The crown prince is right on track

WHEN you are the India number three, with names such as Viswanathan Anand and K. Sasikiran in front of you, you come under a lot of pressure.

STAN RAYAN

P. Harikrishna... justifying his talent. — Pic. MAHESH HARILAL-

WHEN you are the India number three, with names such as Viswanathan Anand and K. Sasikiran in front of you, you come under a lot of pressure. Your curriculum vitae frequently comes under the scanner, especially since the country is very often in the world chess limelight these days.

Despite being just 18, Pendyala Harikrishna has been living in such a boiler-like situation for quite some time now. The last two years have not exactly been worth talking about and his performance at the recent Calvia Olympiad, where he played below his rating, just added to the strain.

Under the situation, one could understand his hunger at the World Juniors in Kochi.

Well, even the World Juniors have not been very kind to him in the last few years. He had come very close to a medal in four previous attempts, beginning in 1998. But each time, the Hyderabad wonder boy would mess it all up in the last couple of rounds.

So, when he landed in Kochi with a lean and hungry look, one sensed his time had come.

The gold at the World Juniors, which follows his under-10 World title won eight years ago, is ample proof that Harikrishna is the crown prince of Indian chess. He is right on track, on the highway to glory.

But he had to slog for the crown. And even in Kochi, he had the ghosts of the previous World Juniors haunting him. After a shocking six-move draw in the penultimate round, Harikrishna was forced to worry about what his neighbours were up to, for a major part of his final round.

The penultimate round draw helped China's Zhao Jun join Harikrishna in the lead, with Armenian Grandmaster Tigran L. Petrosian, another contender for the title, just half point behind the two; which meant that the Indian had to either win his last game or force a three-way tie for he had a superior tie-break score than the other two. Fortunately, with China's Zhao Jun losing the last round, Harikrishna's hard-fought draw against the top-seeded Ferenc Berkes saw him emerge as a clear winner with Petrosian and Zhao Jun settling for the silver and bronze.

The record books will now enter Harikrishna's name in an elite list. A treasured roll of honour which includes some of the game's greats such as Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Viswanathan Anand, all former world junior champions.

A section of the players in action during the World Juniors. — Pic. MAHESH HARILAL-

Harikrishna will be known as the boy who emulated Anand, the whiz kid who first put India on the world chess map with his World Junior crown won in Baguio, Philippines, 1987.

Surprisingly, Harikrishna didn't prepare much for his career's biggest victory. "I had to see some chess. So I tried some exchanges, some variations with S. Kidambi (the Chennai International Master) over the internet," he said.

But he brought in an element of surprise to rattle his opponents. "I didn't play any of my normal lines. I went for the sidelines. Also, I was quite fast," he said.

One particular opponent, Dutch Grandmaster Jan Smeets, was quite shaken by Harikrishna's Queen's Gambit Semi-Slav Opening. "He thought for nearly half an hour. And after the opening, I had a solid 14-minute advantage," said the Hyderabad youngster.

Such situations occurred quite a few times in Kochi as Harikrishna led from start to finish in the 13-round championship to script a memorable victory.

Tigran L. Petrosian, the fourth seed, summed it up very nicely. "He made life very difficult for all of us," said the Armenian.

After the first few rounds, which separate the wheat from the chaff, Harikrishna and Petrosian appeared to be the favourites for the title. By the halfway mark, even the top-seeded Berkes bowed out of the race after suffering three losses in five days, to Petrosian and Indians Koneru Humpy and Deep Sengupta.

A strong Grandmaster (Elo rating 2503), Humpy is one of few women in chess to flourish in the men's world. With nothing to play for in the girls' World Juniors — she had won the title in 2001 — Humpy competed in the boys' field in Kochi. Seeded 14th, the talented AP lass created a flutter when she jolted the top-seed in the seventh round (she was just half a point behind the leaders at this stage), but lived a rather quite life after that and finished 10th.

"My start was good but I lost my rhythm after two consecutive losses (to Harikrishna and Yuri Drozdovsky) in the eighth and ninth rounds," Humpy said. "And I've not decided whether to play the boys' Worlds next year."

Jamshedpur's Deep Sengupta was one of the biggest gainers from the tourney. Just a day after surprising Berkes, the 16-year-old jolted third-seeded Russian Alekseev Evgeny Vladimirovich and got his first Grandmaster norm after the 10th round. The 24th seed was breathing down Harikrishna's neck at that point but he appeared weary and finished ninth in the end.

With three Indians in the boys' top 10 and four in the girls' first 10, including a bronze, Indian chess sure seems to be rich and thriving. The All India Chess Federation and its hard-working secretary P. T. Ummer Koya deserve a pat for all the good work.

The top ten

1. Pendyala Harikrishna (Ind, 10 pts from 13 rounds), 2. Tigran L. Petrosian (Arm, 9.5), 3. Zhao Jun (Chn, 9.5), 4. Radoslav Wojtaszek (Pol, 9), 5. Alekseev Evgeny Vladimirovich (Rus, 8.5), 6. Ferenc Berkes (Hun, 8.5), 7. Jianu Vlad-Cristian (Rom, 8.5), 8. Yuri Drozdovsky (Ukr, 8.5), 9. Deep Sengupta (Ind, 8.5), 10. Koneru Humpy (Ind, 8.5).