Swati dwarfs Sriram's feat

Published : Jul 28, 2001 00:00 IST


A HISTORIC chapter in the annals of Indian chess. That is how the 39th National 'B' chess championship will be remembered.

Usually, whenever history is made, the winner has a lot to do with it. But at Nagpur's G. H. Raisoni College of Engineering Library hall, Swati Ghate's feat of becoming the first woman to qualify for the men's National 'A' championship was clearly more significant than Sriram Jha winning the title.

Swati, seeded 40, not only upstaged many higher-ranked players but also remained unbeaten to finish runner-up. That apart, this 21-year-old from Pune won her own little battle against WGM S. Vijayalakshmi in the qualification-race.

A couple of hours after Swati stepped into record books, Vijayalakshmi followed the footprints of the frail girl on a wet July afternoon. Vijayalakshmi matched Swati's tally of 9.5 points but inferior progressive score gave the five-time National woman champion the ninth spot.

Ironic as it may sound, though the National 'B' championship is considered the toughest competition in the country, the winner does not get the due he or she deserves. What assumes significance is the list of 12 qualifiers for the next National 'A' championship. Therefore, no one really cares as long as one makes the top-12 bracket.

Here, too, once Jha gained a half-point lead following his 10th round victory over M. R. Venkatesh, none of the other contenders really bothered to catch up with him. In fact, six of the first seven finishers, including the top four, signed off their campaigns with friendly draws.

This competition, the first leg of the two-tier National championship with a field of 264 players including 161 rated, was expected to throw up several less-fancied names and so it happened.

Even as the 10th seed Jha beat the odds to claim the honour, a glittering trophy and a cash award of Rs. 20,650, only five of those seeded to qualify actually managed it. Favourite R. B. Ramesh, V. Saravanan, Vijayalakshmi, Dinesh Sharma - seeded one, four, five and 12 respectively - were the exceptions.

Those who failed to justify their seedings were GM-elect G. B. Prakash, Sandipan Chanda, Neelotpal Das, S. Kidambi, Atanu Lahiri, S. Satyapragyan and T. S. Ravi - ranked second, third, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and 11th, in that order.

Out of the nine players who tried to retain their places in the National 'A', only Jha and Saravanan succeeded. Lanka Ravi, Sekhar Sahu, Lahiri, Saptarshi Roy, Prakash, Neelotpal Das and Nassir Wajih missed qualification.

Apart from 'first-timers' Swati, P. Magesh Chandran, Vijayalakshmi and B. T. Murali Krishnan, the list of those who regained their berths comprises C. S. Gokhale, Vishal Sareen, Dinesh Sharma, Ramesh, Varugeese Koshy and N. Sudhakar Babu.

For the first time since the introduction of the 13-round format, players with less than 9.5 points qualified. On the final day, had all the seven boards involving players with 8.5 points ended with outright verdicts, then one of the players with 9.5 points would have missed qualification. But four of these matches ended in draws and allowed three players - Murali Krishnan, Koshy and Babu - to qualify.

Jha arrived in Nagpur looking to redeem himself after his dismal show in the National 'A' championship in New Delhi. He needed a good start to regain his confidence. And once the 25-year-old from Delhi found it, there was no looking back.

Jha won four rounds and went on to add three more wins by the end of the ninth round. Of his six draws, five came against those who eventually qualified. Jha displayed a sound approach and never really looked in any great danger of losing. Since the higher seeds were far from consistent, the only higher-rated player Jha faced in the competition was Ramesh in the ninth round, and that match, too, ended in a friendly draw. Thereafter, the only match where Jha worked his way to a victory was against Venkatesh.

Since Jha was not required to come up with a strong finish, he chose to stroll to the title by agreeing to quick draws with Swati, N. Sanjay and Dinesh Sharma and rightfully claimed the honour.

Meanwhile, Swati proved the surprise of the championship. After winning three rounds against lesser-rated rivals, this diminutive 21-year-old tackled some tough opponents with a series of unexpected results. Swati's back-to-back victories over International Master Lanka Ravi and double GM-norm holder Sandipan Chanda, that too, in the space of a few hours, really put her firmly on the qualification course.

If Swati was lucky to win against Lanka Ravi, her sound planning and accurate continuation resulted in a victory against Chanda. Too keen to force a victory, Chanda declined a draw-offer from Swati but soon found himself precariously placed. This time it was Swati's turn to say 'no' to Chanda's offer to sign the peace treaty. The manner in which Swati executed her winning plan was a fair indication of her abilities. Thereafter, friendly draws helped her cover the remaining distance.

The progress of the third-placed Chandran, too, was well planned. This reigning National junior champion from Chennai won his first four matches, lost to Chanda and drew with budding talent G. Rohit before winning three in a row and drawing the last four. Seeded 26th, Chandran notched creditable victories over S. Kidambi and N. Sanjay before drawing the crucial 11th round game with G. B. Prakash.

Gokhale, barring his loss to Venkatesh in the sixth round, was consistent right through. The timely victory over Neelotpal Das in the 11th round virtually cleared his way. Earlier, draws with Jha, Saravanan and Satyapragyan had allowed him to stay afloat. Friendly draws with Chandran and Swati in the last two rounds were enough for Gokhale.

Among the qualifiers, one player who never gave the impression of trying too hard was Vishal Sareen. In the chess circles, Sareen's love for sweetened chewing-tobacco is well known. But the ease with which he sweetly chewed up the opposition came as a bit of a surprise. The sequence of Sareen winning with white pieces and drawing with black was broken only in the 11th round when he drew with Babu.

Having played solidly through the championship, Sareen needed a victory over Lanka Ravi in the final round but he was looking forward to a draw to retain his seeding for the next National 'B'. But Lanka Ravi, playing white, tried too hard and lost to give the 19th-seeded Sareen his fourth opportunity to play National 'A'.

Dinesh Sharma, who shared a room with Sareen and Jha, also remained unbeaten on his way to qualification. Though the 12th seed was not required to face a single higher ranked player until the final round, Dinesh made it quietly by adopting safety-first methods. He did appear in dire straits in the penultimate round against Vikramaditya Kamble. But Kamble committed a blunder in time-trouble and got checkmated. This result left Dinesh with the formality of drawing the final round with Jha to qualify.

Amazingly, the LIC-trio of Jha, Sareen and Dinesh, along with Swati, set a record of sorts in the championship - four unbeaten qualifiers from the same institution and that too, with an identical tally of 9.5 points.

The other three qualifiers who followed with 9.5 points were Ramesh, Saravanan and Vijayalakshmi. Ramesh, the top-seed for the third successive edition, managed to qualify this time by overcoming a poor start. After drawing with the two-time former National Junior champion Pramod Kumar Singh in the second round, Ramesh lost to youngster Deep Sengupta in the third. But thereafter, Ramesh did not put a foot wrong and made the grade with a fair degree of comfort.

Saravanan and Vijayalakshmi had to overcome several anxious moments. Saravanan, who received a drubbing in the National 'A' in Delhi, began with a draw and was never among the front-runners. After five points from six rounds, Saravanan's only loss came against the 17th seeded Sanjay in the seventh round. After four victories and as many draws in nine rounds, Saravanan eventually produced the kind of form he needed to qualify. He scored 3.5 points from the last four rounds, including victories in the last two, to gain a face-saving qualification.

On the other hand, Vijayalakshmi's comeback should go down as one of the best seen in the championship. Defeats against N. Neelakanthan, Surender Sharma and unrated Harika Dronavalli had left the WGM buried under the debris of expectations. But known for her fighting qualities, Vijayalakshmi picked up the pieces and went on to notch 7.5 points from the remaining eight rounds. It was a commendable performance in the championship of this kind, though she did not face any of the other qualifiers.

B. T. Murali Krishnan was a surprise packet in the top-12 bracket. The Railwayman had a great start before losing his way a little. Due to a very handy progressive count, he finished 10th and led the pack of 15 players with nine points each.

Koshy was a relieved man after ensuring his return to the National 'A'. The Chennai-based 42-year-old from Oil and Natural Gas Corporation first played the championship in 1978 and, since then, has been in and out of it. The bearded player, who also coaches P. Harikrishna, looked well on course until he lost to M. R. Venkatesh in the ninth round. He drew the next two rounds before beating young Rohan Shandilya in the penultimate round. After drawing with Prakash, Koshy had to wait for some of the other results before heaving a sigh of relief.

Babu, the two-time former champion, too, qualified after spending several anxious moments. This genial player from Indian Bank had to bank on his experience to keep alive his chances following the loss to Ramesh in the eighth round. But two straight victories and three draws proved enough for Babu to occupy the final qualifying berth.

The player finishing 13th is considered unlucky for the obvious reason but in the case of N. Sanjay, it was even more so. This 26-year-old from Mysore had staged a fine comeback by winning six matches in a row after losing the opening round. Later, he went into the final round with 2.5 points from the previous three rounds. But this was where he ran out of luck.

The final round paired him with Vijayalakshmi under debatable circumstances. He rightly protested that the computer pairing was not fair since he was not the lowest seed in the score-group of nine points and he could not be 'floated' to face Vijayalakshmi with 8.5 points. However, despite deliberations that went into the early hours of the final day and the meeting of the Appeals Committee, there was no respite for a sleepless Sanjay. The pairings were upheld and an ill-prepared Sanjay, with black pieces for the second successive round, was made to play Vijayalakshmi who needed nothing less than a victory to qualify. Sanjay went on to lose and took the 13th spot trailing Babu by half a point on progressive count.

The biggest disappointment of the championship was Prakash, followed closely by Chanda. After his none-too-impressive showing in the National 'A', Prakash was expected to prove a point or two in this championship. But he seemed content on remaining unbeaten. That, for sure, did not help his cause. Five wins, eight draws and an inadequate progressive score gave Prakash the 14th place.

Chanda, who led the field with Murali Krishnan in the first-half of the championship, lost his way dramatically. The defeats against Swati, surprise-packet Prathamesh Mokal and Pramod Kumar Singh, spread over the last five rounds, saw him end up with eight points and dashed his hopes of a creditable finish.

The ninth-seeded Satyapragyan, who took the 15th spot, remained unbeaten, but fell short of qualifying. The seventh seeded S. Kidambi, despite seven wins, missed qualification by half-a-point.

The two surprises in the list of nine-pointers were Pramod Kumar Singh and Kiran Panditrao, seeded 68 and 75. Pramod, who failed to make the most of a promising position against Ramesh in the second round, dashed the hopes of Chanda with a final-round victory. It was indeed a fine finish for the former National 'A' player and now a Patna-based businessman, who played as a donor-entry.

Panditrao, after losing the second round to Dinesh, gradually brightened his chances of qualification by three straight victories to end the ninth round. But draws in the remaining rounds, including the last one with T. S. Ravi, did not help his cause.

On the organisational front, the championship was a success. For once, Raisoni Foundation, the lone sponsor, took care of the event. The hall was just big enough to accommodate 132 boards.

Though the venue was outside the city limits, buses were organised to transport the players. Overall, there was more vocal appreciation for the organisers than murmurs of discomfort.

The final standings (with points, progressive scores and prize-money):

1. Sriram Jha (10, 77, Rs. 20,650); 2. Swati Ghate (9.5, 73, 14,520); 3. P. Magesh Chandran (9.5, 73, 12,000); 4. C. S. Gokhale (9.5, 72, 9,600); 5. Vishal Sareen (9.5, 68.5, 7,100); 6. Dinesh Kumar Sharma (9.5, 68.5, 5,100); 7. R. B. Ramesh (9.5, 68, 3,660); 8. V. Saravanan (9.5, 65.5, 2,650); 9. S. Vijayalakshmi (9.5, 58.5, 1,750); 10. B. T. Murali Krishnan (9, 70, 1300); 11. Varugeese Koshy (9, 69.5, 800); 12. N. Sudhakar Babu (9, 68.5, 800).

He has faith in his abilities

IT was easy to spot Sriram Jha during the National 'B' chess championship by the colour of the T-shirt he chose to wear. The champion trusted the colour of saffron to work wonders for him, round after round. And it did.

With every passing round, this 'superstition' stood further reinforced but Jha was not complaining. This young man from Delhi not only remained unconquered but also romped home almost unchallenged.

Beginning from the second round to the point when he was virtually sure of walking away with honour, Jha displayed unshakeable faith in the magical powers of saffron. Whether intended or not, this man of few words made a silent statement which proved eloquent.

Needless to add, Jha's success was due to faith in his own abilities. He kept his focus and did the needful. Fiercely determined to make amends for his lacklustre and some luckless performances in the National 'A' at home, Jha came up with a timely show to claim the biggest title of his career.

Considering the indifference with which chess is run in the capital and keeping in mind the lack of opportunities for talented players, Jha has done incredibly well in the past decade.

Jha announced his arrival by claiming the National sub-junior title in 1992. He went on to claim the National under-18 crown in 1994, the National rapid championship and finished joint-second in the Commonwealth championship, both in 1996. Another runner-up reward came Jha's way in the National under-25 in 1997. Now, by winning the National 'B' title at Nagpur, Jha gave himself a gift just nine days before turning 25.

"First I wanted to ensure qualification for the National 'A' before making a bid for the title," Jha said, soon after the 11th round. By this time, it was more or less certain that he was going to be the new champion. "After what happened in the National 'A', I needed to do well here. I am glad it went as planned," he said after qualifying for the National 'A' for the fourth time.

Jha, who received scholarship from Indian Airlines from 1993 until 1996 when he decided to join Life Insurance Corporation, is presently working as a Higher Grade Assistant (HGA).

Looking back, Jha remembers the sacrifices made by his father, Ramanand Jha, who gave up his job as a conductor in Delhi Transport Corporation to support him. Ramanand was a fairly decent chess player himself. In fact, it was due to his father's efforts that veteran player, Nasir Ali, offered to coach young Sriram.

"I had the fortune of learning the finer points of positional chess from Nasir uncle during his stay in Delhi until 1995-96. Every Sunday he came to our home around 10 a.m. and played until 9 p.m. He needed to be reminded that his last bus departed at 9.15 p.m. So involved was Nasir uncle," recalls Jha with pride and an unmistakable sense of gratitude for the veteran.

Having strengthened his positional base, Jha managed to do reasonably well but what prevented him from doing better was his lack of theoretical knowledge. "My opening preparations were not methodical and I realised that I needed to work much harder in this area," says Jha.

Besides the increasing number of chess books in his fast-growing library at home, what helped Jha's cause was the use of a computer. Jha, still needing to complete the norm-requirements for becoming an International Master, is concentrating mainly on improving his rating. His best rating of 2412 came in the January list this year. But as per the latest list, he stands at 2399.

The year so far has been a mixed one for Jha. He won the NIIT rating tournament in New Delhi but the disastrous performance in the National 'A' more than undid all the good work. And now the National 'B' promises to give him around 25 rating points.

Jha is well aware of what he needs to do to improve his performance. And one of the biggest challenges for him is to learn to take defeats in his stride. "I can't digest losses," is Jha's categorical admission.

During the recent National 'A', where Jha did not have many pleasant moments, he repeatedly left the playing hall in a huff. He knows only too well that one bad game invariably had its impact on the following game too. "I have to get stronger psychologically. Perhaps, meditation and physical exercises should help in improving the level of concentration," says Jha.

He is working on openings and gaining an understanding as far as the middle-game positions are concerned. Presently, he is greatly influenced by the simplicity with which Vladimir Kramnik has been winning his matches.

"Anand has shown the knack of complicating matters and then coming up with a brilliant winning-plan. But Kramnik has demonstrated that you can win even by playing simple and uncomplicated chess," observed Jha.

Taking a hard look at his own game, Jha, who is comfortable playing the new four-hour format, says, "I need to develop my chess skills by studying a lot of end-game positions. My tactical vision is okay, still, solving chess problems should help. I have to spend more time during the opening phase of the match."

Aware of the constraints ahead, Jha is aiming at the obvious - the Grandmaster title. He plans to fund his overseas trips with the prize-money that he earns. What Jha needs is a friendly sponsor who trusts his capabilities to graduate to the bigger league, sooner than later.

"One must carry on and should not lose heart," is Jha's motto in life. He, for sure, thinks right.

'I have a long way to go'

ONE universal truth is that no one likes to lose, or to be known as a 'bad' loser. Still, handling defeats and failures does not come easily to every one. Some sulk. Some choose to remain silent. Some prefer to be left alone. A few others let out the disappointment by shedding more than a tear or two.

S. Vijayalakshmi congratulates Swati Ghate at the end of the championship. Swati and, a couple of hours later, Viji, became the first and the second women players ever to qualify for the men's National 'A' tourney.

For long, Swati Ghate has remained in the last mentioned category. Even today, a defeat makes this 21-year-old Woman International Master weep. For years, she failed to hold back the tears in the playing hall itself. But in her own admission, things are getting better. Now she finds privacy to cry silently. But that is not to say that Swati is a perennial cry-baby.

At the recent National 'B' championship at Nagpur, it was Swati's turn to leave many higher-rated men close to tears. Ask Lanka Ravi and Sandipan Chanda who were at the receiving end of Swati's swats. But then, the duo needed no reminding that 'big boys don't cry.'

"I used to shed more tears earlier than I do now," said Swati, who was busy collecting reasons to smile at Nagpur.

After all, Swati gained the rare honour of being the first woman to qualify for the men's National 'A' championship. What more, she was the runner-up and remained undefeated with an impressive tally of 9.5 points from 13 rounds. Last year, Swati had come close to qualifying but missed it by one point.

"I am quite pleased with my performance here (at Nagpur). Though I was lucky to win against Lanka Ravi this time, I was happy with my game against Sandipan Chanda. I made no obvious mistakes and played solidly. Once I qualified, the feeling was that of relief. But obviously, I am very pleased."

What about the feeling on setting a rare record? "This is perhaps the first record that I've set and it is very special," said Swati soon after entering the record books.

It could not be confirmed whether Swati actually made an International Master's norm during the National 'B' championship. But in Swati's words, "even if I had made it, I am not sure whether it'll be recognised since only one norm can be made in a National championship. P. Konguvel made his GM norm in New Delhi so I don't think any other norm is available." Since Konguvel's norm came in the championship meant for the season 2000-2001, Swati's effort merited consideration as this National 'B' was for the season 2001-2002.

Swati has been among the strong woman players in the country. But none expected her to outperform so many leading names, including WGM S. Vijayalakshmi, who later made the list of 12 qualifiers with a strong finish and took the ninth spot.

Swati has been playing the game for the past 10 years after being coached by octogenarian Bhausaheb Padsalgikar at Sangli's Nutan Budhibal Mandal. She hit the headlines in her very first National under-16 championship at Vijayawada, in 1991, by stunning former winner Shaileja of Andhra Pradesh.

"I liked the attention I got from the media but also felt a bit awkward. After all, I was just 11 then," recalls Swati, who is now far more comfortable with the quizzing mediapersons.

Success followed with time as Swati went on to win the National under-12, under-16 titles besides twice claiming the National under-18 title. Swati was the National junior (under-19) champion in 1996 at Kozhikode and she returned to this Kerala city to claim her first women's National 'B' title earlier this year. In between, she claimed the bronze in the Asian girls' championship in Mumbai last year.

Swati owes a great deal to veteran International Master Arun Vaidya who played a big role in shaping her career during the 1997-98 season.

In the National 'A', Swati has regularly found a place in the top-five since 1997. Twice runner-up, in 1997 and 1999, Swati finished third in June in New Delhi. She narrowly missed being part of the four-member Indian team last year by finishing fifth. It was a praiseworthy performance considering that she had to be hospitalised for a day.

She made her first two WIM-norms in the 1997 and 1998 National championships before completing the title at the end of the 10th round of the World junior championship at Kozhikode late in 1998.

Swati, despite her resilience and steady success, was somewhat disenchanted with chess for a couple of years ending around the middle of 1999.

"I was not getting to play in many open tournaments and I was losing interest. But gradually, I began concentrating more on the game. Some good results saw me reach my best rating of 2297 in the January rating list of 2000. But I know I have a long way to go," says Swati.

Working as a Higher Grade Assistant with Life Insurance Corporation of India, Swati has recently taken her B.A. English (literature) exam from S. P. College in Pune. Though Swati still contemplates pursuing the Civil Services, she is keen to raise funds to play a few overseas tournaments in search of WGM norms.

Unlike many big names in Indian chess, Swati is still to possess a computer to help her preparations. "I still carry a few books and bits of paper when I play tournaments," says Swati. But she knows unless she manages to buy a lap-top and the much-needed chessbase, making huge strides is going to be very difficult.

So far, Swati's progress is largely marked by her instinctive play. But she lacks practice-partners to try out some new variations. "It is very important to practise with stronger players. One cannot try out new variations straightaway in tournaments," observes Swati.

Strong basics and awareness of classical games has helped Swati manage the middle-games well. But she admits lack of concentration after getting good positions. "I think, on many occasions, I have not made the most of the good positions on the board. I need to work harder on my mental toughness and concentrate more on my endgames."

One of the biggest problems Swati faces today is her frequent fluctuations in the level of confidence. On the brighter side, intuition and calculation are her assets. But to graduate from being a good player to a great player, one has to put in plenty of hard work.

Swati knows that. One only hopes that the recent success will spur Swati to go for more.

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