On course to cross the next milestone

IF Viswanathan Anand is the strongest ever chess player of the country, K. Sasikiran is the best in the country.

RAKESH RAO

K. Sasikiran is all smiles for this was India's most successful campaign in the Olympiad. — Pic. RAKESH RAO-

IF Viswanathan Anand is the strongest ever chess player of the country, K. Sasikiran is the best in the country. When it comes to discipline, dedication and hard work, none can match this Grandmaster from Chennai. For those who have watched him from the junior days, Sasikiran has truly come a long way. Gone are the chubby cheeks as well as the hesitation in opening up to mediapersons. Today, this Arjuna Awardee knows the importance of projecting a positive body language, communicating clearly and turning out appropriately in public. Looking to break the coveted 2700-mark in rating points, Sasikiran has worked on areas other than his chess. Regular workouts in a gym and playing badminton, as and when the opportunity presents itself, have made Sasikiran appear fitter than ever. His personality has undergone a sea change, of course, for the better, in the last couple of years. The result is an all new, refined Sasikiran the chess fraternity admires. Sporting a well-tailored blazer and a lapel pin of his employers ONGC, Sasikiran is busy collecting compliments from some of his admirers in the lounge outside the hall where the Closing Ceremony of the Chess Olympiad was in progress in Mallorca's Gran Casino.

"You know, some people still prefer my chubby-cheeked look to what I have today," begins Sasikiran as one reminds him of his junior days when he was a lot hesitant and bit `heavy'. "I know, it is important to be supremely fit because playing chess for long hours takes a lot out of you. Now I have to prepare harder to break the 2700-point barrier, the physical aspect cannot be ignored."

Sasikiran, after crossing the 2650 in ratings, enjoyed exemption from playing the gruelling 20-player National `A' championship that is more demanding than any other individual event conducted anywhere in the world. "Playing two rounds a day every alternate days can be very strenuous. Both mentally and physically, it can be very demanding. Above all, the top players find it very difficult to maintain their rating, leave alone improving it. For instance, the last time I played National `A' in Mumbai, I had managed to gain about 15 points before the defeat to Suvrajit Saha nullified all the hard work. It was very frustrating. This time, I feel Harikrishna will find it very difficult to maintain his rating," says the former National champion.

Peter Svider (left), Alexander Morozevich, V. Anand and K. Sasikiran snapped during the Russia v India encounter in Mallorca. -- Pic. RAKESH RAO-

The predicament that Sasikiran faces today is quite unenviable. With a rating of 2670, Sasikiran wisely chooses to play select open events but waits for invitations for round-robin events mainly from Europe. He did gain a lot from coming second to Russia's Alexander Morozevich in the Biel Masters event this year besides a few other successes this year.

But Sasikiran is looking at his busy schedule ahead. "I would like to play the Parsvnath event in Delhi before the Asian individual championship in Kochi in January. With the event in Gibraltar, followed by the Aeroflot Open and the Commonwealth championship, lined up, I will have to weigh my options before committing to the organisers of these events.

Sasikiran knows only too well that unless he scores heavily in the open events, gaining rating points becomes very difficult. "Once I was chatting with Victor Bologan (who won the Dortmund title last year) and he said, to gain hundred points from 2670 to 2770 is very, very difficult. You need to play really well in a couple of big events to gain much at this level. I understand how demanding it is at the top level and I am ready for it." Indeed, Sasikiran likes to work on his chess in complete privacy in Chennai. He remains in constant touch with his father (who is also his coach) and makes note of the mistakes that come to the fore.

"Even before leaving for the Olympiad, I went home (from the training camp in Kozhikode) and it surely helped," says Sasikiran who values the strong emotional support that his family offers at all times. On his performance, especially in the Olympiad, Sasikiran was not too excited. "I should have converted at least two draws into victories. Then I would have been happy," said Sasikiran pointing to his drawn games against Spain's Francisco Vallejo and Israel's Emil Sutovsky. "Against Cuba's Lenier Dominguez, I agreed for a draw and then saw that I was winning minor piece off the very next move," says Sasikiran rueing the missed chances. Needless to add, being unbeaten in 12 matches, most played by any in the Indian team, and remaining unbeaten does not excite Sasikiran. Being a perfectionist, just two victories are not enough to cheer Sasikiran.

On why he is not able to strike as often as he would like to, Sasikiran says, "It is because of our superficial opening preparations. All the team members, except Anand, need to work a lot deeper in our opening preparations and also expand our repertoire. Our coach (for the Olympiad team) Elizbar Ubilava made us see how superficial our opening preparations were. In this respect, countries like Ukraine, Russia and Armenia are way ahead of us. Take for instance (Ukraine's Andrei) Volokitin. I used to treat him like any other teenager. But look at the way he destroyed everyone with his deep and varied opening preparations. Watch out for him. He is going to break into the big league soon."

Sasikiran also suggests ways to consolidate the gains from India's most successful Olympiad campaign. "I think we should persist with Ubilava at least until the next Olympiad (in Turin in 2006). In 2000, it was Valeri Salov while in 2002, Evgeny Vladimirov accompanied the team as a coach. This time we had a very short stint with Ubilava and that was not enough for him to understand all the players. If we can have a couple of more camps with him aimed at preparing the team for the World Team Championship (to be hosted by India), we can certainly do better. If the event is being planned for mid-2005, we can have month-long camp say from May 15. I would prefer another short camp in February-March."

No wonder, Sasikiran is committed to improve his game like few others in the country. He knows the task ahead is very difficult. But going by his uncompromising nature, Sasikiran is sure to find his way around the hurdles. He has already charted a path for himself and is firmly on course for his next milestone.