Humpy toys with the opposition

SOMETIMES everything would fall into place. Like a Satyajit Ray classic on celluloid. Like a Mark Waugh hundred on a lazy afternoon at the SCG. Like a Madan Mohan composition rendered by the evergreen Lata Mangeshkar.

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

The top four finishers, who made it to the Indian team for the Olympiad (from left): Nisha Mohota, Koneru Humpy, S. Vijayalakshmi and Dronavalli Harika. -- Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

SOMETIMES everything would fall into place. Like a Satyajit Ray classic on celluloid. Like a Mark Waugh hundred on a lazy afternoon at the SCG. Like a Madan Mohan composition rendered by the evergreen Lata Mangeshkar.

Time would stand still and the elements would conspire to bring about a rare feat of the human spirit — a masterpiece. Last month, in the Northern Kerala city of Kozhikode, on the shores of the Arabian Sea, 16-year-old Koneru Humpy reached closer to perfection than most people ever did in the history of the sport in India. She created a masterpiece.

With a stunning display of brilliance, panache and clinical precision, she won the Oilum 30th National women's `A' chess championship, held at the newly-built Chess India Complex, which now houses the All India Chess Federation (AICF) and would also house, in future, the National Chess Academy. From her first 16 rounds Humpy scored an incredible 15.5 points — 15 wins and one draw. Eleven of those wins came in a row, by the 11th round of the round robin league affair.

She finished the tournament with 16 points from 17 rounds, after quickly drawing the inconsequential final round encounter with S. Vijayalakshmi, who took the runner-up spot. History was made in a historical city.

It was sensational, really. Even if she herself were to look back at the tournament, a few years from now, it would seem a bit unreal. You don't score that many wins in a chess tournament, in any tournament in fact, at any level of competition. "It was an unbelievable performance," said Bhagyashree Thipsay, who had been playing in this championship since 1979. "I've never seen anything like this in any tournament before."

And this was no weak tournament. Besides Humpy, who is India's youngest Grandmaster (GM), there were three Woman Grandmasters (WGMs) and eight Woman International Masters (WIMs). With 18 players, it was not just the strongest National women's `A' meet ever; it was the longest too.

Vijayalakshmi and Humpy agreed to a quick draw in the last round. -- Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

But the Vijayawada prodigy simply didn't seem to mind. She was playing only her second women's `A', the last one was in 1999, which was also held at Kozhikode. She was just 12 then and hadn't even got her WIM title (which she in fact completed during the tournament). She still finished sixth, thanks to some splendid work in the second half of that tournament.

She'd been staying away from the tournament since then because she thought the event wasn't strong enough for her. She would stand to lose her hard-earned Elo points even if she won the title. She returned to the National women's `A' tourney only because she wanted to play in the Olympiad next year. She wanted to help India win a medal at the prestigious team championship. And only the top four from the National women's `A' would get into the Indian team.

So a place in the top four was her first priority when she came to Kozhikode, shortly after finishing her disappointing campaign in the boys' under-16 competition in the World youth championship in Greece. She knew that she would be the favourite to take the crown, being the top seed. But she wasn't prepared to be overconfident. "Vijayalakshmi, Aarthie Ramaswamy and Nisha Mohota are all strong players," she had said on the eve of the championship. "This is going to be a tough tournament, much tougher than my first one, when there wasn't even a single WGM. Yes, I do expect stiff competition."

Little did she know then that she was going to kill that competition, ruthlessly. There were two rounds on the opening day, against Swati Ghate, an experienced and talented campaigner, who had a forgettable meet, and Saheli Nath from Kolkata, who was making her debut at the National women's `A'.

Humpy encountered few difficulties on day one, which turned out to be rather good for her family — in full strength at Kozhikode — as her younger sister Koneru Chandra Hawsa held Viji to a draw in the second round. The younger sibling, playing in her maiden women's `A', had won her opening round against 15-year-old Kruttika Nadig from Pune, who later turned out to be the surprise package as the tournament progressed.

Humpy defeated Tania Sachdev from Delhi, who finished seventh eventually, in round three and took an early lead. In round four her rival — read that as victim — was S. Meenakshi, Viji's younger sister, who missed the bus to Spain (for the Olympiad), narrowly in the end. In the fifth round she showed no sisterly affection as she punished Chandra Hawsa for a grave mistake. She led by one point, and was beginning to look in ominous form.

Humpy then brushed aside the challenges from C. V. Rajalakshmi, Y. Prathiba, who put up a spirited fight in the seventh round before committing a costly error in the middle-game, Eesha Karvade, who finished sixth with a solid effort, and Saimeera Ravi, to take her score to nine out of nine. In the 10th round she defeated veteran Bhagyashree and set a National record for the highest number of consecutive wins in a tournament. Interestingly, it was Bhagyashree's record in the National women's `A' that Humpy bettered. The Maharashtra veteran, who had won this tournament five times, had triumphed in the 1986 edition with a 9/9 score. Dibyendu Barua is the only other Indian to have won nine consecutive rounds (he did that in a National junior meet).

Humpy made it 11/11 when she beat Anupama Gokhale of Bharat Petroleum, who, like many of the Andhra girl's opponents, got into an inferior position in the opening itself. In the 12th round, Humpy came face to face with the Guntur girl Dronavalli Harika, undoubtedly the fastest improving player in Indian women's chess and an ardent admirer of her more famous opponent. This was only their second meeting. The first one was also at Kozhikode, at the Asian women's championship in August, in which too Humpy was the champion. Harika held Humpy to a draw, a result which helped her win the silver.

She did it here again, bringing to an end Humpy's incredible run. Humpy had a chance to press for a win a minor piece ending. That draw, not surprisingly, rankled her for the rest of the tournament. "I should've won that game," she said, even after the event was over.

However, like a true champion, she didn't allow that result to upset her rhythm and promptly regained her winning touch. In the 13th round, she beat Aarthie, the defending champion from Chennai, who probably had the worst tournament of her career, and in the 14th she beat M. R. Sangeetha, another Chennai girl, who had a disappointing tournament. But the lowly-rated Sangeetha did succeed in giving Humpy a problem or two, something many of the higher-rated players couldn't. "It was my only win that I didn't like in the whole tournament," said Humpy.

She rather liked her next two victories though, against Nisha and Kruttika. She had ensured the title with her 16th round win against Kruttika, as she had a lead of 1.5 points over her closest rival Viji.

The gritty Viji, who finished with 14.5 points, had indeed given everything she had, once again. But there wasn't much she could do to stop Humpy, who was on the rampage. Her best chance was to meet the leader herself and try to beat her. But the draw meant that the two would meet only in the final round, by which of course the title was decided.

Nisha Mohota makes a point to her opponent M. R. Sangeetha during their match. -- Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

Viji herself had a long winning streak, but that was, not surprisingly, overshadowed by Humpy. After the two draws on the opening day, she won her next nine games on the trot. She may not have played flawless chess in each of those games, but her fighting qualities were very much evident, though she was troubled in the early stages by fever.

The Indian Airlines star was brought to the ground by Nisha in the 12th round. She could've easily drawn that game, but she decided to stretch herself and paid the penalty. "I wanted to win that game, and I could've," she said, "but I made a mistake."

It proved a costly mistake, especially for her sister. Meenakshi's chances to join her older sister for a second straight Olympiad would've been better if Viji had won that game, or even drawn it (for she was fighting for a place in the top four with Nisha). Interestingly, in the last edition of the tournament, Meenakshi had squandered her winning chances and had to draw the final round game with Aarthie, which forced Viji to abdicate her crown, for the first time in six years.

To be fair to Viji, Meenakshi still had her chances after that game. Her penultimate round encounter with Nisha had now virtually become a play-off: the winner would make it to the Indian team. She did try hard, but in her eagerness to attack, she conceded some ground to Nisha, who took advantage of that to win the game.

With that win Nisha virtually booked her ticket for her maiden Olympiad. She had taken some risks — like agreeing to quick draws with less-rated players such as Kruttika and Saheli, but her calculations proved right in the end. She finished third in the end, with 11 points, the same as Harika, who ended up fourth. The tie was broken by applying the Koya System.

Harika thus retained her place in the senior Indian team (she had finished inside the last four last time too). It was a fabulous show by her, because she wasn't playing at her best. She reached Kozhikode without taking a break after the World youth championship in Greece, where she failed, surprisingly. "She was hoping to win the under-14 gold there," said her coach N. V. S. Rama Raju, "and was upset that she couldn't even win any medal."

Harika -- Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

She showed yet again that she is the most consistent player in the women's game in India right now. In the past one year she's had just two bad tournaments — the World youth, and before that, the Asian junior championship in Sri Lanka.

Eesha is another youngster who seems to be on the right track. The 16-year-old from Pune is now playing more confidently than ever before, and there's a discernible improvement in her game. She had fought admirably against Viji before a poor move, late in the game, led to her defeat. "This is my best tournament ever, when it comes to the quality of my games," she said. She scored 10 points and was the biggest gainer of the tournament in terms of rating points. She added 24.

The other main gainers were Humpy (22), whose rating performance was a remarkable 2678, Kruttika (19), Viji (18), Tania (12) and Nisha (11).

Aarthie was the biggest loser, down by 24 points. Swati, another big disappointment, lost 20. She may not have thought of this National women's `A' meet at all till a couple of months ago, after failing to meet the qualifying mark from the National women's `B' championship, also held at Kozhikode, in June. She got an opportunity only because the AICF decided to change the format of the tournament — the WGMs were now given direct seeding, and the available slots were filled by Swati and Meenakshi, based on the performance at the last women's `A', and Rajalakshmi, from the women's `B'.

Kruttika Nadig was the only player to make a norm of any kind. She scored her maiden IWM norm, a 11-game one. -- Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

Kruttika was the only player to make a norm of any kind (she scored her maiden IWM norm — a 11-game one). She had begun badly, with a loss against Chandra Hawsa in the opening round, but slowly gathered momentum. From rounds seven to 12 she was in great form, when she beat Anupama and Aarthie and drew with Harika, Nisha and Tania. Strong in tactics, she is one of India's more promising players in the women's game.

The win against Aarthie in the ninth round was the turning point for Kruttika. It was a turning point for Aarthie too; she never recovered from that loss (she had declined Kruttika's offers of draw). She went on to lose her next four games and went out of the reckoning for a place in the Indian team. Her horror story was complete when she lost to Rajalakshmi, who finished at the bottom, in the penultimate round. It's a pity really, because she's one of the best players in the country. She has proved very lucky though for her husband R. B. Ramesh, who's about to become a GM. He, in fact, made his final norm after their marriage in August.

The tournament was followed by chess enthusiasts around the globe, thanks to the excellent live coverage on the net provided by the AICF website, `www.chessindia.org', manned skillfully by K. P. Shihabudheen and Binu Govind. There was an added attraction in the coverage this time: live annotations on all the games by GMs Evgeny Vladimirov and Ruslan Scherbakov, both of whom did excellent work. Their dedication to the task was admirable.

The live games attracted over 4,00,000 hits, from countries as varied as the United States, Hungary, Russia, Germany and Croatia. "I'm happy that our Internet coverage is improving by each tournament," said the AICF secretary P. T. Ummer Koya. "It's gratifying to find that Indian chess is getting so much global attention."

The placings (17 rounds):

1. Koneru Humpy (AP) 16, 2. S. Vijayalakshmi (IA), 14.5, 3-4. Nisha Mohota (LIC) and Dronavalli Harika (AP), 11, 5-6. S. Meenakshi (IA) and Eesha Karvade (Mah) 10; 7. Tania Sachdev (Del) 9, 8-11. Aarthie Ramaswamy (TN), Kruttika Nadig (Mah), Swati Ghate (LIC) and Anupama Gokhale (BP) 8, 12. Bhagyashree Thipsay (IDBI) 7.5, 13. Y. Prathiba (TN) 7, 14-16. Koneru Chandra Hawsa (AP), Saheli Nath (Ben) and Saimeera Ravi (IB) 6, 17. M. R. Sangeetha (TN) 4 and 18. C. V. Rajalakshmi (TN) 3.