'The best news I have ever heard'

NISHA MOHOTA had a dream. Ever since she was a little girl who fought bitterly on the chessboard with her elder sister in their Kolkata home, she dreamt of being India's first Woman Grandmaster (WGM).

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

NISHA MOHOTA had a dream. Ever since she was a little girl who fought bitterly on the chessboard with her elder sister in their Kolkata home, she dreamt of being India's first Woman Grandmaster (WGM).

But that turned out to be just a dream. In July 2000, S. Vijayalakshmi had the honour of being India's first WGM when Nisha hadn't even made her first norm (you require three).

Now she dreamt of being India's second WGM. But a small kid with a mischievous smile, called Koneru Humpy, spoiled that dream too. The Vijayawada prodigy, on a record-breaking spree then, made her three norms in no time with ridiculous ease in 2001 and got her title.

Nisha stopped dreaming about being the third, though her e-mail address still began with the word `dreamer'. Frustration had begun to creep in, but to her credit, without being hopelessly obsessed with the three letters, WGM, she succeeded in coming up with good shows in major meets at reasonable intervals.

In the meantime, Aarthie Ramaswamy, the long-haired, wide-eyed girl from Chennai, became the country's third WGM. That happened at the fag end of last year. But this time Nisha didn't feel left behind, as she did on the two earlier occasions. Not just because she had learnt to be more pragmatic, but probably because she also knew that her title was just round the corner: she had made two norms and there was only one to go.

Interestingly enough, it was Aarthie's title that helped Nisha complete her own. But Nisha had to go through a few anxious months before the world chess governing body, FIDE, awarded her the title.

She had scored what she rightly believed was her final norm from the National women's `A' championship in Mumbai earlier in the year. But there was a technical problem though.

There had to be two WGMs in the tournament for her norm to be valid. Vijayalakshmi was of course a WGM for all official and other purposes, but Aarthie wasn't, though she had met all the requirements. The FIDE hadn't awarded her the title when she played in the women's `A' meet, but it still had the right to consider her as a WGM, since she was otherwise eligible.

Then on August 17, at its presidential board meeting in Nigeria, FIDE decided to award Nisha the title. But she came to know of it only three days later, when the All India Chess Federation (AICF) secretary and FIDE vice president P. T. Ummer Koya made an announcement during the Asian women's chess championship at Kozhikode, where Nisha wasn't playing anywhere near her best.

"This is indeed the best news I have ever heard," a beaming Nisha told The Sportstar. "There was a time when I had given up the hope about this norm and thought that I needed to make a fourth norm for the title."

She is glad that she no longer has to go through those terrible situations of playing for the final norm, which can put even the mentally tough under tremendous pressure. And she remembers the sacrifices her family had made to make her a famous player. She also remembers a gentleman called Kumar Ramachandran, a perfect stranger, who loaned his laptop when he read a report that she needed one but couldn't afford to.

Nisha was taught the game by her father when she was eight. Her elder sister Swati had already begun playing tournaments, so she had an ideal sparring partner at home. "Earlier she was a stronger player than me, but gradually I began to beat her," recalls the LIC employee.

She joined Kolkata's Alekhine Chess Club, the best chess nursery in India, where she learnt so many new things about the game that she loved so dearly. In 1993, she won her first National title, the under-14 at Palakkad. The same year she won the more difficult National under-18 title at Bangalore. "That was the first turning point in my career," says the 22-year-old. "Winning the National under-18 when I was 13 gave me a lot of self-confidence."

It was the same supreme confidence in the self that gave her the first break in 1995. She took a train to Chennai knowing that she could play in the Asian zonal championship only if the total number of entries was an odd one. Fortune favoured the brave Nisha, and she made history. She became the youngest Indian to win the International Woman Master title from that tournament.

But international success eluded her for a long time after that, though she won two successive National junior titles, in 1999 and 2000. And the WGM norms simply weren't happening.

Then came the Asian women's championship in Chennai ("Yes, it's my favourite hunting ground") in 2001. She won the bronze, qualified for her first World championship and made her maiden WGM norm. She put up a good show at the World championship in Moscow, as she was the only Indian woman to go beyond the first round.

Last year she made her second WGM norm, from the United Insurance international tournament in Dhaka. Then she had a fine run at the National women's `A' championship in January this year. But the rest of the year so far hasn't gone that well for her (she had a horrible time at the Asian women's championship).

But she didn't worry too much about that. She even joked that her mother, who had joined the rest of the family towards the end of the tournament, was distributing sweets in the khushi (happiness) of her defeats at Kozhikode. She is one of the sweetest girls you would come across on the domestic chess circuit, and it is hard to imagine a Nisha without her dimpled smile. And she has started dreaming again.