Luck favours Ganguly again

THEY call Visakhapatnam the City of Destiny. Destiny certainly was at work in this beautiful city on the east coast in Andhra last month to ensure that an astrologer's son from Kolkata would retain his title in India's premier domestic chess tournament.

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

Surya Shekhar Ganguly... back-to-back National `A' titles. — Pic. C. V. SUBRAHMANYAM-

THEY call Visakhapatnam the City of Destiny. Destiny certainly was at work in this beautiful city on the east coast in Andhra last month to ensure that an astrologer's son from Kolkata would retain his title in India's premier domestic chess tournament.

Surya Shekhar Ganguly, for the second year in a row, was lucky in a close finish. His close friend Sandipan Chanda, for the second year in a row, was unlucky. But Chanda was quick to point out that the top seed was the most deserving champion. "Yes, it's disappointing to be the runner-up on tie-breakers again, but no one can say that Ganguly was just fortunate," he said.

It was a case of fortune favouring the brave, as the 21-year-old Ganguly was prepared to fight in most of his games, whereas Chanda took many short draws than he probably should have. The champion won more games than anybody else. He had seven victories against the six by Chanda, who, however, was one of the three unbeaten players in the tourney (Abhijit Kunte and Tejas Bakre were the others). In the final round, though, Ganguly quickly drew with Prathamesh Mokal. That was because Dibyendu Barua had drawn his game with Bakre.

That draw meant that even if Ganguly beat Mokal there would be little impact on the final outcome as far as the title was concerned. The Koya System, which was used to break ties in this event, would favour Ganguly only if Chanda didn't win against Kunte. So, after playing 17 games in one of the world's most gruelling chess tournaments, all Ganguly had to do on that cool Saturday morning at the majestic Waltair Club was to just wait and find out what destiny had in store for him.

It was an agonising wait and he had plenty of time to remember the tense moments from the final day of the last edition of the championship at Kozhikode. Almost exactly a year ago, Ganguly's chances of the title had depended on the result of Pendyala Harikrishna's game. (Hari was missed at Vizag as he decided to take a break after winning the World junior title at Kochi). At Vizag, the 19-year-old M. R. Venkatesh from Chennai, who came up with his best ever show at the National `A' to finish fifth, shocked the Kolkatan in the 15th round. "Suddenly, the tournament began to look like what it was last year," admitted Ganguly.

He, however, recovered quickly enough and rejoined Chanda in the lead. And it was Chanda who had the tougher task in the final round, as his opponent was Kunte, the second seed, who hadn't lost a game in the tournament, while Ganguly's rival was Mokal, who hadn't won one. Chanda did try hard for that full point which would fetch him his maiden National `A' title, but Kunte proved impregnable.

A few days earlier, Chanda was in the sole lead for a brief while. Ganguly's defeat to Venkatesh had put him in the lead after the morning round, but a bye in the afternoon saw the reigning champion joining him at the top of the table before the day ended.

Chanda had caught up with Ganguly in the 12th round, a couple of rounds after the latter moved into the sole lead. The early lead, though, had been taken by Sunderrajan Kidambi, who did well to claim the fourth place. The Chennai youngster began the tournament well, had a poor middle-game, but finished strongly — winning his last three games — to record one of his finest performances. It's amazing what a change of attitude can do to a player. The Kidambi at Vizag was almost irrecognisable from the Kidambi at Kozhikode (not just because the French beard he sported for most of the time at Vizag). If he seemed only too happy to take draws from even lesser opponents last year, he was determined to fight for a victory whenever he could, this time around. "And that attitude has paid off here," the 21-year-old said. "Earlier, I thought that I shouldn't take risks by stretching myself. Now I've found out that by taking a few risks, I may lose some games, but I could also win more."

But nobody took as many risks as Ganguly did. He tried out new openings, like the French Defence, Evans Gambit and Benko Gambit, and won with them. He's one of the best-prepared players in the country and he proved that in ample measure. His domination of the tournament was total, until he erred against Venkatesh.

Venkatesh actually showed a lot of fighting spirit and skills after beginning his campaign on a frustrating note. He had a completely winning position against Kunte, but blundered and allowed his formidable rival — who hadn't lost a game in the last two National `A' meets — to escape with a draw by perpetual checks. The teenager was indeed shattered by the experience, but he seemed to have learnt from it and played more cautiously in the rest of the tournament.

Ganguly watches the proceedings as Sandipan Chanda and Koneru Humpy are engrossed in their 17th round game. Chanda finished runner-up. — Pic. C. V. SUBRAHMANYAM-

Kunte took the third place. "But I did come close to losing in quite a few games," he said. "I'm not happy with the way I played here." He, however, had a good opportunity to present a strong challenge to Ganguly towards the close, but two draws with the tailenders, Rahul Shetty and Abhijeet Gupta, spoilt his chances.

His rival in the final round, Chanda had a steady tournament, without being spectacular. If the third seed was frustrated after finishing as the bridesmaid for a second successive year, that after tying for the title, he didn't show it.

He and Ganguly had finished with 12 points each, one point ahead of Kunte and Kidambi. Venkatesh scored 10.5 and Koneru Humpy, who retained her sixth place, 10.

Humpy, one of the two girls in the country's premier men's tournament, admitted she should have done a lot better. "If I had more time to prepare, I could've finished higher," she said. "I came here straight after playing the World junior (boys) tournament at Kochi."

Dronavalli Harika, the other female in the fray, had in fact skipped the Kochi tournament, as she needed a break after winning the World under-14 title in Greece. But it turned out to be a disappointing debut for her in the National `A', finishing 16th in a field of 19.

The 19th place went to Shetty, as he lost 10 games, drew seven and one won. His lone victory though was the biggest shock of the tournament, as he humbled Humpy. Shetty was so badly out of form that he lost even after getting a rook and piece against Gupta! He kept his sense of humour intact though. "My game tomorrow is very crucial," he said one day. He had at that stage scored just two points from 12 rounds, as he did in his last National `A' in 1996. So he was wondering if he could `improve' his record. Well, he did that, losing that game.

Shetty though wasn't the only one who would love to forget this tournament in a hurry. There's Dibyendu Barua for instance. The former champion and fourth seed couldn't even retain his place in the National `A' (for the first time in nearly two decades). He could muster just 8.5 points and finished 11th. The blundering of his queen on the 13th move against fellow-Kolkatan Roktim Bandhopadhyay just about summed up his form.

Saptarshi Roy Choudhury and Bakre, however, were able to retain their National `A' berths, taking up the last available slots in the top eight. The Ahmedabad-based Grandmaster (GM) drew an incredible 16 of the 18 games as he broke the record of Saptarshi, who drew 15 out of 18 in 2001 in New Delhi. The tournament was pretty strong as 18 of the 19 participants were either GMs or International Masters (IMs). Gupta, the one who isn't an IM, has a high rating of 2412 and is a FIDE Master. It wasn't a particularly memorable debut for him though — as he finished 17th (neither it was for his friend and sparring partner Deepan Chakravarthy, who was placed just two slots above). But they would surely be the better players for the experience. So would be Harika.

"There wasn't actually a weak player this year," said Venkatesh. "Unlike last year, when there were at least two. Of course, Shetty wasn't much of a threat to anybody, but that was because he was in poor form."

The tournament proved yet again that chess is getting younger in India. Just two of the 19 participants were aged above 30 and five of them were less than 20 (another teenager — Saptarshi Roy — could have been there, but he strangely chose to play in the National juniors', which was held at the same time, elsewhere in Andhra).

The National `A' was returning to Andhra after a decade. For Vizag, it was the biggest ever tournament. "We actually got just 11 days to prepare for the event, as we were awarded the tournament rather late," said K. V. V. Sarma, secretary, All Vizag District Chess Association. "We could've done an even better job if we got more time. We want to host more major chess tournaments in the city."

The standings

1-2. GM Surya Shekhar Ganguly (PSPB 2559) and GM Sandipan Chanda (PSPB 2543) 12/19; 3-4. GM Abhijit Kunte (PSPB 2550) and IM Sundarrajan Kidambi (PSPB 2476) 11, 5-8. IM M. R. Venkatesh (PSPB 2450), GM Koneru Humpy (AP 2503), IM Saptarshi Roy Choudhury (Ben 2376) and GM Tejas Bakre (IA 2491) 10; 9-10. IM Neelotpal Das (PSPB 2345) and IM Roktim Bandyopadhyay (Ben 2345) 9.5; 11. GM Dibyendu Barua (Tisco 2525) 8.5; 12-15. IM Sriram Jha (LIC 2431), IM Suvrajit Saha (Ben 2395), IM P. Konguvel (PSPB 2403) and IM Deepan Chakravarthy (TN 2396) 8; 16-17. WGM Dronavalli Harika (AP 2391) and FM Abhijeet Gupta (Raj 2412) 7; 18-19. IM Prathamesh Mokal (Mah 2390) and IM Rahul Shetty (IA 2369).