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Interview with Asian 2016 champion: S.P. Sethuraman

by Sagar Shah - 16/06/2016

At the recently concluded Asian Continental 2016 S.P. Sethuraman and Bhakti Kulkarni won the gold medal in the open and the women's section respectively. In this article we get in touch with S.P. Sethuraman who staged a phenomenal comeback scoring 3.0/3 at the end of the event and crowning it by beating Wei Yi with the black pieces. Sethu speaks about the event, how he prepared, calculated, relaxed and how he aims to break into the 2700 league. 

Sethuraman scored 7.0/9 and won the Asian Continental 2016, thereby confirming his spot in the World Cup 2017. He won the tournament by a clear half point ahead of Wei Yi and Le Quang Liem. The event will remain special for all the Indian fans because of the spectacular finale in which Sethuraman and Ganguly were able to beat Wei Yi and Le Quang Liem respectively with the black pieces. 


Sethuraman's performance sheet 
After the tournament ended ChessBase India contacted Sethuraman and asked him a few questions about the event and his future plans. Here is the interview:

Sagar Shah: Sethu, first of all congratulations for your amazing performance at the Asian Continental 2016. Tell us how does it feel to be the Asian Continental Champion?

S.P. Sethuraman: Thanks Sagar for the wishes. I feel really happy to win such a strong event.This is definitely one of the biggest titles so far in my career apart from the performance at Olympiad 2014 in Tromso.


SS: In the first game itself you played a highly daring sacrifice. How deeply had you seen and can you explain your thought process behind this sacrifice- replying h6 with hxg6. You followed it up with some very difficult moves to see like g4 and Rh7.

Sethuraman's opponent has just played 18...h6 and pushed the knight away from g5. Sethu replied with the bold 19.hxg6 sacrificing the piece.

SPS: Yeah, the sacrifice with 19.hxg6 was very interesting and intuitively I considered it to be winning during the game. Of course, with some calculations and ideas. But I had missed one of my opponent's resource with 20...fxg4 21.fxg4 Rf3!! (you can replay the game below) - a cold blooded defense found by the computer. It was very difficult to spot it during the game and secondly with such a dangerous king and little time on the clock, no one would like to open up the position. So my opponent's f4 trying to close the position felt practical to me. I had this idea of Rh7 and tripling on the h file while carrying out this piece sacrifice. I was proud of my precise moves until the end of the game. After 20...f4 the computer simply gives an advantage for Black, but after my moves the evaluation drastically changes. I would like to point out that instead of the flashy 19.hxg6 that I played, 19. Nh7! or 19.Nh3 g5 and 20 Nxg5! also win on the spot.

[Event "15th Asian Continental"]
[Site "Tashkent UZB"]
[Date "2016.05.26"]
[Round "1.9"]
[White "Sethuraman, S.P."]
[Black "Hafiz, Arif Abdul"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "D70"]
[WhiteElo "2647"]
[BlackElo "2348"]
[Annotator "Sagar Shah"]
[PlyCount "63"]
[EventDate "2016.05.26"]
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. f3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. e4 Nb6 6. Nc3 Bg7 7. Be3 O-O 8. Qd2
Nc6 9. O-O-O f5 10. e5 Nb4 11. Nh3 Be6 12. Kb1 N4d5 13. Ng5 Nxc3+ 14. Qxc3 Bd5
15. h4 Qd7 16. Bd3 Na4 17. Qc2 b5 18. h5 h6 19. hxg6 $5 (19. Nh7 $1 {also wins
as after} Kxh7 20. hxg6+ Kxg6 21. g4 $18 {Black will be mated.}) (19. Nh3 $1 g5
20. Nxg5 $1 hxg5 21. h6 Bh8 22. h7+ Kg7 23. Rh5 $18) 19... hxg5 20. g4 $5 f4 {
The computer thinks this is the winning move but White is able to prove him
wrong.} (20... fxg4 $1 {As Sethu explains - this is the best move but it is
anti-intuitive to open the position when your king is exposed on g8.} 21. fxg4
Rf3 $1 {And it seems as if Black can defend here.}) 21. Rh7 $1 Bxf3 (21... fxe3
22. Qh2 {with the threated of Rxg7 is terminal.}) 22. e6 $1 {Shutting down the
second rank.} (22. Qh2 e6 $19) 22... Qxe6 23. Qh2 Rf7 (23... fxe3 24. Rh8+ $1
Bxh8 25. Qh7#) 24. gxf7+ Qxf7 25. Rf1 fxe3 26. Rxg7+ Qxg7 27. Rxf3 Qh8 28. Qc2
Qh1+ 29. Rf1 Qh3 30. Qc6 Rd8 31. Qe6+ Kh8 32. Qxe7 1-0

SS: 1.d4 served you very well in this event. Why did you decide to play 1.e4 against Le Quang Liem. And what exactly went wrong in that Berlin Endgame?

Sethu's only loss in this event was against the top seed Le Quang Liem from Vietnam

SPS: Nice observation! I went to that game with some small ideas in the endgame and decided to try it out. I got a comfortable edge in the opening. There were several plans of placing my pieces and I spent too much time trying to figure out the effective plan to break his solid pawn structure In the end I simply forgot about his simple idea of 26...c6. I already imagined my pawn on b3 protecting c4 always. It was like a blackout day for me. It was a painful to blunder like this in a position where I cannot lose the game in any instance. 

[Event "15th Asian Continental"]
[Site "Tashkent UZB"]
[Date "2016.05.31"]
[Round "6.1"]
[White "Sethuraman, S.P."]
[Black "Le, Quang Liem"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "C67"]
[WhiteElo "2647"]
[BlackElo "2718"]
[PlyCount "102"]
[EventDate "2016.05.26"]
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Nxe4 5. d4 Nd6 6. Bxc6 dxc6 7. dxe5 Nf5
8. Qxd8+ Kxd8 9. h3 Ke8 10. Nc3 h5 11. Ne2 b6 12. Rd1 Bb7 13. Ned4 Nxd4 14.
Nxd4 a6 15. Bf4 c5 16. Nf5 h4 17. Rd2 Rh5 18. Ne3 Rc8 19. a4 Be7 20. c4 a5 21.
Rad1 Be4 22. f3 Bf5 23. Kf2 Be6 24. Nd5 Rf5 25. Bh2 Bg5 26. Rd3 $6 (26. Rc2 $11
) 26... c6 {This move was what Sethuraman had overlooked.} 27. Nc3 Bxc4 $15 {
Black won a pawn and went on to win the game.} 28. Rd7 Bb3 29. R1d6 Be7 30. Rb7
Bxd6 31. exd6 Rd8 32. Rxb6 Be6 33. Rxc6 Rb8 34. Nd1 Bd7 35. Ra6 c4 36. Kf1 f6
37. Ra7 Rd5 38. Ke1 Rg5 39. Kf1 Rb4 40. Ra8+ Kf7 41. Ra7 Ke6 42. Ne3 g6 43. Nc2
c3 44. bxc3 Rb1+ 45. Ne1 Rc5 46. Ke2 Bxa4 47. Re7+ Kf5 48. Re4 Rb2+ 49. Ke3 Bb5
50. c4 Rxc4 51. d7 Re2+ 0-1

SS: Were you confident about winning that endgame against Megaranto Susanto. The position with queen+knight+bishop vs queen+two knights looked pretty drawish. What were the points based on which you were pushing for a win?

With some masterful endgame play, Sethuraman with the black pieces was able to win this endgame against Megaranto

SPS: During the beginning of the game I was so afraid that all my pieces will get exchanged after 14.Nd4 leading to draw. My opponent is a very solid player who has a high draw percentage if you look at his games. I felt greatly relieved when I played 16...Ne5 maintaining some pieces. From that point onwards I was confident I could create something out of the position and I think I played well to create some pressure. Everything was in perfect co-ordination with moves like 23...h5! and 25...Be5! and slowly outplaying my opponent. There were some points like the position of white's king, the weak pawn on b2 and my better piece co-ordination that gave me some hope to play for a win.

[Event "15th Asian Continental"]
[Site "Tashkent UZB"]
[Date "2016.06.01"]
[Round "7.7"]
[White "Megaranto, Susanto"]
[Black "Sethuraman, S.P."]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "B50"]
[WhiteElo "2527"]
[BlackElo "2647"]
[Annotator "Sagar Shah"]
[PlyCount "84"]
[EventDate "2016.05.26"]
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. c3 Nf6 4. Bd3 Nc6 5. Bc2 g6 6. h3 Bg7 7. O-O O-O 8. d4 d5
9. exd5 Qxd5 10. dxc5 Qxc5 11. Nbd2 Bf5 12. Nb3 Qd5 13. Bxf5 Qxf5 14. Nfd4 {
When Megaranto played this move Sethuraman was scared about the fact that all
the pieces would be exchanged and the game would end in a draw.} Qd7 15. Bg5
Nd5 16. Re1 Ne5 {After making this move that avoids exchanges, Sethuraman was
confident that he would win this game!} 17. Bh6 Bxh6 18. Rxe5 Rad8 19. Qf3 e6
20. Ree1 Bg7 21. Nc2 Qc7 22. Ne3 Nf4 23. Red1 h5 $1 {A good move clamping down
White's kingside pawns and claiming more space.} 24. Rxd8 Rxd8 25. Rd1 Be5 $1 {
Another nice move that co-ordinates all of Black's pieces.} 26. Nc1 b5 27.
Rxd8+ Qxd8 28. Qd1 Qg5 29. Kh1 Qf6 30. Kg1 Qg5 31. Kh1 Bc7 32. Ne2 Nxe2 33.
Qxe2 Qe5 34. g3 h4 35. Qf3 hxg3 36. Ng4 Qe1+ 37. Kg2 gxf2 38. Qxf2 Qxf2+ 39.
Nxf2 f5 40. Nd3 Kf7 41. a4 bxa4 42. Nc5 a3 0-1


SS: Coming to the most crucial game of the event - the last round. You were half a point behind Wei Yi and had the black pieces. What was your mindset before the game? Was it to play safely and try to qualify for the World Cup or go all out for the title?

The crucial final round against Wei Yi gets underway!

SPS: I was facing Wei Yi, who was half a point ahead of me, and I had the black pieces. Add to it GM Le Quang Liem was ahead of me by half point and he had the white pieces in the last round. The tiebreak of individual encounter left me very little hope of playing for the title (because Sethu had lost to Le Quang Liem). As for my game, it's very difficult to play for a win with the black pieces if White decides to make a draw. I mean against a stronger opposition of 2600 and above, of course. Taking all of this into consideration I was happy with a draw before the game. But during the 14th move when the position became complicated I thought this is my chance and wanted to grab it. And thanks to Wei Yi, who stayed true to his nature by playing an aggressive opening, it all became double edged.


SS: You chose the Semi Slav opening against Wei Yi. That was the same opening you had beaten Deep Sengupta with the white pieces. How do you manage to play the same line so well with either colour?

SPS: Slav is one of my favourite openings. I have worked on it so much and have it played with either colours which gives me an extra bit of confidence in handling the opening.


SS: Can you tell us more about the new opening idea that you employed from the black side in this last round and how you found it at home?

SPS: Firstly 7...h6 is fashionable and not 7...Nxg4 and this idea with 11...Qh1 is rare and there are hardly any games in this line.

Sethu's new idea: Qf3-h1 hasn't been played by any strong player. Stepan Zilka (2509) is the only one. Much more common is Nf6-e4.

I prepared this idea one year back and even played some training games with my friend GM Deep Sengupta. Luckily enough I revised it during this tournament, since I wanted to try 7.g4 Meran with white and was looking at all kinds of options for black. This idea crossed my mind once again! That's the advantage of preparing an opening from general point of view so that you can use it from both sides rather than to stick with one colour.

Completely focused on the task at hand 

SS: What was going through your mind when Wei Yi sacrificed his knight on a7 in the game?

The knight took the pawn on a7 and it could not be captured, as Qd6+ wins the f6 knight. But after ...Kb7 the knight will be trapped.

SPS: I was so focused in calculating all the variations, so there was no time to think how it would end or to show any emotions at that point .


SS: Did you think he could build a fortress and hold a draw when you were a piece up in that rook+2 bishops vs rook+1 bishop?

Is this a fortress? Let Sethuraman explain!

SPS: His pawns were fixed and I had a strong pawn on e4 which cannot be exchanged and I had to just bring my pieces to perfect places to target the e3 pawn. So I thought the position was already much better for me and it was difficult for him to build any fortress.


SS: Were you distracted by Le Quang Liem vs Ganguly game on the second board?

SPS: Not one bit. My position was so complex and I was also playing fast to put my opponent under pressure since he was very low on time. But I definitely had a look at the game and it was a very impressive win by GM Ganguly who simply outplayed Le Quang. Only at the end I got a bit excited as Surya won and I got a winning position too.

[Event "15th Asian Continental"]
[Site "Tashkent UZB"]
[Date "2016.06.03"]
[Round "9.1"]
[White "Wei, Yi"]
[Black "Sethuraman, S.P."]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "D45"]
[WhiteElo "2694"]
[BlackElo "2647"]
[Annotator "Sagar Shah"]
[PlyCount "148"]
[EventDate "2016.05.26"]
{To beat Wei Yi with the black piece is never easy. And that too in the final
round with a half point deficit is really difficult. But Sethuraman thrives
under such pressure and once again proves that he can beat anyone in any game.
Just like he beat Tomashevsky in the last round of Qatar Masters 2015 with the
black pieces.} 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. e3 Nf6 4. Nc3 e6 5. Nf3 Nbd7 {The Meran is
the perfect choice for a must win situation. This was also what Ganguly played
on board two against Le Quang Liem and won his game with the black pieces.} 6.
Qc2 Bd6 7. g4 $5 {Wei Yi's choice can be questioned at this point. When he was
in the lead why did he have to take so many risks? But this is the way he
plays chess and this is the way he has reached above 2700! You cannot change
the style of a chess player so easily.} Nxg4 8. Rg1 Qf6 9. Rxg4 Qxf3 10. Rxg7
Nf6 11. Rg5 {The threat is now Bg2 to trap the queen.} Qh1 12. Bd2 {The first
new move of the game.} Bd7 13. O-O-O Qxh2 14. f4 Rg8 15. Bd3 O-O-O 16. cxd5
exd5 17. Nb5 Bb8 18. Qc5 b6 19. Nxa7+ {A very interesting piece sacrifice.} (
19. Nd6+ Kc7 20. Qa3 $11 {was round about even.}) 19... Kb7 (19... Bxa7 20. Qd6
{Threatening Ba6.} Kb7 21. Qxf6 $16) 20. Qe7 Qh6 $1 {Strong defence.} 21. Nxc6
Kxc6 22. Kb1 (22. Qa3 $1 Bg4 (22... Kb7 23. Qa6+ $18) 23. Rxg4 Nxg4 24. Kb1 {
With good attacking chances.}) 22... Kb7 {Black is now a piece up and White
needs to show his compensation.} 23. Rc1 Bc7 $1 24. Rf5 Ne4 25. Bxe4 dxe4 26.
Rf6 Rg6 27. Rxf7 Rc6 28. Rxh7 Rxc1+ 29. Bxc1 Qc6 {White has three pawns but he
has clearly lost his attack and initiative. Black's king is more than safe and
he slowly but surely activates his pieces.} 30. Rh2 Rc8 31. Rh7 Be6 32. b3 (32.
Rh6 Bxa2+ $19) 32... Kb8 33. Kb2 Bf5 34. Rf7 Be6 35. Rh7 Rg8 36. Rg7 Re8 37.
Qb4 Rh8 38. Qc3 Rh2+ 39. Bd2 Qxc3+ 40. Kxc3 {It is now just a case of breaking
through because the bishop on d2 is quite passive and the pawns are not going
anywhere.} b5 41. a3 Ba5+ 42. b4 Bc7 43. Rg6 Bd5 44. Rg5 Bc4 45. Rg1 Bd3 {
The perfect spot for the bishop which safeguards the e4 and b5 pawns.} 46. Ra1
Bd6 47. Rg1 Kc7 48. Rg7+ Kc6 49. Rg1 Rf2 50. Rh1 Rg2 51. Ra1 Kd5 52. Rh1 Be7
53. Ra1 Rh2 54. Rg1 Ke6 55. Ra1 {It is actually not so usual to see Wei Yi
being so helpless!} Rh8 56. Kb2 Kf5 57. a4 bxa4 58. Rxa4 Kg4 59. Ra7 Bh4 60.
Rb7 Kf3 61. b5 Rh5 62. b6 Rb5+ 63. Ka3 Bd8 64. f5 Rxf5 65. Bb4 Kxe3 66. Bc5 Rf1
67. Rb8 Ra1+ 68. Kb2 Rb1+ 69. Ka3 Bg5 70. d5+ Ke2 71. Bb4 Bc1+ 72. Ka4 Bd2 73.
Bxd2 Kxd2 74. b7 e3 {This ensured that Sethuraman became the Asian Champion
2016!} 0-1 

SS: How good are you at table tennis? Who is the best TT player of the Indian team?!

That's how the Indian team relaxed after the rounds!

SPS: In the Asians we got to play a lot of Table Tennis after the round and it was very relaxing thanks to my friends. I am a decent player! Not bad at all! Definitely Sasikiran is the strongest. However, he was not present here. In the Asians Deep and Bhaiyu (Abhijeet Gupta) were clearely stronger than others.


SS: You are now 2667, your career high Elo and have broken into the top 100 in the world. It is time to take the next leap of breaking into the 2700 league. How do you plan to achieve that?

SPS: Yes. I will try my level best to break into 2700 as soon as possible . There are clearly a lot of things to improve and I will be working hard to analyse my mistakes and rectify them.


SS: You will be playing for the Pune TruMasters in the MCL. What about the MCL attracts you to the tournament?

 Always a TruMaster at the MCL! [Picture by V. Saravanan]

I am happy to play for Pune TruMasters team for the third time in a row. First of all there hardly any strong rapid tournaments in India. MCL is the only one to improve the rapid skills of the game since I feel it's also a important aspect of the game. Secondly the league setup in India has just developed thanks to Abhijit Kunte and the sponsors of Maharashtra Chess League. Compared to the other countries we are still lagging behind. I always feel happy to be a part of new initiatives which helps in the growth of Indian chess.


SS: What are your next tournaments?

SPS: After MCL I would take part in Edmonton closed tournament. Looking forward to it.


SS: Thanks a lot Sethu for your time. Enjoy your success and thanks for making each and every Indian chess fan feel proud of his country!

Thank you Sagar! It's my pleasure to answer to your interesting questions.

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