One-horse RACE

RAKESH RAO

R. B. Ramesh... impressive winner.-

MORE than the placing and prizes, the National `B' chess championship is all about being in the pack of 14 for the next National championship. A field of around 300 players, including about 40 serious aspirants for the qualifying spots, go through the gruelling 13-round grind and not all deserving players make it. Besides performance and pluck, a fair amount of luck also plays a vital role.

That is the reason why this championship is considered different than any other annual event in the country's chess calendar. The Parvsnath-sponsored 43rd edition of National `B', too, had its share of highlights with some new faces emerging as surprise qualifiers and several young players making their presence felt.

For champion R. B. Ramesh, this year's event in New Delhi meant a lot. He was coming out of a long preparation mode and wanted to test his strength. In the past season, he had lost some valuable rating points and needed to do some serious introspection before planning his future. Also, in the background was the fact that Ramesh, as the defending champion, had failed to make the top-14 grade in last year's championship.

But this time, the tournament gave Ramesh just the kind of fillip he needed. With every passing round, Ramesh raised his score and with it, his self-belief. He never trailed and for the better part of the homestretch, made it a one-horse race.

"It was very important for me to win this one," said Ramesh, flashing his infectious smile after accomplishing the job he had come for. "I am very happy with the way I played. I was never in danger of losing any game. I can recall just one bad move (in the drawn encounter against Himanshu Sharma) in 13 rounds. That's not too bad, I guess."

Being the lone Grandmaster in the field, the onus was on Ramesh to prove that he was better than the rest. Indeed, he proved it with a rating performance of 2601, as against his own rating of 2464. He not only displayed his well-known positional skills but also brought out his fine tactical play to snatch a couple of crucial points. There was no doubt that this Chennai-based Assistant Manager of Indian Oil had a lot of fuel left in the tank to make his triumph look even more impressive. But he chose to slow down in the last three rounds and took friendly draws for the sake of other qualifiers. Still, Ramesh was comfortably ahead of the 13-player pack that tied for the second spot. These 14 players will join eight seeded players in the next National `A' championship.

Youngsters perform well

In this edition of the championship, the most notable feature was the presence of six new faces among the qualifiers, five of them in the top-seven bracket! Jharkhand's Diwakar Prasad Singh and Maharashtra's Vikramaditya Kamble tied for the second spot while B. S. Shivanandan came fourth. Himanshu Sharma, M. S. Thej Kumar and teenaged S. Arun Prasad were part of the top-10, ahead of several other seasoned contenders.

Other qualifiers included veteran Lanka Ravi, who, at 41, became the oldest qualifier this year, P. D. S. Girinath, Sriram Jha, Deepan Chakkravarthy, Arghyadip Das, Dinesh Kumar Sharma and youngster Abhijeet Gupta. Of the lot, Jha made it in spite of missing the first round. Going by Jha's consistency in the country's Swiss league tournaments in the past few years, his qualification was a foregone conclusion.

As it turned out, the first 10 players ensured qualification reaching nine points from 12 rounds and took expected short draws amongst themselves in the final round. The other four players battled it out for last-round victories to make the grade.

Deepan, seeded number two, faced B. T. Muralikrishna who needed just a draw to qualify. After some anxious moments, Deepan proved stronger. Arghyadip was clearly lucky against V. Saravanan who let the youngster escape to victory. Dinesh's experience took him past young talent and fellow-International Master Deep Sengupta after Abhijeet had stopped K. Ratnakaran.

Apart from the four losers of these engaging battles, there were several others who were left to rue the missed chances. Valay Parikh, R. R. Laxman, D. Harika, P. Konguvel and 12-year-old M. R. Lalith Babu were among those who looked good enough to qualify before they fell short.

Parikh, the studious looking boy from Gujarat, scored 7.5 points from the first nine rounds to appear like a certain qualifier before losing his way dramatically.

He ran into Ramesh in the 10th round and lost after the champion turned down his draw-offer before the start of the game. He drew with Harika but lost to Kamble to go out of contention. His last-round victory over Lalith Babu did not help his cause.

Laxman, winner of three tournaments this season, brought his form into the tournament and raced away to 5.5 from six rounds. A draw with Parikh and a defeat to Ramesh pushed him back. On either side of his victory over O. T. Anil Kumar, Laxman was lucky to draw against Gurpreet Pal Singh and Lalith Babu. But the loss to Lanka Ravi in the penultimate round almost ended his chances. In the final round, Laxman's slim chances of qualifying depended on the outcome of some of the other boards. Though Laxman won the final round, all decisive rounds on the other relevant boards dashed his dream.

Harika, after four wins and three draws, lost to Rishi Pal Singh but made amends by winning the next two rounds to reach 7.5 points from 10 rounds.

Needing two points from three games, she drew with Parikh but lost to Himanshu before beating Nisha Mohota.

Former National champion Konguvel was more frustrated than disappointed on the last day. He needed a win against Postal's unheralded M. K. Panigrahi to qualify. Panigrahi surprised Konguvel by reaching an equal endgame after a series of exchanges. The resultant draw kept both players out of the National `A'.

Besides the qualifiers and those who missed it narrowly, this year's event saw a lot of encouraging performances from youngsters.

Lalith Babu from Vijayawada impressed one and all by reaching 7.5 from nine rounds during which he accounted for G. Balaji, G. N.Gopal, G. Rohit and Himanshu Sharma. He looked like holding Girinath to a draw in the 10th round but blundered away a bishop to lose. A draw in this game would have given Lalith a chance to qualify with draws in the remaining three games. But that was not to be. He let Laxman escape with a draw and lost to Jha and Parikh. Lalith, rated 2209, was left with the satisfaction of gaining 36 rating points.

Several other youngsters also gained in terms of rating points. Tamil Nadu's R. Ashwath, rated at a modest 2135, scored nine points to gain about 58 rating points. World champions in the boys' under-12 and under-10 categories, N. Srinath and Sahaj Grover, along with Mumbai-lad Aditya Udeshi, scored seven points each. It was indeed a very creditable show by these potential stars of tomorrow.

Srinath played much above his rating of 2084 to stun International Master Varugeese Koshy and picked up 29 points. Aditya also contributed to Koshy's embarrassment by drawing with the ONGC veteran on way to gaining 12 points from the competition. Sahaj, rated at a modest 1955, ended up gaining 36 points, his biggest from any single event of his budding career.

On the organisational front, the Delhi Chess Association did a fair job after failing to anticipate the conditions of the playing hall owing to the sudden rise in humidity in the Capital. Things got better after the first couple of days. When the race for the qualifying spots became hot, the top eight boards were placed in a separate enclosure, a move that made the players concentrate better.

Final standings

1. R. B. Ramesh (Indian Oil, 10.5 points), 2. Diwakar Prasad Singh (Jharkhand, 9.5), 3. Vikramaditya Kamble (Maharashtra, 9.5), 4. B. S. Shivanandan (Karnataka, 9.5), 5. P. D. S. Girinath (Andhra Pradesh, 9.5), 6. Himanshu Sharma (Haryana, 9.5), 7. M. S. Thej Kumar (Karnataka, 9.5), 8. Lanka Ravi (ONGC, 9.5), 9. Sriram Jha (Delhi, 9.5), 10. S. Arun Prasad (Tamil Nadu, 9.5), 11. Deepan Chakkravarthy (Tamil Nadu 9.5), 12. Arghyadip Das (Bengal, 9.5), 13. Dinesh Kumar Sharma (Uttar Pradesh, 9.5), 14. Abhijeet Gupta (ONGC, 9.5), 15. Valay Parikh (Gujarat, 9), 16. B. T. Muralikrishna (Tamil Nadu, 9), 17. R. R. Laxman (Tamil Nadu, 9), 18. D. Harika (Andhra Pradesh, 9), 19. P. Konguvel (ONGC, 9), 20. G. Rohit (Andhra Pradesh, 9) 21. R. Ashwath (Tamil Nadu, 9), 22. G. N. Gopal (Kerala, 9), 23. Satchidanand Soman (CRSB, 9), 24. M. K. Panigrahi (Postal, 9).