Other Indians besides Anand

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

CHESS may be the most happening sport in India now. And India may be the most happening country in world chess. But Krishnan Sasikiran and Koneru Humpy are not quite household names in India yet.

Sasikiran is ranked No. 40 in the world, and of late has been winning many international tournaments. Humpy is the world's youngest ever woman player to win the men's Grandmaster (GM) title, and she is also the current World junior girls' champion.

But, unless you are a well-informed follower of Indian sport, chances are that you might not be aware of their very existence, let alone of their outstanding achievements. For an average Indian, chess still means Viswanathan Anand and nothing more. He doesn't know that India's list of Grandmasters grew from three to seven in two years. That India has made it a habit of winning all the medals on show in Asian age-group competitions. That not a year passes without an Indian making a mark at the World youth championships. That India is surely on its way to become a superpower in world chess.

Not even the World chess championship which New Delhi hosted in late 2000 could quite succeed in creating more awareness of the game among the Indian public. Now, a little under two years later, chess is in the spotlight in India. The chess World Cup, which opens at Hyderabad on October 9, might just do what the Delhi World championship could not - to attract the attention of the general public.

The World Cup could be a bigger success because it's likely to be a better organised event. The All India Chess Federation (AICF) secretary and FIDE vice president P.T. Ummer Koya says he did not have a good supporting team of organisers in Delhi. "The Delhi championship could have been held in a much better way, if I had some hard working and sincere men locally," he said. "So, what makes me extremely confident of the World Cup is that the local organising team is much better and more dedicated. Besides, the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu himself is very keen about the World Cup."

The AP Government has allotted Rs. 2.75 crores for the event. "I'm really impressed by Mr. Naidu's attitude towards sport and chess in particular," said Koya, the man who is responsible for bringing the World Cup to India. L. V. Subrahmanyam, vice chairman and managing director, Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh, who has taken an active interest in promoting chess in the State, feels the World Cup will attract more youngsters to the sport. "We have made arrangements for young children to see the big stars of world chess in action from close quarters," he told The Sportstar over telephone from Hyderabad. "The Chief Minister wants to make the event a huge success. He wants more players like Humpy and Pendyala Harikrishna to come up."

Harikrishna and Humpy have already been amply rewarded by the AP government for their fabulous feats in international tournaments. Both of them will be seen in action at the World Cup. And they both are capable of springing a few surprises. But the real star of the event should be Anand. Not just because he is the top seed and defending champion. The former World champion is making a rare appearance in a tournament in India. This is in fact his first event in the country after the World championship in Delhi.

The man who has put India on world chess map starts as the strong favourite. He had won the inaugural World Cup convincingly in Shenyang, China, two years ago. On that occasion he had beaten Evgeny Bareev of Russia in the final, after overcoming Boris Gelfand of Israel in the semifinal and Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine in the quarterfinals. He had also topped his group in the preliminary league.

And if he plays anywhere near his best at Hyderabad, his rivals are going to find it very difficult to dethrone the Indian. He must also be in the right frame of mind, after his great victory in the Mainz Classic match in Germany against the World champion Ruslan Ponomariov of Russia recently.

Ivanchuk could, in fact, pose the biggest threat for Anand. The temperamental Ukrainian is one of the world's most talented players, but he is also one of the most unpredictable players in the game and hasn't actually done justice to his full potential yet. His best chance to attain greatness came earlier in the year in Moscow, in the final of the World championship. But he was beaten by his compatriot Ponomariov.

The younger Ukrainian is one of the few leading players who will be missed at Hyderabad. The Russians Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik and Alexei Shirov of Spain have opted out, like they did last time.

Among the strong players who have confirmed their participation are Alexander Morozevich of Russia and Nigel Short of England. Surprises could be expected from the 15-year-old Taimour Radjabov from Azerbaijan, who was once the world's youngest GM. Two young Indians in the fray also have the ability to upset the calculations of more fancied players. Sasikiran and Harikrishna, who represent the best of young talent in Indian chess, could do something special before the home crowd.

"I don't know what to expect because I won't be able to know my rivals till the draws are made during the opening ceremony," said Sasikiran. "But I'm determined to put up a good fight. I like this format, for it gives participants like us an opportunity to improve our Elo rating, if nothing else, as every player is guaranteed at least five games each against top quality players."

It's a league-cum-knock-out format, and to break ties (if any) after the classical games, rapid and blitz games will be played. From an Indian point of view it would be nice to note that Anand is quite at home at all these versions.

The women's event looks more open. World champion Zhu Chen of China, her fellow-country woman and defending champion Xu Yuhua, Alexandra Kosteniuk of Russia, the beaten finalist of an exciting World championship final in Moscow, would all fancy their chances, while veterans Maia Chiburdanidze of Georgia, seeded No. 1 and former World champion, and Pia Cramling of Sweden will be hoping to recapture their old form. Then there are also beautiful young minds such as Victorija Cmylite of Lithuania, who had won her country's National men's championship a couple of years ago.

India's best bet is Humpy. She makes no secret of her aim. "I will try to win it," says the Vijayawada prodigy. Don't be shocked if she actually does. Pravin Thipsay, the Mumbai-based veteran GM, for one, won't. "I believe she does have an outside chance. She has made a huge improvement in her game over the last one year, and if she plays like the way she did at the recent British championship, she will have some excellent results at Hyderabad."

S. Vijayalakshmi is another Indian girl who won't give up without a fight. Aarthie Ramaswamy and Swati Ghate also have a chance. That means the Indians have taken four out of the 20 slots in the women's competition. Surely it pays being the host.

UNLIKE as in the major chess tournaments till recently, Viswanathan Anand's won't be the only Indian flag that will flutter at the World Cup in Hyderabad. He will be joined by a few others from the host country.

Krishnan Sasikiran is undoubtedly the best Indian player after Anand. The Chennai-based GM is now playing the best chess of his career. Between December 2001 and July this year, he won an astonishing six GM tournaments and is ranked No. 40 in the world.

He is the hardest-working chess player India has ever seen, and never gets tired of practice, be it on the chessboard or inside a gym. From a pleasantly plump teenager he's turned into a fitness fanatic. Along with his body he has fine-tuned his game as well. He's no longer the impish boy who tries to win even 'dead-draw' games. He is a mature player who knows when to sign a peace treaty.

He's just 21. So, we surely haven't seen the best of him yet.

Pendyala Harikrishna is even younger. He is only 16, but it's been over a year since he turned GM. The prodigy from Guntur - and now in Hyderabad - is the most gifted Indian player after Anand, and along with a nice sense of humour, has an amazing understanding of chess.

He loses very few games, even when he is in the worst of form. He is actually the toughest player to beat in India (Anand lives in Spain, as a matter of fact).

This youngster, who is a fan of actress Preity Zinta, started India's great tradition of winning World age-group titles when he clinched the under-10 title at Menorca in 1997. His natural skills have been further sharpened by his coach Evgeny Vladimirov.

He has the potential to be one of the superstars of the game.

Koneru Humpy speaks the same language as Harikrishna. But that didn't make her resist from the temptation to beat his record as India's youngest GM. The girl from Vijayawada, with a mischievous smile, is also the world's youngest female player to get the male GM title.

Breaking records is in fact one of her two favourite hobbies. Collecting world titles is the other. It's almost a case of 'You name it, she has it.' World under-10, under-12, under-14, World juniors, Asian juniors, National boys, Asian boys... the list could go on. One thing missing is the World women's championship. General consensus is that she'll get that too within three or four years.

And yes. She has another hobby: of making her critics eat their own words. If you wonder why that smile these days is more mischievous than usual, that's because she came up with a sensational show at the recent British championship at Torquay, shortly after she had been dismissed disdainfully by some as an overrated player who ran away from competition.

S. Vijayalakshmi was India's only Woman Grandmaster until Humpy joined the club last year. But this 23-year-old from Chennai is still the only player to win the National women's 'A', India's toughest domestic tourney for women, six times.

A fighter to the core, she had a superb Olympiad in Istanbul two years ago, when she won an individual silver on the second board and carried India's hopes admirably on her slender shoulders.

Aarthie Ramaswamy also lives in Chennai. She too has won one important international title, the World under-18 in Spain in 1999. But life on the chessboard has been a struggle since then for this wide-eyed, multi-talented 21-year-old.

On her day, she can play some sparkling chess. But at times she can be a little pedestrian too.

Swati Ghate in a way is like that. It's lack of consistency that has made her career look less spectacular than it should be, given her abilities.

A talented player, the 22-year-old from Pune made history when she became the first woman to qualify for the National men's 'A' championship last year.