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Weekend Sport | Prodigy, world-beater, queen — Humpy’s career arc is complete

Koneru Humpy

Koneru Humpy   | Photo Credit: R. Rajesh


But the serial winner still has ambitions of adding the coveted classical championship to her rapid chess crown

Koneru Humpy first caught the world’s attention at Cannes.

The beautiful, serene city on the French Riviera is known for its prestigious film festival, which dates back to 1946. But in 1997, it was also the venue of the World Youth Chess Championship, in which Humpy won the girls’ under-10 title.

It was the beginning of one of the most remarkable careers in Indian sport. Since its opening scene was played out in a city that has previewed some of the classics of world cinema, it is perhaps not surprising that the script of Humpy’s life has had twists and turns aplenty.

Moscow witnessed the pleasantest of turns two weeks ago, when Humpy surprised many, including herself, by winning the Women’s World Rapid Championship, the biggest achievement to date by a female Indian chess player.

The 32-year-old would be the first to admit, though, that she should have been world champion at least a decade ago. She was, for a considerable period, the second-strongest woman in chess history, behind only Judit Polgar. And given that Polgar, the highest-rated female player ever, used to compete only with men, it’s something of a surprise that Humpy wasn’t officially crowned as the queen at that time.

Indeed, by now, she should have won the world title in classical chess, not just in rapid. For the uninitiated, chess competitions are held in three formats — classical, rapid and blitz — played with varying time controls. Wins in classical chess are valued higher, just as a victory in a cricket Test carries more weight than one in a One Day International or Twenty20 International.

Humpy prefers the classical format, which gives a player much more time than the other two, and concedes that the world rapid title came as a surprise.

“The tournament was announced just a fortnight before, so there wasn’t much time to prepare or think about it,” says Humpy over the phone from her home in Vijayawada, a few hours after arriving from Moscow. She played solid chess, keeping her nerve during the tense closing moments of the event. “It was the happiest moment of my life, yes, but I wasn’t expecting it, as rapid chess hasn’t exactly been my cup of tea.”

Praveen Thipsay, India’s third Grandmaster, isn’t surprised, however, by Humpy’s success in the shorter format. “She has this ability to play correctly even when she is under time pressure, and that means she can calculate well in rapid chess,” he says. “This is a fantastic achievement, no doubt. But, even two decades ago, I had felt that she had the potential to become world champion.”

This is not just because Thipsay has lost to her on the chessboard. One of those defeats came during the National ‘A’ championship at Kozhikode in 2003, when Humpy, the only woman in India’s premier domestic tournament, began her campaign in astonishing fashion. Just 16 then, she started by beating just about everyone in sight and led the tournament until the eighth round before finishing sixth.

Before that, she had scored an incredible 16 out of 17 points in the National women’s ‘A’ championship at the same venue. She won 15 games — the first 11 in a row — and drew two. She did that in what was India’s strongest women’s championship ever. She was also making a point. She hadn’t played the three previous editions because she felt it wasn’t competitive enough for her. But her critics interpreted the decision as a lack of courage.

Humpy has had more than her share of critics — and this began before she even turned 15. When she became a Woman Grandmaster, after scoring her final norm from a Hungarian tournament, her credentials were doubted in public.

She answered all her doubters in emphatic fashion. She was just 18 when she first became World No. 2, behind Polgar, and remained there for the next five years. Since October 2002, she has never fallen out of the world’s top 10. At 17, she reached the semifinals of the 2004 World Championship (classical). She entered the last four in 2008 and 2010, too. In 2011, she lost the title match to China’s Hou Yifan.

“I know I should have won at least one World Championship from all those events,” rues Humpy. “Regardless of all the tournaments and age-group titles you win, what really matters is the world title.”

When it came to age-group events — and there are several in chess — Humpy was a serial winner. After the under-10 world title, she won the under-12 and 14 events. More significantly, she won the World Junior Girls’ Championship in 2001. She was 14 then; it was an under-20 event.

Two years earlier, she had caused a sensation by winning the Asian Under-12 Boys’ Championship. Clearly, she was following the path laid down by Polgar, who competed with men and rose to World No. 8, with wins over the likes of Garry Kasparov, Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen.

Much like Polgar, the youngest of three sisters who were taught chess by their father, Humpy’s career, too, was shaped by her father. In fact, Laszlo Polgar, an educational psychologist who wanted to prove that geniuses were made and not born, was an inspiration for Koneru Ashok, a national-level player. He wanted to make his first daughter a champion (her very name was derived from the word). He even quit his job as a college lecturer in order to focus on her chess.

Ashok has been her primary trainer, although Humpy, for the last six years, has virtually been working on her own. “I was following her games in Moscow online,” Ashok says. “When she defeated China’s Lei Tingjie in the final, I was ecstatic.”

The world rapid title has come to Humpy in what is her second innings. She had taken a two-year break following childbirth.

The past few months have seen Humpy steadily get back to her best. The first and second places she earned in the opening legs of the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix, which is a part of the cycle for the next classical World Championship, preceded her triumph in Moscow. She is ranked No. 3 now. Her Elo rating of 2580 may be some distance from her peak of 2623 (in 2009), but she has proven that she is a strong challenger for the classical title once again.

“She could win the World Championship in her very next attempt,” says Thipsay. “She is a stronger player than the two women [Ju Wenjun, Aleksandra Goryachkina] competing at the World Championship at the moment.”

You bet Humpy is itching to prove that.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 7:03:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/other-sports/weekend-sport-prodigy-world-beater-queen-humpys-career-arc-is-complete/article30537781.ece

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