Turning dreams into realities

IT seems like yesterday. The tall, fair, bespectacled man from Vijayawada was talking about his daughter.

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

Koneru Humpy with her parents Ashok and Lalitha and her younger sister Chandra Hawsa after she won the Asian women's championship at Kozhikode. — Pic. RAMESH KURUP-

IT seems like yesterday.

The tall, fair, bespectacled man from Vijayawada was talking about his daughter. The little girl, all of nine years, looked at her father, speaking ever so gently. Almost in an apologetic tone. It was a starless October night in the port city of Kozhikode in Northern Kerala.

They were staying in a small, not so tidy, inadequately lit room on the first floor of the V. K. Krishna Menon Indoor Stadium. The photographer had a problem with the lighting. Or the lack of it. He had an even bigger problem finding some pleasant-looking space in the room.

As her father spoke, and also when she said something, the girl would often flash that charming, innocent smile only girls of about her age can have.

It was not the longest of interviews but it turned out to be the first of many, though.

The father and the daughter left the following day; the tournament was over. Neither of them had done anything spectacular. Nor had anyone expected them to. But Pallavi Shah, the most aggressive player in Indian women's chess till recently and now a contented young housewife in the United States, had said during a conversation to watch out for that little girl from Vijayawada.

The girl would win the World under-10 title later that year, she said. There must have been something about the girl to inspire so much confidence in an experienced player. So one thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to meet the prodigy in the making. (And yes, she didn't let Pallavi down; she won the world title).

That meeting was not easily forgettable, somehow. It has been almost six years since. How time flies. And how life changes.

That night, six years ago, the man from Vijayawada, so humble and polite, was talking about his dreams. Or to be precise, his dreams for his precocious daughter. And that small girl with an unforgettable smile turned all her father's dreams into realities at an astonishing pace. Surprising even him.

Koneru Humpy is today the world's most successful 16-year-old girl in chess. Koneru Ashok is the world's proudest father.

Koneru Humpy is also India's most hated chess player. No overstatement this. She is apparently the one all Indian players, male or female, desperately want to beat (often she mercilessly denies them that pleasure).

Make no mistake. She has her critics. Many more than she deserves. She attracts controversies as easily as she picks up World titles or breaks records in chess.

But it wasn't always like that. Her problems began when she became the world's youngest female to take the Grandmaster (GM) title, erasing her idol Judit Polgar's record.

She found herself at the centre of a rather silly controversy when she returned home in June last year after scoring her third and final GM norm in Hungary. It all began when she decided not to play at last year's National women's `A' championship, citing what was a perfectly logical reason. Since the average rating of the tournament was low, she felt she would lose her hard-earned Elo points even if she won the title.

She is capable of seeing moves on the chessboard ahead of her rivals. But she could not foresee that exercising her freedom of choice regarding tournaments would give her so much anguish in the weeks to come.

Suddenly, she found herself being dwarfed in full public glare. She was no longer India's safest bet for the World championship after Viswanathan Anand. She was no longer the prodigy, on whom her Indian rivals had been so generous to shower lavish praise upon.

She was now an imposter. A coward. A traitor.

Nobody wanted to remember that she had won the World junior championship just a year before — when she was 14, and the World juniors was meant primarily for 20-year-olds. Nobody wanted to remember that she already had four World titles under her belt. Nobody wanted to remember that she had won the Asian and National boys', yes boys', titles. Nor that she was the world's top ranked junior player. Nor that she was Asia's youngest International Woman Master. That she was India's youngest Woman Grandmaster.

They also forgot that for all her achievements she was just a 15-year-old girl who liked her chocolates and movie stars.

She was humiliated. For the first time in her life, she wept like a child in public. She sensed something had gone terribly wrong, though she didn't know what her mistake was.

She, however, wasn't prepared to sulk and resort to self-pity. Urged by her father, she worked on her game harder than ever.

Almost in no time, she gave a fitting reply to her critics, when she won the ladies title at the British championship in Torquay last year with a sensational show. She was very keen to play, and to do well, in that tournament, because some of the players who had apparently run down her achievements were also competing.

Having proved her point, and got her GM title (FIDE had no problem in awarding her the title), she was at peace with herself.

Life went on for her, and like all human beings she too has had some ups and downs in her career since then. She had a great World Cup in Hyderabad last year, but had a couple of indifferent tournaments abroad this year. But thankfully, her critics let her alone. They were back to business before long, though.

Her decision to play in the recent National men's `B' championship at Nagpur wasn't liked by a few people. They wanted to know why she was allowed to play in a tournament, which was open to all registered players in the country. Though she was the top seed and her reputation was at stake, it was argued that she was under no pressure, and only her rivals were, just because she was already seeded to the National `A'. But the most serious charge levelled against her was that she wasn't conceding draws to her rivals; in other words, she wasn't fixing matches.

She gave little attention to those whines; she tied for the first place in the tournament and finished runner-up on tie-breaker. A week later, she went to Kozhikode for the Asian women's meet. She didn't know if her rivals were waiting for her so that they could beat her. But again, she had to disappoint them.

She didn't lose a single game, and clinched the title with a round to spare and qualified for the World championship.

One day she could win the World championship but she doesn't want to stop with that. She wants to be the men's World champion. It may look an improbable proposition, but one thing is sure. She will give it an earnest try.

Humpy is very patient and solid on the board. Make a mistake against her, and be doomed.

Her pet openings are not the ones favoured by most players. Her father wanted it that way. Because he was successful with the very openings when he was a player.

Remarkably, he has been the only coach for her. She hasn't trained with a GM or an IM till now. Ashok doesn't want her to. You cannot blame him. Or rather, you shouldn't. See the results.

But he is willing to find someone better, if she needs one. For the moment though he feels the queen of Indian chess is doing rather well with him. He is waiting for that day when she would be the queen of the entire world. So is a country.