Making way for new faces

RAKESH RAO

IN any era, the old and the experienced hate to discover that their time is up. Blame it on their falling energy-level or the inability to keep pace with the changing times and its demands, when the time comes, they have no choice but to make way for the younger and eager performers.

Suvrajit Saha proudly displays his trophy.-R. V. MOORTHY

Currently, the Indian chess scenario is witnessing a similar transition - energetic boys and girls forcing the more experienced to introspect. It happened in the women's National 'B' at Pune where sub-junior and junior girls dominated the 10 qualifying slots for National 'A'. In less than a month, the National 'B' at Jalandhar reinforced the growing belief that if the past masters do not work harder today, they may not have a future in the game.

Ask International Masters such as D. V. Prasad, Varugeese Koshy, Neeraj Kumar Mishra, N. Sudhakar Babu and P. Konguvel, all of whom failed to retain their places in the National 'A'. With all their experience, they could not overcome their indifferent form. Eventually, none of the players who came to the prosperous Punjab town to retain their places in the National 'A' succeeded.

In fact, it was not just the more familiar names which found the going tough. Young top seed Sandipan Chanda, the highest rated player ever to play in the history of National 'B', realised that sometimes flair cannot make up for lack of timing. For the third straight year, Sandipan failed to make it to the National 'A'. Luck, of course, plays a big role in this qualifying championship, but then, one cannot blame ill-luck for not doing enough over the board.

Finally, when the dust settled after a series of fiercely-fought battles, there was a new champion.

When 18th seed Suvrajit Saha walked past the finish-line after doing some hard running early in the 13-round marathon, it reinforced the belief that National 'B' title belongs only to those who play well and, equally, plan well. A tally of 10 points, half-a-point more than the next 14 players, gave Saha a well-deserved title and a cash prize of Rs. 22,000.

Seven victories and six draws constituted Saha's blemishless campaign. He won the first six rounds, took it easy in the seventh before winning the crucial tie against T. S. Ravi. Thereafter, Saha foiled the aggressive designs of Tejas Bakre to gain another half-point and settled for quick, friendly draws in the rest of the matches.

"I was not in any great form before this championship, but I am glad everything clicked in my favour. The title has given me plenty of confidence and I hope to build on it. I only wish my father was around today,'' said the 24-year-old as he remembered his father, Mohan Kumar Saha, who passed away during the Goodricke International championship in Kolkata last year.

Saha, from Eastern Railways, was representing Bengal due to a row over affiliation fee between the Railways and the All-India Chess Federation. As it turned out, two of his office-colleagues and roommates, Neelotpal Das and Saptarshi Roy Chowdhury, also regained their right to play in the next National 'A'.

Interestingly, six of the 12 qualifiers, including Saha, were not seeded to make the National 'A'. But the topsy-turvy turn of events, so typical of the National 'B' championship, ensured that there were enough surprises.

Those who justified their rankings to qualify were runner-up S. Kidambi, Grandmaster-elect G. B. Prakash, Neelotpal, Tejas Bakre, Lanka Ravi besides first-timers S. Satyapragyan and M. R. Venkatesh. The 'gate-crashers' into the National 'A' party were led by Saha, followed by Chowdhury, Sachidanand Soman apart from debutants Aravinda Shastry and Prathamesh Mokal.

Among the qualifiers, besides Saha, those who remained unbeaten were S. Kidambi, Prakash, Neelotpal, Shastry and Bakre.

However, three players, Saptarshi Roy, G. Rohith and Ravi Hegde failed to qualify despite aggregating 9.5 points. Their inferior progressive scores kept them back.

Kidambi, seeded 12, scored a timely 11th round victory over Satchidanand Soman before ensuring qualification and the second-best slot with two quick draws. Prakash, too, provided similar finishing touches to his campaign and took the third spot.

The fourth-placed Neelotpal, unlike those who finished ahead of him, had to stay longer over the board against Saptarshi Roy (not to be confused with Saptarshi Roy Chowdhury) on the final day. Since a draw did not help Saptarshi Roy qualify, he probed for some winning possibilities but in vain. The resultant draw saw Neelotpal through, but kept Saptarshi Roy waiting for some of the other results to know his fate. Neelotpal, like Prakash and Kidambi, had missed the bus narrowly in the last edition at Nagpur. Obviously, winning back a place in the National 'A' was very satisfying for Neelotpal.

The suspense hovering over Saptarshi Roy's qualification on his first attempt ended as his namesake, Saptarshi Roy Chowdhury defeated N. Sanjay and S. Satyapragyan overpowered Poobesh Anand.

On his way to qualification, Satyapragyan had to undergo several anxious moments. He mishandled a combination and lost to Shastry in the fifth round. He had a problem with the clock and the chief arbiter, in that order, before escaping with a draw against Rohith in the penultimate round. Mercifully, the Indian Airlines lad landed perfectly past Poobesh Anand in the final round.

Among the other first-time qualifiers, Mokal's passage was more eventful. He lost his opening round on time before scoring seven straight victories. These included a highly fortuitous one against surprise-packet Krishan Soni. After Mokal had thrown away a promising position, Soni could have easily drawn the game, but he was too ambitious. He tried to win on time and ended up helping Mokal win. A day earlier, it was Lanka Ravi who had refused Mokal's draw offer and eventually lost, to gift away half-a-point to the boy from Pune. Mokal drew the last five rounds.

Shastri emerged as the biggest surprise of the competition. This 27-year-old Bangalore-based businessman went about his job in a truly business-like manner. His notable victims, besides Satyapragyan, were Vishal Sareen and K. Ratnakaran. This soft-spoken 48th seed drew the last two rounds with Saha and Prakash to finish a creditable fifth.

Venkatesh, seeded nine, had looked firmly on course to qualify until he lost his way against Soni in the seventh round. Undeterred, Venkatesh reeled off victories over Sayantan Dutta, Shashikant Kutwal and Deepan Chakkravarthy before a friendly outing with Saha. He brushed aside little-known Anil Kumar Medda in the penultimate round and was involved in a draw with Kidambi.

Soman regained his place in the National 'A' after eight years. This Nagpur-based player never looked in any serious contention and made it only after beating Sandipan in the final round. Soman won four of the last five rounds, but what made him a deserving qualifier was his triumph over Sandipan. Soman certainly benefited from the desperate measures adopted by Sandipan, but that should take nothing away from his eight-win-three-draw performance.

Lanka Ravi, at 40, the most experienced among the qualifiers, proved that he still has plenty of fire. The most impressive feature of this ONGC-man was his ability to strike when needed. For instance, with six points from nine rounds and needing at least 3.5 from the remaining four, Ravi blasted Soni, made short work of K. Visweswaran and overpowered Atanu Lahiri to place himself within a draw of qualifying. A top-board friendly hand-shake with Saha was enough to help Ravi achieve what he had come for.

Though the championship is more about qualifying than winning the title, Bakre was the only one who tried to test Saha before settling for the qualifying slot. Without doubt, Bakre, who has decided to skip all the tournaments leading to National 'A', is one of the exciting players from the younger genre who play positively.

The qualifiers apart, there were those who made news for different reasons.

Sandipan headed the list of aspirants and also of those who disappointed. With a rating of 2507, Sandipan is just a norm away from fulfilling his Grandmaster-title requirements but his reputation did not help his cause. Disciplined and organised, Sandipan began with a draw but won the four rounds to win back his place at the top board. However, the loss to Saha and the failure to get away from draws pushed him to the brink of elimination. He tried to force his way past Soman in the final round but failed.

Prasad, who will miss the National 'A' for the first time in 18 years, paid heavily for the losses suffered at the hands of S. K. Rathore and Saptarshi Roy. It was indeed a big surprise that he could not raise his level, like Lanka Ravi, to reach his target.

Third seed Rokim Bandyopadhyay never looked like making it after losing his opening round to Krishan Soni. He struggled all the way thereafter and never played like one with a rating of 2445.

Krishan Soni made everyone sit up and take notice. He rode his luck to the hilt before kicking it way in the match against Mokal. Having scored over Bandyopadhyay, C. J. Arvind, Anup Deshmukh and Venkatesh, Soni had six points from seven rounds. But the loss to Mokal brought his downfall and he could never get back into contention.

On the brighter side, the two main performers were G. Rohith, the reigning National under-14 and sub-junior champion, and the 45-year-old Ravi Hegde.

The winner of the board prize in the World under-16 Olympiad in Kuala Lumpur, Rohith produced a very disciplined performance to remain unbeaten with 9.5 points. It was only due to his poor progressive score that he could not find himself a place among the qualifiers despite nailing Vishal Sareen in the final round. This Hero Honda-sponsored boy was clearly the 'hero' of the championship.

Hegde, a 17-time National 'A' qualifier, started badly and had just one point from three rounds. But all credit to this Union Bank man from Bangalore for making a stupendous comeback. In all, he won nine matches, including the last three, to reach 9.5 points. He signed off by outplaying Dinesh Kumar Sharma, one of the qualifiers last year, and left with his head held high. Having seen it all, Hegde may lack motivation, but what he showed was truly memorable.

Of the rest, Abhijeet Gupta was another performer who left none in doubt that he surely has a bright future. Apart from snatching draws with G. B. Prakash and Bandyopadhyay, Gupta had several encouraging results to reach 7.5 points for the 69th spot.

Among the unrated players, R. Srinivasan topped the list by matching Abhijeet's tally. This Delhi-boy was clearly the find of the championship. Another youngster to impress was Mary Ann Gomes. This Kolkata-girl, who skipped the National junior girls championship in Delhi to play the premier championship for seniors, scored seven points in her maiden appearance.

The most disappointing feature of the event was its organisation. The inexperience of the officials of the Jalandhar Chess Association in holding a competition of this magnitude came to the fore from the start. The players were accommodated in 'raw' houses inside the PAP Complex and they had to go without electricity on the first two days. Fans and bulbs were in place on the second day, but since there was no electric connection in these houses, generators could not meet the demand. To add to the players' woes, there were mosquitoes in plenty.

Most chess players believe in concentrating on their matches and not in wasting their time on complaining. Even at the managers' meeting on the eve of the championship, no one questioned the ill-preparedness of the organisers until International Master Neeraj Kumar Mishra raised the point.

Dr. J. S. Cheema, who headed the team of organisers, tried his best to please the players but fell short of winning accolades. Dr. Cheema was candid enough to admit the shortcomings. He spoke about being let down by those who promised him support when the Jalandhar Chess Association came forward to hold the event. Looking ahead, Dr. Cheema is keen to set the record straight whenever Jalandhar plays the host.

Final standings: 1. Suvrajit Saha (Bengal) 10 points; 2-15. S. Kidambi (Tamil Nadu), G. B. Prakash (Banks' Sports Board), Neelotpal Das (Bengal), Aravinda Shastry (Karnataka), Prathamesh Mokal (Maharashtra), Tejas Bakre (Airlines), Saptarshi Roy Chowdhury (Bengal), Lanka Ravi (Petroleum), S. Satyapragyan (Airlines), M. R. Venkatesh (Emmanuel Centre Centre), Satchidanand Soman (Central Revenue), Saptarshi Roy (Goodricke National Chess Academy), G. Rohith (Andhra Pradesh) and Ravi Hegde (Banks' Sports Board) 9.5 points; 16-20. Preetham Sharma (Capa Chess Academy), Anup Deshmukh (LIC), Arindam Mukherjee (Bengal), Deepan Chakkravarthy (Tamil Nadu) and Nassir Wajih (Delhi) 9 points.