The long wait is over

THE night was young. The Mumbai summer was at its peak. The cooled air inside former National `A' chess champion International Master (IM) P. Konguvel's room at Hotel Tulip Star, overlooking the lovely Juhu Beach, was soothing.

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

THE night was young. The Mumbai summer was at its peak. The cooled air inside former National `A' chess champion International Master (IM) P. Konguvel's room at Hotel Tulip Star, overlooking the lovely Juhu Beach, was soothing.

The Commonwealth chess championship had concluded earlier in the day. But we weren't talking chess that night. We were talking movies. Not surprising perhaps. We were after all in the film capital of the country that produces the world's largest number of — and the stupidest — films. Not surprising also because we had run into the Bollywood actress Urmila Matondkar in the elevator some time earlier.

Konguvel, a talented player from Chennai who hasn't yet been able to fulfil his potential, had had a disappointing time at the Commonwealth meet. He had let go another opportunity to make a second Grandmaster (GM) norm.

We were joined by his roommate and fellow-GM norm hunter Sandipan Chanda. "I was in (Dibyendu) Barua's room,'' said the 19-year-old Kolkata lad, ``He's leaving early in the morning, you know.''

Chanda was staying back in Mumbai for another day. He had plenty of time to contemplate what went wrong. Again.

Like his roommate and colleague at ONGC, he too had failed to get the norm.

And Chanda would've become a GM. For he'd already picked up two norms, and had crossed the 2500 mark in FIDE rating too. All he needed was just one more norm.

But that final norm is a bit like the single that would take a batsman to a hundred. If it's the longest run in cricket, it's often the toughest norm to get in chess.

And Chanda had been on nervous 99 for quite some time. Two years, to be precise.

Those two years were not very kind to him. He missed the norm with an alarming regularity, in spite of playing in tournaments in Europe often. Once, when he won a GM tournament in Germany (Weisbaden 2001), he hadn't met enough GMs to meet the norm requirement. He missed the National `A' tourney too. Incredibly, he consistently failed to qualify for the tournament from the National `B', despite being one of India's most talented players.

Sandipan Chanda with his good friend Surya Shekar Ganguly (middle) and Pendyala Harikrishna. -- Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

But, of course, you can't keep a talented man down for long.

It happened in Spain for Sandipan. He scored his third norm at the Benasque Open. He finished a joint first in the tourney too, but that didn't matter much really. It was only the icing, after all. It was the cake that tasted sweeter.

He never thought success would taste so sweet. He couldn't believe the long, agonising wait was finally over.

"It felt nice. I was delighted, and relieved,'' he told The Sportstar, a couple of days later, from Pardubice in the Czech Republic, where he was playing in a GM tournament — the Czech Open — without the pressure of norm-making.

Both his earlier norms had come from the Goodricke International tournament, India's only annual GM tourney (but it wasn't held this year), in his hometown. The first norm was achieved in 2000, when he drew, famously, with former World championship challenger Victor Korchnoi. The second one came the very next year.

Chanda learnt the game when he was seven, from one of his cousins. The turning point came when he was taken to the Alekhine Chess Club. He was introduced to the intricacies of chess. He fell in love with the game.

At the club he met Surya Shekhar Ganguly and Neelotpal Das. And the trio began to show exceptional skills over the 64 squares.

"I used to meet them often at the club,'' recalls Dibyendu Barua, India's second and Kolkata's first GM.'' Even now it's difficult for me to think of them as separate persons. They were always together and worked together. I was only too happy to help them out when they came to me. I knew they were really talented boys.''

There was no question about their skills. The question was who would become a GM first. The answer was Ganguly. He did that last November, making his last norm from the Olympiad in Bled, Slovenia, where his brilliant show was the saving grace in a surprisingly disappointing performance by the Indian men's team.

But it was Chanda who had made the GM norm first though. Recalls Ganguly, ``In fact I completed my IM title from the 2000 Goodricke tournament, from where he got his GM norm.'' Chanda got his IM title a couple of months later, from the Chalapathy GM tournament at Guntur. (Neelotpal's progress in the meanwhile slowed down because of some setbacks in his personal life, but he seems to have recovered and is playing well again now).

"It's gratifying to see our wards doing well,'' says Soumen Majumdar, the founder secretary of the Goodricke National Chess Academy, which was formed from the Alekhine Club. ``We always had great expectations about Sandipan.''

Chanda hasn't had as many successes in tournaments as Ganguly. He's won only a couple of National titles, the under-10 in 1993 and the under-14 rapid in 1997. He finished runner-up to Ganguly in the National `B' championship in 1999.

He couldn't do that well in the Asian or the World championships either. ``Somehow I never did well in my international championships,'' he admits. ``I had a horrible tournament in the 2002 World juniors in Goa.''

He made one wise move, that in many ways made up for his disappointments in official championships. He decided to invest in playing tournaments in Europe. He even got a contract in Germany's Bundesliga, with the Solingen club. The only other Indian in the German league is former World champion Viswanathan Anand.

Chanda created an impression in Germany, and even made the front page of a local newspaper, a rare honour for a chess player in that country, when he won all his 26 games in a simultaneous display at Wermelskirchen, near Solingen. His assignments in Europe ensured that he faced quality opposition even if he was not in the Indian team or out of the National `A'.

Strong in tactics, he is one of the most aggressive players in India. The middle-game is indeed his strength. ``He is an imaginative and resourceful player,'' says Barua. ``I've always enjoyed my battles with him. All our games — I think we played four or five — produced some exciting chess in the middle-game.''

Chanda does have to work more on his openings, and he can only get better when his positional chess improves, which is sure to happen, sooner than later. ``Sandipan is going to be an even stronger player,'' says Ganguly. And we have to agree with that.