Koneru Humpy, the strongest woman player in India’s chess history, rightly leads the country’s strongest bid for its first Olympiad gold. Playing only her fourth Olympiad since 2004, Humpy holds the key to India’s fortunes. Though she has not played a single rated game since February 2020, given her experience and class, Humpy can be expected to add to India’s game-points every time she plays.
For the first time, India is seeded to win the gold and Humpy spearheads the team that has the resources to justify the top billing. On her return to competitive chess after two years, following the birth of her first daughter Ahana, in 2017, Humpy impressed one and all by winning the 2019 women rapid title.
Even during the 2018 Olympiad, she reproduced her magic by scoring five points from six rounds. However, between the eighth and 10th rounds — against Hungary, Italy and Peru — Humpy managed only half a point and did not play the final round. Clearly, this time, Humpy will be looking to cap her run on a brighter note. Rated 2586, Humpy will be the strongest player on view in the women’s section. Humpy is still good enough to have a few more cracks at the elusive world title, but for now, she can focus on scripting the country’s first medal winning chapter in this Olympiad.
Complementing Humpy’s presence on the top board, Harika Dronavalli proves a perfect foil on the second board for India. Very few teams in the world have such performers on the top two boards. Notwithstanding the fact that her first baby is due late in August, Harika has spared no effort in preparing for her ninth Olympiad. “I did not want to miss playing the Olympiad at home and when my doctor assured me that it was fine to play in July and early August, I was so happy. I have done everything within my means to stay healthy, train as hard as I could and left the rest to the wishes of God.”
These words from Harika reflect what this opportunity — playing the Olympiad before home fans — means to this three-time World championship medallist. She joined other team-mates online during the preparatory camps held in Chennai. She has remained in constant touch with not just her team-mates and coaches but also with the official costume designer for the Indian contingent. Such has been Harika’s involvement.
Now much depends on how her body holds up during the event. In any case, Harika’s services are likely to be invited only during the key matches. Given the playing strength of the top-seeded team, Harika will not be required to play in the initial rounds against lower-rated opposition. Everyone in the squad agrees that Harika’s mere presence as a team member is very reassuring.
The youngest member of the team, at 21, Rameshbabu Vaishali is the potent cutting edge the team needed. Groomed under the watchful eyes of coach R. B. Ramesh, Vaishali has the game to pull off key encounters in team events.
Unlike most members of the team whose positional play stands out, Vaishali has a more dynamic style. Expect her to be involved in more decisive games than most others against rivals of matching strengths. Playing her first Olympiad, that too, as the third player, is a new challenge for Vaishali.
Thankfully, the presence of Ramesh and her younger sibling Praggnanandhaa should help her nerves. In the key encounters, where Humpy and Harika are expected to stay undefeated, India will expect to strike on lower boards, especially the one with white pieces. This is where Vaishali’s role could prove very crucial.
Though she lacks the experience of her teammates, Vaishali possesses a sound understanding of the positions and manages her time well. Going by her recent form, when she gained her second Grandmaster norm on her way to the eighth Fischer memorial title in Heraklion, Greece, Vaishali should be quite a force as Indian women eye their greatest hour. No wonder then, the coaching staff expects a lot from her.
An ex-Asian women champion and a former Olympiad medallist, Tania knows it is a huge opportunity to strike gold at home. The most widely seen and heard Indian chess player during the pandemic and beyond, Tania is back for her seventh Olympiad. Being part of the commentary team on the cash-rich Champions Chess Tour and the World championship match, Tania has worked hard to play her part in India’s campaign.
Irrespective of the fact that Tania is the most followed female chess player from India in the social media space, her understanding of the game makes her worthy of being seen with the best names in the business. During the run-up to the Olympiad, she claimed the women’s title in Reykjavik where Praggnanandhaa was the overall champion.
Being part of the broadcast team for over two years has surely helped Tania stay in touch with the new ideas in the game like no other in the Indian team. Discussing the game with the best of players and analysts including past masters like Peter Leko and Peter Svidler, has polished Tania’s skills, given depth to her positional understanding and also brought fresh insights into the game. In the preparatory camps, Tania has worked hard to prepare for the role she is expected to play in the campaign.
An understated warrior in the Indian team, Bhakti, too, is a former Asian women champion. This Olympiad debutant has the game to score when summoned to fill the fourth board.
An International Master, Bhakti is articulate and has a more holistic view of the game. As a fierce fighter over the board, she has enjoyed a fair amount of success. After twice missing the National crown in 2016 and 2017, Bhakti finally made it in the following year after a dramatic four-way tie for the top spot.
What more, she went on to regain the crown. Coached by Raghunandan Gokhale and mentored by his wife, five-time National champion Anupama Gokhale, Bhakti has goals of performing at the highest level. Her progress appears to have slowed down mainly due to the situation triggered by the pandemic, but Bhakti has it in her to beat the odds.
After the pandemic, Bhakti has played only a few tournaments. Though she performed marginally above her rating in the recent Maharashtra Open, Bhakti has the strength to be far more effective in the women-only field. Her never-say-die approach and positive attitude could well be on view in this Olympiad.
Almost unnoticed, this Delhi-girl has made rapid strides and even won the National online women’s title ahead of many seasoned names last July. As part of the gold-winning Online Chess Olympiad team in 2020, Vantika experienced how it felt to be part of the National team.
Since then, she has worked very hard to stay in the mix for the Olympiad. With the host getting to field two teams, India ‘B’ could accommodate many seasoned campaigns with two debutants. Vantika makes her debut as the second highest-rated player in the team. So far, she has managed to find a balance between chess and academics. In fact, during the preparatory camp in Chennai, Vantika was seen juggling between her college books and chess studies.
But this bespectacled girl is too focussed on chess and shows the willingness to work hard for success. Having gained from the coaching experience of the country’s oldest GM, Pravin Thipsay, who is also the head of the India’s Chess Olympiad players’ delegation, Vantika looks prepared for the tougher battles ahead. Given her rating, she should be playing almost all the games unless coach Swapnil Dhopade and senior team members have a reason to the contrary.
Padmini, the only female player to win an Olympiad gold as a board prize, is raring to go. Being the highest ranked player in the team, she has more responsibility than in any of her previous three outings.
She was in Serbia recently for tournaments and looked prepared to take up the challenge. Padmini says her gold-winning performance in 2014 was followed by her worst in 2016 before she made up with a decent 5/7 on the fourth board as a reserve player in 2018.
Unlike her previous appearances where she was required to play on the lower boards, Padmini could well be on the top-two boards. This means facing stronger opposition and soaking in more pressure. Her experience should help the team, but Padmini is expected to be a live wire on the board, looking to score at every opportunity.
In any case, much will depend on the board-order finalised for the campaign. Will the team management go with the two strongest players at the top or juggle the combination around for greater benefits, remains to be seen. Whatever be the approach, Padmini’s role is bound to be very important. Expect her to play aggressively and look for points irrespective of the match-situation.
Mary Ann Gomes
Another seasoned campaigner returning for her fifth Olympiad, Mary is the other board-prize winner in the team. Her vast experience could be handy on the lower boards.
Her flexible style of play allows her to go for an all-out attack or simply hold the position for the benefit of the team. Mary is not the one to abandon all caution and go for broke. Her current form does not inspire much confidence but expect her to play at a different level among women players.
Her vast experience and comfort level with both colours could be a huge asset to the coach when deciding the board-order for key encounters. As a team player, Mary has managed to win quite a few key games when they mattered. On the lower boards, the difference in the playing strengths of the two Indian teams is almost negligible, though the rating presents a different picture. Given Mary’s experience, it should not come as a surprise if there is steady scoring on boards three and four, especially in the initial rounds.
An Indian Oil colleague of Padmini and Mary, former World junior girls’ champion Soumya is the other player expected to punch way above her weight.
After making her debut in 2012, Soumya will be playing her third Olympiad. She has worked hard during the training camp, under Boris Gelfand, as well as in the second camp, and it remains to be seen how all the training translates into good results. However, like Mary, Soumya’s form of the past year is a worry.
She struggled in the National championship in February-March and again in the Maharashtra Open in June. Despite the reasons to be low on confidence, Soumya has ways of picking herself up and meeting the challenges head on. It remains to be seen whether the team’s think-tank goes by rating in finalising the board-order or prefers Soumya to move a rung down the order.
In any case, Soumya could be more effective on the lower boards. Again, the initial rounds could see the players selecting themselves for the crucial battles ahead. This team has the capabilities to soften up quite a few higher seeds and that’s what makes this combination an exciting one.
In March, when this 16-year-old won the National championship ahead of contenders with far more illustrious careers, there was a wave of delight. After a long time, a teenager won the women’s National title. Being candid, Divya Deshmukh was quick to acknowledge the guidance provided by Arjun Erigaisi, who, within 24 hours, won the National title in Kanpur.
Divya’s quality of play during the National championship was exceptional. A consistent performer at age-group competitions at all levels, Divya suddenly emerged as an exciting prospect among the seniors. She gave a good count of herself in the Maharashtra Open where she not only held Azerbaijani GM Azer Murzoev but also stunned International Master Mohammad Nubaishah Shaikh, rated 2433.
As a result, Divya’s current form could tilt the scales in her favour in the earlier rounds. She brings with her the confidence gained from playing her part well in the 2020 Online Chess Olympiad where India shared the gold with Russia.
This experience of playing the Olympiad at home could serve as a huge motivation for a debutant and Divya is no different. Being the lowest-rated and the youngest in the squad, Divya has no pressure of expectations to deal with.
She is an experienced campaigner. This is going to be the fourth Olympiad for the 34-year-old Woman Grandmaster from Pune. She played in the 2010, 2012 and 2014 Olympiads. She was the bronze medallist at the Asian women’s championship in 2011.
M. Varshini Sahithi
She is among the most improved players in Indian women’s chess. The 14-year-old from Visakhapatnam is ranked 11 th among Indian women; she is a couple of younger than the players placed above her.
She returned to competitive chess only very recently after taking a break. But coaching had kept her busy during the pandemic, so she never was away from the chessboard. The 25-year-old Woman Grandmaster from Hyderabad could not have timed her return to tournament chess better; for the mind sport, there aren’t too many bigger stages than the Olympiad.
She was the runner-up at a strong World junior girls’ championship at Bhubaneshwar in 2016. The 26-year-old Woman Grandmaster from Tamil Nadu was part of the Indian team that won the Online Asian Nations Cup in 2020.
The coronavirus may have upset her plans for the Woman International Master title, but Vishwa Vasnawala eventually completed the requirements last March after securing back-to-back norms last. Four months later, the 15-year-old from Ahmedabad finds herself part of an Indian team for the Olympiad, because the host could field a third team in the women’s section too.
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