Nguyen Anh Dung corners glory

The Commonwealth chess championship, incorporating the International Open tournament.

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

LIFE in Mumbai is faster than a Shoaib Akhtar yorker. But, in April, this Indian city hosted a big event of a game that is often played at a slow pace.

Nguyen Anh Dung of Vietnam (right), who won the international Open tournament, poses with the women's and men's Commonwealth individual gold medal winners, S. Vijayalakshmi and Dibyendu Barua. — Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

The Commonwealth chess championship, incorporating the International Open tournament, however, produced plenty of action. A total of 137 players, including 23 Grandmasters took part in the event. Nguyen Anh Dung, a shy 27-year-old GM from Vietnam, scored more points than the other 136 players to win the tournament.

But it was S. Vijayalakshmi, who stole the limelight. Amazingly, the Chennai girl finished ahead of the likes of top seed Krishnan Sasikiran, defending champion Pendyala Harikrishna, Surya Shekhar Ganguly, Abhijit Kunte and Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh. She tied on points with four others, for the runner-up in the open tournament and was eventually placed fifth after the tie-breaker was applied.

The Commonwealth championship is held as part of an international open tournament. Only players representing the Commonwealth nations — there were very few such nations, possibly because of the Iraq war and the SARS virus scare — are eligible for the medals. The players with the highest number of points in each category — men and women as well as boys and girls of various age groups — are awarded the medals. But a player can choose only one medal. So Viji opted for the women's gold. And surprisingly, 12-year-old Dronavalli Harika, one of India's most promising players, decided to take the girls' under-20 silver, though she was eligible for the women's silver.

One is not so sure about the wisdom of giving medals to so many age-group categories. And there was this strange situation of a player who scored just 1.5 points from 10 rounds getting a silver in one of the age-groups! A joke was also doing the rounds that if a senior citizen had entered the competition he would have also won a gold, for there was a category for over-60 players as well.

Nguyen Anh Dung and K. Sasikiran before the start of their match. In a situation in which he had to win against the Vietnamese, the Indian Grandmaster went all out but lost, though he could have easily got a draw. -- Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

But the way Vijayalakshmi took on her strong men rivals, especially in the last four rounds, it was no joke at all. In the seventh round, the 24-year-old faced Sasikiran — the best Indian player after Anand had a disappointing outing in Mumbai — and nearly won. She had to settle for the draw after squandering a chance to post what would have been a remarkable victory. She had, in fact, beaten Sasikiran at the Wipro GM tournament in Hyderabad in 2000, but he is a much stronger player now than he was three years ago.

In the eighth round she met Surya Shekhar Ganguly and played solidly to get a draw. Then in the ninth round, she shocked the eighth seed Zhang Peng Xiang of China, winner of the Linares open tournament last year. And in the final round, she caused the biggest upset of the tournament, beating third seed Vasillios Kotronias of Cyprus, who had twice declined her offers of draw. So in two days, she had defeated two GMs.

"She is a very good player," said Kotronias, who had an eminently forgettable maiden tour of India. "I think she will become a GM very soon."

Viji, as she is popularly known, could not make a GM norm in Mumbai, though she came quite close to it. But the spirit and skills with which she played her last four rounds will be talked about in India's chess circles for a long time.

Curious onlookers watch the proceedings in Vijayalakshmi's final round game against Cyprus' Vasillios Kotronias. Viji caused the biggest upset of the tournament, outplaying the third-seeded GM. — Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

"She played superbly," said Anupama Gokhale, who won the women's silver in the Commonwealth (the bronze went to Nisha Mohota). Anupama did rather well on the home turf, turning the tables on two male IMs, C. S. Gokhale and T. S. Ravi, in the last two rounds. Viji, the 35th seed, was a bit surprised at her own success. "It hasn't sunk in yet," she said a day later.

Nguyen Anh Dung was equally amazed at his own performance. Nobody gave him a real chance when the tournament got under way. He was seeded 14th and he had done nothing much in his career to suggest that he would come first in a strong field with so many GMs.

He showed a lot of patience, tremendous consistency and considerable tactical ability to win the tournament by one full point. He only needed a draw in the 10th and final round from India's Dibyendu Barua, who had won the Commonwealth men's gold. The two men, not surprisingly, settled for a quick draw. Nguyen Anh Dung finished with 8.5 points from 10 rounds.

Nguyen Anh Dung took the sole lead after the eighth round, following his victory against Zhang Peng Xiang, and ensured that nobody caught up with him thereafter. He was, in fact, lucky to win that game against the Chinese GM, who had bungled under time pressure. Lady luck smiled on him again when he played against Sasikiran, who was guilty — not for the only time in the tournament — of over-stretching himself, in the penultimate round.

Dronavalli Harika (left) playing against Reefat Bin Sattar of Bangladesh. The teenager, who was very impressive, scored her maiden WGM norm as well as a men's IM norm during the championship. — Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

He didn't lose a game, and was in the lead throughout, except after the sixth round when Zhang Peng Xiang snatched the sole lead. He may have been a bit fortunate at times, but he was a deserving champion. As Kotronias said, "Fortune favours the strongest."

But it didn't, in a way. For, Kasimdzhanov was the strongest in the fray. The top seed had a rating of 2680 and played rather well to finish the runner-up. He had come to Mumbai straight after playing in the Asian team championship at Jodhpur, where he had a terrible time. "I'm really pleased with the way I played here, especially after the disaster at Jodhpur," he told The Sportstar. "I was never in trouble in any of my games, though I couldn't convert some of my advantageous positions to victories."

Too many draws cost the title for Kasimdzhanov, who played the World Cup final against Viswanathan Anand at Hyderabad late last year. The man seeded right behind him, Sasikiran, was India's best bet. But the Chennai lad, ranked 36th in the world, was woefully out of form. He even looked tired often, which was quite surprising, for, he is a player who loves to play or practise whenever he can. "Maybe there is too much chess for me these days," he said. "I think I need to take a break and look at what went wrong here."

Obviously something was wrong with him. He just didn't seem to be able to finish off his job after getting into good positions, like against Iran's Ehsan Ghaem Maghami, who himself fared poorly after a promising start.

It was not that Sasikiran didn't try. Like always, he tried very hard. One almost felt sorry for him. Never did so much effort produce so little. His last chance for the title came in the penultimate round. It was a must win situation for him against Nguyen Anh Dung. But going for an improbable win — he could have easily got a draw by opting for an opposite colour bishop ending — he lost. And with it perished India's hopes for the title.

Dibyendu Barua, though, ensured that India at least got the Commonwealth title. The 36-year-old, who did well to qualify for the next World championship from the Asian meet in Doha in March, came up with a solid performance. He suffered only one loss, against Zhang Peng Xiang in the sixth round, and scored 7.5 points.

He finished fourth in the open tournament, much better than his seeding — 10th. He also did a lot better than his much younger compatriots. Except against Zhang Peng Xiang and R. B. Ramesh, who let him off the hook in the fifth round, Barua was in control. He was visibly delighted after his achievement. "This was certainly my best performance in a long time," he said.

Defending champion Pendyala Harikrishna was one of the biggest disappointments for India. The 16-year-old, who had also won the Open tournament that was held along with the Commonwealth meet in London two years ago, did make some sort of a recovery in the end to take the 11th place. But his two successive losses, in rounds four and five to Neelotpal Das and N. Sudhakar Babu, ensured that he wouldn't retain his crown. "I played badly in those games," he admitted. "I mishandled the openings in both the games."

It is quite some time since Harikrishna had last won a tournament. But he said he wasn't worried about it. "I may not have had many great successes recently, but I'm fairly happy with my games," said the gifted teenager.

For India's youngest GM, Koneru Humpy, the other Telugu-speaking prodigy, it was a nightmare in Mumbai. She could garner just 4.5 points and languished in the 85th place. She has rarely played this badly. The country's other GMs, Kunte and Ganguly, did not do as well as they would have liked to, finishing ninth and 10th respectively, with seven points each. Kunte, in fact, won the Commonwealth bronze, but he is a player capable of much more. Both did better than their seedings though, as Ganguly was seeded 12th and Kunte 18th.

Top-seeded Rustom Kasimdzhanov (right) of Uzbekistan and Zhang Peng Xiang of China in the midst of a tough battle. The Uzbek GM took the runner-up prize, while the Chinese finished a poor 12th. -- Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

"At least I'm glad that I did not make any big mistakes," said Kunte. But he had signed so many peace treaties that one thought he could even be recommended for the Nobel prize for peace! Once when Tania Sachdev's mother, Anju, who had accompanied her daughter, asked Kunte what happened to his game, he replied with a grin, "I did what I have been doing all along." He had just agreed to a fifth consecutive draw. "Yes, this is a record for me," said the Pune-based youngster, who has a fine sense of humour.

The tournament was also a huge disappointment for India's GM norm hunters. In fact, not a single GM norm was made. The GM norm holders, Ramesh, Tejas Bakre, D. V. Prasad, Sandipan Chanda, Konguvel and Lanka Ravi, had to return home empty handed.

But there were many encouraging signs for Indian chess. It was heartening to see the youngsters making the best of the opportunities they got. Harika was indeed the most impressive of the lot. She scored her maiden Woman Grandmaster (WGM) norm as well as a men's IM norm. Seeded 71st, she exceeded all expectations by finishing 23rd. She was impressive even in her defeat against Kotronias, who admitted he was facing defeat and predicted great things for the Guntur girl. She beat strong men players such as Abdulla Al Rakib of Bangladesh and Saptarshi Roychowdhury and drew with Neelotpal Das and Niaz Murshed.

Two other players who are still in school, former World under-12 champion Deep Sengupta and G. Rohit, a silver medallist at the World under-14 championship, also made their maiden IM norms. There was a second norm for Prathamesh Mokal, the fast improving 19-year-old Maharashtra lad. K. Visweswaran finally got his maiden norm, at the age of 28. Local lad Vikramaditya Kamble scored his first IM norm. Siti Zuleikha of Malaysia, the only Commonwealth medal winner from outside India, made her maiden International Woman Master norm.

One of the features of the tournament was the way many of the young Indian players faced their much older rivals. They played with confidence and beat IMs, showing little respect for their opponents' experience.

Many upsets the Indian youngsters authored were yet another proof of the rapid improvement they have been making of late. Also impressive was the performance by some of the Indian women players against their much stronger male opponents. "These Indian women are very good," observed Uzbekistan GM Marat Dzhumaev, who was impressed by their performance.

The final placings (10 rounds; Indians unless specified):

Open tournament: 1. Nguyen Anh Dung (Vie) 8.5, 2-6. Rustam Kasimdzhanov (Uzb), Evgeny Vladimirov (Kaz), Dibyendu Barua, S. Vijayalakshmi and Saidali Iualdachev (Uzb) 7.5; 7-11. Krishnan Sasikiran, Maxim Sorokin (Arg), Abhijit Kunte, Surya Shekhar Ganguly and Pendyala Harikrishna 7; 12-23. Zhang Peng Xiang (Chn), Ruslan Sherbakov (Rus), Ehsan Ghaem Maghami (IRI), Tahir Vakhidov (Uzb), Igor Rausis (Ban), Alexander Fominyh (Rus), Reefat Bin Sattar (Ban), D. Harika, Praveen Thipsay, G. B. Prakash, Anup Deshmukh and Rahul Shetty 6.5. 24-43. Vasillios Kotronias (Cyp), Shukhrat Safin (Uzb), Marat Dzhumaev (Uzb), Saptarshi Roychowdhury, R. B. Ramesh, Niaz Murshed (Ban), Sekhar Sahu, B. S. Sivanandan, Ziaur Rahman (Ban), Deep Sengupta, Ravi Hegde, Sriram Jha, G. Rohit, Lanka Ravi, D. V. Prasad, V. Saravanan, Enamul Hossain (Ban), Dinesh Kumar Sharma, K. Visweswaran and Anupama Gokhale 6. 44-62. Ruslan Pogorelov (Ukr), Sandipan Chanda, N. Sudhakar Babu, Neelotpal Das, Wang Yu (Chn), Deepan Chakravarthy, Prathamesh Mokal, Vikramaditya Kamble, R. R. Laxman, K. Ratnakaran, M. Darban Vaighani (IRI), Aminul Islam (Ban), Preetham R. Sharma, Nisha Mohota, D. Saisrinivas, Tejas Bakre, Shashikanth Kutwal, Akshayraj Kore and P. Konguvel 5.5.

Women: 1. D. Harika 6.5, 2. Anupama Gokhale 6, 3. Wang Yu (Chn) 5.5.

Boys: Under-20: 1. Surya Shekhar Ganguly 7, 2. Pendyala Harikrishna 7, 3. Sandipan Chanda 5.5.

Under-18: 1. Deep Sengupta 6. Under-16: 1. G. Rohit 6. Under-14: 1. D. Saisrinivas 5.5. Under-12: 1. Y. Sandeep 4.

Girls: Under-20: 1. Koneru Humpy 4.5, 2. Eesha Karvade 4.5, 3. Siti Zuleikha 4.

Under-18: 1. Tania Sachdev 4. Under-16: 1. M. Rajadarshini 4. Under-14: 1. Saheli Nath 4. Under-12: K. Lakshmi Praneetha 3.5.

Commonwealth medals (gold, silver and bronze):

Men: Dibyendu Barua 7.5, Krishnan Sasikiran 7 and Abhijit Kunte 7.

Women: S. Vijayalakshmi 7.5, Anupama Gokhale 6 and Nisha Mohota 5.5.

Boys: Under-20: Surya Shekhar Ganguly 7, Sandipan Chanda 5.5 and Prathamesh Mokal 5.5.

Under-18: Pendyala Harikrishna 7, Deepan Chakravarthy 5.5 and M. R. Venkatesh 5.

Under-16: Deep Sengupta 6, Saisrinivas 5.5 and Akshayraj Kore 5.5.

Under-14: G. Rohit 6, Abhijeet Gupta 5 and T. U. Naveen 5.

Under-12: Y. Sandeep 4 and K. Narayanan 4.

Under-10: Parimarjan Negi 3.5 and Prasanna Rao 3.5.

Girls: Under-20: D. Harika 6.5, Siti Zuleikha (Mas) 4 and Koneru Chandra Hawsa 3.5.

Under-18: Koneru Humpy 4.5, Tania Sachdev 4 and M. Priyadarshini 3.5.

Under-16: Eesha Karvade 4.5, Saheli Nath 4 and Krutika Nadig 3.5.

Under-14: M. Rajadarshini 4, N. Ragavi 3.5 and Anjana N. Sowjanya 3.5.

Under-12: K. Lakshmi Praneetha 3.5, Dhyani Dave 3.5 and I. Ramya Krishna 2.5.

Under-10: P. Laxmi Sahithi 3.5 and Rucha Pujari 1.5.