A real stunner

"SHE'S a very sweet girl, always smiling," said Aruna, wife of former World chess champion Viswanathan Anand, from her home in Spain, one evening, earlier this month.

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

"SHE'S a very sweet girl, always smiling," said Aruna, wife of former World chess champion Viswanathan Anand, from her home in Spain, one evening, earlier this month.

"Sexy, self-confident, sociable... can we be talking about a professional chess player? Yes, we can," wrote PergammonChess once.

"(After watching her play) It seems that Judit Polgar isn't the only strong woman player in the world," said Vassily Ivanchuk, the 2002 World championship finalist, in his letter to the Turkish organisers about the international Grandmaster tournament (GM) they conducted.

"She's definitely one of the most beautiful women in chess," said teenaged Indian GM Pendyala Harikrishna about the woman to whom he lost in a tournament in Gibraltar earlier this year.

The lady in question is Antoaneta Stefanova. She is 25, Bulgarian, and of course pretty. She is also the new World champion in women's chess.

She lifted the most prestigious crown in women's chess at Elista, the capital of the Russian Republic of Kalmykia on June 5, crushing Ekaterina Kovalevskaya of Russia in a final as one-sided as the 2000 men's World title-clash between Anand and Alexei Shirov of Spain. She took just three games — that's the minimum — to become the 10th women's World champion, and the first from Bulgaria.

Her country was quick to celebrate her success. "We can argue on how many battlefields Bulgaria has won wars in its millennial history," the country's Foreign Minister Solomon Passy waxed eloquent in his congratulatory message to Stefanova. "There's however one thing we can be sure about: you are the first Bulgarian to win a World War, although in the chess field." And it was a strong field she had to overcome in Elista, notwithstanding the absence of the champions from the last two World championships — the Chinese duo of Xie Jun and Zhu Chen, who opted out because of per<147,1,7>sonal reasons. However, her task was made easy by Kovalevskaya. In the semifinals, the Russian had knocked out India's Koneru Humpy, the top seed, who would've given a much stronger challenge in the final. "It was unfortunate that Humpy went out," said S. Meenakshi, who herself put up a brave fight before losing in the opening round to a higher-rated Iweta Radziewicz of Poland. "She would've been a worthy rival for Stefanova."

The Chennai-based youngster however was quick to add that the Bulgarian was a deserving champion. "She played really well throughout, especially in the final," said Meenakshi. "It isn't easy to stay focussed in a knock-out tournament for that long."

It sure isn't. Just one mistake is all you need to make an exit. You have to be mentally and physically very strong to last over a fortnight.

Stefanova, who was seeded seventh, showed that she was stronger than anybody else in Elista. Her strong nerves were on display in rounds two, three and four when she was stretched by her rivals — Tatjana Vasilevich and Natalia Zhukova, both from Ukraine, and Nana Dzagnidze of Georgia — to the tie-breakers. She, however, overcame former champion Maia Chiburdanidze of Georgia in the semifinals in two games of normal time control. She'd opened her campaign winning both her games against Tan Zhongyi of China in the first round.

"I always wanted to win this (title)," Stefanova said at the press meet after winning the second game in the final. She also admitted that the long tournament had been difficult, "mentally and physically."

The following day, soon after she officially became the new queen of international chess, the beauty with brains from Sofia said, "I have not yet realised what had happened to me. Maybe I will understand this tomorrow or even later." The world could understand she was a special talent long ago. She'd begun to get noticed soon after she started playing in tournaments. She learnt the game from her father Andon Stefanov when she was four. In 1989 she had her first major international success when she won the World under-10 championship in Puerto Rico. She made her debut at the Chess Olympiad in Manila in 1992 at the age of 13 and in 2000 at Istanbul, she played in the Bulgarian men's team — a rare honour for a woman to play in the men's national team. She won the strong European championship in 2002 and in the same year reached the final of the World Cup in Hyderabad (which was largely a knock-out tournament).

A former World No. 1 in juniors, she is just one of the nine women in the world with men's GM titles. She's ranked 10th currently with an Elo rating of 2490, but was the World No. 2 last year with an impressive 2560 rating. Only the finest female players could aspire to reach such heights. One player who has the potential to achieve that, Humpy, says Stefanova has always impressed her. "I have never played against her, but have seen her games. She is a very strong, attacking player with good theoretical knowledge."

The new World champion is admired by women players the world over not just for her skills on the board, but for her lifestyle as well. She is known to enjoy her life outside chess, going to parties and discos, sometimes even during a tournament. "She's always the last to leave the discos," American player Jennifer Shahade once said in an interview. "She's dedicated to the game but also has an active life away from the board."

"She's always been very friendly," says Aruna. "I've met her during many FIDE tournaments, and she's been very nice."

Of course Stefanova has more admirers among men than women. Harikrishna, though, vehemently denies he was distracted by her looks when he played against her in Gibraltar. "She is very good-looking no doubt, but I lost that game because she played very well. I'm not surprised that she's become the World champion."

She's not just the prettiest World champion ever; she could turn out to be the most popular as well.