Back on track

G.N. RAO

Koneru Humpy didn’t lose a game, won four and drew seven to collect 7.5 points, the same as Slovenia’s Anna Muzychuk, the second seed with whom she shared the title. By P. K. Ajith Kumar.

The past few months have not been kind to Koneru Humpy. She slipped from World No. 2 to No. 4, lost without much of a fight in the World title clash, and saw her opponents getting stronger and younger. But this girl from Vijayawada is not just a prodigy who made collecting the World age-group titles a hobby and bruised many an Indian male ego in tournaments open for both men and women. She is a fighter too.

At Kazan in Russia recently, she showed all her fighting qualities as she came on top of a strong 12-women field at the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix chess tournament. It was a remarkable performance in what was one of the strongest tournaments of the year. The reigning World champion was there, as were two former ones.

Humpy didn’t lose a game, won four and drew seven to collect 7.5 points, the same as Slovenia’s Anna Muzychuk, the second seed with whom she shared the title (The World chess governing body FIDE’s Grand Prix rules stipulate that the title will be shared in case of a tie in points scored; but if a tie-breaker was applied in Kazan, Humpy would have been the champion, for she had a superior tie-breaker score).

It was a cautious and calculated approach by Humpy in Kazan. The third seed began steadily, drawing six of her first seven games in the all-play-all tournament before pressing the accelerator in the home run to win three of her last four games. She had come across her strongest opponents, World champion and top seed Hou Yifan of China and Muzychuk, within her first three rounds and posted successive victories, in rounds eight and nine, over Bulgaria’s Antoaneta Stefanova, who had raced past her to win the crown at the World rapid championship in Georgia shortly before the Kazan Grand Prix, and Kateryna Lahno of Ukraine.

Humpy still needed to win her last round encounter against Alisa Galliamova of Russia. And she did just that. She usually does amazingly well in such situations, from the time she started playing as a little schoolgirl. She handles pressure as well as most top sportspersons in the world do. And she has had to deal with pressure often in her career.

There was a time when her very talent was questioned by several top Indian players; they alleged she was scared to play at home and that she got her Grandmaster norms — a player normally needs three to get the Grandmaster title — from tournaments overseas that had dubious reputations. One was a witness to how she responded to those allegations.

She played at the National women’s ‘A’ championship in Kozhikode in 2003, after choosing to stay away from the tournament in the previous years, and beat 15 of her 17 rivals, 11 of them in a row, in a gruelling round-robin affair! A feat Viswanathan Anand would have been proud of. Few people in sporting history would have silenced their critics like that.

But it was not just women, there were men, too, who doubted her abilities. So, she played in the men’s National ‘A’ championship at the same venue a few weeks later. And she began sensationally, beating those who had considered her an overrated player; she even took an early lead and one still recalls the worried looks on faces of her male rivals. She finished sixth, after meeting 23 top Indian men in the most gruelling Indian domestic championship ever.

Humpy was just 16 then and had already won the prestigious World junior championship (she won it at 14 when the event was meant primarily for 20-year-olds). Humpy was making her moves so fast those days that the ultimate World title would be hers within a few years. She had become the strongest female player in history after Judit Polgar (the pretty woman from Hungary who is too good for women’s chess that she only plays on the men’s side) and the general consensus in chess circles was that Humpy winning the World championship was only a question of when and not if. For once, she could not live up to the expectations as she failed in her bids to become the World champion.

From her shocking loss to Ekaterina Kovalevskaya in the 2004 semifinal in Russia to the tame surrender to Hou Yifan in Albania last year, Humpy has had only forgettable campaigns at the World championship, though she was the favourite on most occasions.

After that loss last November, Humpy’s rating dropped below 2600; her current rating of 2589 is actually her lowest in the last five years. But she has gained valuable rating points from Kazan, where she also made up for her disappointments at the World rapid and blitz championship (she was 20th in the blitz though she came third in the rapid).

Indeed, this Grand Prix victory could not have come at a better time for Humpy. She had prepared well for the event. “I am working hard for the Kazan Grand Prix and want to do well as it is a very important tournament,” she had told this writer over telephone from her Vijayawada home earlier. This is Humpy’s first victory in this series of Grand Prix series (there are six in all but one player could only play in four). In the last series, she had won two, in Istanbul and Doha, and finished second in the overall Grand Prix points.

Finishing ahead of her formidable Chinese rival, Hou Yifan, in Kazan should boost Humpy’s morale. She could look forward to this year’s World championship, to be held in another Russian city, Khanty Mansiysk, later this year, with even more confidence.

* * * 'The first-half was very demanding'

NAGARA GOPAL

Koneru Humpy, by virtue of the Grand Prix win, is expected to move up from 2589 to 2598 ELO points in the next FIDE ratings to be released soon.

“This is incidentally the highest ELO-ranked tournament also featuring former world champion Alexandra Kosteniuk,” Humpy told Sportstar during her transit halt in Hyderabad on her way back home to Vijayawada. “The first-half was very demanding with little scope of taking any risk. That was the reason for too many drawn games,” she added.

“One of the high-points of this tournament was the victory over former world champion Antoaneta Stefanova,” said Humpy, who is also looking at the Grand Prix series as part of her preparations for the World Championship knock-outs this December.

“Having fared badly in the first Grand Prix, I feel that the performance in this second one is very satisfying. The Grand Prix series (2011-2012) features six events in all and I hope to keep improving in the next two scheduled to be held in Armenia and Turkey later this year,” the World No. 4 said.

“You need to have a lot of patience and play more steadily in the Grand Prix. You cannot take risks just like that. You have to be really good at the waiting game,” said the ONGC manager. “Never before in my career was I involved in so many drawn games in a tournament. That shows the intensity of the competition,” Humpy concluded.

V. V. Subrahmanyam