A stunning rise amidst adversity

It is a different world of fantasy where `kingdoms' are won or lost in the space of seconds.

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

KONERU HUMPY. A name synonymous with chess. When her father-cum-coach Koneru Ashok selected the name for his daughter from the word `champion', it may have baffled quite a few. For, initially he named her as Hampi and when he realised that most of the famous chess names from Russia end with the letter `y', he changed it to Humpy. Well, now he can proudly look back and say he has spotted the champion in her much before anyone else had even seen the chess prodigy at the board.

Koneru Humpy at home with her rich collection. — Pic. Ch. VIJAYA BHASKAR-

It is a different world of fantasy where `kingdoms' are won or lost in the space of seconds. A fascinating battle for supremacy of the 64 squares on the board. A truly mind-boggling, intense war of wits, which demands a certain degree of mastery by the contenders. To her credit, Humpy gave a new dimension to the art of winning, scripting a success story, which is akin to a fairy tale. A stunning rise on the chess horizon, amidst adversity. Well, if India's youngest Grandmaster Koneru Humpy is now sporting a broad smile, it surely may not reflect the saga of struggle on various fronts by the family.

A remarkable transition from the days when everything looked gloomy. The support was not really forthcoming. And, those were the days when Ashok wondered whether his gamble to quit his job to take up full-time coaching of his daughter was the right move or not. But, destiny deemed them to chart a course, which headed only one way — towards history.

The career graph of the 17-year-old Humpy clearly transcends the limits of an ordinary Indian girl, which she surely was, at least, in the beginning. The present looked gloomy and the future uncertain in the mid-90s.

A new chapter

The constant snubbing he took from his own relatives and friends for being so obsessed with chess still haunts Ashok. The National under-9 title won by Humpy in 1996 was just what Ashok was looking for to virtually mark the beginning of a new chapter in Indian chess. They came up with the right moves, which distanced them from the lesser mortals and carved a niche for themselves in India's sporting history. And, this is where sponsorship — first by Ramakrishna Prasad of Siddartha Public School (Vijayawada), then by Bank of Baroda and later by the Chalapathi Residential School in its own way — played a key role in shaping Humpy's career which also saw her become the youngest woman to win the men's Grandmaster title at the age of 15 years, one month and 27 days.

Shining ornament

A stroll down the meandering streets of Moghalrajapuram, a relatively posh locality in Vijayawada, will take you to the destination any sportslover would simply love to be. Born in Rajendranagar of Gudivada, close to Vijayawada, it is unmistakable that Koneru Humpy is now a new, shining ornament, which is as popular as the famous Kanakadurga Temple on the banks of the river Krishna. A star, who put Vijayawada on the world map of sports by her achievements which all began in the winter of 1997 when she won the World under-10 championship, almost a year after Pendyala Harikrishna made his real impact in the big league picking the same title for boys.

A typical, middle-class ambience in a two-bedroom apartment welcomes the visitors. The traditional hospitality of Andhra is writ all over in the atmosphere for those who wish to spend some time with the famous names of Vijayawada. She still continues to be the unassuming young girl — no discernible change from the days she won her first world title. Reluctant even now to engage herself even in brief chat. And, she invariably looks to her father every time she faces a query, which she cannot handle. Given the choice, Humpy simply loves to spend her time playing badminton in the basement of the apartment with her friends from the neighbourhood, conveniently forgetting her stature in the world of sports. The 2001 World junior champion and a semi-finalist in the recently held World women's championship in Elista (Russia), when away from the chessboard, is a perfect model of a traditional Indian girl. Modesty personified. "When I am off the game, I love to be in a different world," she says in a shy voice. A characteristic feature, which also reflects her simplicity.

A happy family. Humpy with mother Lata, sister Chandra Hawsa and father Ashok. — Pic. Ch. VIJAYA BHASKAR-

The day begins with a morning walk in the adjacent school grounds where Humpy warmly acknowledges the greetings from the passers-by and also delights them by signing quite a few autographs. She is clearly enjoying the recognition if not really demanding it. And once the morning regimen is over, she is back to usual business where she simply loves to be at her best — practising and analysing the games of the best in the world of chess. A stickler to the unwritten rules and regulations of a typical, middle-class Indian family, this superstar really delights her friends and foes with her impeccable behaviour and a no-nonsense approach.

Competitive companion

Back home, Humpy now has a `competitive companion' in her younger sister Koneru Chandra Hawsa, a rated player. "Unlike as in the past when only my father was the company on the chessboard, now my sister is a fast-growing player in the sport," she points out. "I do enjoy some of the duels on the board with her. After all winning is not that important there," she quips. Well, it is truly a complete chess family. Does she really miss anything like any other girl of her age? "May be, the freedom which any school or college-going girl enjoys. Definitely, I miss the fun and frolic of the college," she confesses. Rather unfortunately, this champion performer had to make a difficult choice — education or chess. And, once her father spotted the inherent talent way back in 1994, he had no hesitation that Humpy has to be in chess. Come what may. "Certainly, there were quite a few in the family who were sceptical about my decision but I was convinced that she will make a mark in the sport," recalls Ashok. How prophetic he turned out to be! Education's loss is chess' gain! No second thoughts on that. "I might have lost out on education, but I am more than happy with what I have achieved in chess. I prefer to look at the brighter side of life," asserts Humpy with a touch of philosophy.

Not a smooth ride

It has not always been a smooth ride to the top. Not many can forget an inconsolable Humpy weeping in front of the Sports Minister's residence a couple of years ago when it was felt that they were `humiliated' by the high drama enacted on that morning — all for the sake of an audience with the then Chief Minister. An episode, which left a mark on the family and almost forced Humpy to give up the sport. "Enough is enough. You stop playing chess now. Why should we win at the highest level and face these acute embarrassments?" was the dejected comment from the normally affable Ashok at that time. But, it was a bitter past as better sense prevailed and Humpy was back in her `exclusive domain' in the world of chess. The fact that Ashok continues to be her coach and that she is not even entertaining any thoughts of hiring a `second' speaks volumes of her confidence in him.

Cooking her opponents' goose! Humpy is an expert in the kitchen, too. — Pic. Ch. VIJAYA BHASKAR-

Not known for being a socialite in the true sense, Humpy normally confines herself to the near and dear of her own family. She doesn't even venture out for any movies with family members too. "Somehow, I am not really keen and prefer instead watching them on TV at home. And, no serials please," she says. The one thing which keeps her in a world of her own is watching Telugu megastar Chiranjeevi's films and that too on the small screen. Has she ever met him? "When I was 10 and in Hyderabad to receive the Pratibha Award, there was a chance encounter confined to exchanging pleasantries and nothing else," recalls a smiling Humpy. Things can well be different now for she has a brand name of her own in the world of chess and more popular now. Who knows, it can be the other way round with the film star himself being too enthusiastic to meeting her!

Mother's delight

In a way, Humpy is a mother's delight with her simple lifestyle. Virtually giving up the thought of going to college now by preferring to appear in the Open University examinations, she spends her leisure time in helping her mother Lata. And, given the choice, the youngest British Open women's champion would come up with her own menu including chicken 65, potato chips and spicy rice items. She is delighted by the simple fact that at home she is treated like a normal girl. "That makes me very comfortable and once chess takes a backseat we enjoy ourselves in the family," she says.

Gunning for glory

Not surprisingly, Humpy's obsession with chess is all-pervading. For, there seems nothing else to worry her. Gunning for glory and trying to scale the summit in the world of women's chess, Humpy's eyes glow in delight at the mere mention of her World junior title. "It will remain a special event for it gave me the belief that I can be something in the sport at the highest level. A title which sowed the desire of winning the world title in the seniors' category and the men's Grandmaster title," she says. With the second one already in her kitty, it is not surprising that she is all geared up to win the world title, which she missed narrowly in the recent edition.

Whoever scripted those famous lines, which reflect the Bank of Baroda's (her main sponsor) commitment to Humpy — `She captured the world, we merely took her there' — may look back in hindsight with a sense of pride. For the superstar has not let down either the sponsors or the chess fraternity with her phenomenal consistency over the years. Mind you, she is still very young and has plenty of years in chess, which can assure her a special place in the history of sports itself. When India's greatest chess star Viswanathan Anand predicted that Humpy had the potential to be a world champion, he was certainly speaking from his heart. And, if her intense preparations are any indication, Humpy is determined to live up to the expectations.

As someone rightly summed up her career, little steps lead to giant steps, the chess prodigy is surely on the verge of moving into the elite of world chess.