Thumping win for Humpy

"YOU'VE just gifted me the gold." Koneru Humpy could've said so to Zhao Xue on that wet August afternoon in the northern Kerala city of Kozhikode

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

Koneru Humpy, who won the Asian women's championship, is flanked by the silver medallist Dronavalli Harika (left) and Vietnam's Hoang Thanh Trang, who took the third spot. — Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

"YOU'VE just gifted me the gold."

Koneru Humpy could've said so to Zhao Xue on that wet August afternoon in the northern Kerala city of Kozhikode a la Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh, who supposedly told South African Herschelle Gibbs, when he dropped him during a tight semifinal clash during the 1999 World Cup in England, "You've just dropped the World Cup."

The 16-year-old Indian, sponsored by Bank of Baroda, was heading towards a certain defeat in that game in the seventh round of the Asian women's championship when Zhao Xue made her 45th move — Rd7 — that would haunt the Chinese player for some time. Humpy, the top seed and a strong favourite, won that game, recovered her poise, and went on to clinch the title with a round to spare.

Zhao Xue admitted later that she was rattled by that defeat — which she snatched from the jaws of victory — and that she could never recover after the loss. The second seed was placed 13th in the end. When the seventh round had begun, she was on 4.5 points, just half-a-point behind Humpy and Harika, the overnight leaders. Going into the final stage, Xue and Xu Yuanyuan, who also was on 4.5, were looking the best bets for China.

Zhao Xue's poor finish was surprising. It was also surprising to note that the rest of the Chinese contingent failed to win even a single medal.

The Chinese wall was indeed washed away during the Kerala monsoon, chiefly by two young Indian girls. Or to be more precise, two girls from coastal Andhra with names beginning with the letter `H'. (Twelve-year-old Dronavalli Harika was the other one, and boy, wasn't she sensational?)

It's not often that China fails to dominate an event in which so many of its women compete. China in women's chess is what Australia in cricket is — way ahead of the competition.

The World champion is from China. So is the World Cup champion. And China is also the champion at the premier team event in world chess, the Olympiad.

To be fair to China, some of its best players were not present at the Asian championship, while India fielded its strongest ever contingent for a women's meet. But still, there were 11 players from China, including the defending champion, two former World junior champions, besides Olympiad gold-medal winners.

But at Kozhikode, which is fast regaining its stature as the busiest host for chess events in the country, China's — and the world's — big names, quite expectedly stayed away. The World champion Zhu Chen and World Cup champion Xu Yuhua were already seeded for the next World championship.

Though the Asian championship is primarily a qualifying tournament for the World meet, it is indeed a prestigious event. After all, it is the official continental championship, and, of late, it has been getting stronger and better with each passing edition.

In her first ever meeting with Humpy across a chessboard, Harika did well to take half-a-point. — Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

This year was the 10th edition of the tournament, and it was easily the strongest ever. One Grandmaster (GM), 10 Woman Grandmasters (WGMs) and 10 International Woman Masters (IWMs) were in the fray. And there were 20 players who had ratings of above 2300.

The stage was perfect for bringing the title back to India after 12 long years. Not just because China looked beatable, but more because India's strongest ever female player Humpy was leading the country's strongest challenge ever. And she wasn't the only one from the host nation who had the potential to spoil China's chances.

There was the Chennai girl S. Vijayalakshmi, the silver medallist in the last edition of the meet held in her hometown, for instance. Twice silver medallist at the Olympiad, Viji had come up with a stunning show at the Commonwealth meet in Mumbai in April, when she finished runner-up in the men' section, besides winning the women's title (ahead of very good players including Humpy). Nisha Mohota, a bronze medallist at the last championship, National women's `A' champion Aarthie Ramaswamy and the talented but inconsistent Swati Ghate were the other experienced campaigners the host looked up to break the Chinese stranglehold.

While they disappointed, Harika, undoubtedly the fastest improving Indian in women's chess, sprung a surprise, winning the silver. For those who have been following her career though, her spectacular finish wasn't much of a surprise, really.

There was nothing surprising about the way Humpy — the only player in the field with a male GM title — made her presence felt right through the tournament, either. Of course she was in deep trouble in that game against Zhao Xue, and she was also fortunate to win an earlier round against Maria Sergeyeva of Kazakhstan, who contrived to lose from a dead-drawn position. But then, sometimes you need a little bit of luck too, to win a tough tournament. As the tournament's Chief Arbiter Abdul Hameed Majeed from Malaysia said, it was a case of fortune favouring the strongest.

And nobody could say that the Vijayawada prodigy won just because she was fortunate. After all, she won with a round to spare and remained unbeaten. And she played some really good chess too. Especially against the Chinese girls Ruan Lufei and Gu Xiaobing in the fourth and fifth rounds.

It was refreshing to see Humpy, more of a positional player basically, employing some nice tactics in those games. She had begun her campaign on a tactical note, outwitting Zhang Jilin. She had to split the point in the second round though, with Xu Yuanyuan. In the third round, she beat Sergeyeva, and just past the half-way mark, she was on 4.5 points from five rounds and sure was sitting pretty.

But her sixth round opponent and admirer Harika was in a more comfortable position. She was also on 4.5 points and looked in fine touch and she had already caused the tournament's biggest upset, stunning Zhao Xue in the second round.

Hoang Thanh Trang won the bronze and spoiled a 1-2-3 for India, beating Vijayalakshmi in the final round. — Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

In the third round, she played her best game at Kozhikode, against another Chinese, Tian Tian. It was a fine tactical victory. International Master T. S. Ravi, who had come as a coach to his wife Saimeera, was among those impressed by that game. "She really played well finding all the correct moves," he said.

The correct moves though eluded the Guntur girl in her next game, against Gu Xiaobing and she had to repeat the moves to get a draw. But she bounced back, scoring an important victory over Xu Yuanyuan in the fifth round and thus set up the sixth-round clash with Humpy. It was their first ever meeting across a chessboard.

Harika did rather well to take half-a-point from that game. She had the white pieces and made her intentions clear right from the beginning. She exchanged as many pieces as she could in double quick time.

Her opponent was a bit disappointed by her attitude. "I thought she might play for some initiative as she had white," said Humpy, who was also surprised to find that Harika had been playing many of her own openings. "While preparing for this game, I felt as if I was preparing for a game against myself," she said.

After the Harika game, Humpy ran into Zhao Xue and found that lady luck was on her side. Then, in the eighth round she found that she was a favourite child with destiny too. She didn't win her game against fourth seed Hoang Thanh Trang of Vietnam, though she was clearly in a position to do so. Had she won that game, she would not have had to bother about the other boards; she would have surely been the champion.

But it turned out even that draw was enough since the games on the second and third boards, between Harika and Le Kieu Thien Kim of Vietnam and between Zhang Jilin and Vijayalakshmi, also ended in draws. That meant Humpy, who had a lead of one full point going into the final round, would come first even if she lost her last game, as she was well ahead in the tie-breakers (average rating of the opponents).

China's Xu Yuanyuan (left) fights it out with compatriot Gu Xiaobing. Yuanyuan came fourth, while Xiaobing finished seventh. — Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

Not surprisingly, she settled for a quick draw in the final round with Le Kieu Thien Kim. She thus finished with seven points out of a maximum nine. Nobody deserved to win the title more than Humpy.

Humpy said she was delighted to win. "It's a very strong tournament, much stronger than the one in 2000, which is the only Asian women's championship I played before."

She hadn't done particularly well then. But of course, she was just 13 then and wasn't that strong a player. She has come a long, long way since then.

Harika, who came to Kozhikode after offering her hair to Lord Venkateswara at Tirupati, too, has been making rapid strides during the last three years. But even by her high standards, this was an extraordinary effort. "This is my best ever performance," she said.

"I'm happy with the way she handled her experienced rivals," said Harika's personal trainer N. V. S. Rama Raju, who has played a crucial role in shaping up her career. Harika, who was seeded ninth, finished with 6.5 points.

Li Ruofan (right), the defending champion, was a big disappointment, finishing a poor ninth. Her opponent in this game, Le Kieu Thien Kim of Vietnam, made a WGM norm. — Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

Vietnam's Hoang Thanh Trang won the bronze and spoiled a 1-2-3 for India, beating Vijayalakshmi in the final round. For the soft-spoken Vietnamese girl, it was a welcome return to the city, where she won the world junior title in 1998. She was, in fact, one of the four former World junior champions in action at Kozhikode.

She said she was delighted to qualify for the World championship once again. In all 18 players out of the 38 secured berths for the next World championship. But there was a lot of confusion about the exact number of qualifiers, which shouldn't have been there at all. "Until the final day, we didn't know exactly how many players would qualify," said a couple of girls. "It would've been better if we had got the right picture from the beginning. Even the media reports were not consistent."

Such a large number of players made the grade because six players — Xu Yuanyuan, Zhao Xue, Wang Yu, Huang Qian (all China), Nguyen Thi Thanh Anh (Vietnam) and Humpy — had already been selected for the World championship by virtue of either winning the World junior title or by finishing at the top in the zonal meets.

Five Indians, besides Humpy, thus met the qualification mark: Harika, Vijayalakshmi, who finished eighth, Bhagyashree Thipsay (14th), Tania Sachdev (16th) and Aarthie (18th), who looked so relieved when she was told shortly before the closing ceremony, that she was `in'. She'd been under the impression that only the top 17 would make it, as she thought that Humpy's seeding as the World junior champion hadn't been confirmed. She was very upset that she had a poor tournament. And this was the last event she was playing before her marriage with IM R. B. Ramesh, who had given her an ideal wedding gift by dedicating to her his National `B' title, which he had won at Nagpur a few days before the Asian women's got under way.

Little Shen Yang (left) of China notes down a move in her match against veteran Bhagyashree Thipsay. Yang, seeded 33rd, was one of the biggest surprises in the tournament as she claimed the sixth place. — Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

Aarthie was pinning her hopes on the Asian zonal championship to qualify for the World championship (only the winner goes through from that meet). Now players such as Swati Ghate and Nisha are left with only that hope.

Nisha had something to cheer about at Kozhikode, as her WGM title was confirmed by FIDE during the tournament. She said that was only a small consolation for her appalling performance. "I played really bad," said the 13th seed after finishing 27th.

Swati Ghate was 26th, S. Meenakshi 20th and Anupama Gokhale 32nd, as they failed to maintain their seedings. There were, however, a few Indians who managed to do better than they expected to. Tania Sachdev, the 17-year-old from Delhi, performed creditably to qualify for what would be her maiden World championship. If she could have controlled the time better, she would have finished even higher.

But she seemed to have been pleased with her show after all. "I am excited that I have made it to the World championship," said the former Asian junior champion, who celebrated her birthday during the tournament. Her mother Anju, who has been accompanying her daughter since Tania made her mark in the British championship eight years ago, said Tania hadn't touched the chessboard at all for about a fortnight prior to the tournament. "Maybe she can play better if she takes a short break from chess like that," her happy mother said.

Tania, however, finished short of making a WGM norm. In fact, only one Indian, Harika, could earn a WGM norm. Her performance was so good that she could get her nine-game norm from eight rounds. And she also made a men's IM norm, when she defeated Wang Yu in the final round.

M. Safira Shanaz was the only other Indian to get a norm, as she made her final IWM norm. The Tamil Nadu girl, still looking for a job despite a degree in Electronics Engineering and some decent achievements in chess, needs to take her Elo rating to 2200 (she is currently at 2120) to get the title, which she actually should have achieved long ago. She was thought to be very promising as a youngster, but at a crucial stage in her career, she found it difficult to balance her chess and studies. But at Kozhikode she may have discovered that there was still some room for hope.

There were WGM norms for Gu Xiaobing of China and Le Kieu Thein Kim of Vietnam and IWM norms for China's Zhang Jilin, Ruan Lufei, Shen Yang and Wang Yu. Little Shen Yang was one of the biggest surprises in the tournament. Seeded 33rd with a lowly-rating of 2113, she claimed the sixth place. She showed why she is rated highly by people back home. "She is one of the most promising players in China," said IM Yu Shaoteng, one of the Chinese coaches, who also acted as an interpreter.

The third seeded Wang Pin (right) had a forgettable tournament as she finished 22nd with just 4.5 points. Her opponent Zhang Jilin did better in terms of seeding, as she claimed the 10th place after being seeded 20th. — Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

Gu Xioabing is another bright prospect for China. She did well too, finishing seventh, four slots above her original seeding. Zhang Jilin did even better in terms of seeding, as she claimed the 10th place after being seeded 20th. Huang Qian and Tian Tian too performed better than their seedings. The performances of these youngsters in some ways made up for the disappointing show by the established Chinese stars, among whom Wang Pin, seeded third and a member of the team that won the gold at the Olympiad in Slovenia last year, was the biggest let down.

It was a forgettable tournament for her as she finished 22nd with just 4.5 points. Her rating of 2465 might not look just the same when FIDE releases its next rankings. Wang Pin lost to Aarthie in the third round and never recovered from the setback. She lost three straight games to lesser rated opponents.

She was beaten by three Indians, prompting one of them, Saimeera Ravi, to comment that she may not want to come to India again. Wang Pin said she was playing after a long lay off. "That was why I played so poorly," she said.

Li Ruofan, the defending champion and the sixth seed, also disappointed. The champion from Chennai 2001 did manage to qualify, by finishing ninth, but she wasn't happy. "It is nice to qualify, but I'm not at all happy with my performance," she said.

Not surprisingly, there were nine Chinese players in the top 18. Vietnam had three, and all the players the nation fielded made the grade.

Le Kieu Thien Kim had the best placing after Hoang, as she finished fifth, which was a very good show for someone seeded 15th. Ngueyen Thi Thanh Anh was placed 12th (as was her seeding).

Aarthie Ramaswamy (left) is pitted against M. R. Sangeetha. Aarthie, who finished 18th, just about managed to qualify for the World meet. — Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

The tournament did produce some good chess over nine rainy days. It was a well fought-out affair. And the tournament was well-conducted too. The All India Chess Federation secretary P. T. Ummer Koya once again showed he was a capable organiser. He had also conducted the Asian youth championship at Kozhikode just two months back.

There was not a single sponsor for the tournament, not even for the namesake, but still it was conducted in a Five-Star Hotel — Taj Residency — where seeded players were given free boarding and lodging.

Humpy, though, had preferred to stay in a much less glamorous hotel, along with her family. She was accompanied by her father and coach, Koneru Ashok, and her mother Latha. And her younger sister Koneru Chandra Hawsa was there as a player though she didn't make mush of an impact, finishing 23rd.

They weren't the only sisters at the meet. Vijayalakshmi and Meenakshi and Nisha and Swati Mohota were the other sibling pairs.

A young fan captures all the action in his camera. — Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

The final placings (Indians unless specified; nine rounds; top 18 qualifiy for the World championship):

1. Koneru Humpy (2468) 7, 2-3. Dronavalli Harika (2351) and Hoang Thanh Trang (Vie 2458) 6.5, 4-6. Xu Yuanyuan (Chn 2347), Le Kieu Thien Kim (Vie 2316) and Shen Yang (Chn 2113) 6, 7-12. Gu Xiaobing (Chn 2346), S. Vijayalakshmi (2435), Li Ruofan (Chn 2433), Zhang Jilin (Chn 2300), Huang Qian (Chn 2313) and Nguyen Thi Thanh Anh (Vie 2335) 5.5, 13-17. Zhao Xue (Chn 2467), Bhagyashree Thipsay (2225), WangYu (Chn 2357), Tania Sachdev (2206) and Tian Tian (Chn 2300) 5,18-23. Aarthie Ramaswamy (2316), Ruan Lufei (Chn 2307), S. Meenakshi (2319), Maria Sergeyeva (Kaz 2356), Wang Pin (Chn 2465)and Koneru Chandra Hawsa (2193) 4.5, 24-29. M. Safira Shanaz (2120), J. E. Kavitha (2066), Swati Ghate (2299), Nisha Mohota (2321), Y. Prathiba (2185) and M. R. Sangeetha (2100) 4, 30-31. Saimeera Ravi (2172) and Eesha Karvade (2218) 3.5, 32-35. Anupama Gokhale (2253), Vineetha Wijesuriya (SL 1976), P. Priya (2091) and Swati Mohota (2104) 3. 36. Shabana Parveen (Ban 2140) 2.5,37. K. Lakshmi Praneetha (2136) 2 and 38. Lidya Malinicheva (Uzb 2126) 0.5.