It's Viji all the way

RAKESH RAO

OVER the past few years, predicting the winner of the women's National 'A' chess championship has become very easy. Just check if S. Vijayalakshmi is around and look no further. For the last five years, she has not let down those who have believed in her abilities to dominate the women's field like none before. Therefore, when this 23-year-old captured her sixth National title at Lucknow, it was only the completion of a formality that awaited 13 rounds.

Vijayalakshmi (left) making a move against Anupama Gokhale. The eventual champion remained unbeaten throughout to clinch her sixth National title.-R. V. MOORTHY

For a change, Vijayalakshmi was unbeaten in her title-campaign. She won seven matches and drew five for a tally of 9.5 points. For her effort, Vijayalakshmi received Rs. 21,000 and a trophy.

Far more significant was Vijayalakshmi's intangible gain. By winning the title for the sixth time, she broke away from the pack of five-time champions such as Rohini Khadilkar, Bhagyashree Thipsay and Anupama Gokhale. In addition, her fifth title in a row further improved her own record of four in succession, set last year.

The fact that Vijayalakshmi was the only unbeaten player and her margin of victory of 1.5 points reflect the domination of the champion. Barring the match against Swati Ghate, Vijayalakshmi was never in any real danger of losing a match. Most of her seven victories were authoritative. Just when in sight of the title, Vijayalakshmi blitzed through the home-stretch by destroying Sai Meera and Saheli Dhar-Barua in the last two rounds to underline her superiority.

Things could have been more interesting if Koneru Humpy had agreed to play in the championship. But for reasons most unconvincing, she declined the invitation of the All India Chess Federation (AICF) to play in the premier event. She cited the difference in her rating and the average rating of the championship for staying away. But then, going by this logic, Garry Kasparov or even Vladimir Kramnik should stay away from all tournaments since their individual ratings remain way above the average rating of their opponents in any given field.

Anyhow, Humpy's decision to stay away prevented a much-awaited showdown with Vijayalakshmi. Needless to add, as and when the two Woman Grandmasters clash, it will indeed be more than just an on-board battle.

Reduced to a 13-player field, since qualifier Pallavi Shah was away in America following her marriage, the event provided its share of surprise results. Bhagyashree lost to Tania Sachdev and Dolan Champa Bose while Vijayalakshmi was held by 11-year-old Dronavalli Harika and an off-form Safira Shanaz.

Yet, in the eventual analysis, like last year, the same players formed the top-four bracket and made the Indian team for the Olympiad to be held in Bled in Slovenia later in the year.

Following Vijayalakshmi was Aarthie Ramaswamy, who, like Swati Ghate, finished with eight points. S. Meenakshi, runner-up in the past two editions, occupied the fourth spot with 7.5 points following an eventful sequence of results in the final round. As compared to the last year's standings, Aarthie and Meenakshi traded places while Vijayalakshmi and Swati retained their spots.

Aarthie, after a draw with Meenakshi and a second-round loss to Swati, bounced back to win four of the next five rounds, including one against Bhagyashree. Three draws in succession kept her on course and the penultimate-round victory over Eesha Karavade sealed the runner-up spot. She took a friendly draw with Safira Shanaz in the final round for her best finish in the championship.

Considering Swati's rough rides this year, she desperately needed to sail smoothly. Her going was not exactly smooth but still was the best in terms of the Elo points gained. She gained 19 Elo points which was a small consolation as she had lost 140 points in the space of three months this year.

Swati's performance can be viewed in three phases, of four rounds each. With 3.5 points from the first four rounds, Swati was in the lead. But playing with black pieces, Swati lost to Bhagyashree and Harika and drew alternate rounds with white against Dolan and Vijayalakshmi. This must have been a painful, besides being tearful, spell for Swati. After all, even her 'targetted' point against tailender Dolan was reduced by half. She went on to make a mess of a good position against Harika and then allowed Vijayalakshmi escape with a draw in successive rounds.

Still, all credit to Swati for coming back strongly in the remaining rounds. She brushed aside Eesha and Safira before playing out a draw with Meenakshi. In the final round, a commanding victory over Tania saw her tie for the second spot.

Meenakshi had to go through a lot before retaining her place in the National team. Successive losses to Saheli and Bhagyashree left Meenakshi with just 1.5 points from four rounds. Still, four wins and as many draws in the remaining rounds put her through. But it was not as simple as that.

Having drawn the penultimate round with Tania, Meenakshi made her task of qualifying that much more difficult. Her victory over Anupama in the final round alone would not have helped her cause. Bhagyashree had to beat Harika just as Vijayalakshmi had to stop Saheli. As it turned out, Meenakshi's prayers stood answered. One by one.

Vijayalakshmi did not take long to dash Saheli's hopes. Against a previously-unbeaten Harika, Bhagyashree raced away to victory after the youngster overlooked the loss of queen for a rook. Anupama, in a seemingly better position, sacrificed a minor piece on the wrong square and soon surrendered to Meenakshi. Understandably, after the tension-filled phase, it was time to rejoice for a much-relieved Meenakshi and Vijayalakshmi.

Meenakshi's victory also meant that Bhagyashree was again out of the elite four. The 40-year-old, making an incredible 24th successive appearance in the National championship, had looked well poised to regain her place in the National team after scoring four straight victories by the end of the fifth round. But, thereafter, the demands of playing double-rounds on every alternate day took its toll.

The four who made it to the Olympiad team (from left): S. Meenakshi, Swati Ghate, Aarthie Ramaswamy and S. Vijayalakshmi.-R. V. MOORTHY

"I guess I was punished for committing blunders," said Bhagyashree as she looked at her losses to players like Tania and Dolan. But she played positively right through and won seven matches, as many as Vijayalakshmi. Still, five defeats undid most of her good work.

Harika may not have made the Olympiad team but surely gave ample reasons to believe that before long, she will be the one to beat in the National championship. She was not particularly brilliant but stuck to basics and played solidly throughout. What truly capsules Harika's performance is her display against the top four players. She drew creditably against Vijayalakshmi, Aarthie and Meenakshi besides beating Swati. Her other two victories came against Tania and Safira.

This Guntur-girl had the satisfaction of gaining a 12-game Woman International Master norm from this round-robin contest. Since Harika already had a 11-game Swiss norm from the Asian Open championship in February, she was one norm-game short of fulfilling the technical requirements for becoming a WIM. Looking back, the lone loss to Bhagyashree in the final round not only kept Harika out of the National team but also denied her the honour of becoming the youngest WIM in the continent. At present, Humpy holds the record.

Among others, only Saheli came close to making the National team. Following defeats to Swati and Tania, Saheli was uncomfortably placed with two points from five rounds. She kept her hopes alive by drawing with Anupama and Aarthie before stepping on the accelerator and speeding past Sai Meera, Bhagyashree and Dolan. A draw with Harika brought Saheli face to face with Vijayalakshmi. At this point, the eventual champion launched a decisive attack and brought down Saheli's dream castle.

Without doubt, the most impressive among the rest was Eesha Karavade. This 14-year-old Pune girl came up with a series of mature performances. After opening her campaign with a fighting draw against Saheli, Eesha grew in confidence and gained more than anyone had ever anticipated.

There was an interesting pattern to Eesha's performance. On her way to finishing a creditable eighth, this debutant lost to the first five finishers, drew with the next two and, significantly, beat all five competitors who eventually finished behind her.

Tania, who made a record (for whatever it is worth) of being the first from Delhi to play in the championship, had her moments. In one day, she got the better of Saheli and Bhagyashree, in that order, and went on to draw with Meenakshi. These were commendable results for someone who had last played in a domestic competition five months ago, that too, at Lucknow. She lacked match practice and, worse, paid little attention to time-management. Invariably, Tania would come under time-pressure after spending too much time getting her moves right in the opening phase. Considering Tania's lack of preparation, it did not come as a surprise that she lacked confidence and repeatedly paid the price. She should learn from experience and get more organised, over the board.

One lost count of the number of games where Sai Meera got into good positions and then did not win. She drew from winning positions, like the one against Harika, and lost from drawn positions. Sai Meera, for sure, deserved to finish much ahead. She has the game but needs to work a lot harder on the techniques to turn better positions into better results.

Dolan, Anupama and Safira filled the last three slots after a series of disappointing performances. Dolan could not cover up her lack of knowledge about the openings. Anupama, more often than not, suffered due to poor execution of plans. Anupama and Safira also shared their problems with time-control. Safira, an engineer looking for a suitable job, was also made to pay for her lack of match practice.

On the organisational front, it was a mixed fare. The choice of accommodation for the players was praiseworthy, but the venue left a lot to be desired. Though an air-conditioned hall, the venue was almost eight kilometres away from the hotel where the players were staying. With mercury steadily on the rise and the transport arrangements leaving much to be desired, it was clearly unfair on the players.

Considering the well-known organising skills and the involvement of P. C. Chaturvedi, it was a disappointment. Chaturvedi, who is not only one of the AICF Vice-Presidents, but also remains the backbone of all sporting activities, especially in badminton and table tennis in Lucknow, was expected to offer a better venue instead of his distant office space to hold this premier event.

It is also time the AICF ensured the use of digital clocks in both its National 'A' championships and provided adequate number of competent arbiters. At Lucknow, chief arbiter A. N. Venkatesan prevented the situation from getting out of control. But in all fairness, things need to improve drastically. Is the AICF listening?

A true 'heavyweight'

"HER style is so much like my own. I like her ability to fight. She takes risks and injects interest in a match where none exists. But I doubt if she has the right choice of openings which can complement her style."

This was how Russian GM Ruslan Sherbakov summed up S. Vijayalakshmi's approach to chess. He had faced her at Raipur recently in a close match where the Woman Grandmaster came up with a daring sacrifice and breathed life into an otherwise dull encounter. At the end of this marathon battle, the result went Sherbakov's way while all the respect was reserved for Vijayalakshmi.

As it is, no one doubts Vijayalakshmi's abilities as a chess player. Her positive approach and constant pursuit for excellence have been admired by those who matter. She is the only woman who has an enviable record against some of the Grandmasters in the country. In short, Vijayalakshmi's achievements make her a true 'heavyweight'.

The fighting qualities of Vijayalakshmi separate her from the other women players in the country. The fact that she has never really received anything on a platter and was made to struggle all the way, contributes to what can best be described as her 'street-fighter instinct.'

Two examples of Viji's ability to turn embarrassing starts into respectable finishes come to mind.

In the National 'B' championship last year, Vijayalakshmi bounced back from scoring just two points from five rounds to eventually figure in the top-12 bracket in a field of over 260 players. Having qualified for National 'A', she once again found herself in an awkward situation by gaining just a draw from the first six rounds. But once again Vijayalakshmi produced a now-familiar charge. She redeemed her pride to a large extent by beating Abhijit Kunte, Pravin Thipsay and P. Konguvel, besides P. Magesh Chandran, for an aggregate of eight points from 19 rounds.

Put Vijayalakshmi in an all-women field in the country and just watch her conquer the field with remarkable ease and records to boot.

Recently at Lucknow, Vijayalakshmi added a new chapter to her list of successes. By winning the National women's chess title for the sixth time, and for the fifth year in a row, she re-wrote the record books one more time. She surged ahead of the trio of five-time champions - Rohini Khadlikar, Bhagyashree Thipsay and Anupama Gokhale. Since no player had won the title even three times in a row, Vijayalakshmi improved her own previous record of four, by one.

Last June, when Vijayalakshmi won the title in New Delhi, she was the country's highest-rated woman player and the only WGM in the country. Since then, much has happened that has made an impact in the women's chess scenario in the country. But Vijayalakshmi had very little to do with it.

Swati Ghate finished ahead of Vijayalakshmi to claim the honour of being the first woman to qualify for the men's National 'A' event.

Then there was Koneru Humpy, who never ceased to surprise. Humpy became the country's second and the youngest WGM. She went on win the World junior girls title. She attained a phenomenal Elo rating of 2539 and jumped to the fourth spot in the world women's list and topped the world junior girls' list. Also, Humpy became the third highest-rated player in the country, after Viswanathan Anand and K. Sasikiran.

Even as the media highlighted Humpy's rise, Vijayalakshmi, for no fault of hers, found herself sidelined. With enhanced sponsorship money, awards and rewards coming Humpy's way, the teenager had truly captured the imagination of the sportsloving people of the country. Suddenly, all the attention that was once reserved for Vijayalakshmi, was gradually and repeatedly hogged by a much younger rising star.

It must have dawned on Vijayalakshmi that being the best in the country alone does not bring in the necessary acknowledgement - from inside as well as outside the chess fraternity. Perhaps, there was a bit of understandable disappointment. That's one reason why some of the women players now find Vijayalakshmi a "changed" person.

But then, she is here neither to win a popularity vote nor to make a fashion statement. She may not be, or no longer be, a friendly person for these players. Over the board, she remains as business-like as ever.

"In the past, I would go all out for a win even in an equal position and then lose. But I guess, I've matured now. Now I am taking less risks, like in the match where I agreed to a draw against Safira Shanaz," explained Vijayalakshmi soon after winning the National title at Lucknow.

Vijayalakshmi knows how it feels to win the National title; so her reaction to the triumph was understated. And understandably so. "I don't feel anything special. But I am happy that my sister (S. Meenakshi) has made the National team and will be there with me in the Olympiad," she said.

In the last Olympiad at Istanbul, Vijayalakshmi had won a silver on the top board. It was also the first time an Indian woman had brought a medal from the mega event. This time the effort will obviously be to improve that performance.

In times to come, Vijayalakshmi may go on to become the most successful woman player in the history of domestic chess. But that alone would not do justice to her true potential. She will have to not only enhance her rating but also chase GM norms. She will have to prepare hard and work harder on her consistency. It is also time she marked some overseas tournaments for norm-making purposes.

Given her talent and her ability to train hard, she should go a long way. She has it in her to go farther than any other woman player in the country. It will indeed be a pity if Vijayalakshmi ends up as an under-achiever.