Rookie vs Queen: When an amateur took on Koneru Humpy

Indian Grand Masters have agreed to play games against chess enthusiasts to raise money for PM-CARES fund. Sriram Srinivasan faced off against Koneru Humpy.

Koneru Humpy, alongside five other Indian GMs, has been taking part in an online chess competition organised by chess.com.   -  Special Arrangement

It’s 6:50 pm. My match was to start 20 minutes ago. But the green-and-white board on chess.com’s live page shows no signs of movement. I am excited and nervous. Is there a better way to spend the evening of day 18 of the lockdown, I tell myself. For, this isn’t any chess match. It’s going to be me versus a Grandmaster. I am no pro at chess. Not even close.

The only reason I am here is that I jumped at the chance, and so did 114 other enthusiasts, of playing a game against a top Indian Grandmaster. Making the cut was the easiest part. Participants need to have a FIDE standard rating of under 2000 to get in. When we signed up a few days ago, we knew six Indian Grandmasters - Viswanathan Anand, Pentala Harikrishna, Vidit Gujrathi, Baskaran Adhiban, Koneru Humpy, and Dronavalli Harika - have agreed to play simultaneous multiple games with a view to raise monies for the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assurance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM-CARES) fund.

I am playing Humpy, the newly-crowned World Women’s Rapid Chess Champion. She will be playing 17 others at the same time. The only other time I have played a GM was a few months back when the World Youth Chess Championship winner Praggnanandhaa visited our office, and was generous enough to accept our offer of playing against 10 of us simultaneously. He won all 10 without breaking a sweat.

Playing face to face is definitely more exciting than doing this online. As I wait for the Humpy match, I also realise, for someone whose best chess finish is No. 4 in the office tourney,  I am incredibly lucky to be playing GMs back-to-back.

At a parallel Zoom meeting, set up by the organisers to communicate with the 115 non-GMs, we are told that the matches will start any moment. There’s still time to exchange notes, though. I see one of them on chat saying, “I will just pretend I know what I am doing.” Another, jokingly, says, “I will resign after the first move. Humpy won’t expect that.”

READ: A letter to lefties

Meanwhile, one of them playing Harikrishna says his match has started. “He is playing A4, should I be concerned?” asks the player. The chess notation A4 tells us that the player playing white has moved the pawn in front of his dark-square rook two squares forward. Why would anyone do that, given that one of the big principles of chess is about controlling the central squares, which are on the D and E columns? Turns out the A4 move is called the Ware Opening, named after a player who was known for rare openings, and ensures the rook gets a look in unusually early in the game. World champ Magnus Carlsen is said to have used this opening in the 2012 World Blitz Championship against Teimour Radjabov. Guess what, he won.

My board will come to life anytime now. I quickly think back to the rather superficial look I had at some of Humpy’s games a day ago, which revealed her liking for the D4 opening while playing white. The D4 move essentially involves moving the pawn in front of the queen two squares up. It is said to be the second-most used first move, after E4, which while taking the pawn in front of the king to one of the key central squares, opens up pathways for the queen and one of the bishops. When black responds to white’s D4 (or the Queen’s Pawn Game) by moving up its own pawn on D two squares, white has a chance to effect what’s called a Queen’s Gambit. It can do so by taking up the pawn on C2 to C4, thereby luring the black pawn on D5 to have a go at it. When you accept the Queen’s Gambit, they say, you invariably land in trouble.

ALSO READ: On this day: 1963 - The birth of Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov

Humpy is online now. The excitement of playing a GM quickly gives way to alarm. Over the last 24 hours, I have almost taken the D4 move for granted. What I see, instead, is the English Opening. The world champion has started by moving forward her pawn in front of the bishop that’s to the left of the queen. That’s C4 for you, another popular opening move. I, playing black, recover and respond with an E5, making sure at least after the first set of moves the central squares aren’t in one person’s control.

There’s plenty of time to think, and that’s not always a good thing. Each player gets 45 minutes. And then for every move made, 45 seconds get added to the clock. That’s only fair since the GMs are playing many games all at once. I have always believed that the best chance for an underdog against a giant in any sport is in its shortest version. I have to play real good to win this one.

Things seem even to my untrained eyes in the initial moves. May be, they are. But by the tenth move, I am left with little choice but exchange queens, which in an odd way is relieving. Surely, a better deal than just losing my queen. But the bishop that takes my queen, after I take the white queen, is so strategically placed that I can’t castle on either side. And I am unable to dislodge the bishop from that spot. My remaining powers are hamstrung, and the match goes downhill for me from there.

We are still equal on the big powers - two rooks each - but my king is stuck in a corner. I hold on till the 50th move, giving up finally on the 51st. I do a quick recap and figure out I was never in with a chance. And then I realise I had the same feeling when I lost to Praggnanandhaa.

Support Sportstar


Dear Reader,

Support our journalism — where text and pictures intermingle so seamlessly — and help us scale up your experience as the world changes around us. Your contribution is vital to our brand of uninfluenced, boots-on-the-ground reportage that’s worth your while. Clickbait sensationalism is not for us, but editorial independence is — we owe it to you.

IPL Special

  Dugout videos