Zhong Zhang is the best

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

H. SATISH

THE `Great Wall of China' was almost impregnable in the fifth Asian individual chess championship in Hyderabad as six of the top 10 who made it to the World Cup were from China. Three were from Kazakhstan and one from Vietnam.

Significantly, no player from India finished in this elite group despite the fact that players such as Krishnan Sasikiran, rated India's best chess player after Viswanathan Anand, GM Koneru Humpy, India's second Grandmaster Dibyendu Barua and a host of others were in the fray. Pentyala Harikrishna skipped the event since he had already qualified for the World Cup along with Anand.

By all means, it was a stand-out performance by the Chinese. Right through the focus was expectedly on the familiar names of Indian chess. Perhaps, the visitors enjoyed being away from the media hype and were apparently more focussed.

Significantly there were quite a few friendly draws in the final round to ensure that a major chunk of the qualifiers came from amongst them. The fact that joint-leader Shilong Li, along with Zhong Zhang, did not even bother to stretch himself in the final round and settled for a seven-move draw with Wang Yue was proof enough.

But it was not so for other two GMs. Hua Ni, who upset the calculations of Koneru Humpy, outwitting her in the seventh round, and Zhong Zhang were locked in a marathon 90-move game in a Ruy Lopez Opening before Zhong clinched the issue from what clearly looked a bookish draw at least twice. "It was a very difficult game. I was lucky to win in the end since he made those crucial mistakes — Re8 instead of Rc4, then a6 and then again Kd3 on the 82nd move which gave me the winning edge," he remarked later. His first target was to qualify for the World Cup and he said the maiden Asian title was a big bonus.

The only beaming Indian face at the end of the show was that of GM Surya Sekhar Ganguly, who, by virtue of being the highest-finisher in the event, booked a slot via the quota for the sub-continent comprising India and Bangladesh. Ganguly owed his slot to his impressive win against IM Neelotpal Das in the penultimate round. For, after that, he calculated well to settle for a quick draw in the final round to clinch the berth for the next World Cup.

What made the Chinese players so special in this Asian event? "Well, they are apparently more determined and better prepared for this than most of us (Indians). The major advantage back home for them is that all the Grandmasters coach the youngsters free of cost and they always have a long-term plan in chess like in other sports, " analysed IM Lanka Ravi.

No doubt, there was all-round disappointment at the valedictory function when the names of the 10 qualifiers were called for prize distribution since no Indian figured. That even defending champion and top-seed Krishnan Sasikiran had to finish with five points from nine rounds was obviously not a showing he would be satisfied with.

His losses to 2004 World Championship bronze medallist Jun Zhao in the second round and then to his childhood playing partner Sunderarajan Kidambi in the fifth round proved to be too costly. But, he did serve a pre-event warning that this Asian Championship would be one of the strongest he would be taking part in since there were 40 GMs and one or two bad days could push him down the line. He did confess that his preparations were not really up to the mark for this very strong event.

So was the case with women's World No. 4, Koneru Humpy. She had a dismal start losing to IM Himanshu Sharma but recovered remarkably to record four straight wins before losing momentum. The win against GM Annageldeyev with black gave her great satisfaction but she was terribly disappointed in frittering away a winning advantage against Hua Ni in the eighth round in a Benoni Defence. This proved to be decisive in the final placings.

Hua himself admitted the Indian girl was in complete control till she faltered with her Qa5 on the 35th move and that too after declining the draw offer on the 16th move. For that one bad move, she had to pay a heavy price as it also marred her dream of becoming the first Indian girl ever to qualify for the men's section in the World Cup. Eventually she settled for a final tally of 5.5 points. "There is a lot of scope for me to improve my opening repertoire particularly with the black. I am terribly disappointed for not having qualified especially after four straight wins," she commented later.

The surprise packet from the Indian perspective was Kidambi. He stunned Sasikiran in a Slav Defence in the fifth round game to record his maiden win against his friend after the latter had become a Grandmaster. Yet, it turned out to be a case of so near yet so far for this Chennai-based youngster as he missed the opportunity to become the 18th Grandmaster from India, by just half-a-point.

All he needed was a draw in the final round against Indonesian Susanto Megaranto but he lost the game and the golden chance to win the GM title. "I knew he needed half-a-point to get the GM title but I was more keen to improve my rating," quipped Susanto later.

It was yet another disappointing international event for Lanka Ravi, who got his IM title way back in1987 and is still looking for that elusive GM norm. No doubt, he stunned the experts with a dream start by scoring two consecutive wins against GMs Murtas Kazhagaleyev and WenjinWu in the first two rounds and then against GM Sandipan Chanda only to falter against International Masters in the subsequent games. He had a wonderful chance of becoming a GM in his home city but as it always happened, Ravi failed to rise to the occasion when it mattered the most.

Apart from Ganguly, the only other Indian who could afford a few smiles was Gujarat's Valay Parikh, 20, who became an International Master. For someone who took to chess as a hobby, the graduate in medicine is now clearly aiming big.