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The crown of greatness sits lightly on her

AS SHE walks quietly around the ground floor of Hotel Hyatt Regency in New Delhi on a chilly November afternoon, the woman in black hasn't noticed the poster featuring the past World Women's chess champions. She should have. Her pretty face has the pride of place in that poster.

That face has lost some of its youthful loveliness, and her chess some of its invincibility. But Maya Chiburdanidze has not lost her passion for the game, and her humility and friendly disposition checkmate you. Is this the woman who became a World champion at 17? Isn't this the lady who defended her title four times? And isn't she the owner of 12 Olympiad medals, including eight golds?

It takes a little effort to convince her that her English is good enough not to warrant an interpreter, and she begins to speak at the hotel's lobby.

``I was eight when I learnt the game; my elder brother, who died when he was 19, taught me the moves, and I instantly liked the game,'' recalls Maya, who was born in Tblisi, Georgia, on January 7, 1961.

She was a child prodigy, and at 13 she completed her International Woman Master, becoming the youngest title-holder of either sex at the time. At 15, she was a candidate for the World championship.

Then, two years later, in 1978, she made history, when she beat the legendary Nona Gaprindashvilli, who started the Georgian revolution in women's chess, to become the World champion. She is the youngest World champion in history, male or female, and her record is unlikely to be beaten. ``I won the match 10.5-8.5, and beating an icon like Nona was of course quite something,'' she says. Maya successfully defended her titles in 1981, 1984, 1987 and 1988 before losing it to China's Xie Jun in 1991. That loss to Jun not only marked the end of her reign, it was also the beginning of the end of Georgia's undisputed supremacy in women's chess.

Now China has completely taken over from the former Soviet Union. ``Yes, it is disappointing to see Georgia is no longer producing players like Nona or me,'' she says. ``But it is hardly surprising considering the present state of affairs back home. There are many economical and political problems. The breaking up of Soviet Union has affected chess adversely. The old regime was good for sport and culture. There was some system then, and now there is only chaos.''

This is her third visit to India, and second to Delhi. She can never forget her maiden visit of 1984 when she won the Bhilwara GM tournament in New Delhi, finishing ahead of many men. ``That victory was my best in a tournament. At that time it was a strong tournament, as we didn't have many higher category tournaments like today.''

Grandmaster Pravin Thipsay, who finished second to her in that tournament remembers how solidly she played. ``She was unbeaten in the 12- player field, scoring 8.5 points. I lost to her on another occasion too, though I did beat her once in a blitz game. At her best she was a truly great player. And I have always found her such a nice, kind humanbeing, without any airs,'' he says.

His wife, Bhagyashree, remembers how she used to idolise Maya as a little girl who had just started to play chess at Sangli, Maharashtra. ``For us girls, she was nothing short of a heroine. It is remarkable how she was able to remain the best in the world for so long,'' she adds.

Maya, with 2545 Elo points, is still among the world's top women players, but she enjoys playing more against men these days. ``There is no pressure when I play with men; I can just enjoy my chess, but against women I am expected to win, so I am under pressure always,'' she laughs.

Last year she had played in the men's World championship at Las Vegas and had run into Vladimir Akopian, who went on to contest the final, in the first round. ``I had an equal position in the first game, but lost and in the second game, I had a better position but drew.''

Maya is delighted that India is fast becoming a force to reckon with in world chess. ``I was speaking to Valery Salov, who coached the Indians recently, and he seems to be really impressed by the youngsters here. And that small girl, what's her name, Vijayalakshmi, was fantastic at the Olympiad in Turkey. I hope she becomes a strong Grandmaster,'' who smiles and laughs all the way through the interview.

Her face brightens up when Viswanathan Anand's name is mentioned. ``Oh my goodness, Vishy. What could I say? I just love him,'' she exults. He is my favourite chess player. We are good friends, and play blitz games often. I have known him as a 17-year-old. He is so wonderfully nice. He should become a World champion soon. He has everything, talent, ambition and all other attributes of a champion. He is such a natural talent. Let's hope he wins this World championship, for the sake of the game. He is like a diamond.''

Anatoly Karpov is another player she likes. ``He has a wonderful understanding of the game, and I admire his style of play. I don't find Garry Kasparov's game very attractive. He is just too complicated for me. Among the past champions, I like Alexander Alekhine. He was a great player,'' she says.

She feels too much of information has killed the originality of chess. ``It is now sadly just a sport, and not an art, as it was in my days.''

She doesn't like the knock-out system employed in the World championship. ``Just recall the Las Vegas championship of last year. None of the top players did well in the end. So there should be something wrong with the system.''

Maya, still unmarried, has devoted her life to chess. Besides the game, religion is her biggest passion. And she loves reading and music. She is also toying with the idea of bringing out a book about her games. ``I have played so many games you know.''

So what keeps her going at the age of 39?

``Nothing but the love of the game,'' she laughs heartily again.

Women's chess may have seen stronger players than Maya, but just as it is unlikely to see a younger World champion, there will not surely be a more lovable one.


now in New Delhi

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