"We tend to be more theoretical"

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

P. Harikrishna working on his computer to hone his skills. -- Pic. H. SATISH-

CAN you believe this? Pendyala Harikrishna, the chess prodigy from Andhra Pradesh, was asked to quit the sport when he was just six years old. The reason? A doctor gave the parents (Nageswara Rao and Padmavathi) this advice when the kid complained of severe headaches. May be, destiny had a different script. For soon Harikrishna was back, after a five-month exile, at the chess board. Other parents would have thought twice to see their son continue playing the sport. But, the agriculturists from Prathipadu perhaps saw the spark in the youngster and persisted with him to play chess. A decision which soon turned out to be a boon for Indian sport in the world of 64-squares. There is no doubt that Harikrishna, ranked No. 3 in India, has become a major headache for the other big guns now in the world of chess.

This 18-year-old genius' journey into the world of chess was first scripted by his untiring grandfather Ranga Rao. "He was the biggest influence on me. But for him, I wonder what I would have been today," says Harikrishna. And, the parents chip in to mention that the elderly gentleman used to travel by train without any reservation with the kid on his lap and with the dedication to turn Harikrishna into a champion. "No doubt, there were many in my own family who snubbed me for playing with the future of the kid. Why don't you put him in studies, was their constant poser. You will be surprised even his parents also toed a similar line for some time to begin with," recalls Ranga Rao with a big smile on his face. But, what really prompted him to sustain that zeal with his grandson? "I was never a big player. When Hari solved, at the age of five, a chess problem which we were discussing amongst the seniors, we were surprised by his alacrity and sharp thinking. Then, I decided that it is chess or nothing else," the proud grandfather said.

The chess prodigy with his collection of cups and shields. -- Pic. H. SATISH-

That Harikrishna didn't realise the importance of winning the World under-10 title in 1996 was another instance of how the young genius was just allowed to concentrate only on playing and not about winning or losing. "You don't believe me that I never realised the significance of that triumph till quite a long time later. I just treated that as any other win," Harikrishna recalls. And, he does confess that only when he won the under-15 and under-18 National titles and the All India open event in 1999 beating three IMs — Mitrakanth, R. B. Ramesh and Murugan did he start really thinking big. By all means it was the perfect start to what was turning out to be a splendid career, which all began with games against school teachers. It may not be out of place to mention here that the gentleman who first spotted the champion in him was a FIDE-rated player from Guntur, Ramabrahmam.

An interesting sidelight of this champion youngster's career has been the schooling. "Unfortunately, only till the fifth standard I was a regular and since then never been to school but for writing exams. Honestly, this is one thing I really missed. I cannot share any memorable experiences of student life with anyone," he says with a tinge of disappointment. Does it mean that he is regretting playing chess? "Certainly not. Whatever I am now is because of it. So what I missed out in studies I am enjoying it now. But definitely, it would have been better to be a regular student," he points out. Unlike many of his age who would love to go to a movie or take a joy ride in the streets of Hyderabad, this young wizard of chess feels he is more at ease with reading story books and watching Hindi movies on TV. "Somehow, I was never curious to be a socialite and often avoided attending even family get-togethers. Most of the time I spend time with my parents and sister Shalini, an Intermediate student," says the shy chess star.

With his parents and grandfather. -- Pic. H. SATISH-

How does he feel when he meets the sporting celebrities from other disciplines? "My only area of interest is to learn how they struggled to attain stardom. That really fascinates me and not their current stature. For you tend to know something unique when talking to them be it a brief chat in those functions," says Harikrishna. Can you believe this? Harikrishna doesn't really have childhood friends with whom he can share a personal thought or two. "One of the reasons may be that I was never a regular in the school spending time with the classmates. That is why I do regret missing that aspect of life. But now I mostly try to be in touch when not playing chess with my fellow GMs Abhijit Kunte and Sandipan Chanda," the unassuming champion explains.

How was the experience of stepping into the modern world of intense competition with a rustic background? Initially it was certainly difficult. But you know chess is the language which brings many of us (players) together no matter whether we know the language or not. If you notice even now in the post-game analyses we rarely speak but only make a point or two by making the moves on the board," says a smiling Harikrishna. Then what was exactly the big difference from playing at home and in the international league? That was a definitely more interesting phase. For, we tend to be more theoretical back home in India with less emphasis on opening preparations. But, once I started playing in the big league abroad, then I realised I had to improve a lot in openings and also middle-game. There you cannot just go out and play by instinct, he pointed out.

The modest star at a roadside eatery. -- Pic. H. SATISH-

What exactly does he have to say about coaching? "I do remember vividly how Lanka Ravi Sir (Andhra's first International Master) spent so much time at his home in Chennai in 1993 for close to four months teaching me the intricacies of the game. It was a great experience. Then the stint with Koshy in 1998 was another significant factor for my improvement in the game," says Harikrishna, who had the distinction of becoming the youngest Grandmaster in India eclipsing his childhood hero Viswanathan Anand's record at the age of 15 years, three months and five days. Looking back, he says that getting the Grandmaster title was the biggest event for him. "It was really something special and I was waiting for quite sometime to happen then. And it was all the more memorable for beating the record of my hero Anand," says Harikrishna.

And contrary to the general belief, chess players like him go through a demanding daily schedule. For instance, Hari has a daily routine of three hours in the morning on the computer playing chess, take a break of three hours, go for an evening walk and be back at the software. "The evening practice session normally involved playing games on internet," he says. What will he do if he were to be given a long holiday? If his fans think Harikrishna will love to speed away in his car in the streets of Hyderabad, they are mistaken. For he simply loves to go back to the village and spend time in the paddy fields. "That is an experience which you don't get very often. Somehow I am very comfortable out there even without any company," he says with all modesty.

For someone who toured extensively by virtue of competing in various international events, Harikrishna does have a place of special liking. And not surprisingly it happens to be the beaches in Spain. Mind you it is where Viswanathan Anand owns a home and even invited the Indian players recently for a dinner. "They were exotic. Great experience no doubt," he says. Then, what exactly he hates? A crowded area. Even when I go to a competition I am uncomfortable if the venue wears a crammed look with tables arranged like in a marriage dinner," he says with a boyish smile. Any sentiments? "I always wear the ring of Shirdi Sai Baba. I often visit the temple. It is a very pleasant location to be with to feel the desired change from the routine," explains Harikrishna.

Anything which still worries him even now? Yes, with Wipro communicating the end of a four-year deal by December 2004, I have to look out for fresh sponsors. And, as things stand it can be really tough. Not the experience I would have loved to go through ahead of some of the big events and also at this most crucial phase of my career, says a thoughtful Harikrishna. Otherwise, he acknowledges it has been a splendid phase till now with thanks first to the sponsorship of Vignan group of educations, then Bank of Baroda and later Wipro.

Harikrishna keeps himself fit by doing some exercises at home. -- Pic. H. SATISH-

He might be too young to give a message of sorts for the sporting fraternity but having achieved what others of his age only dream of, Harikrishna is tempted to appeal to the parents not to bother about winning or losing but let their kids completely enjoy whatever sport they play.

And naturally, this has to be complemented by necessary hard work, commitment and sincerity, he adds.

The youngster prefers to be a vegetarian but when left with no option he takes tandoori chicken. Not a bad liking considering the number of opponents who have chickened out after tasting his mastery on the 64-squares. Mind you, he is gunning for the world championship sooner or later. That should really augur well for Indian chess.