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Keeping younger rivals at bay

INDIAN CHESS is getting stronger. And younger. Today's young knights show little respect to the reputation of yesterday's kings.

There is, however, one veteran who is still determined to give the youngsters a run for their money. Grandmaster Dibyendu Barua, 34, might feel older than he is when he faces the Kuntes, Sasikirans, Harikrishnas and Gangulys across the chessboard. But he has often shown that he could outwit all of them, when he really puts his mind to it.

Like he did in New Delhi a few days ago. The soft-spoken genius from Kolkata won the strongest-ever National `A' men's championship, finishing ahead of Krishnan Sasikiran, Abhijit Kunte, Pendyala Harikrishna and Surya Shekhar Ganguly, the leading lights of the young brigade in Indian chess.

This was the third senior National title for Barua. It also must have been the most gratifying of them all, for he did not have to stay focussed for 18 rounds on the two previous occasions. Neither did he have to play two rounds on alternate days.

And he wasn't getting any younger, as he overcame youthful, driven rivals in Delhi.

Barua had pipped Sasikiran, India's strongest player after Anand, at the post to regain the most coveted crown in India's domestic chess after a gap of three years. It was some sort of a revenge for him, as the Chennai lad had done the same thing to him at the recent Asian zonal championship in Colombo, where he had set the early pace.

Much to his disappointment, he had to be content with the fourth place in the end, as Sasikiran booked his berth for the World chess championship, scheduled for later this year.

It truly was an awesome performance by Barua in the Capital. He scored 13.5 points from 18 rounds and was the only unbeaten player among the 19 players.

``I think this was his best show in a tournament in recent years,'' says Barua's long-time friend and rival, GM Pravin Thipsay. ``I was impressed by most of his games. It was remarkable the way he fought against the youngsters.''

Barua had made a mark when he was very much a youngster. He was in fact the original wunderkind of Indian chess, before World champion Viswanathan Anand came along.

His father, who played chess as a hobby, spotted his talent when he was five and encouraged him to take up the game seriously, though chess was neither fashionable nor profitable at the time. And young Dibyendu's extraordinary talent soon began to get noticed. At the age of 12, he became the youngest player ever to qualify for the National `A', when he achieved the feat in 1978. He set another memorable record that year when he made a clean sweep of all the State championships of Bengal - sub-junior, junior and senior.

In 1979 he went to Mexico for the World under-14 championship, with the money raised by the then Bengal Chief Minister and his father's friends, and returned home with the bronze medal. In 1982 he became India's fifth International Master during the Bhilwara GM tournament.

But it took him another nine years to realise the dream of every serious chess player: to become a GM. When he got the title in 1991, he was only the second Indian to reach there (Anand was the first of course).That, however, is not very surprising, because there were fewer tournaments those days for the Indian chess player, and Barua's game was in a period of transition. Until he became IM, all he knew about chess had come from within. No books, no computers, no coaching.

It is generally accepted in chess circles that Barua would have been a truly great player if he was stronger in theory. He himself is aware of that, and once told this writer: ``After getting the IM title I realised that if I were to progress further in the game, I should learn theory.''

So he devoted the next three years to learn the game from the books, but he did not gain much. ``I feared I might lose my originality,'' he said.

Originality is indeed what strikes you most when you look at his games. And his remarkable skills at the end-game. He has no equals at that department of the game in India. Former National `A' champion T. N. Parameswaran once remarked ``Barua is not human'', when it comes to end- game.

There is one superhuman effort from Barua that comes readily to mind. At the Indian International GM tournament at Kozhikode in 1998, in his game against the talented Bangladeshi IM, Ziaur Rahman, it was virtually Barua's bishop versus the rival's queen. A sure losing position, anyone would have resigned. But not Barua.

A few minutes later, it was the young Bangladeshi who was sweating. He had to fight for a draw. That was nothing short of a genius at work. ``My greatest escape,'' chuckled Barua later that night. He has authored so many of such escapes that he is sometimes called the Houdini of Indian chess.

His finest hour came at the Olympiad in Novisad in 1990 when he won the gold, playing on the second board. His most famous victim is Victor Korchnoi, whom he beat at the Lloyd's Bank tournament in England, in 1982 when he was the World No.2. In 1999 in the opening game of the World chess championship, he beat Alexander Khalifman, who went on to be the champion.

Barua's is a story of sheer natural talent triumphing in adverse circumstances. ``He is definitely one of the most gifted players I've ever come across,'' says Thipsay. ``I have seen him lose a pawn in the opening against strong GMs and still drawing those games. He is also very fit, physically. You know when there was a medical check-up at the Indian team's coaching camp in Bangalore last year, he was the only player who passed all athletic tests, prescribed by the doctor. And only D.V. Prasad was older than him in that group of 10 players.''

And as Barua proved in Delhi, his mind is just as sharp still.

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

Kozhikode

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