[Ed note: I am very pleased to kick off the new year with a tremendous tournament report from a new chess.com contributor, GM Sundararajan Kidambi. Happy New Year's!]
The Indian National Championship is one of the strongest tournaments in the country which attracts almost all of the top ranked Grandmasters who are under 2650.Apart from these 30 players qualify from the National Challenger championship and a few other seats are reserved for National junior champions. For the record this is a thirteen round Swiss event. The total number of participants does not usually exceed 50 and hence the number of rounds is usually more than enough required for determining a worthy champion who has played with all tough competitors.
This year’s edition attracted 12 Grandmasters, and 20 International Masters. The top two seeds (Gopal and Parimarjan) were above 2600 and were clearly considered favorites. Reigning National Champion GM Adhiban and India’s newest and currently youngest GM S.P.Sethuraman were expected to give the top 2 seeds a run for their money. Sethuraman,(rated 2547) who is just 17 has been having a fantastic year, gaining rating almost everywhere he played and also completing GM norms emphatically.
The extremely competitive nature of the tournament was clearly visible. After the first two rounds only 3 players managed a perfect 2/2 start, they were Grandmasters Gopal, Parimarjan and Neelotpal Das. This meant that the there was an early showdown between the top 2 seeds in the very next round. Their game started as a Be2 Najdorf and Negi chose the Scheveningen setup which has been a favorite of Kasparov.In the opening and early middlegame white appeared to be better and it seemed that white’s advantage was slowly increasing, but black hung on and in the later part of middle game the tables turned completely and black got into a position where he was a pawn up and also had more active pieces. Negi missed a clear win on the 43rd and the 44th move.
The other leader Neelotpal Das lost to Sethuraman from a position of strength.
6 Players led the field jointly with 2.5 points.
Gopal was held to a draw by yours truly and IM Venkatesh drew with Negi in a complicated battle. Sethuraman emphatically beat the National Champion Adhiban in the Petrosian Variation of the Queen's Indian Defence and became the sole leader.
Modern Chess has become a very concrete affair. For example take a look at the opening position of this game between Sethuraman and Adhiban.
Sethuraman confidently held Gopal to a draw in a French Defence. The other top board games ended in a draw too and the status quo was maintained with Sethuraman continuing to lead the field by half a point.
Sethuraman quickly developed an overwhelming position against Grandmaster R.R.Laxman with the white pieces and the general expectation among kibitzers was a quick blitzkrieg from the leader. However the unthinkable happened, proving one more time that the game of chess holds a lot of surprises for players and spectators alike! Laxman gave up a piece in the endgame, and continued inaccurately and could have lost the game, but his opponent returned the favor and had to settle for a draw.
Parimarjan introduced a novelty against yours truly in the Caro Kann classical variation. I was under pressure in the early part of the opening, but managed to equalize the game later. However finally in time trouble I cracked and blundered, spoiling a well-fought game. Thus he joined Sethuraman as the leader. All other top games ended in draws
The long-awaited clash of the leaders started as a 4.Qc2 variation in the Slav defense where Sethuraman was white. At the end of the opening black had equalized pretty easily. White ended up with doubled h-pawns and probably could draw with careful play, but as so often happens after black has equalized white tended to make some microscopic errors which black exploited with his precise technique and pocketed the game. Parimarjan broke away from the field by half a point. Gopal won a nice endgame against Lalith Babu to remain half a point shy of the leader.
Parimarjan could not breach the defenses of the Young Vidit in Caro Kann classical variation and the game was drawn relatively early. Gopal was pressing throughout the game with black pieces in an anti gruenfeld variation against GM Bakre, but finally had to settle for a draw in a bishop endgame. The real surprise of the round was the game between veteran GM Pravin Thipsay and Sethuraman. Thipsay has won the National Championship 7 times earlier, but plays only selected tournaments nowadays. He chose the relatively calm d3 setup against the Jaenish gambit chosen by Sethuraman against the Spanish. From what seemed to be an equal position, white slowly gained the upper hand and punished black duly for taking undue risks.The final position where white had two passed pawns on the 6th rank was a picture of complete domination in an opposite-colored bishop endgame.
Parimarjan faced the Caro Kann again, this time from Adhiban. White employed a new idea and was stepping up the pressure consistently. He surely had more than enough compensation for the pawn. However at one point he decided to cash in his initiative to win back material and this led to simplifications and allowed Adhiban to force a draw. The game of the day was between the top seed Gopal and the 7-time former National Champion Thipsay. Gopal went for a very rare line in the Two Knights' Defence in order to surprise his veteran opponent. But things went astray soon for the top seed: black developed a very strong attack for the sacrificed pawn and white was never able to get back into the game. Black retained his attacking position right into the endgame and culminated the game in a checkmate! Surprise surprise! Thipsay had caught up with the leader Parimarjan despite starting the tournament badly with only one point from the first three games.
Thipsay having white against the second seed Parimarjan chose his favourite 6.Be2 variation against the Najdorf. Black was well prepared for the opening and the game never went beyond the limits of a draw. This was fairly expected given that the leaders generally tend to play it safe and conserve their energy for the final dash. The most interesting game of the tenth round was GM Arun Prasad vs GM Adhiban. White nursed a slight advantage from the Rubinstein variation of the Nimzo Indian defence and slowly increased his advantage in the endgame. At the end when it looked like a win for white, he overlooked a trick and allowed black to escape with a draw. A win would have allowed Arun to join the leaders. Arun had a phenomenal tournament considering that he had to miss his first game since it unfortunately coincided with his brother’s wedding! After losing his third game, he too had only one point from three games. But his comeback was pretty good and quite similar to GM Thipsay’s. Had he won his better position, he had decent chances of winning the tournament. Meanwhile Gopal bounced back with a win over GM Laxman to return to half a point behind the leaders.
Parimarjan faced yet another Caro Kann, this time from Lalith Babu. He always maintained an edge from the opening thanks to his superior preparation and won the game with a piece sacrifice in the middle game which featured a nice piece of calculation.
The other leader Thipsay played a cautious game against Arun Prasad and the game was a colourless draw. This meant that Parimarjan had once again gained a half point lead. Gopal continued his strong comeback with a win over Venkatesh to retain hopes of winning the championship.
Parimarjan once again showed his strong opening preparation and outplayed Arun Prasad with the black pieces right from the opening. This crucial win with the black pieces won him the tournament. His nearest rivals Thipsay and Gopal could not win their games: Vidit won a nice positional game against Thipsay, while Abhijit Kunte played it safe and drew with Gopal.
Parimarjan won the tournament with an expected draw against Tejas Bakre. Gopal drew with Adhiban and they finished 2nd and third respectively. GM Abhijit Kunte used his experience to outwit Vidit in a crucial game and finished 4th. This meant that sadly Vidit missed a Gm norm once again by a whisker. But his strong showing earned him a 5th place.
Let us take a look at how the top individual finishers played overall.
Parimarjan Negi exhibited much better opening preparation than any other player in the tournament. He had new ideas stored up in almost all of his variations. And he was probably the only player in the tournament who was never in trouble in any game. His superb opening preparation ably assisted by his crisp calculation won him his maiden National title. Recently India achieved a status as a separate zone, and this meant that the National Champion directly qualifies for the next Fide World cup.
Gopal fought pretty well throughout the event and showed good tactical flair. He had a good tournament except for one bad game against Thipsay where things went wrong right from the opening. This cost him the championship as Negi was in supreme form.
Adhiban who was the champion of last year’s event had a shaky start. But he showed great resilience and tenacity and fought admirably in the later part of the tournament and finished creditably in third place.
Abhijit Kunte had a really bad start to the tournament. He was struggling for form at 3.5 out of the first seven games, missing several promising positions against lower-rated players. But the wily old former National champion showed that experience does count for something and displayed fine technique and skills to win games when it really mattered.
Vidit Gujarati, aged 16, showed his superb skill and proved once again why he is expected to be the next big talent in Indian chess by a lot of chess fans. His score against the top Grandmasters is amazing. He is a very strong positional player and has a well thought-out and solid opening repertoire. But for his lapses in crucial situations which could probably be attributed to lack of experience he did produce some wonderful games.
Among other notable performances I would be failing in my duty if I do not mention the performance of even younger Vaibhav Suri( aged 13!). He too finished with 8 points and showed strong opening preparation, good calculation and sound chess backed up by common sense. His mature approach to the game is astounding for a player so young (at least by Indian standards). Much more would surely be expected of this talented kid in tournaments to come.
Now, let us take a look at the interesting games from this event.