Ramesh emerges a worthy winner

A GRANDMASTER, armed with a personal agenda, and over 219 internationally-rated players in the field of 304, the National `B' chess championship never had it so good before.

RAKESH RAO

A beamimg R. B. Ramesh with the National `B' trophy. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

A GRANDMASTER, armed with a personal agenda, and over 219 internationally-rated players in the field of 304, the National `B' chess championship never had it so good before.

This is one domestic competition where more than the title-race, the interest centres around the 12 qualifiers for the National `A' championship. But seldom has the presence of one player generated so much interest in the championship in the past 40 editions. Thanks to the presence of Koneru Humpy, it became a championship with a difference.

Humpy, the top seed, however, could not justify her billing. The man who took the honours was third seed R. B. Ramesh. Though the two tied with 10.5 points, Ramesh clinched the top spot on superior progressive score.

Ramesh, an Assistant Manager with Indian Oil, never trailed and emerged a worthy winner. Holder of two Grandmaster-norms, Ramesh was quick to state that the title was for his would-be-wife, Woman Grandmaster Aarthie Ramaswamy.

Runner-up Koneru Humpy had a close match against S. Satyapragyan. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

With Humpy already seeded as a GM for National `A', the 12 qualifiers, led by Ramesh were Sriram Jha, M. R. Venkatesh, Suvrajit Saha, Vikramjit Singh, M. Srinivasa Rao, V. Hariharan, Vishal Sareen, S. Satyapragyan, Prathamesh Mokal, Roktim Bandopadhayay and Arghyadip Das.

In this field, which had 22 International Masters and three Women IMs, the maiden qualification of Manipur-boy Vikramjit Singh, Andhra Pradesh's Srinivasa besides Kolkata-duo IM Roktim and Arghyadip was as puzzling as the return of Hariharan to the National `A' after 17 years. No doubt, the championship produced its share of surprises and thrills.

But first about those who were almost sure of making the grade.

Ramesh made it with ease in spite of playing out three friendly draws in the second half. In effect, Ramesh scored nine points from 10 serious encounters and never looked in trouble.

Six of his opponents were those who eventually qualified. With a rating of 2440, Ramesh was expected to score 8.5 points off his rivals, whose average rating stood at 2333. But Ramesh scored two points more to gain 21 rating points.

Sriram Jha (left) in action against IM Saravanan. Jha finished third. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

In fact, had Ramesh not accepted quick draws against Rahul Shetty, Jha and Venkatesh, perhaps, he could have won the title-race with at least a round to spare.

When Ramesh defeated Saptarshi Roy in the final round, the champion regretted putting the youngster out of the qualifying race. Last year, Roy had missed out on qualification on progressive scores.

Humpy, who was the cynosure, faltered only against Ramesh. She had drawn games against C. J. Arvind, C. S. Gokhale and Jha. Humpy could have won against Gokhale and lost to S. Satyapragyan. Eventually, Humpy had reasons to be pleased with her performance. Her back to back victories over seasoned IMs, Neeraj Mishra and Rahul Shetty saw her inch closer to Ramesh in the title-hunt.

M. R. Venkatesh did just enough to qualify. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

With Humpy not accepting a single short draw in the competition, her decision made some other contenders to do some re-thinking on their approach. With more decisive results at the top, some players even with lesser points always had an outside chance of qualifying.

Humpy had chosen to play at Nagpur to show to the country's chess fraternity that she was indeed good enough to play the National `A' on merit. In the end, there was little doubt over her capabilities.

Jha, a former champion, was another consistent performer. He once again showed the way to approach a Swiss league field in a domestic competition. He clearly looked better with white pieces and won six of the seven encounters. Jha was held by Ebenezer Joseph and Arvind in the first half but later, raised his level.

Suvrajit Saha, the defending champion, qualified for the next grade, but could take only the fifth place. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

Among the rest, Venkatesh and Saha were more impressive. Venkatesh started with four wins before losing his way. Draws with former National champion P. Konguvel and Jha, besides a quick defeat to Rahul Shetty, brought out the best in Venkatesh. He dominated the matches against Vikramaditya Kamble and Pankaj Joshi to reach a position from where, friendly draws with Ramesh, Saha and Srinivasa took him through.

Saha, the defending champion, looked in control despite losing to Ramesh in the sixth round. Successive victories over Anupama Gokhale, L. Imocha and C. S. Gokhale left Saha in a comfortable position. Short draws with Venkatesh and Roktim saw Saha cross the finish-line with ease.

Vikramjit was the `find' of the tournament. For someone who does not get to play much outside Imphal, Vikramjit paced himself wonderfully well in his maiden National `B' appearance. Seeded 38th for his rating of 2319, Vikramjit scored five wins from the first seven rounds and then sensibly changed gears. The former National (under-14) champion scored 4.5 points by remaining unbeaten in the last six rounds, where his victims included D. V. Prasad and P. D. S. Girinath.

Srinivasa Rao, 28, is better known as a coach of some of the country's leading teenagers. What inspired him to give a serious shot to qualification was the experience he had during the last National `A' in Mumbai, where he had accompanied WIPRO-girl Eesha Karavade. "What impressed me there was the ambience of the whole event. Thereafter, I was very keen to qualify. I am so happy that I did,'' said this modest man from Andhra Pradesh. What more, like Humpy, Srinivasa is set to receive Rs. one lakh from the state government for being a first-time qualifier to National `A'.

But the man who turned the clock was Hariharan, the 47-year-old Assistant Manager from Indian Bank, Chennai. Hariharan, with the last of his three previous National `A' appearances coming as far back as 1986, catapulted to the qualifying bracket following an astonishing finish.

Hariharan had just 2.5 points from the first four rounds during which his only rated rival was Varugeese Koshy, with whom he drew. After holding last year's qualifier Satchidanand Soman, Hariharan accounted for Anup Deshmukh, Sayantan Dutta and Saurabh Kherdekar. A draw with Himanshu Sharma and his lone loss, to G. B. Prakash, kept him at 6.5 points. In what was a dream-run to qualification, Hariharan scored over Arindam Mukherjee, Atanu Lahiri and Vikramaditya Kamble.

Vikramjit Singh was the surprise of the championship: from an unknown quantity to a first time qualifier. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

``I was here only to enhance my rating (from 2180) and qualification never crossed my mind,'' was the honest confession from the modest man. Coach of the Asian junior boys champion P. Magesh Chandran and the Asian junior girls silver medallist J. E. Kavitha, Hariharan eventually gained 45 rating points for performing like a player with a rating of 2519! The average-rating of his 10 rated rivals was 2326 — the highest in the championship. While Hariharan was expected to score just three points off them, he scored 7.5. If there was a `Comeback of the Year Award' Hariharan would have claimed it without any challenge.

Sareen came in next. Like Hariharan, Sareen, too, had a dismal start but picked up momentum on the way. Sticking to his casual approach, Sareen lifted himself from a score of 2.5 from five rounds to score 6.5 points from the next seven rounds. In the final round, Sareen needed only a draw, which he eventually got, against his LIC-teammate Jha to qualify. Sareen's recovery was reminiscent of S. Vijayalakshmi's feat in 2001. She had bounced back from a tally of two points from five rounds to score 7.5 points from the last eight rounds and attain qualification.

Satyapragyan made it for the second time in a row despite finishing his campaign with a painful loss to Humpy. The fifth seed from Indian Airlines performed in keeping with his rating of 2425. Unbeaten for 12 rounds, Satyapragyan could have finished third had he not allowed Humpy to escape to victory in the final round.

Mokal, fresh from winning the bronze medal in the Asian junior championship in Sri Lanka, played very confidently and retained his place in the National `A'. He lost to Venkatesh and Humpy but made it after holding Satyapragyan, Vikramjit and Arghyadip — all qualifiers. Mokal's loss to Humpy was his first following two straight wins.

Roktim, another unbeaten qualifier, made it after taking a huge risk. In the final round, he accepted a friendly draw with Saha and finished with nine points. He had to wait until all the meaningful results were out to know his fate. He was lucky that most boards where players with 8.5 points were playing each other, ended in draws. He made it solely on his superior progressive score.

V. Hariharan being greeted by R. B. Ramesh and a few other players. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

Arghyadip, a youngster from Kolkata, also made it by a whisker. He remained tied with T. S. Ravi even after their progressive scores were taken into account. When the `cut progressive' was resorted to, Arghyadip pipped Ravi by half a point. Interestingly, Arghyadip drew six matches, including five against International Masters while his lone loss came against Saha.

There were those who raised visions of qualifying but fell out due to inferior progressive scores.

Besides T. S. Ravi, others who missed the `cut' nar<147,4,1>rowly were Himanshu Sharma, triple GM-norm holder G. B. Prakash, B. S. Shivanandan, Saptarshi Roy, D. V. Prasad, G. B. Joshi, K. Visweswaran, an unbeaten N. Sudhakar Babu, fellow two-time champion Varugeese Koshy, the reigning National sub-junior champion S. Arun Prasad and Asian junior runner-up S. Poobesh Anand.

G. B. Prakash, Ramesh's brother, struggled with a troubled stomach and could not do enough to make the mark.

International Masters like Neeraj Mishra and Rahul Shetty lost their way after running into Humpy. Shetty, for one, needed just one point from the last three rounds but lost them all.

In fact, a pack of IMs — Anup Deshmukh, Shetty, Deepan Chakkravarthy, C. S. Gokhale, Mishra and V. Saravanan — finished between 34th and 40th places.

M. Srinivasa Rao made it among the qualifiers through some fine victories. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

Hyderabad's Rishi Pal Singh scored eight points to finish 41st but what was truly amazing was his score against International Masters. He defeated Dinesh Sharma and Ravi Hedge and drew with Rahul Shetty, Saravanan, Deepan, <147,5,0>Roktim, C. S. Gokhale and Neeraj Mishra. The only IM who gained maximum out of Rishi was the former Commonwealth champion Atanu Lahiri.

From next year, the National `B' is likely to become even more competitive. Should the All India Chess Federation decide to do away with the direct seedings to those outside the top-six bracket of the previous National `A', more number of GMs and highly-ranked players will have to come to National `B'. It has also been proposed to have 15 rounds, instead of 13, and increase the number of qualifiers to 14.

Top-25 standings (with points, progressive and cut-progressive scores wherever necessary): 1-2. R. B. Ramesh (10.5 points/79.5), Koneru Humpy (10.5/74.5); 3. Sriram Jha (10); 4-9. M. R. Venkatesh (9.5/74), Suvrajit Saha (9.5/69.5), Vikramjit Singh (9.5/66.5), M. Srinivasa Rao (9.5/66), V. Hariharan (9.5/63/62.5), Vishal Sareen (9.5/63/62); 10-25. S. Satyapragyan (9/70), Prathamesh Mokal (9/69), Roktim Bandopadhyay (9/68.5), Arghyadip Das (9/67/61.5), T. S. Ravi (9/67/61), Himanshu Sharma (9/66.5/64.5), G. B. Prakash (9/66.5/63.5), B. S. Shivanandan (9/66/66), Saptarshi Roy (9/66/65.5), D. V. Prasad (9/66/65), G. B. Joshi (9/66/64.5), K. Visweswaran (9/65), N. Sudhakar Babu (9/64), Varugeese Koshy (9/63.5), S. Arun Prasad (9/62.5) and S. Poobesh Anand (9/60).