Kunte ends title-drought

GRANDMASTER Abhijit Kunte set two landmarks — one for himself and the other for the country — at the International Open, which saw a reconvention of big time chess in Kolkata.

AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

S. PATRNOBISH

GRANDMASTER Abhijit Kunte set two landmarks — one for himself and the other for the country — at the International Open, which saw a reconvention of big time chess in Kolkata. The ebullient Indian won the title in a virtual photo finish — six players finished on equal points before the tie was broken on progressive scores — to end a prolonged drought of winning a major trophy. On the bigger count he became the first Indian to bag the crown, which had previously travelled outside the country.

The city had been synonymous with the biggest show in the continent hosting the Goodricke International Open for more than 15 years before the tea major backed out a year ago leaving the organiser — Alekhine Chess Club — to fend for itself. The tournament, which had brought in many illustrious names from the world chess' top hierarchy in the past 16 editions including Viswanathan Anand, Vassily Smyslov, Maya Chiburdanidze, Nigel Short and Vladimir Akopian among others, appeared headed to an uncertain domain. And to keep the show away from meeting a sudden expiration, it fell on the club to reinstate the tournament after a year's break. The initiative brought in financial constraints as the bill for boarding and lodging of the players, appearance money to the GMs and the huge prize-money dilated the cost. The organisers managed somehow with government aids and even personal contributions from the officials.

Kunte, with an Elo rating of 2550, figured seventh in the seedings at the start of the 11 round Swiss League. The six GMs preceding Kunte in the initial order — top-seeded Aleksej Aleksandrov (Belarus, Elo 2659), Ni Hua (China), Thien Hai Dao, Anh Dung Nguyen (both Vietnam), Ehsan Ghaem Maghami (Iran) and the Indian National champion Surya Shekhar Ganguly — did justify their seeding as four of them, except the two Vietnamese, finished on top of the heap sharing equal points (7.5) with Kunte. The leadership at the end of the tournament was completed by the eighth seeded, Ukrainian Oleg Romanishin, who made a dash in the last stage with a win while the others had drawn their games playing against each other.

The absence of big names had everyone wishing that one of the local GM pair — Ganguly and Sandipan Chanda — would clinch the title. But Kunte, the 28-year-old Indian Oil executive, made proved everyone wrong as he quietly made his own path with a confident start and was heading the pack as the sole leader by the fifth round. Kunte, a former British Open champion, started with a win against lesser-rated compatriot Arindam Mukherjee but was held to a draw in the second round by the local International Master norm aspirant Neelotpal Das. There was no looking back thereafter as he won three consecutive rounds, beating compatriot IM Dinesh Sharma, 12th seeded GM Dibyendu Barua and Bangladesh IM Enamul Hossain, to race to the sole lead.

Having got the requisite start, Kunte kept himself in the leadership all through despite facing a sequel of GMs from the sixth round, which saw him draw against the top-seeded Aleksandrov. The seventh round also saw a draw as Kunte held the second-seeded Chinese, Hua, but in the next round he made the best of playing against the off-form GM Niaz Murshed of Bangladesh. The win gave the Indian enough leeway to play a draw against the robust Iranian, Ehsan Ghaem Maghami, and looked to be cruising to the title till he met Olympiad team-mate, Ganguly, in the penultimate round. The battle was long drawn and Kunte slipped at the crucial hurdle surrendering after 62 moves to Ganguly's flawless endgame. Ganguly made excellent use of the minor pieces throttling Kunte's chances. The leadership was dissolved as four more names, including Ganguly, Aleksandrov, Hua and Maghami, who beat the seasoned Barua, joined Kunte on top with seven points each.

Safety first seemed to be the watchword in the final round as draws were forged in a hurry with all the overnight leaders splitting points in the top three boards. The end count put it to a six-way tie with 7.5 points. This favoured Kunte most as he netted the progressive score of 51.5 to come up trumps in the tie-breaker. Top-seeded Aleksandrov, second seeded Hua, eighth seeded Romanishin, sixth seeded Maghami and the National champion Ganguly filled up the rest of the order.

The actions on the top boards were short as Maghami and Aleksandrov agreed to a draw in just seven moves while the situation was similar on the third board where Kunte, playing with black pieces in Nimzo-Indian defence, forced the Vietnam GM Dao Thien Hai to a draw in 15 moves. There was some struggle on the second board as Ganguly and Hua decided to play for the first place. The Indian had some advantage during the middle game but he allowed his opponent to exchange pieces and the game ended in a draw in 37 moves. The sequence could well have trickled into the fourth board but Ukrainian Romanishin was lucky to win a drawish game, which arose from the Queen's Indian defence, against the tentative Murshed. The total prize money of the top six spots were pooled and split among the players and each of them were richer by Rs. 75,750.

The other Indians to feature in the prize structure were Barua and GM Tejas Bakre — he was scrappy initially but picked up from the eighth round to share the second spot — both of whom scored seven points each and tied for the seventh to 10th places. The surprise of the meet was the untitled Goodricke Chess Academy ward, Saptarshi Roy, who scored 6.5 points and tied for the 11th to 15th places. Saptarshi's biggest gain remained the maiden International Master norm, which he ensured in the 10th round beating IM R. R. Laxman. On the other hand IM Enamul Hossain of Bangladesh performed exceptionally well in the first seven rounds where he consumed four GMs, including Ganguly, Romanishin, compatriot Ziaur Rahman and Vietnamese Anh Dung Nguyen, to brighten the prospect of his second GM norm. But luck deserted Hossain at the crucial stage as he, needing just a draw, suffered three consecutive losses to let go the opportunity of a nine-game norm. Sandipan Chanda, who performed the worst among the Indian GMs with four wins, an equal number of draws and three losses, and Bangladesh's Ziaur Rahman were the only GMs to stay out of the prize list.

The tournament also had its own share of controversy as the Indian players, led by Dibyendu Barua, protested the All India Chess Federation's decision to deduct 10 per cent from the individual prize-money. The protest against the Federation's directive was made to the organiser in an application signed by all the 28 Indian players participating in the meet. But the plea was turned down and the amount deducted, forcing a greater disgruntlement. Barua informed that the matter was unjust and it will be given the top priority once the players' association, which is in the final stages of formalisation, starts functioning.

Final placings

1. Abhijit Kunte (Ind) 7.5 (progressive score — 51.5); 2. Aleksej Aleksandrov (Blr) 7.5 (49); 3. Ni Hua (Chn) 7.5 (46.5); 4. Oleg Romanishin (Ukr) 7.5 (46); 5. Ehsan Ghaem Maghami (Iri) 7.5 (44.5); 6. Surya Shekhar Ganguly (Ind) 7.5 (44.5); 7. Dao Thien Hai (Vie) 7 (44.5); 8. Dibyendu Barua (Ind) 7 (42); 9. Tejas Bakre (Ind) 7 (40.5); 10. Reefat Bin Sattar (Ban) 7 (39); 11. Niaz Murshed (Ban) 6.5 (42.5); 12. Alexander Fominyh (Rus) 6.5 (41.5); 13. Saptarshi Roy (Ind) 6.5 (39.5); 14. Timur Gareev (Uzb) 6.5 (39.5); 15. Anh Dung Nguyen (Vie) 6.5 (38.5).