Sri Lanka produces its first International Master
By  Malinda Seneviratne 
Sunday, 10 February 2013 00:00

It was way back in 1980 that Sri Lanka got her first internationally rated chess player. L.C. Goonetilleke, then an undergraduate at Colombo University did well enough in the first Rating Tournament held in Sri Lanka against a strong field of Sri Lankans as well as international players to win a rating. The next target was to produce a FIDE Master (FM) and then an International Master (IM). 

The best bet at a title at the time was to win the Asian Junior, where the winner automatically became an IM. Vajira Perera almost made it in the eighties on two occasions when he defeated eventual winner Vishy Anand who later conquered the world, a fact which gave Indian chess such a boost that it left other countries in the region far behind. Harsha and Harinlal Aturupane were probably the best IM prospect. Both secured FM titles but retired from the game while still in their twenties. A breakdown in chess during the violence of the late eighties handicapped Sri Lankan chess severely and players of great promise such as Nirosh Perera, the Amarawickreme brothers, Athula Russell and others were all lost to the game. 

The women did better. A few FM titles were followed by Sachini Ranasinghe winning the Zonal event of the World Championship cycle last year, which result gave her a WIM title. On Friday, though, a decades long dream, was realized when Romesh Weerawardena drew with Bangladeshi Grandmaster Niaz Murshed in the final round of the Asian Zonal Chess Championship (Zone 3.2). Romesh denied Murshed of a chance at the title and with it a chance to play in the World Championship (another Bangladeshi, Grand Master Ziaur Rahman with 7.5 points out of a possible 9 won the tournament) and ended with 6 points, a performance which secured him an IM title. Incidentally, Nelunika Methmini (6.0) of Anula Vidyalaya got a WIM title, although she was behind the winner of the women’s event, WIM Liza Shamima Akter of Bangladesh and Sachini Ranasinghe. Prasanna Kurukulasuriya and T.S.S. Peiris ended with FM titles. Manisha Gunaratne (Sirimavo Bandaranayake Vidyalaya) got a WFM title. 

Weerawardena has been among the top players for over a decade but someone who has consistently faltered at the finishing line, so to speak. He has put together some remarkable performances but has had luck deserting him at crucial points. It was only in 2010 that he made it to the national team which represented Sri Lanka at the Chess Olympiad. In this event, however, he was at an all-time best, losing only to two Grandmasters while drawing with Akhila Kavinda and Murshed. 

An old boy of Ananda College, Weerawardena took to chess when he was 11. His first coach, an old boy of his school, was Luxman Wijesuriya, a several times national champ and a man almost exclusively identified with Sri Lankan chess. Romesh captained Ananda and was a member of the team that won the National Schools Championship in 1996. He has also won 4 international rating tournaments held in Sri Lanka, although he acknowledges that these were not very strong tournaments. 

Although Romesh first played in the Nationals in 1999, he never won the tournament. His best result was in 2010 when he came third. ‘The last decade and a half was dominated by a handful of players, especially Russell and G.C. Anuruddha, who won multiple national titles. Chatura Rajapaksa, Prasanna Kurukulasuriya and Rajeendra Kalugampitiya are all extremely good players and it has always been an uphill task for me,’ Romesh said. 

Romesh believes that his playing improved considerably during the time he was a student at Delhi University (where he read for a BSc degree). ‘I played in the Parshanath International, which is a GM tournament; I gained a lot of confidence from my performance,’ he said. Romesh has managed to draw with several GMs over the years, Murshed was not the first. He has also scored wins against IMs. After returning to Sri Lanka in 2004, Romesh decided to dedicate more time to chess, especially to coaching. Nelunika and Manisha are both coached by Romesh incidentally. Romesh believes that this achievement had something to do with his performance at last year’s Zonal tournament when he (along with Chatura Rajapaksa) came very close to getting FM titles. ‘This spurred me to do better this time’. Of the future, Romesh said that he has to perform even better and go for a GM title. ‘I have to justify the title, I have to justify the rating and I have to prove that this was not a lucky result,’ he said modestly. 

One of the more silent and self-effacing individuals in the chess playing community, Romesh is convinced that more opportunities against strong opposition will see more Sri Lankans coming through the ranks. Players like Chamika Perera of Trinity (National Champ 2011), Udith Jayasundara (Nalanda) are two good players who have already made it to the national team and Romesh believes that if they get the kind of exposure players of his generation did not have 10 years ago, they will go very far. 


Chess Daily News from Susan Polgar
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