A bid to regain respect

FROM being just another National `B' championship, the 41st edition at Nagpur turned out to be like none other in the past four decades. For the first time, a Grandmaster chose to join the competition meant for the lesser mortals. With Koneru Humpy moving away from convention and out to prove a point or two, it was bound to be an event with a difference.

But what made a player, already seeded for the premier National `A', take part in what is considered by the majority of domestic players as the toughest open event in the country?

The answer was not difficult to guess. It was Humpy's determination to regain the lost respect in the domestic chess fraternity that brought her to what is essentially a tournament to identify 12 qualifiers for the National `A'.

Notwithstanding Humpy's meteoric rise in rating and stature, several seasoned players had doubted her actual playing strength. Everytime she gained a WGM or GM norm in Hungary, some of today's GMs, too, questioned the veracity of such norm-tournaments. They were quick to point out that Hungary was one destination for norm-seekers and Humpy's achievements should be taken with a handful of salt.

Well, with Humpy refusing to play any of the domestic tournaments, she was dubbed as an escapist. Overall, the impression among the Indian players was that Humpy was grossly over-rated. They said, if she was really so good, why did she not fare well in India? Her fall of rating from 2539 early last year to the present 2468 also helped those doubting her capabilities.

Since December 2001, Humpy's performance in India was indeed far below par. She lost four games to lesser-rated Indians in the AICF Golden Jubilee tournament at Kozhikode, skipped some of the international tournaments that followed at home and in the process, reinforced the impression that she was indeed not as strong as her rating suggested.

But it was in the second half of 2002 that things really brightened up for Humpy. She regained the women's title in the British Championship after getting the better of some of India's leading male players. She reached the semifinals of the World Cup in October at Hyderbad. This April, Humpy did well as the captain of India `B' in the men's section of the Asian Team Chess Championship at Jodhpur.

In the Commonwealth championship that followed, Humpy's form slipped drastically. Recently, in the North Sea Cup and the Politikan Cup tournaments in Denmark, Humpy's performance was forgettable.

It was in this background that Humpy reached Nagpur.

The National `B' is considered a `jungle' with some wild battles right from the early stage. Even the most seasoned players are not sure of making it to the top-12 qualifying bracket.

Sandipan Chanda, who recently became the country's ninth GM, was the top seed in the last two editions of National `B' but had failed to qualify. In fact, Chanda remains the highest rated player, with a rating of 2509, ever to fall short of qualifying.

Therefore, it was indeed a very courageous decision from Humpy to put her reputation at stake in such a fierce field. Intially, Humpy wanted everyone to believe that she was in Nagpur to gain some rating and practice before the Asian Women's championship.

It was a different matter that not many believed her.

The leading contenders for the qualifying slots said being the top seed, Humpy would have to score very heavily in order to add some rating points. Secondly, they all felt that no one comes just to practice in the National `B'.

With an already-seeded player around for the first time, the Players' Meeting on the eve of the championship decided that 12 players, excluding Humpy, would be considered as qualifiers for the National `A'.

Once the action began, Humpy gradually showed the kind of stuff she is made of. Though Humpy did not have to bother about qualifying, she still had a lot to play for. She needed no reminding that everyone was gunning for her. Barring the defeat to eventual champion R. B. Ramesh, Humpy had reasons to be pleased with the outcome of her matches. The way she recovered against Neeraj Mishra and then crushed a passive Rahul Shetty, both International Masters, the message for the rest was loud and clear.

It was only after Humpy finished second best to Ramesh on progressive count, her father and coach Ashok revealed the plans behind their journey to Nagpur.

``We were not sure whether Humpy was directly seeded to the National `A' by virtue of being a GM. We did not get anything in writing (from the AICF) in this regard. I do not wish to say more. At the same time, I did not want anyone to say that Humpy was not good enough to qualify from National `B'. Now that she has done well, I am very happy.'' said a proud father.

During the course of her campaign, Humpy won new fans and gained the respect of her peers like never before. Now all eyes will be on Humpy when she plays her first men's National `A' in her attempt to make the men's team for the next Olympiad.

``She has improved a lot since I last played with her in Guntur a couple of years ago,'' admired D. V. Prasad and continued, "in fact, she is a different player now. Her understanding of various positions is commendable.''

Dibyendu Barua had once said, "some players become strong and then become GMs. In Humpy's case, I guess, she will become a GM first before she gets strong.''

Perhaps, Humpy has proved Barua right.