One of a rare breed

Published : Jun 30, 2001 00:00 IST


PATIENCE is the hallmark of her game. But when it comes to scaling new heights, Koneru Humpy has shown very little of that uncommon virtue.

Recently in Budapest, the 14-year-old chess prodigy from Vijayawada reached yet another milestone. She became India's second Woman Grandmaster (WGM) when she scored her third norm from the International Category XI tournament at the Hungarian capital. She is also the country's youngest WGM, by some seven years.

For the chess followers in India, Humpy's latest success was hardly surprising. Because she belongs to that rare breed of champions who refuse to rest on their laurels and endeavour to improve all the while.

This is however a remarkable achievement. There aren't too many 14-year-old WGMs in the world. Especially in countries where chess has taken a long time to find takers.

When Humpy became Asia's youngest International Woman Master (IWM) at the age of 12, she had made all her three norms in back-to-back tournaments, in a span of just five months. Now she has completed her WGM title after scoring her maiden WGM norm only last September. Mind you, it often takes players years to achieve that final, elusive norm. Nerves could torment you at the last hurdle. For all her talent, S. Vijayalakshmi, India's first WGM and the best female player ever, had to wait for two years before she scored her final norm in July last year.

Humpy has always been in a hurry to move ahead of the competition. She won her first World title at the age of 10, in 1997. The very next year, at the Spanish resort of Oropesa del Mar, she won her second World championship, in the under-12 event. After winning the silver in the same championship at the same venue in 1999, she made it a hat-trick of World titles when she clinched the under-14 championship last October, again in Spain.

Chess is one sport in which you can aim for the highest honours regardless of your age and sex. Humpy seemed to like that idea. So she participated in the National under-14 boys' championship in Ahmedabad last year and won the title quite comfortably, with a round to spare and without losing a single game.

Having proved a point to the boys, now it was time, she thought, to scare girls much older to her. Off she went to Mumbai for the Asian junior girls' championship, for which the age limit is 20, and promptly emerged as the outright champion.

Surely, Humpy plays chess better than most girls of her age anywhere in the world. She has the potential to become the women's World champion one day.

But you are wrong if you thought that was her biggest ambition. She wants to win the men's World championship.

She has always aimed high. What she said during an interview during the National women's 'A' championship in Kozhikode in 1999 is still fresh in one's memory.

Resting in her room at Hotel Asma Tower on a chilly, windy monsoon night, she had remarked, "Before bagging a National title, one should have the ambition to become a National champion, when one wins the National championship, one should aim to become a World champion, and when one wins the World championship, one should set higher ambitions in tougher fields."

And this was a 12-year-old talking.

Humpy had shown great tenacity and remarkable self-confidence many a time during that National women's 'A', where she did well enough to become the youngest player to make it to the Indian team. There was one game against Safira Shanaz, who was playing like a dream in the early stages of the tournament. The engineering graduate from Tamil Nadu looked like winning the game, but Humpy hung on. Even older players would have given up in that position, but she waited patiently and once Safira made an error in judgment, she was quick to take advantage and scored a crucial victory.

That is the way Humpy plays. Rather than going on the rampage from the word 'go', she prefers to play a waiting game, making her defence solid before launching an attack. That's how she was taught the game by her father, Koneru Ashok, the man who turned his precociously talented daughter into a precious property in Indian sport.

Ashok, who gave up his lecturing job to make Humpy a champion, introduced Humpy first to what is known as closed openings, like Reti Opening and Pirc Defence, whereas most of us begin playing chess with more open openings, arising from 'e4' (by pushing the pawn stationed in front of the king).

"That was deliberate," he had explained. "I went against the theory and obtained success."

Happily, Humpy has since widened her opening repertoire, and her game is becoming more allround. She has benefited immensely from her frequent exposures to quality tournaments in Europe, thanks to generous sponsorship from Bank of Baroda. Last year she became the youngest ladies' champion in the history of the British championships in Somerset.

"Humpy is already a strong player," says Vijayalakshmi. "It is no mean task to become a WGM at that age. I think her success would be an inspiration to many of our young girls."

The standard of Indian women's chess is definitely high enough to merit more than two WGMs. There are many waiting in the wings, like fomer World under-18 champion Aarthie Ramaswamy, Saheli Dhar Barua and veteran Bhagyashree Thipsay, who all hold WGM norms. And, as Vijayalakshmi pointed out, not all of them get chances to go overeseas to chase norms. There should be opportunities at home too.

Having reached her goal of becoming a WGM well within the period she set for herself, Humpy will now try and improve her Elo rating (it is 2311 at the moment, second only to Vijayalakshmi among Indian women). And maybe it's time for Ashok to start thinking of hiring experienced foreign trainers for his gifted daughter. Hopefully finance wouldn't be a constraint. It shouldn't, for someone as talented and hardworking as Humpy.

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