Koneru Humpy: Back to the forefront

Koneru Humpy: Back to the forefront

Koneru Humpy plays against Lalith Babu M R during All India Public Sector Chess Tournament, at Hotel Sandesh The Prince in Mysuru. (DH Photo)

It is ironical that despite shattering many chess records and being the strongest and the highest-rated women chess player (Judit Polgar is the highest-rated player ever but played only in Open section) for many years, a World title proved elusive for 32-year-old Koneru Humpy. Incredibly, it came her way at Moscow when she triumphed in the Women’s World Rapid Chess Championship last week after starting as the 13th seed.

The youngest ever to win a World junior title at 14 years, the youngest woman in the world to earn the GM title at that time, Asian Champion, British Women’s Champion and numerous titles in Age Categories, none doubted that winning the Women’s World Championship would be a natural transgression for Humpy. One of her best performances was at the North Urals Cup, Russia which featured the top ten women players of that time.

Her troubled equation with AICF (Indian chess federation) resulted in her missing a few prestigious events. In fact, in 2015 AICF moved the FIDE Ethics Commission to ban Humpy and take necessary action against her and strip her of the GM and other titles after she withdrew midway through the Commonwealth Championship. It was the Association of Chess Professionals which stood strongly behind Humpy and asked FIDE for a fair enquiry.

Always calm, shy and soft spoken, Humpy always keeps a low profile off-board but once at the chequered board, her personality undergoes a dramatic transformation.

Her brand of fighting chess, dislike for any short draws, made her a feared opponent. Returning back to chess after two years, after the birth of her daughter, her recent triumph might just spur her on to settle some unfinished business -- that of winning the Women’s World Chess Championship. Excerpts...

Your thoughts on this Woman’s World Rapid chess title?

To be honest, I didn’t think that a gold medal and title would come my way when I started the event. I had modest expectations of a medal of any hue. It is no secret that I am more a classical player and the shorter time control formats have never really been my cup of tea. After glancing at the final 12th round pairings, I realised that I had an opportunity to secure silver if I beat Tan Zhongyi. I had the advantage of the White pieces and refused a draw offer and went on to win the game to force a tie for top place. At this point I realised that I had a golden opportunity though it would not be too easy. Adapting to the Blitz format was not easy and I ended up losing the first tie-break because of slow play, that too with the White pieces. I opted for the Modern Defence and tried to complicate as the pressure was high to score a win and stay in the hunt for the title. This was literally a game where I gambled! After winning the game and forcing a tie, the Armageddon too was taxing but by then I was comfortable with the time and position both! It was just my day. After so many years of hard work, finally a World Champion title as a reward. I was so happy and relieved to finally, finally have the tag of ‘World Champion’.

Did you make any specific preparation for the World Championship?

I hardly had time as I played the Grand Prix at Monaco where I finished second. There was a 10-day break in between but I played the European Club Cup. With so many back to back events, it was difficult to specifically prepare for this event.

Your father Ashok has been your only coach. Does he still continue to be so?

It has been a while since we stopped working at the board as for the last few years I am preparing on my own. He is more of a mentor and guide now. We discuss strategy for the tournament and things like which opening to play and other things. The fundamentals ingrained by my father have been very strong and have stood the test of time.

From 2007 you were practically the highest rated woman player for a few years, yet the World title eluded you. Do you wonder why?

Yes, I do think it really appears strange. On hindsight, I feel like I played my best chess ever in World championships but the title never came my way and the best I managed was a bronze. I kept getting knocked out. Maybe I was unlucky. We don’t know what life will throw at us in the future. We can only focus on doing our job to the best of our ability and see what comes our way.

How much time do you devote to chess?

It used to be a tough, disciplined grind of 8 to 10 hours every day without a break -- even on Sunday. I would spend half a day working on chess. Now I spend about three to four hours every day. After the arrival of my daughter, things have changed. I no longer work on festivals and few other days. I have to do a balancing act but I never miss any opportunity that I can spend working on chess.

How much had chess changed after your comeback?

There are a lot of changes. I realised that most of the preparation I had done a couple of years back or earlier was not at all useful or had become redundant. With powerful engines, chess has changed. Younger generation play the best possible opening. When I became a GM, we did not have such exposure to technology. These days if you don’t become a GM by 12 or 13 years then there is virtually no future for you as a chess player.

How do you look at the current crop of youngsters?

When I made a comeback at Gibraltar, I met a few of them, most of them just 15 or 16 years old and already enjoying an Elo 2500 to 2600 rating. Frankly, I am overawed and sometimes I feel that I am already a veteran!

Which are your next events and are you expecting invitations to niche events?

Nothing is planned yet but maybe February or March. I have received a few invitations but I have become a bit choosy now. I cannot play all events but play in all official FIDE events. This title has sort of rekindled my hunger for winning a World Women’s title.

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