Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Koneru Humpy - India's Other Chess Prodigy

From Sports Manisha Mohite Wednesday, 17 October , 2007, 16:58 Cerebral calculations may result in combinations on the chessboard but their impact is better reflected in numbers that are periodically released by FIDE, the World Chess Organisation, for it is these that indicate the strength and domination of a chess player. This time around, the October rating list had a strong and special Indian presence perched atop in both the Open and Women's section with Viswanathan Anand crossing the 2800 barrier for the second time and Koneru Humpy also clearing 2600. Humpy incidentally is only the second woman in the history of the game to cross 2600, the other being Judit Polgar of Hungary who at 2709 is ranked 20th in the Open section. This is a major milestone crossed by Humpy as, for all practical purposes, she is the top rated player in women's section as Judit Polgar plays only in open events and has not even tried to compete for the World title in the women's section. The 20-year-old Hyderabadi, with 2606 points, has left the third highest rated player Pia Cramling of Sweden far behind at 2531. Humpy notched up one of her finest performances in the European Club Cup that concluded last week by scoring 5.5 with a whopping 2800 rating performance, which is virtually unheard of in women's chess. Humpy spearheaded her team Cercle d'Echecs de Monte-Carlo to a Gold medal in that event. Humpy is the shy, soft-spoken sort and her presence almost goes unnoticed. But once at the board there are no compromises, no agreed draws and it is here that the fighting spirit, the deadly determination and the thirst for victories completely eclipse her personality off board. Humpy undoubtedly is one of the finest sportspersons India has ever produced but has never hogged media attention. A world junior girls title in which she was the youngest to win in the history of the game at 14-years, the youngest woman to win a GM title at 15-years, four World titles in Age Categories, a semi-finalist at World Cup at just 15 years, two gold medals at the last Asian Games, innumerable tournament victories and it almost seems a shame that she remains an almost unknown personality in this era of brands and brand ambassadors. 'Gun for Gold’ is the strong motto for Humpy as she mentions, “Right now I am heading for the Asian indoor Games at Macau where we will play in Mixed team events in Classical and Rapid Chess and then qualify from there for the Individual events." Interestingly, it was in 1987, when Indian Chess first hit international headlines with Anand becoming the first Asian to be crowned World junior champion, that at Gudivad, Andhra Pradesh, Koneru Ashok and Lata were blessed with a tiny tot, whom they unhesitatingly decided would walk in the footsteps of Anand. The lass was named ‘Hampi’ which was then changed to Humpy by her father to have a 'Russian' feel as most top players were Russian and their names ended with 'y'. There are not many who would risk their all to nurture a talent, especially in a country where academics take precedence over everything else. Ashok, a chemistry lecturer, was himself a national 'B' player and many eyebrows were raised in disbelief when he chucked his job to coach his daughter full time in 1995. What followed later was applause and accolades albeit with a few bitter-sweet memories. The Chalapathi Residential School where Humpy studied provided her facilities to pursue her game while Bank of Baroda sponsored her when she needed the money most. However, later, sponsorship was difficult. But things started to turn for the good and Humpy happily acknowledges, “Most of my monetary worries are over as ONGC has employed me and given me full freedom to pursue the tournaments of my choice". Every rising player attracts admiration for her efforts but then also invites jealousy, wrath and attack for the achievements and popularity. Sometimes these attacks can be scathing, insensitive and destroy a person's self-belief. And Humpy was to learn this lesson at a very early age! One of the most traumatic times for this terrific talent and one that would be a haunting memory for the followers of the game was in August 2002 at Hyderabad when Humpy broke down, crying inconsolably in front of the Sports Minister's house with hundreds of people around. What was to be her moment of glory at becoming the youngest woman to achieve the GM title turned out to be a nightmare. The sceptics, other players and the media doubted the credibility of her GM norms which she had earned in Hungary, found her rating insufficient to complete the technicalities for a GM norm and other allegations also followed suit, that she was afraid of playing Indian players and hence concentrated only on overseas events. This against a child, just 14-years-old, and it was hardly surprising that she entertained thoughts of giving up chess. Sanity however prevailed and she hit out and shut out the harsh criticism in the best way possible – by better and better performances. She however missed out on college life as she decided to opt for open University courses but confesses, “I have now even stopped entertaining that thought and am focusing only on chess.” What is most surprising is that throughout this outstanding career, her father has been her only coach and she has never felt the need for an external coach. Her father has been felicitated with the 'Dronacharya Award’ and Humpy has been conferred the 'Arjuna Award' and the Padmashree. Like most Telugu people, Humpy is fond of movies and actor Chiranjeevi is an all-time favourite As for now, Humpy has her sights firmly focused on the Women's World championship and enhancing her rating further to match up with her idol, Judit Polgar. “I am preparing intensively for the World Championship scheduled sometime in May next year,” she says, with such conviction that it is not difficult to picture her with the crown and India with two ruling World champions, come May!

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