Incredible effort

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

FIFTEEN victims in 11 days. Koneru Humpy turned a serial killer last month at Kozhikode.

Her incredible show at the National women's `A' chess championship — 15 wins in her first 16 games, 11 wins on the trot and 16 points from 17 rounds — will be talked about for years, whenever this tournament is played. It could well be another turning point in her career. Not that the National women's `A' title was very special. But the way she played, and handled her opponents, certainly was.

She bulldozed the opposition, like she never did before. She psyched out her rivals, like she never did before. She blended her positional style with tactical play, like she never did before. She won without any preparation for the tournament, like she never did before. She kept on winning, like she never did before.

"This is a turning point, I believe," said her father and coach, Koneru Ashok. "This is the best chess I've seen her play. It was like she was nearing perfection."

The precocious daughter agreed. "I've never played so well in so many games in a row," she said. "This performance has certainly boosted my confidence. I'm really happy that I have been able to gain 22 Elo points from here. I didn't expect that."

She had no time to prepare for the tournament, whereas most of her rivals must have been specially preparing for her, the top seed. "I just had a break of two days after returning from Greece," she said. "I took some rest during that break, and then boarded the train for Kozhikode. My plan was that I would take one game at a time, and would prepare for my rivals on the eve of the games."

The plan worked to perfection. "I'm really happy that I could win my games without having to toil for preparation," she said. "Some of my opponents such as Tania Sachdev, M. R. Sangeetha and S. Meenakshi did surprise me with their choice of openings, but I was able to handle the situations over the board. The fact that I was able to cope with unfamiliar openings was reassuring."

Her rivals gave the feeling that they were so unsure of themselves. Humpy's very reputation seemed to unnerve some of her opponents. "Most of the time you can see that Humpy's opponents were not playing according to the situation on the board," said GM Evgeny Vladimirov, on a coaching assignment in India now. "They were just playing Humpy (Harika was the only exception). As a result, they were making mistakes in the opening itself."

Humpy also admitted her stature may have intimidated some of her rivals. "I could see that some of them weren't very comfortable playing me," she said, flashing her mischievous smile.

Of course you can't win games just because what you are. You actually have to play well to win. So, let's take nothing away from Humpy's remarkable achievement at Kozhikode. After all, didn't she score six successive wins with black pieces? And just one bad move, whether you are playing black or white, would cost you a game. Interestingly, she was playing white when her State-mate Dronavalli Harika halted her run in the 12th round. It surely isn't easy to stay focussed for so long.

She said she wasn't thinking of setting a record for the highest number of successive victories. "I just concentrated on my next game, I just thought of how I could win that game. Nothing else crossed my mind."

That mind has remained rather sharp this year, most of the time at least. Humpy, who can now boast of a wider opening repertoire unlike before, recorded some of her best performances over the past few months. In August, she won the Asian women's championship, also at Kozhikode, and also with a round to spare. From there she went to Saharanpur for an international open GM tournament, and emerged a clear champion ahead of many seasoned and strong GMs and IMs. Earlier, she had finished runner-up in the National men's `B' championship.

The year also had its downs, like the North Sea Cup in Denmark, the Commonwealth championship in Mumbai and the Delhi GM tournament. But she's taken those setbacks in her stride. "I try to learn from my mistakes," said the prodigy who picked up four World titles before she turned 14, including the prestigious World junior championship.

Humpy has two important assignments next year — the World championship in Georgia, where she will be a marked player, and the Olympiad in Spain. She is excited about making her debut at the Olympiad. "This Indian team is very good, and I believe we can win a medal."

Right now though, she is thinking only of the National men's `A' championship, to be held at Kozhikode. She will be up against some of the finest male players in the country in the 22-round competition. The men could take her lightly only at their own peril.