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Something to celebrate again

FOUR YEARS ago, when Pendyala Harikrishna won the World under-10 championship at Menorca, it was the first World title in chess for an Indian after Viswananthan Anand won the World juniors in 1987.

It also turned out to be the first of five titles in five years for India in the World youth chess championship.

Winning a title at the world's biggest gathering of young chess players has become a habit for India now. The country is a major power in the world in age-group chess. And in Asia, India has no competition. In this year's Asian children's championship in Teheran, India swept five out of the six golds at stake.

If some sceptics might have thought that the Guntur prodigy Harikrishna's triumph was only a flash in the pan for Indian chess, another kid from coastal Andhra, Koneru Humpy, proved them wrong. In the French city of Cannes, in 1997, a year after Harikrishna's success, she gave Indian chess something to celebrate again, clinching the World girls' under-10 championship.

In 1998 Humpy won the under-12 title as the World youth championship moved to the Spanish town of Oropesa Del Mar, where it has stayed on till now. In the same event, Delhi girl Tania Sachdev won the silver.

Then last year, Chennai's Aarthie Ramaswamy sprung a surprise, winning the World under-18 girls' championship, which has been the best achievement by an Indian after Anand's World junior title. But Humpy could not defend her under-12 title. Though she won the silver, she herself considered that as a big disappointment.

Before Harikrishna too, Indian kids have won medals, though not gold, in World championships, like Surya Shekhar Ganguly from Calcutta and Chitra Sridhar of Bangalore.

This time in Spain, India fielded its strongest contingent at the event ever and achieved its best results. There were 20 players from India, including 16 official entries, and India finished with three medals, as Humpy (under-14 girls) and Deep Sengupta (under-12 boys) won gold and D. Harika (under-10 girls) silver.

But the fact is that India was capable of faring even better. It should have been a cake-walk in the under-14 boys' event for Harikrishna, for he is a bundle of phenomenal talent. Dog-tired after virtually non-stop chess for a year, India's youngest International Master (IM) could not win a medal.

``We were hoping for at least four gold medals this time from Spain,'' said the All India Chess Federation (AICF) secretary and FIDE (the world chess governing body) vice president P. T. Ummer Koya, though he was happy with the fine performance of the Indian youngsters.

So the World youth chess championship has now become one major international event to which India can look forward to every year with realistic hopes of medals. How did this happen?

The single most important reason is the number of tournaments a young chess player in India gets to compete in as soon as he starts learning the game. The AICF has been doing a commendable job of holding tournaments regularly for various age categories. All the children who are serious about a career in chess would also play in tournaments for higher age-groups, and the tougher competitions make them better players. Players like Harikrishna and Humpy have done wonderfully well in senior tournaments too. One in fact met Humpy for the first time at a National men's `B' championship, a few months before she won her maiden World title.

``Yes I think the main reason for our youngsters doing well in international competitions is the tremendous exposure they are getting,'' says veteran IM D. V. Prasad. ``When I started playing all we had was a National junior championship.''

Aarthie feels the Indian children have an edge above those from many other countries because they are very serious about the game. ``Our kids are always focussed about the game even from a small age,'' she says, though she herself is a late bloomer.

The parents also play a very important role. After witnessing the phenomenal success of Anand in world chess, people are more than happy to let their children play in chess tournaments. There would not have been any Vijayalakshmis, Humpys nor Sasikirans but for their devoted fathers.

``It is refreshing to see people making so many sacrifices so that their children could play chess,'' says International Woman Master Bhagyashree Thipsay, a five-time National senior women's champion. ``The girls especially can't do without such parental support you know. And these kids who have done us proud in World championships need all the encouragement. After seeing the pathetic performance by Indians in major international sports competitions, it is so refreshing to see our young chess players doing fabulously on the global arena.''

The Grandmaster coaching camps, which have been arranged for the Indian youngsters for the last two years, have also contributed handsomely in preparing the players for the World championships. ``I definitely benefited a lot from the camps of Sorokin and Ionov,'' says Deep Sengupta.

The AICF is delighted that those camps have brought in the results. ``We are grateful to Wipro, which sponsored the Sorokin camp at Kozhikode. We are also happy to acknowledge the support of Indian Government which has been helping the game in a big way of late,'' says Ummer Koya.

Till recently, at the highest level Indian chess began and ended with Anand. But in not too distant a future, there would at least be a couple of other Indian names in the World's top 100. Though hoping for another Anand is like hoping for another Sachin Tendulkar, India could certainly look forward to the emergence of some truly world class players. Because some of our World age- group champions, like Harikrishna and Humpy, have already grown up.

While Harikrishna is playing for the Indian men's team Humpy recently became the youngest ladies champion in the history of the British championship.



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