000 Olympidad in Istanbul, where he destroyed the reputations of some of the world's strongest players.

He's always fought very hard for the country at the Olympiad, and he made it a point to ensure that he was always in the Indian team. He did that by performing consistently at the National `A' championship, which serves as a selection trial for picking the Indian team. After a disastrous debut at the National `A' in 1996, when he finished at the bottom (though the following year he won the tournament), he became a regular qualifier to the Indian team. On World No. 40 Krishnan Sasikiran's decision not to play in the National `A' anylonger (he gets selected directly to the National team because of his rating of 2650), Kunte says it's the right thing to do. ``You see he will have to get a cent per cent to defend his high rating, which is not fair.''

Sasikiran too has won two GM tournaments in Europe in the recent weeks. He won the North Sea Cup and the Politiken Cup, both in Denmark, and both very strong. And there was success in Europe for another Indian player too, Sandipan Chanda, who became India's ninth GM. ``And we shouldn't forget India's great show at the Asian junior championship in Sri Lanka,'' says Kunte. ''``It's great to see our players are doing so well. I think it's the right time to bring in the sponsors.''

Kunte has one of the most charming smiles in Indian chess, and he's also one of the nicest people you would come across in the sport. The smile is indeed back on his face. It's good not just for him. It's good for Indian chess too.