Go Hari go, the sky is the limit

Published : Sep 08, 2001 00:00 IST


AN Indian prodigy has taken the world of sport by storm. He is not a cricketer. Pendyala Harikrishna is his name and chess is his game.

On August 15, at the age of 15, he became India's youngest Grandmaster (GM), breaking the record held by Viswanathan Anand for 14 years. And Harikrishna was not even aware of the fact that he had made history at that time.

He had completed a nine-game norm from the Asian chess championship in Kolkata, but was under the impression that he needed to stretch his norm to one of 11 games. He failed to do so, falling short by just half-a-point, after he drew with Ghaem Ehsan Maghami, who, two days before, had become Iran's first ever GM. And Hari was so disappointed.

"Maghami needed a draw in order to qualify for the World championship. He played very cautiously, without taking any chance and there was no way I could have tried for a win," Hari said, after finishing 10th in Kolkata, and thus ensuring a berth for the World chess championship. He is the youngest ever Indian to qualify for the World championship.

The very next day, early in the morning, he flew to London to play in the Commonwealth chess championship, hoping to get, what he thought, his final norm. There he was told by Stewart Reuben, the tournament's director, that he had already completed the requirements for the GM title, since he had made a norm at the Olympiad, which is considered a round-robin norm.

His visit to England proved pretty useful still, as he won not only the Commonwealth men's championship, but the Ron Banwell MSO Masters tournament as well. He was so good that he failed to win the under-20 and the under-16 boys' titles! (At the Commonwealth championship, a player is eligible for the medal in only one category as there is only one competition to determine all the placings in different sections). The teenager must be a little dazzled by all these happenings in the past 10 days or so.

He had made his maiden norm at the Olympiad in Istanbul last November. The second one came earlier this year at Wijk Aan Zee, where, he said, he was thrilled to sit in the same hall as Anand and Kasparov, who were playing in the super GM tourney. When a player has a round robin norm, he needs his norms to cover only 24 games, and not 30 when all the norms are Swiss.

The Sportstar has got confirmation from the world chess governing body, FIDE, that the prodigy from Guntur had completed all the requirements for the GM title. A player needed a rating of 2500 plus to be a GM and Harikrishna crossed that magical mark over a year ago.

Thus India's sixth GM - the two letters every chess player loves to put before his name - is the youngest of them all by three years. World champion Anand was 18 when he became the first Indian GM in 1987.

Just before the tournament in Kolkata, Harikrishna had played in the Asian junior championship in Teheran, and finished runner-up. That was a huge letdown. More than the title, he would have got his final GM norm, if he had won the championship outright. "One bad game spoilt the tournament for me. I lost from a winning position and it was all over," he said.

That disappointment was very much there in his voice even on that night in Kolkata when he failed to beat Maghami. He seemed to have almost forgotten that he had achieved something commendable, nevertheless, by qualifying for the World championship.

But when he was reminded of the nice time he had at the World championship in New Delhi last year, he had a hearty laugh, and pepped up. "Yes, it will be nice to play in the World championship."

At Hotel Hyatt Regency in Delhi last winter, he was having a blast, for he had no pressure of being a player. He was there just to see all those great players, including his idols, such as Viswanathan Anand, Alexei Shirov, Alexander Khalifman, Peter Leko and Nigel Short in action. He enjoyed mixing with other young Indian players such as Surya Sekhar Ganguly, who will also be there as a player at the coming World championship, Swati Ghate and Tania Sachdev, as they watched the games, discussed the moves and cracked jokes. "At that time it did not occur to me at all that I would actually qualify for the next World championship," he chuckled. "I just enjoyed my time in Delhi, watching those great players making their moves."

Harikrishna won the right to face those players across the board by finishing 10th in Kolkata, where there were no less than 30 GMs in the fray. It was a splendid effort.

It is only a little over a year since he became India's youngest International Master (IM). He had achieved that in style, making all his three norms in back-to-back strong, open GM tournaments. He played splendid chess with amazing consistency at Udaipur, Kolkata and Sangli last year. Around that time he also won the Asian under-14 championship at Ahmedabad.

His graduation to the senior ranks came a little earlier, in Kozhikode, when, in 1999, he won the Susheela Devi Thipsay closed rating tournament, beating three IMs - R. B. Ramesh, K. Murugan and P. Mithrakanth - en route to a score of 8.5 out of nine. "Yes, that was the turning point," he says. "That title at Kozhikode gave me a lot of confidence, and encouraged me to play in more open men's tournaments."

Right after that event he went to Mumbai for the National men's 'B' championship, where he finished a creditable sixth, and won a berth for his maiden National 'A'. He made further progress when he made it to the Indian team by qualifying from the National 'A' last year. And he found himself in Istanbul for the chess Olympiad, the world's most prestigious team competition in the sport. He was the 'surprise weapon' in the Indian team according to his captain, D. V. Prasad, and gave a good account of himself, against some of the world's finest players.

Harikrishna, who learnt the game from his grandfather T. Ranga Rao, demanded attention when he won the world under-10 title in Menorca, Spain, in 1996. That was only the second title for an Indian in a World chess championship. Anand was the first: he had won the World junior championship in 1987.

Just when his progress seemed to be affected by lack of a generous sponsorship, Wipro, the Bangalore-based software giant, stepped in. The company, which enables him to play in tournaments anywhere in the world, also gave him an excellent coach in Evgeny Vladimirov, whose former trainees include the World No. 1 Kasparov. "He is very promising," says his coach. "And he is super Grandmaster material."

The rapid strides he has made in his game of late have surprised many. "He's already become very strong," says veteran IM Lanka Ravi. "Like Anand, this boy can force a draw when he needs one; his defence can be so tight."

True, this boy can go all the way.

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