Short calls for a change

In his own inimitable style, Short raised his voice against the manner in which the Commonwealth championship was being treated and conducted.

RAKESH RAO

Pavel Smirnov (right) in action against Harikrishna. The Russian GM took the overall title. — Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

GORGOAN, a Mumbai suburb, was the venue of the World Social Forum where activists from around the world were discussing the possibility of an `alternative' world. Globalisation and the U.S. President George Bush were the targets of most activists who had come from over 140 countries. Besides `Bush-bashing', another common factor in various discussions and debates was the mistakable call for a change.

Less than five kilometres from the venue of the WSF, British Grandmaster and former World number three, Nigel Short, too, was talking about a `change' even before the Commonwealth chess championship could get under way.

One of the better-known names in chess from the Western world, Short did not call for a new world for chess. In his own inimitable style, Short raised his voice against the manner in which the Commonwealth championship was being treated and conducted. He suggested several changes to make it a better event, than what it has remained in over the last two decades.

Nigel Short and Koneru Humpy won the men's and women's golds respectively.-

Without doubt, Short impacted the status and stature of the Commonwealth championship in a big way. Short, enjoying his best ever rating of 2702 after winning three major titles last year, went on to claim his maiden Commonwealth crown but not before going through several anxious moments. Eventually, more than spectacular chess, what helped Short win the title was his ability to strike when needed. After draws with Abhijeet Gupta and Varugeese Koshy in the second and third rounds, respectively, Short raced away to a tally of 7.5 points from nine rounds. With it, Short also became the strongest player ever to hold the Commonwealth title.

Russian GM Pavel Smirnov, seeded three, took the overall title after matching Short's tally. Since Smirnov enjoyed a better progressive score than Short, he was given the "International Open" title.

The changes Short advocated touched almost every aspect from the format, schedule, timing, and eligibility of the participants to the ambiance of the playing arena. In the Players' Meeting, before the commencement of the first round, Short voiced his concerns and duly made the organisers agree to his suggestions. Later, Short noted with surprise that he was the only one doing the talking in the meeting.

He did not spare the chief arbiter, Stewart Reuben, for being so "ineffective," in the championship. Despite his long association with Reuben, Short did not mince any words in pointing out the short-comings in the logistics. Whether it was the delay of over an hour in starting the first round, the placements of the top tables, the crowd management or the frequent ringing of mobile phones inside the playing hall, Short called for better control from a man like the vastly experienced Reuben.

The stand taken by Short won him more Indian friends than he could imagine. "What should have been done by our top players, Short did in at the first available opportunity," came the remark from a player soon after the Players' meeting. Almost everyone who heard it, agreed readily. Soon, an impromptu letter of appreciation from one of the players reached Short.

Marat Dzhumaev (left) waits for Parimarjan Negi, the youngest participant of the meet, to make his move. -- Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

Once the action commenced, with 62 titled players including 17 Grandmasters, 28 International Masters, three Woman Grandmasters and seven Woman International Masters in the field of 152, the leading Indian names failed to shine.

The after-effects of a 23-round National championship had obviously taken its toll on the young brigade headed by champion Surya Shekhar Ganguly. K. Sasikiran, the strongest Indian player after Viswanathan Anand, however, was a bigger disappointment. Exempted from playing the National championship, Sasikiran was expected to justify his second seeding but an early defeat to Pravin Thipsay and a few draws with fellow-Indians never allowed him to have a crack at the title.

On the brighter side, Thipsay remained in the lead with Smirnov and Short but a last round defeat to the former forced him to settle for bronze. After a long time, Thipsay produced the kind of form associated with his prime days. The 1985 champion, not only defeated Sasikiran, but also towered over Sandipan Chanda before holding Short. The 16th seeded former National champion showed that he still had a plenty of chess left in him.

Lanka Ravi was the other veteran who raised visions of winning a medal but the final-round loss to Ukraine GM Marat Dzhumaev spoilt his chances. Dzhumaev took the third spot in the overall placings.

While the younger players struggled on the leading boards, Bangladesh's veteran GM Niaz Murshed won the last four rounds to snatch the silver from nowhere.

Thipsay pointed to the decision to hold one round a day and that too, in the afternoon, as the crucial one for his good showing. "I guess, the older players are not at their best when two matches are played in a day. Personally, I favour a round in the afternoon. Such a schedule has surely helped players like me, Sharad Tilak and Lanka Ravi."

Meanwhile, there was no competition for the host in the race for the women's or the age-group titles. In such a scenario, far more significant were the efforts of the norm-makers.

S. Meenakshi and Dronavalli Harika joined the country's Woman GM club. Meenakshi also gained her third International Master norm while Harika missed it by a whisker. Saptarshi Roy Chowdhury and M. R. Venkatesh became IMs. Abhijeet Gupta and R. R. Laxman gained their second IM norms while K. Ratnakaran got his first. Vishal Sareen performed well enough to add another IM norm to raise his tally to five. For a long time now, Sareen has been chasing the rating of 2400. Going by Sareen's current form, that has helped him reach his best ever rating of 2371, the target looks well within his reach.

It must be said that the reduction of rounds, from 11 to nine, did bring down the chances of more players getting their norms.

Sandipan Chanda (left) batting it out with Pravin Thipsay. — Pic. SHASHI ASHIWAL-

For the women's title, Koneru Humpy edged out last year's holder S. Vijayalakshmi on progressive score after the players tallied six points each. Meenakshi came third.

The all-India affair for the age-group medals did not carry any great competitive interests.

At the same time, not much should be read into the performances of most of these medal winners, more so in the lower age-groups for both boys and girls. What has marred the sanctity of these medals is the blatant point-trading (equivalent of match-fixing in other disciplines) involved on the lower boards. It is learnt, through players and arbiters, that some resourceful parents and coaches of these youngsters offer a tidy sum to the rivals of these players to `throw' the match. On the other hand, there are players who approach such parents or coaches with an offer. After all, the medal winners can hope to get thousands of rupees as "cash incentive" from the Union Government. These clandestine deals in chess are nothing new. But the time has come for the All India Chess Federation to crack the whip. A stern warning to all its registered players should be in place. A ban for two years for the first offence and a life-ban for the second, for both the parties involved in point throwing, should serve as a deterrent. Time has surely come to cleanse Indian chess. This time, the work should start from the lower-most rung and go upwards.