Sasikiran proves his worth

RAKESH RAO

A SEDATE start, a hiccup in the middle and a strong finish. That was how K. Sasikiran went about his campaign to regain the National 'A' chess title. Understandably, the 21-year-old was mighty pleased to emerge the champion from the strongest ever field in the championship. It is a different matter that, at the end of it, he may not have been left with any finger-nails to chew.

The top three prize-winners in the men's National 'A' championship. From right: K. Sasikiran (winner), P. Harikrishna (runner-up) and Surya Sekhar Ganguly (third place).-R. V. MURTHY

For the first time in 39 years, five Grandmasters, a Woman GM, nine International Masters and a Woman IM figured in the championship, a category VIII competition, with an average rating of 2426. Indeed, it was a National championship with a difference.

Champion in 1999, Sasikiran proved his worth at Nagpur's Vidarbha Bridge Association hall. Though the top seed was not a clear favourite for the title, his consistency, coupled with a few unexpected results in the matches involving runner-up P. Hari Krishna and dethroned champion Dibyendu Barua, brought him the honours.

A winning tally of 14.5 points from 19 rounds was a stupendous effort from Sasikiran. In fact, he exceeded his score expectancy by one point. It was also a fitting reward for the man who has been an epitome of consistency in the championship, having finished second best for the past two years.

Hari, who headed the table for most part of the competition, fell back following the penultimate-round defeat at the hands of comeback-man R. B. Ramesh and eventually finished at 14 points.

A point behind was Surya Sekhar Ganguly who overtook Barua after a fortuitous victory in the penultimate round and stayed ahead with 13 points. He also made his second 11-game GM-norm which awaits clearance from the AICF. Barua came next with 12.5 points, comfortably ahead of Abhijit Kunte.

By sheer coincidence, Sasikiran's triumph completed a rare occurrence of three players regaining the title after two years, in succession. Kunte, Barua and Sasikiran held the National title from 1997 to 1999. In the following three years, too, they emerged champions in the same order.

The championship in the Olympiad year carries a special meaning for all contenders and this time, too, it was no different. Interestingly, the top six seeds managed to fill the top six slots, though not in that order. In case Viswanathan Anand chooses to stay away from the Olympiad, then the sixth-placed Ramesh will make it to the Indian team.

This year's title-race was far less engrossing than the one witnessed between Barua and Sasikiran last year. Both Sasikiran and Hari had 11 victories to show. But the decisive difference came in the crucial 18th round where Hari lost to Ramesh while Sasikiran drew with P. Magesh Chandran. Otherwise, there was very little to choose between the two contenders.

Sasikiran, whose only loss was the result of an early piece-blunder against Thipsay, regained his confidence with a fighting victory over Kunte in the 10th round. Thereafter, Sasikiran seldom put a foot wrong.

On the other hand, Hari devastated many rivals and showed that he was well prepared for much bigger battles ahead. Notwithstanding the escape against Swati and the listless defeat to Ramesh, Hari remained the most impressive performer of the championship. Going by the way this 15-year-old is shaping up, it is only a matter of time before he joins the list of National champions and goes far beyond.

Ganguly followed Barua for the best part of the championship before their 18th-round battle changed it all. Barua overlooked a checkmating combination in time-pressure and did not get another opportunity to overtake his younger rival from Kolkata.

The qualitative improvement in Ganguly's game could not be missed. It is just that this teenager is facing certain understandable distractions which are making it hard for him to keep his focus on the game.

Ganguly needs to take a leaf out of Barua's books when it comes to motivation. Despite changing times and styles, Barua has overcome all the odds to remain among the front-runners. He once again showed that he was not much bothered by time-control, something which cannot be said of his old friend Thipsay.

However, the absence of digital clocks had its bearings on several results. It is time the AICF came forward to spare the digital clocks for those hosting the premier championship.

Among the other performers, V. Saravanan and Sriram Jha looked poised to break into the 'top-six' but faltered when it mattered. Finally, they had to remain content by retaining their places for the next edition of the championship.

After scoring just one point from four rounds, Saravanan collected eight from the next 11. However, he again managed just one from the remaining four rounds and settled for the eighth spot. On the other hand, Jha lost his way after scoring five wins and a draw from the first seven rounds. In fact, barring a draw with Kunte, Jha lost all his matches against those in the top-six bracket. The reigning National 'B' champion will have to show a lot of character if he has to make it big.

Three former champions - Pravin Thipsay, D. V. Prasad and P. Konguvel - paid the price for their inconsistent play in varying degrees.

Thipsay, the seven-time champion, could not do enough to recover from five defeats. Still, three wins and two draws from the last five matches saw him salvage some pride and finish seventh.

Twice-holder Prasad struggled like never before. It took Prasad 13 rounds to taste victory after suffering three losses on the way. Though he had victories to show against Neeraj Kumar Mishra, V. Saravanan and Swati Ghate, he suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of last-man and first-timer B. T. Muralikrishnan and this should rankle him for a long, long time.

Initially, there were murmurs from the fellow-players disapproving of the manner in which the rules were interpreted to include Prasad in the field as the 'fourth' non-GM qualifier from the previous National championship (after Hari became a Grandmaster). But the complaints vanished as Prasad's poor display contributed to the tally of as many as 16 players.

Konguvel, who made his GM-norm in the last edition besides the top-six bracket, hit the headlines by beating Barua. But just one victory in 19 days was surely not in keeping with his capabilities.

Chandrashekhar Gokhale became the country's 29th International Master after completing his title-norm. However, he blew away his chances of making the Indian squad by gaining just three draws from the last seven rounds.

For Swati Ghate and S. Vijayalakshmi, it was a learning experience. After making their historic appearance in the men's championship, the two ladies not only had their share of losses but also their moments.

Vijayalakshmi, who opened her account with a fifth-round draw against Prasad, went on to beat Thipsay, Konguvel, Kunte, Muralikrishnan, Swati and P. Magesh Chandran. Vijayalakshmi's tally of eight points fell one short of the score expected from her. One can surely expect a better display from her in future. Swati, despite losing 10 matches in all, should have won against Hari in the 10th round. She overlooked a winning continuation and settled for a draw. Swati, however, twice hit the headlines for wrong reasons. She paid dearly for her one emotionally weak moment when facing her good friend Ganguly. Swati 'gained' the point from Ganguly but, three days later, was left embarrassed as the Chief Arbiter nullified the result of the match in question. It was indeed sad that some of Swati's fighting performances were overshadowed by her ill-timed display of emotions.

Among the experienced names, only N. Sudhakar Babu and Vishal Sareen had reasons to be somewhat satisfied but Varugeese Koshy, Neeraj Kumar Mishra and, of course, Prasad struggled all the way.

The ninth-seeded Magesh, a debutant, gave a fair account of himself. Ramesh was one of his five victims. Magesh also managed to hold Sasikiran, Thipsay and Konguvel. Irrespective of the fact that he could not justify his rating, one is sure to hear more of this reigning National junior champion in times to come.

Though Muralikrishnan did not have many reasons to smile, this Railwayman was one player who never stopped smiling. Even when he drew a winning game or lost from a drawn position, Muralikrishnan's happy-go-lucky approach came as a breath of fresh air. He performed within his known limitations but displayed unmatched spirit.

Match-fixing raises its ugly head

SWATI GHATE came to Nagpur for the men's National 'A' chess championship with the enviable tag of being the first woman ever to qualify for the premier championship. In fact, she turned 22 on the eve of the 19-round competition and looked ahead to maturing as a player over the following three weeks.

However, Swati was destined to return home disgraced. Notwithstanding some truly encouraging results, Swati became the first player to be penalised a point for being the beneficiary of "point-throwing." Though the 39-year-old history of the championship is replete with incidents of "fixed" results, the one involving Swati and her teenaged training-partner Surya Sekhar Ganguly was the first of its kind.

Before going into the details of this controversial 12th-round match, it is important to note the significance of the result. The previous day Ganguly had made a Category VIII, 11-round GM-norm but faced a minor technical hitch. A victory over Swati would have helped Ganguly gain a 12-game norm without having to worry about any technicalities. At the same time, Swati was on course for a WGM-norm.

It was in this background that the two friends met across the table. As it turned out, Swati looked better placed until the 'final' move. Suddenly, in what was apparently a case of the heart ruling the mind, Swati placed her queen on a strategic square thereby allowing Ganguly to give a knight-check and grab the queen. At this stage, Ganguly sensed that Swati was playing her part in helping him earn a GM-norm. In an emotional moment, he resigned and left the playing arena leaving Swati in a shock. Even as a shattered Ganguly shed tears outside the championship premises, a dazed Swati left the hall looking every inch a loser.

Usually, on any given day, one can make out the result of Swati's match by the look on her face. But for once, it was different.

Emotions apart, what had actually happened on the board was that Swati wanted to help Ganguly's cause and softly "threw" the point at him. However, Ganguly, whose "conscience did not allow to accept a gifted point" threw the point right back.

Showing a certain degree of compassion, the arbiters, headed by Mr. T. N. Bahadure, chose to ignore the last queen-move made by Swati while preparing the daily bulletin of the games played. However, the arbiters, quick to consult the All India Chess Federation on every small issue, or even non-issue, did not find it necessary to apprise it of the episode.

However, the report in The Hindu made the AICF take note of the incident. Mr. Bahadure was asked to take action after consulting the senior players. Even the possible expulsion of Swati and Ganguly, was not ruled out. Eventually, at the completion of the 15th round, it was formally announced that Swati's tally stood reduced by one. Not just that, the confirmation of Ganguly's norm was kept pending by the AICF while the nullified result meant loss of WGM-norm for Swati.

Afterwards, it was understandable that the players did not discuss the issue on record. But shockingly, there were players who felt that the truth behind the Swati-Ganguly match should not have been reported. "Point-throwing cannot be stopped. There are several ways of throwing away a match and it can never be proved. In this case, too, only if Swati and Ganguly had decided beforehand, no one would have known. They both paid the price for being emotional. After all, they are still very young," said a senior player.

One section of the players felt that Swati and Ganguly should have been let off with a warning as they were "first-time offenders."

Some senior players revealed that during the 1970s and the 1980s, which were described as the "days of the gang-war," point-throwing was far more rampant. "Groupism, or call it regionalism, was very much prevalent. Depending on the situation, players belonging to the same State or region fixed the results of the matches in which they were involved. This often reflected in the composition of the National team. This went on for years and the AICF remained indifferent. Even this time, the action was initiated because it was reported in a newspaper. Otherwise, no one would have bothered."

Many players felt that point-throwing in chess cannot be stopped. "There are any number of ways that a point can be thrown. How are you going to catch the culprit? If agreed draws are acceptable, then why not accept the fact that a player willingly gives a point to another player, whatever be the consideration?" said a seasoned player while all others present agreed.

One other player was far more vehement. "Point-throwing is here to stay. No matter what others say, most of the players here have either received or given points, one time or the other. Whether it is in the National championship or in any prize-money tournament, agreed results cannot be done away with."

It is indeed very unfortunate that there was no outright condemnation of the act of point-throwing even from the more illustrious names in Indian chess. It is sad to discover that for these players, convenience comes before conscience.