It’s six-in-a-row for Ganguly

The champion from Kolkata won just four games, but, importantly, he didn’t lose a single encounter in the all-play-all tournament featuring 13 men. He, in fact, was the only unbeaten player, writes P. K. Ajith Kumar.

The weather was perfect in Mangalore in the second-half of December. The days were pleasant and the nights cool. The South Kanara District Chess Association could not have chosen a better time to host its biggest tournament yet: the 46th National ‘A’ Championship.

The organisers also got a perfect venue in the Karnataka Bank auditorium, which witnessed many an interesting battle before Surya Shekhar Ganguly made the winning move on the afternoon of December 30. And it wasn’t just another move; it was a historical move, as the 25-year-old Kolkatan won an unprecedented sixth title in a row.

Compared to the first of those six wins, in Kozhikode in 2003, Ganguly hardly exerted himself; he even made a gamble in the penultimate round. In Kozhikode, in an incredibly strong field of 24 players, Ganguly was required to play at his best most of the time. In Mangalore, the field was a lot weaker, and he could afford to take a few short draws, even against players rated well below him. Ganguly won just four games, but, importantly, he didn’t lose a single encounter in the all-play-all tournament featuring 13 men. He, in fact, was the only unbeaten player.

“My winning percentage was low because my rivals weren’t winning too many games, either,” Ganguly said. “I thought there was no need to stretch myself when it was going to be a low-scoring tournament. I would have switched gears if the others were scoring heavily.”

The Indian team (from left) Akshayraj Kore, Neelotpal Das, Parimarjan Negi, Surya Shekhar Ganguly, J. Deepan Chakravarthy and K. Ratnakaran.-

Still, knowing Ganguly’s ambition and attitude, his decision to agree to a draw with S. Satyapragyan in the penultimate round after just eight moves was extremely surprising. For, he was putting his title at risk, allowing the final result to be decided by other players rather than himself.

At that stage, Parimarjan Negi, the second seed and his closest rival, was also in the lead, and had he won both his last games, he would have been the champion. Rather uncharacteristically, Ganguly pinned his hopes on Negi’s rivals. And Akshayraj Kore didn’t disappoint him. The 21-year-old from Pune proved a revelation in Mangalore; he finished runner-up, with a series of attacking games, as he sacrificed pieces at will.

Kore’s victory in the penultimate round over Negi not only fetched him the second place, but it virtually ensured Ganguly the title. Negi, at 15 the youngest in the fray, was placed third in the end. The promising youngster from Delhi did pretty well to recover after losing to Ganguly in the second round. His successive wins against M. Shyam Sundar and B. Adhiban (the World under-16 champion who belied expectations to finish last) in rounds nine and 10 had put him in serious contention for the top spot. Interestingly, in each of those games, his task was made easier by Shyam and Adhiban — classmates at the Velammal MHSS, Chennai — who blundered their way to easy defeats. It had seemed then as if the Velammal School was going to gift the title to Negi, and that too without any help from the other top player from the school, S. P. Sethuraman.

Parimarjan Negi (in pic, left, facing Sriram Jha in the opening round), at 15 the youngest in the fray, finished third.-

Negi’s chances disappeared when he lost to Kore. But still, it was a creditable performance from the teenager with a maturity well beyond his age, as he finished with 7.5 points, the same as Kore, who was ranked second because he had won when the duo met. Ganguly had eight points from 12 games.

With Ganguly, Kore and Negi picking up the first three places, the fight on the final day was for the remaining three places in the Indian team for various international tournaments (the top six select themselves). J. Deepan Chakravarthy, K. Ratnakaran and Neelotpal Das, after drawing their final-round matches, secured those berths.

Ratnakaran, who was a surprise runner-up in the last edition of the tournament in Chennai in early 2008, once again troubled his higher rated rivals with his natural skills. His opening may have been among the weakest in the field, but he more than made up for it with his strong middle game and calm, unhurried approach on the board. “This fellow is at least worth 100 Elo points more than his current rating (2458) if he is willing to do some homework,” said Satyapragyan.

G. N. Gopal of Kerala made news by not turning up for the tournament. He decided to skip the event and play in a couple of tournaments abroad instead.

The All India Chess Federation wasn’t pleased with this and threatened action against the young Grandmaster from Kochi. But as Praveen Thipsay, the most experienced campaigner in Mangalore, pointed out, this shows how the National ‘A’ has lost some of its lustre as India’s most important domestic tournament.