World Juniors 2009 - The Indian Perspective - Conclusion part 1...
I was hopping around the spectators area in the tournament hall like a mad frog in total anxiety as Soumya Swaminathan, the only medal aspirant for the Indian team, was finishing her penultimate (12th)round game against the Peruvian WIM Cori Tello Deysi. Mrunal, the women's team coach could not handle the pressure either as she took a seat far off from where she would not be able to see Soumya's game. By then Kiran Manisha Mohanty had already lost her game against the Chinese WGM Zhang Xiaowen leaving Soumya as our only hope for a medal. Soumya had a completely winning position the previous day with an exhange and a pawn up against the Russian WIM Severiukhina, but she failed to convert her advantage into a full point and only managed a draw. This left Soumya with only half a point cushion over the others and also meant that a loss would leave her half a point behind. Even the mighty Federer crumbled against Del Petro (Argentinian) in the US Open finals as it was hard for him to overcome his anxiety and fight from behind when he let a one set advantage slip away. It was daunting on me that this young girl may start feeling the pressure if anything were to go wrong in her 12th round game, she might start wondering about the missed opportunities from the previous game and that would lead her down a slippery slope. I had specifically told her before the game that if some thought at any point had to occur about her previous round mistakes, she had to just ask herself to stop thinking about it completely, but as we all know controlling a human mind is just not that simple. Just like I had feared, things started to go down south towards the endgame where Soumya missed a simple opportunity to equalize the position. As I saw Soumya committing a blunder under pressure I walked across to Mrunal and showed signs that things were not going well and waited for Soumya to finish the game.
I was feeling terrible and I could easily understand the impact it would have on the player itself. Soumya was understandably devastated as she looked at me and walked past me to her room. Mrunal followed her to console her and keep her upbeat. As I was still there in the tournament hall watching and waiting for the the other players to finish, surprisingly I saw Soumya come back around 9 pm, about 15 minutes after she had left. I took her out of the playing hall and started talking to her. She could not bear the fact that none of her opponents had played extraordinary games to defeat her but she herself had thrown it away. I began explaining to her that we unfortunately did not have enough time to worry about what went wrong in the past two rounds as the next game was at 10 am the next morning and she still had very good chances for a gold medal. Mourning is definitely not an option for a professional player in between a tournament. Failure is one thing, but not giving your best shot since you are not up to it is another thing. Letting things go is not a sign of an extraordinary player and only extraordinary players win World Junior Championships! I used this on all the players to motivate them to play their last game with all the seriousness that they had for their first. Like I said, letting even one game go is not a sign of a professional.
People take inspiration from variety of things, and my blog readers would already know that I take a lot of inspiration from movies. I decided to talk to Soumya about this scene in the movie Remember the Titans which is based on a true story where Denzel Washington plays the role of Herman Boone, a high school football coach. In that movie the coach gives a pep talk to his boys before the beginning of the season as the players find it hard to cope up with the race mixing back in the 70's. All those football and movie fans would know what I am talking about here, for those who do not know the dialogue, this is how it goes,
“ The Greek mythology says that the Titans were even more stronger than the gods. They ruled their universe with absolute power. Now, that football field is your universe and you guys get out there and rule it like the titans”
Now I had to change some words to match the chess situation here, so instead of the football field I used “those 64 squares”. Surprisingly this did have some effect on Soumya. After she had won her game and the title, she mentioned that this dialogue had inspired her a lot and also specifically asked me to mention it in the blog.
Despite my fantastic memory with which I forget just about every second thing that happens in my life, the night of 2nd November 2009 would be a hard thing to forget. After trying to pep Soumya up for the next game I went into the dinner hall with some of the other team members. Mrunal was found missing in the dinner hall and the reason for which I found out later. To the team's delight we were happy to see Soumya totally “elighted”. Yes, elighted is exactly the word that came to my mind, for someone else to miss a cake walk lead and fight back from behind would have been impossible, but this girl showed that her nerves were made of steel. As I was quietly wondering within myself if I had actually done my job that I was sent 8000 miles across to do, my father's wise words came to my mind, “One can force a horse and take it to the puddle of water, but cannot force it to actually drink the water, deciding to drink that water remains as a choice, only for the horse”. I guess the thirst for this Indian horse was ready to overcome all the hurdles and just like that she was back in business!
Unfortunately Mrunal had taken things more to heart than Soumya herself. She had skipped her dinner and was feeling quiet depressed after the penultimate round blow for India. I was very glad to see her so involved with the tournament and the players, but at the same time I did not want her to show any signs of sorrow in front of the players. Mrunal herself was very much aware of this and she tried not to show her disappointment in front of Soumya. After a brief chat with her, similar to the one I had with Soumya, I believe she felt a little more comfortable. My mind was filled with all kinds of thoughts regarding the situation, but I was happy I was able to generate some positive thoughts into most of my team members.
After all the talk, it was time to get down to work. Around 10.30 pm that night 7 of the 11 member playing squad for India were in my room trying to help the tittle aspirant. I was pleasantly surprised and also extremely proud of the way this team worked that night. Though the rest of the players did not have much to play for in the last round, it was their time and their effort that made India proud in the end. Before I knew it, this well knit band of youngsters had started their work in full throttle.
Basically we had an India Vs Turkey match happening the final day. The Turkish beauty Yildiz Betul Cemre was leading the tournament with 9 points, half a point ahead of Soumya and Cori Tello and she was facing Kiran with black pieces while Soumya had white pieces against Ozturk Kubra. As Morphius rightly quotes to Neo in The Matrix “Fate it seems, has its own sense of irony”, Soumya had lost to Kubra in the last round from a seemingly better position costing her the bronze medal in the previous edition of the World Juniors in 2008. After finding out this pairing, in the process of making her BELIEVE, which was running through my mind all night, I told her that all good things in life come with a prize, if you do not feel the pain that it takes to succeed, success itself would not feel so great! Time for a sweet revenge had come...
Getting back to the game, we did some research to find out that both the Turkish players were playing the same opening mainly, but they also had some other options which they played infrequently. So the first question that came to our mind was should we prepare the same opening for both the Indian players and have the risk of having the same position occur in both the boards. The main risk being if there was some flaw in our preparation or if they had out prepared us, then we run the risk of going down on both boards. But eventually we thought about it and we decided that it was better to prepare one variation thoroughly and try to go indepth with it. I had a hunch here that Soumya would face the Caro Kann defense while Kiran might face the Archangel variation of the Ruy Lopez, both played infrequently by their opponents.
At this point I have to explain the term “Coach's Hunch” as it was popularly called by the players of the Indian squad. Right from the beginning when a player came to me and asked me about their opponents on what I thought they would play, I came up with suggestions that never actually occurred on board. This started for the first time when I suggested Vishnu that I had a strong hunch that his opponent would play 1.d4. He asked me a couple of times for assurance and I repeated my suggestion. As the games started that day and as usual outsiders are allowed to watch the games from inside the playing area for the first 10 minutes, I noticed that a Najdorf position had occurred in Vishnu's board! I could not help laugh looking at it as that meant that his opponent had played 1.e4 exactly opposite of what I had suggested. Though it felt sad that my hunches were not coming through it felt equally funny when players started making fun of my hunches by saying that they will prepare exactly opposite of what I suggest them! This time I was not so outspoken about my hunch as I had seen the disastrous results from the previous rounds. Thank god, I did not stress on my hunch as it turned out to be wrong again.
Adhiban, Vishnu and Ashwin all possessing very good opening knowledge were of great help for Soumya. Not only did they know the latest and popular opening choices, they were able to just name most of the model games for the openings we needed to study from the back of their minds. It was already past midnight and we were trying to wrap things as early as possible since a good sleep is also one of the most important things required to perform well over the board. At 1.30 pm we had pretty much looked at all variations that we thought were probable and studied a good response for all of them. We decided to call it quits for the day and all the players returned back to their room to catch some sleep.
Most of you by now know the final result of the tournament, I will continue to explain the process that lead us to achieve it in my next blog as this one is quiet lengthy already! The final nervous moments and the celebration after to be continued....