Sasikiran pockets a prestigious title

HALFWAY through the Asian individual chess championship in Doha, there was a change of venue. From Hotel Oasis the tournament was moved to Hotel Ramada after the fourth round. The top-seed Krishnan Sasikiran hoped that with that change of venue there could well be a change of fortune too.

HALFWAY through the Asian individual chess championship in Doha, there was a change of venue. From Hotel Oasis the tournament was moved to Hotel Ramada after the fourth round. The top-seed Krishnan Sasikiran hoped that with that change of venue there could well be a change of fortune too.

Krishnan Sasikiran proudly displays the trophy. -- Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

Well, there was. He won the championship and his biggest prize-money till date — $12,000. He also became the first Indian to win the prestigious title.

At Hotel Oasis, Sasikiran, the Chennai-based Grandmaster, who is inching closer to the elite list of players of world chess, was feeling that he was playing not well enough, though he wasn't exactly losing. There were more draws than he would have liked in the first half of the tournament, and he was playing games that lasted 90-95 moves to get those draws.

"It was quite frustrating. To be honest, I was not playing well and felt naturally tired at the end of those long games. I never had to spend that much of energy ever in my life just to get draws," Sasikiran said.

But the fine player that he is, the 22-year-old was able to put behind him the sluggish start, and had a strong finish to his campaign. He won the tournament outright, scoring seven points from nine rounds, and remained unbeaten till the end. He had begun with a first round win against Dashzeveg Sharavdoni of Mongolia and followed it up with another victory against Eugene Torre of the Philippines in the second round, before running into a string of draws.

He had to split points with Sergey Zagrebelny of Uzbekistan and fellow-countryman Dibyendu Barua in the next two rounds. Though be beat Alexei Barsov of Uzbekistan in the fifth round he was off colour yet again in the next round, drawing with Mohammad Al-Modiahki of the host Qatar. He defeated Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh in the seventh round and drew with Iran's Ghaem Ehsan Maghami in the eighth.

His opponent in the crucial final round was former World junior champion Darmen Sadvakasov of Kazakhstan, and it was a do or die encounter for both as far as the title was concerned. The two young men have been meeting each other across the chessboard since they were kids. "I first played against him in 1993 at the Asian sub-junior championship, which was also held in Doha. I won that game. Since then we played at Kozhikode in the World junior championship in 1998 and at the Indonesian Open in 2000. I lost one of those games and the other was drawn."

So the scores were pretty even between the two when they met in Doha again. It was crucial that the Indian had the white pieces. "I was a bit surprised when he didn't play the Queen's Gambit Accepted, which I had expected. Both of us started to play out of the book and I missed a chance to win an exchange. It was a miscalculation and I should have had the control of the game. I allowed him to get back into the game as he was finally able to bring his pieces forward."

However, an unwise queen move by his rival helped Sasikiran to plot an attack through the kingside and force the decisive win. "I wasn't happy with the way I handled the game, though the result was pleasing enough, especially when you consider the big prize-money as well."

Sasikiran felt that his games against Barua, Al-Modiahki and Zagrebelny were also tough. "I guess I was lucky in those games."

Of course luck alone won't help in a competitive event like the Asian men's championship. And none of his rivals would attribute Sasikiran's success in Doha to good fortune. The fact is that Sasikiran, over the last year or so, has been playing so solidly that he is able to triumph even when he is not at his best.

Al-Modiahki of the host Qatar was in the lead for a brief while but had to be content with the third spot in the end. — Pic. ARVIND AARON-

"He was the most deserving champion in Doha," said Tejas Bakre, one of his teammates. "He was easily the best player."

That was the case purely on the basis of statistics too. He was 78 Elo points ahead of second-seeded Pavel Kotsur of Kazakhstan in rating. Indeed, it wasn't the strongest Asian championship in history. No one from China, the superpower in the region still, took part. "I think they pulled out because of the fear of the war," felt Sasikiran.

Evgeny Vladimirov of Kazakhstan, who also happens to be the chief coach of India, did not play either. "I didn't participate because I didn't know that it was a qualification tournament for the World championship until it was too late," he said.

The promising Neelotpal Das finished in the top 10 and qualified for the next World championship cycle. — Pic. K. BHAGYA PRAKASH-

What the genial player-cum-coach should have known was that the top 10 from Doha would be eligible for the next World championship cycle. Besides Sasikiran, two other Indians also made the grade — veteran Dibyendu Barua and the promising Neelotpal Das, both from Kolkata.

The other qualifiers were Maghami, who won the silver, Modiahki, the bronze medallist who was in the lead for a brief while after the fourth round, Sadvakasov, Utut Adianto of Indonesia, Alexei Barsov of Uzbekistan, Vietnam's Dao Thein Hai and Hameed M. Ali Kadhi of Yemen.

The most disappointing performance from the Indian point of view came from young Surya Shekhar Ganguly, the country's latest GM who had stunned everyone with a brilliant show in the last edition of the championship, held in his hometown of Kolkata a couple of years ago. In what was a remarkably strong field he had won the bronze then. But it was a different story for him in Doha and he finished a poor 11th.

"I had a decent beginning with 2/2 score, but I played badly in the second half of the tournament," said the teenager, the bronze medallist at the recent World junior championship. "More than the result, I'm disappointed by the poor quality of my games."

It was an event to forget for another Indian, GM Abhijit Kunte. He ended up 15th, though he didn't lose a game. "But these days it seems I can't win my matches," he lamented. Tejas Bakre, who finished 17th, said, "My losses to Kotsur and Torre proved costly in the end. If I had half-a-point more, I could've qualified." The other Indians, Praveen Thipsay and S. Kidambi finished 28th and 35th respectively.

The placings: 1. Krishnan Sasikiran (Ind) 7, 2. Ghaem Ehsan Maghami (IRI) 6.5, 3-10. Mohammad Al-Modiahki (Qat), Darmen Sadvakasov (Kaz), Utut Adianto (Ina), Neelotpal Das (Ind), Dibyendu Barua (Ind), Alexei Barsov (Uzb), Dao Thien Hai (Vie) and Hameed M. Ali Kadhi (Yem) 6, 11-18. S.S. Ganguly (Ind), Ziaur Rahman (Ban), Sergey Zagrebelny (Uzb), Shukhrat Safin (Uzb), Abhijit Kunte (Ind), Sergey Kayumov (Uzb), Tejas Bakre (Ind) and Enamul Hossain (Ban) 5.5, 28. Praveen Thipsay (Ind) 4.5, 35. S. Kidambi (Ind) 4.