On the final day of the Chess Olympiad at Mamallapuram, a woman, in her 40s and wearing salwar kameez, rushed to Koneru Humpy shortly after she finished her game. The female superstar of Indian chess had drawn her game on the top board with Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova.
The woman wanted to know how the rest of the Indian team was faring. She had been watching the games from the spectator area.
“Will we win gold?” she asked Humpy. “It was unlikely,” she replied.
It hadn’t been a good day in the last round match against the United States: both Tania Sachdev and Bhakti Kulkarni were in clearly inferior positions.
The woman told her that she was praying for an Indian victory. The prayers were not answered, and Humpy’s team – India A – had to settle for the bronze despite being the favourite, top seed and host.
It is great to see people are willing to pay to watch chess games. Normally in India you wouldn’t find an audience even when the entry is free.
— Koneru Humpy on huge turnout at the Chess Olympiad
Humpy’s meeting with the unknown woman and the enthusiasm with which Chennai, and the rest of the country – fans flew down from various States – responded to the Olympiad is a story in itself. Never before has chess in India struck a chord with the spectators.
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Humpy is pleasantly surprised when she is told that the woman she met probably would have paid Rs. 3,000 to buy a ticket for the Olympiad. “No, I didn’t know that,” she says. “It is great to see people are willing to pay to watch chess games. Normally in India you wouldn’t find an audience even when the entry is free.”
She believes the game’s popularity in the country will increase rapidly after the Olympiad. She hopes the historic bronze India won will inspire more girls to take up the game.
Indian women’s chess does need fresh talent. A lack of depth in the women’s game is among the few things that aren’t right with Indian chess at the moment.
If Humpy’s team still made history – it was India Women’s first-ever medal at Olympiad – that was because of the intrinsic quality in the squad, which also featured Dronavalli Harika, R. Vaishali, Tania and Bhakti.
“We definitely need young girls to come through,” says Humpy, who turned collecting age-group World titles into a hobby.
“I am glad to find that Vaishali is showing a lot of improvement. Girls like Divya Deshmukh (who won an individual bronze for India 2) show promise. I have also noticed that the huge strides B. Savitha Shri has made. But we need more like them. Just look at the number of world class youngsters in Indian men’s chess.”
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Looking back at her own performance at the Olympiad, she says she was able to do better in the second half of the tournament. “Considering the fact that I am playing classical chess after a gap of two years and a half, I am not too displeased,” she says. “I knew much depended on Harika and me on the top boards. We missed Harika (who is pregnant) in the last two rounds.”