‘We should host more Open tournaments’

Pendyala Harikrishna-V. V. Subrahmanyam

“In India what we need is a structure that takes care of the players aspiring to move from Elo 2500 to a higher rating. Lack of this (structure) is the reason why India has only three players in the top 100 in the world now,” says P. Harikrishna in a chat with V. V. Subrahmanyam.

He was once rated as a potential world champion by India’s greatest chess player ever, Viswanathan Anand. But it is almost 10 years since, and Pendyala Harikrishna is still struggling to get anywhere close to what is the coveted dream of any player in the world.

“Yes, that is long time since such compliments were given to me. But now I have decided to focus on playing in more and more Grand Prix Series, for the top two finishers will get a chance to play in the Candidates Cycle for the World Championship,” said the 27-year-old chess player in an exclusive chat with Sportstar at his residence.

“Yes, it is interesting that the FIDE (world chess body) has started a separate rating for rapid and blitz formats. (It) should be another major fillip to the players wishing to play in them. Well, there are many big names in chess who don’t consider blitz as chess at all,” said Harikrishna, who had taken a brief break before going to the Middle East to take part in the Asian and the World Blitz championships.

Harikrishna, who featured in four World Cups in 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2011, was of the view that it was high time he came up with a special performance in the 14- or 12-player Grand Prix Series. “It is a pity that we Indians do not have as many opportunities as the Europeans or the Russians to improve our skills in rapid and blitz formats. We are, in a way, left to ourselves to engage in intensive preparations, thanks to the chess base,” said the unassuming and soft-spoken player, who works as an officer in BPCL.

The World No. 25, who won the World Junior Championship in 2004, the Asian Championship in 2011 and, last year, the Tata Steel International tournament — which he feel is very demanding — said he still has a long way to go. “Learning is a continuous process in any sport. I have to improve a lot, all-round. I cannot say that I am strong in opening, or middle or endgames. The urge to keep improving is the key to success at the highest level,” Harikrishna remarked.

Yet he does not have a ‘second’ even now. “I have been working with some good friends like GM Surya Shekhar Ganguly and well-wishers, but have not hired any trainer. I think I can handle this phase and realise my dreams,” Harikrishna said.

Any conversation with a chess player would be incomplete without a reference to Viswanathan Anand. “I think there was a huge pressure on Anand, of playing in front of his home crowd in Chennai in the World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen,” Harikrishna said.

He, however, added that Anand, like all great world champions, came back very strongly within a few month of losing to Carlsen by winning the Candidates title. “It happened to (Vladimir) Kramnik in 2009 and (Veselin) Topolov, who is now again in the top five of the world. This is remarkable and shows that Anand still has a lot to offer in chess. The result (in the Candidates tournament) coming against the backdrop of some even raising the question of his retirement is a mark of a champion player,” Harikrishna said.

What exactly are Harikrishna’s goals?

“To improve my Elo rating so that I can compete in the Grand Prix Series. Let me tell you, winning the World title is not as easy as some might think. It takes years of hard work and abundance of talent. And then, you should be able to translate both into performance at the time of the title match,” he explained.

“Yes, I am definitely happy that I have the next best Elo rating of 2726 after Anand (2785). But that is not the end of it all. The journey, step by step, is to reach the pinnacle,” he said to a query.

For now content to play in the various leagues in Germany, Spain, Greece and France and in the inter-club championships in Europe, Harikrishna reminded that he is still aiming for bigger things in chess.

Talking of his progress so far, Harikrishna said, “I am happy with the way I have progressed in the last four years — with my Elo rating going up from 2640 (in 2010) to 2726. There is no pressure of expectations. I am now used to facing all kinds of challenges.”

On the dearth of tournaments for Indian players, Harikrishna said, “The opportunities for Indians are definitely far less when compared with the Europeans and Russians. This is exactly why I feel India should host more Open category tournaments of Elo 2500-plus. Else, the base of chess in the country will get stuck. There is no scope for a player to improve his rating unless someone is really lucky to find sponsors to play abroad.”

Harikrishna pointed out that the last time he had played in such an event in India was in 2004.

“In India what we need is a structure that takes care of the players aspiring to move from Elo 2500 to a higher rating. Lack of this (structure) is the reason why India has only three players (Anand, Harikrishna and K. Sasikiran) in the top 100 in the world now,” said Harikrishna.

“You need to have strong tournaments that would test your level of preparations before going to major international events. You have to keep learning from mistakes. Or else, there is every threat of getting stagnated,” he added.