Mixed bag

D. Harika and R. B. Ramesh... creditable show in the Commonwealth championship.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Even as Viswanathan Anand continued to strive harder to take his game to the next level, most of the other Indian names did not have a great year, writes Rakesh Rao.

Twenty years ago, a teenager by the name of Viswanathan Anand redefined excellence for Indian chess players. He combined speed with skill, imaginative ideas with intuition and reeled off results that did not go unnoticed by some of the best brains in the game. With the passage of time, his phenomenally consistent performances put him among the elite of this cerebral sport. His tireless work paid off this year and realised two of his long cherished goals. He captured the Wo rld number spot in April and went on to regain the World title, which he won in 2000.

Seldom has an individual made such a lasting impact on the future of any sporting discipline in India. His talent apart, what caught the nation’s imagination was his pleasing ways. His smile, wit and the ability to simplify the complexities of the game made him an instant hit. From becoming the World junior champion in August 1987 to becoming the game’s latest World Champion in September 2007, Anand has contributed more than any other Indian sportsperson for his or her chosen discipline.

He became the country’s first Grandmaster in December 1987 and since then only 16 more have joined the list, including two in the last two months. Interestingly, the last three Grandmasters — Parimarjan Negi, G. N. Gopal and Abhijeet Gupta — were born after Anand founded the country’s ‘GM Club’.

“I don’t want to leave behind some kind of legacy. I don’t think about it. I still have some more chess left in me,” is the reply from Anand when one touches the subject of his contribution to Indian chess or how he would like to be remembered. Indeed, Anand has kept his sights firmly on his goals and achieved them like few others in the world of sports. Delightfully, he has not finished yet.

Anand did have a glorious year during which he added the prestigious Moralia-Linares title in March and the rapid title in Monaco. He went on to retain rapid titles at Leon and Mainz. He has won the Chess Classic title 10 times including all the seven occasions since the event moved from Frankfurt to Mainz. In November, Anand braved indifferent health to finish runner-up to champion Vassily Ivanchuk in the World blitz championship in Moscow. Interestingly, Ivanchuk was considered the favourite when Anand won the world junior title in 1987. What more, Anand and Ivanchuk finished the year 2007 as the top two ranked players in the game. Surely, the duo, along with World Cup champion Gata Kamsky, showed that experience still was a handy weapon against the exuberance of youth.

Even as Anand continued to strive harder to take his game to the next level, most of the other Indian names did not have a great year. K. Sasikiran had his moments in the premier Mtel Masters where he let go of a golden opportunity to win the title ahead of the eventual winner, the 2005 World Champion, Veselin Topalov. Again, in the World Cup in Khanty Mansiysk, in Russia, Sasikiran moved to the last-16 stage. He did pick up three gold medals from the Asian Indoor Games where the Indians gave an impressive performance.

Surya Shekhar Ganguly won the Asian zonal title where the Indian entries formed a major part of the field. Otherwise, it wasn’t a happy year for Ganguly who again failed to breach the 2600-point mark. For P. Hari Krishna, it was a forgettable year during which he could take heart from his third place finish in the Montreal International. Even the Arjuna Award did not please him much since it came a wee bit late considering his consistent showings in the past years. His Andhra-mate K. Humpy did well to win two back-to-back events in the middle of the year and went on to cross the 2600-point mark in ratings. She also added an individual blitz gold from Macau.

Another Andhra girl, D. Harika won the Asian zonal title, collected five medals, including two gold, in Macau and went on to retain her Commonwealth title. R. B. Ramesh became the Commonwealth champion as the Indians expectedly dominated the event in New Delhi. Earlier in the year, S. Vijayalakshmi attained her third and final GM norm on way to the Curto Open title.

One of the finest moments for Indian chess this year came when National champion Tania Sachdev won the Asian ladies title in Teheran. Since she had picked up a GM norm earlier in the year, she was eligible to become an International Master from the 20-game IM norm that came her way on winning the Asian title. What more, she returned from Macau and retained her National title before picking up the silver medal for the ladies in the Commonwealth championship.

Among the men, Abhijit Kunte came third in the Asian championship while Gopal finished in the top-10 to qualify for the World Cup. Gopal gave an excellent account of himself by holding the former World champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov four times before surrendering in the blitz games in the World Cup opener.

Usually, the Indian age-group challenge is considered a formidable one at the World and Asian levels. The trend continued this year but not in the same way as last year. Ivana Furtado retained her World under-8 title but the Indians failed to hold on to four other world titles won in 2006. B. Adhiban won the Asian under-16 title to become the nation’s youngest International Master in July. The Indian boys claimed the World Youth (under-16) Olympiad in Singapore where leading nations like Russia, Armenia, Ukraine and China were missing from the line-up. In the Asian youth championship, India won 10 medals including five titles. The winners were Ivana Furtado (girls’ under-8), G. V. Revanth Reddy (boys’ under-8), Shardul Gagare (boys’ under-10), B. Pratyusha (girls’ under-10) and Priyanka Kumari (girls’ under-12).

Looking back, Anand and Ivana ended the year as world champions at the highest and the youngest levels of the game. The number of GMs increased but most members of this select group failed to show much motivation to move to the next level. The youngsters looked good but unless there is organised coaching in place in the country, they will not be able to reach their goals. With Anand atop the world rankings, it remains to be seen how the All India Chess Federation manages to bring in the much needed corporate patronage for the game in the country. Sadly, the Indians got only two norm-making opportunities this year in New Delhi. The need of the hour is to provide systematic and quality training for the talented youngsters besides many more opportunities at home to attain norms leading to the GM, IM, Woman GM and Woman IM titles.

Most chess champions in India remain products of the sacrifices made by their parents and individual coaches. Sadly, in that respect, not much has changed since Anand put India on the world chess map 20 years ago.