'My opening preparations are not up to the mark'

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

TAHIR VAKHIDOV of Uzbekistan could not believe his luck. On Christmas Day, there was not just one Santa Claus for him, but three. First it was his opponent for the day, Andrey Shariyazdanov. The Russian, seeded fourth, somehow managed to blunder from a drawn position and lost.

Tahir Vakhidov (left) greets the champion K. Sasikiran after the final round.-RAMESH KURUP

That took the Uzbekistan veteran's tally to eight points at the end of the 11th and final round of the AICF Golden Jubilee international GM Open tournament at Taj Residency, Kozhikode. On the board next to him, Iran's Ghaem Ehsan Maghami inexplicably lost to Maxim Sorokin of Argentina from a position he should have won. The Iranian teenager was thus left at his overnight score of 7.5 points.

The other factor favouring the sixth-seeded Vakhidov came in the form of baby-faced Krishnan Sasikiran. The 20-year-old from Chennai was cruising to a comfortable victory against the prodigious Pendyala Harikrishna with two extra pawns, when he made a decisive blunder: he rode his knight to the wrong square ("I think there was a blindspot or something," he said later) and the game was drawn.

That not only helped Harikrishna keep his unbeaten record (Vakhidov, 38, was the only other player not to lose a single game) intact in the tournament, but it spoilt Sasikiran's own chances of becoming the outright champion as well. Sasikiran could take the first place only on account of a better progressive score (with eight points he had tied with Vakhidov), and thus had to share the prize-money, too. Instead of the top prize of Rs. 1 lakh, Sasikiran got only Rs. 85,000, as Vakhidov's second place was worth Rs. 15,000 more than the original Rs. 70,000. (All these calculations were required because the players had decided to split the prize-money in case of ties).

Regardless of the amount he won, Sasikiran was a deserving champion. He played the best game of the tournament with Maghami, who was so distraught after blundering his way to a crucial loss to Sorokin on the final day. "Only a child could have played like the way I did today," Maghami said, as he showed on the board how smoothly he could have accomplished his win.

Things, as Sasikiran later admitted, hadn't gone smoothly for him in the year, when he reached Kozhikode on the eve of the tournament. Though he had won the Hastings Premier title in Britain - a significant triumph - at the beginning of 2001, he could not be as consistent on the board as one normally expects of him. He had also won the Asian Zonal championship in Colombo, though not in a convincing manner. So, probably, the AICF Golden Jubilee title was something he needed dearly to regain his confidence.

It was apt too that he was able to rediscover some of his best form at the right time; otherwise the title could well have gone to Iran or Uzbekistan (not a bright idea, when the tournament was being conducted to mark the jubilee of the official organisation of the country). Sasikiran had looked India's best bet, when Abhijit Kunte lost his form after the sixth round and Harikrishna was unable to find his, thanks also to a persistent cold, which troubled him right through the event.

Sasikiran, seeded second and one of the pre-tournament favourites, was the first player to take sole lead, with a perfect score after three rounds, following his crucial win against Maghami in the third round. He made it four out of four, when he beat top-seed Evgeny Vladimirov of Kazakhstan after rejecting an offer of draw. In the sixth round, after drawing with Shariyazdanov earlier in the day, he came across his nemesis.

Abhijit Kunte proved too good for Sasikiran, yet again. With a fine knight sacrifice, the Pune-based youngster with a charming smile, who had narrowly beaten Sasikiran in their race to become India's fourth GM, scored a fluent win.

Kunte was in the sole lead with 4.5 points, and it seemed that he was getting back to his best. Kozhikode had seen the very best of him, in 1998, when, in another Golden Jubilee GM tournament, he took 4.5 points off five GMs on his way to an unexpected, glorious triumph. He was only an IM then.

He hasn't had good results of late, and his fine beginning in the tournament promised a lot. But, in the very next round, he suffered a setback against Marat Dzhumaev of Uzbekistan, the 10th seed, and never recovered. Kunte was placed 11th in the end, two slots below his seeding. "The year has been really bad for me," he said on the final day, after agreeing to a quick draw with R. B. Ramesh (he had to leave early to attend a marriage). "My game hasn't been that awful, though the results certainly have been."

Unlike Kunte, Sasikiran, so solid and consistent, recovered from the loss in quick time. He was back in joint lead after the seventh round itself, with a win against the best performer among the six women at Kozhikode, S. Vijayalakshmi, who spoilt chances of a draw with incorrect defence.

Sasikiran never went out of the lead after that. He was joined at the top by Maghami at the end of the eighth round. The duo were the joint leaders till the final round got under way. Of course, Vakhidov did finish ahead of Maghami, who had to be content with the third place, but it was the teenager who looked the biggest threat to Sasikiran's title aspirations. He almost pulled it off too, until he made that costly mistake against Sorokin. Had he won the game, he would have been the outright champion with 8.5 points. And he would have won Rs. 1 lakh, instead of the Rs. 22,000-odd he got in the end.

Maghami looked very dejected long after the last round was over. His only solace was that Sasikiran won the title. "Here only the two of us deserved to come first," he told The Sportstar. "It's OK for me since Sasi has won the title."

Just 19 and virtually going on without a coach so far, the Iranian promises a lot. He became his country's first GM when he scored his third norm from the Asian championship in Kolkata in August 2001. He is still the only GM in Iran, where he has had to struggle to come through. He used his spare time during the tournament to prepare for his Law Degree examinations, which were scheduled soon after the conclusion of the tournament.

Vakhidov, also the coach of the Uzbekistan national team, played solid chess without taking any risks, to pick up his second GM norm. "It was nice to get my norm," he said and added, "and I am happy with the way I played here."

He must have been happy with the way some of his opponents played too. Alexander Lyssenko, a 50-year-old Russian, who is more of a coach than a player, managed to lose to him in 18 moves, blundering a piece. Then of course, there was Shariyazdanov, who, interestingly, is Lyssenko's favourite student. The younger Russian probably wanted to emulate his trainer but ended as one of the major disappointments of the event. The champion at the Guntur GM tourney in 2000, finished 12th, much below the expectations.

An even bigger disappointment was Koneru Humpy, who reached Kozhikode needing just one more GM norm to make history. The World junior girls' champion and India's youngest Woman Grandmaster would have also become India's youngest Grandmaster on the men's side, breaking the record Harikrishna had set in August 2001.

After having such a wonderful year - when she won the World juniors, three men's GM tournaments, the WGM title and two GM norms - she was in for a few setbacks at the Beypore Hall in Taj Residency. To be fair, she had no time to prepare, coming straight from a Category X tournament in Budapest.

Her rhythm was upset by K. Visweswaran in the second round itself. Though she did well in a few games, like the one against the National 'B' champion Sriram Jha, she was unable to produce the kind of form she had been used to for the best part of the year. "I haven't played well here at all," she admitted, "and I was making too many mistakes."

The other Indian WGM, S. Vijayalakshmi made very few mistakes. The fighter impressed in a men's tournament yet again. Well over a year after she completed her WGM title from the Wipro tournament in Hyderabad, the Chennai girl proved quite a handful for her formidable rivals. She did better than her seeding to finish 13th, and scored her second win against her one-time coach Sorokin, besides drawing with Shariyazdanov, Vakhidov and Dzhumaev. "Yes, it was one of my better shows of the year," she said at the end of the closing ceremony, before dashing off to catch the evening's Chennai Mail. Her younger sister S. Meenakshi had a reasonably satisfying outing though she finished outside the prize list.

In her last game Vijayalakshmi lost to her one-time coach Vladimirov, who was placed fifth on progressive scores. The former second of Garry Kasparov, who is the main coach of the Wipro-sponsored Harikrishna, was far from pleased with his effort. "I don't like this time control at all. My performance just proved my point," said the GM, never at a loss for words. "I think we are all lucky to be alive at the end of the tournament."

His ward, Harikrishna, may have had some luck here or there, but he is increasingly becoming the most difficult player to beat in India. He has lost just two games with white pieces in the entire year. At Kozhikode, no player, with any colour, could take a full point from him. He was able to find a way out from a few inferior positions, reminding one of Dibyendu Barua, the Houdini of Indian chess. "But Barua could win from such positions. I am not very happy with my games here. I was not feeling well either, because of the cold," said the Guntur prodigy, who finished a creditable fourth, three places above his seeding.

Visweswaran, an engineer-journalist from Chennai, had no obvious problems with his health. He came the closest an Indian did to make a norm. He finished half-a-point short of a maiden IM norm, after he messed up his game with Lyssenko. "I was winning against him with a mating threat," said the 27-year-old, one of the surprise packages of the tournament. "And he offered a draw in that position but I refused, for I believe you should go for a win when you have a chance to do so," he said.

Prathamesh Mokal, a 19-year-old from Pune, turned out to be an even bigger surprise. He was seeded 44th, but finished 17th with six points. More importantly, he had an impressive score against stronger rivals, shocking Humpy, P. Konguvel and V. Saravanan.

Lyssenko, who finished seventh, was one of the happiest men on Christmas Day. "This is one of my best-ever performances in a tournament," he said, and joked: "I have done better than all my students, including Shariyazdanov and the Indian youngsters."

Pravin Thipsay finished a place below Lyssenko, at eighth, and it was a strong comeback for him, after scoring just one point from his first four rounds. He recorded a memorable win against Kunte too, as he picked up 6.5 points from the last seven rounds.

The final placings (progressive scores within brackets):

1. Krishnan Sasikiran 8 (53.0), 2. Tahir Vakhidov (Uzb) 8 (49.5), 3. Ehsan Ghaem Maghami (Irn) 7.5 (49.0), 4. Pendyala Harikrishna 7.5 (46.0), 5. Evgeny Vladimirov (Kaz) 7.5 (45.0), 6. Maxim Sorokin (Arg) 7.5 (42.0), 7. Alexander Lyssenko (Rus) 7.5 (40.5), 8. Pravin Thipsay 7.5 (36.0), 9. Marat Dzhumaev (Uzb) 7 (45.5), 10. Dinesh Kumar Sharma 7 (39.0), 11. Abhijit Kunte 6.5 (46.5), 12. Andrey Shariyazdanov 6.5 (45.5), 13. S. Vijayalakshmi 6.5 (44.0), 14. R. B. Ramesh 6.5 (38.5), 15. Sriram Jha 6.5 (37.0), 16. Sandipan Chanda 6.5 (35.5), 17. Prathamesh Mokal 6 (41.0), 18. G. B. Prakash 6 (38.5), 19. Koneru Humpy 6 (36.5), 20. C. S. Gokhale 6 (36.5), 21. M. R. Venkatesh 6 (36.5), 22. D. V. Prasad 6 (34.5), 23. Roktim Bandyopadhyaya 6 (34.0), 24. Lanka Ravi 6 (34) and 25. S. Satyapragyan 6 (31.0).

The moves:

IM R. B. Ramesh v GM K. Sasikiran. Sicilian Defence. 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6, 5. Nc3 a6 6. Be2 e5 7. Nb3 Be7 8. Be3 Be6 9. Nd5 Nbd7 10. Qd3 Bxd5 11. exd5 Rc2 12. c4 -00- 13. -00- Re8 14. Kh1 Bf8 15. Rac1 b6 16. Nd2 a5, 17. b3 g6 18. Nb1 Bg7 19. Nc3 Qe7 20. a3 h5 21. Na4 Nc5 22. Nxc5 bxc5 23. Rfd1 Nd7, 24. Qd2 e4 25. Rb1 Be5 26. b4 axb4 27. axb4 cxb4 28. Rxb4 29. Rb5 Ra8 30. g3 Ra3 31. Qc2 Qf5 32. Rb3 Rxb3 33. Qxb3 Rb8 34. Qa4 Rb2 35. Bf1 h4 36. gxh4 Rxf2 37.Bxf2 Qxf2 38. Bg2 Qf4 39. Kg1 Qxh2+ 40. Kf1 Nc5 41. Qc2 Nd3 0-1.

Well-organised event

INTERNATIONAL chess was back in Kozhikode after a gap of three years. The World junior championship was the last international event that the city hosted in 1998. Kozhikode was also the venue of the World junior championship in 1993.

"On both the occasions, we hadn't opened a bank account till the events got under way,"' said P. T. Ummer Koya, the AICF secretary.

It was almost the same this time round too. The only corporate sponsorship the organisers received was Rs. 50,000, from India Cements. The Central Government, though, had allotted Rs. 6 lakhs.

The tournament was well conducted at a five-star hotel. The field was also fairly strong for an Open tournament, featuring most of India's leading players.

The competitors, foreign and Indian, were impressed. "It is definitely one of the best tournaments I ever took part in the country," said veteran international D. V. Prasad. "The AICF and Mr. Koya have done a very good job."

There was no doubt that Mr. Koya was a happy man at the end of the show. "It may be a huge loss financially, but we were determined to conduct this tournament in a grand manner, as it marked the golden jubilee celebrations of the AICF," he said.

The event, though, failed to produce any norm from the Indian players. "We do need more Open tournaments like this," said Chennai-based R. B. Ramesh, a GM-norm holder.

It wouldn't be a bad idea to make this an annual affair, like the Goodricke tournament in Kolkata.

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

"ARE you sure?" he asked. Yes, one was. Absolutely.

Grandmaster Krishnan Sasikiran was just making sure that he had indeed won the AICF Golden Jubilee international GM Open tournament. He was obviously still perturbed by what had happened a few moments before at the Beypore Hall of Taj Residency, Kozhikode.

RAMESH KURUP

He had drawn his final round game with Pendyala Harikrishna, when he should have won with ease. He had squandered his chances when he blundered with his knight and wasted his two-pawn advantage. The draw meant he had tied with Tahir Vakhidov, who had also scored eight points.

But his progressive score was better; so he was indeed the champion. It was confirmed by the Chief Arbiter, K. Ratnakumar. Sasikiran was happy to hear that.

He was a bit relieved as he began to speak. Just then the telephone rang. It was his father and coach, S. Krishnan, on the line from their home in Chennai. He told him about his costly mistake.

Within a few hours, he had to reach the railway station, to catch the Chennai Mail. He was looking for S. Kidambi, his room-mate, friend and sparring partner. "I wonder where he's gone," he muttered, heading for his room.

Excerpts:

Question: You looked so upset after drawing with Harikrishna today.

Answer: Yes, I don't know how I could have missed such a simple move. That should not have happened. I think I just went blind.

But aren't you happy still to win this tournament?

Of course, I am. And this was easily my best performance in the past few months. Though I am not entirely satisfied with the quality of my games here, I thought I played fairy well. I would even be gaining some Elo points. This is also the first Open tournament which I have won for a long time.

Probably the first since the National 'B' championship here in 1997?

Yes, I think so. I came first in the Commonwealth championship in Sangli in 2000, but I did not win the tournament.

Here you met strong opposition right through.

Yes, my average here should be around 2500, which is not bad for an Open tournament. But I feel I should have played better. I was winning against Harikrishna and against (Marat) Dzhumaev I was just a pawn up. I think I need to improve a lot. I feel my opening preparations are not up to the mark.

But among the Indian players few people are as prepared as you are.

But it is certainly not good enough at the higher level. And it will take some time before I am really strong in that area. I have also got to work on other aspects: like missing opportunities at crucial junctures.

Which of your games here do you like most?

The second round win against (R.B.) Ramesh was good. The game against (Evgeny) Vladimirov was also nice. So was the one against (Maxim) Sorokin. But I should have been able to finish it off early.

The worst game was of course the sixth round against Abhijit Kunte. Your personal score with him has become even worse. Is it something psychological?

Not at all. Yes, the score might look pretty bad, but one shouldn't also forget that, a few years ago, Kunte was a much stronger player. Of late, I have been able to take him on a more even level. We do enjoy our battle. I think I bring the best out of him (laughs). We like to fight. Our last three meetings went along the same line (Panov-Botwinnik Attack against Caro-Kann Defence), but he blundered in the game before this one. And here I defended badly.

What were your expectations when you left Chennai for this tournament?

I wasn't thinking much about the title actually, even after winning my first round matches. I just thought of my games, and nothing else. The good beginning here had given me a lot of confidence, though. But that loss to Kunte shook me a bit. I wasn't so sure of my games anymore.

How do you look back at the year? Of course it was not as good as 2000, when you got your GM title, besides winning the Pentamedia GM tournament at home and the good show at the Istanbul Olympiad. But it hasn't been that bad either, you began with the Hastings Premier title win in Britain.

That was a good performance, but somehow I could not find the right balance after that. My attitude towards the game kept changing too often, but now I hope I have made up for my mistakes. After Hastings, I had a bad tournament in Jakarta, where I made too many mistakes. I was taking too many risks, wrong sacrifices and all that. Then I won the Asian Zonals in Colombo, but it was not exactly the way I would have liked to. The National 'A' was disappointing, because I had a very good start, with something like 8.5 points from 10 rounds. But I sacrificed a pawn against (Dibyendu) Barua for nothing, and lost. He had a better position, but I could have defended better. I should have won that title in Delhi. The Young Olympians tournament at Lausanne wasn't bad, as I finished third in a strong tournament.

The Asian championship in Kolkata was eminently forgettable, wasn't it? One of your worst performances ever...

Yes, I played horribly. I hardly had any preparations for the tournament. I had come directly from an Open tournament in the Czech Republic, where I won four games and drew five but could get only the 11th or 12th place. I think I managed to lose some 20 points in Kolkata. There I was making three or four mistakes in a row! I hope I have learnt something from my mistakes there.

Then you went to Moscow for your second successive World championship, and made it to the second round once again.

In the first round I did pretty well probably because I had prepared well. For (Alexander) Morozevich in the second round I didn't prepare that well. I wasn't confident of facing someone as strong as Morozevich, because I hadn't prepared well enough for him. I think there's a big gap between the world's top players and us. It may take a lot of time to bridge that gap.

How would you rate the conditions for the tournament here?

Fantastic. Excellent accommodation, everyday I could go to swim, and to the gym. We could play table tennis as well.

You do look trimmer than before.

I have been going to the gym in Chennai for the last four or five years. I jog and cycle nowadays. You know, physical fitness is important for a chess player these days.

What are the goals you have set for yourself for 2002?

First of all, I have to get my rating back to 2600. And I should continue to work on my game. I am scheduled to play four back-to-back tournaments after this, beginning with Hastings.

Did any of the players here impress you?

I am highly impressed by Deep Sengupta. He looks really good. The other little kids also did pretty well here. They were not making obvious mistakes, which is very good at this stage. I thought Vijayalakshmi also did very well, that too against stronger players. Her results are good, except for the loss to me. Even in that game, she had chances to draw.

Does Mahabharata continue to be your favourite book?

Yes. I still carry it to tournaments. I read it whenever I feel sad, and it gives me moral strength. My interests in reading are more varied now; I am also into philosophy these days.