Ready to take on
P. K. Ajith Kumar
They are only 15 and 14 years old, but P. Harikrishna (above) and Koneru Humpy (along-side) have already had their names emblazoned in the record books of world chess.
On August 29 in the historic Greek city of Athens, Elisabeth Paethz of Germany, in a gesture of surrender, shook hands with Koneru Humpy, the new World junior chess champion. Two days earlier, Pendyala Harikrishna had out-classed Dimitri Anagnostopoulos of Greece in London to win the Com-monwealth chess championship.
Harikrishna (15) and Koneru Humpy (14) have more in common than that Greek connection, their mother tongue Telugu, and the same first letter in their names. Both are potential world champions. Never has Indian sport promised so much.
On August 15, Harikrishna had become India's youngest Grand-master (GM), lowering the record set by Anand in 1987 by three years. Humpy had become India's youngest Woman Grandmaster (WGM) in June (Anand, incidentally, is the only other Indian to win the World Junior title : he did it in 1987).
The best, and the most important, thing about the two prodigies is that they are making perfectly the right moves in their careers. They have virtually left the age-group competitions behind them, and have earned respect from grown-up men and women.
"Humpy won't be playing in age-group tournaments any longer," says Koneru Ashok, her father and coach, who is single-handedly responsible for her amazing success. Harikrishna too is concen-trating on the open competitions.
The girl from Vijayawada has already established herself as second only to S. Vijayalakshmi, India's first WGM, among the senior Indian women, while the Guntur lad, in a more competitive men's field, is the fourth-highest ranked Indian. You don't have to be as brainy as them to figure out that their older rivals are already feeling the heat.
Both the youngsters made the headlines first when they won the World under-10 championship. When Harikrishna did that in 1996, in Menorca, Spain, it was the first World title for an Indian after Anand's World junior triumph in 1987. The following year Humpy won the junior girls' championship in Cannes.
Humpy has become quite a veteran in the world children's championship, outclassing the com-petition with remarkable regularity. After her successful debut in 1997, she won the World under-12 title the following year, and completed a hat-trick last year when she won the under-14 championship.
She also has a silver in her Oropesa del Mar collection, which she claimed in 1999 in the under-12 event. Of course that is something she is not going to tell her grand-children about with pride; she rightly considers that a failure. Because Humpy was groomed for success from day one of her career by her father, who quit his job as a lecturer to concentrate solely on her career.
Like the parents of most of India's whizkids on the board, Ashok has been a player himself, but unlike most of them has been able to plan her career with great vision. He knew that his daughter was talented the day she helped him solve a chess problem, and began to train her scientifically.
One saw her maturity pretty early in her career, not just on the board. In one interview to The Hindu in 1999, soon after she became Asia's youngest International Woman Master (IWM): "Before bagging a National title, one should have the ambition to become a National champion, when one wins the National Championship, one should aim to become a World Champion, and when one wins the World champion-ship, one should set higher ambitions in tougher fields."
She was 12 then.
She never betrays emotion either. You won't be able to make out from her face whether she is losing or winning a game. Mind you, there are players, grown-up women at that, who break down inconsolably after a defeat or a draw.
The World junior title is something every chess player would most like to win. It has always been a prestigious and strong tournament. Her feat is even greater when you consider that she has won the championship at 14, when the age-limit is 20.
Humpy's rivals would tell you that there is nothing girlish at all about this girl. Harikrishna, though, is quite a child off the board. Shy, fun-loving (he is a fan of Preity Zinta), and armed with a disarming smile, he comes across as any other boy of his age when he is not playing chess.
Over the last couple of years he has improved so much that he is already considered, even abroad, as one of the future superstars of chess. Like all great players, Harikrishna - and Humpy too - got the IM and GM titles, without having to wait much. He made all his three IM norms within a span of two months from three consecutive GM tournaments.
And though he had given himself two to three years for the GM title, he achieved that in one year.
He did well in the Olympiad in Istanbul, pitted against some of the world's strongest players, and helped India finish a creditable eighth. It was no mean feat for a 14-year-old to find a place in what was the strongest Indian team at the Olympiad ever.
Harikrishna has had one stroke of luck. Wipro, the Ban-galore - based software giant, decided to sponsor him just when his career seemed to get affected for lack of a generous sponsorship. (Humpy is sponsored by Bank of Baroda).
His sponsor makes it possible for him to play anywhere in the world. Even more significantly, he has also been given a highly respected coach, GM Evgeny Vladimirov, who trained World No. 1 Garry Kasparov when he first won the World championship in 1985.
Since Vladimirov cannot be with Harikrishna all the time. Wipro has helped him work with IM Varghese Koshy, who is also regarded highly as a coach. "Yes, I am very grateful to all that Wipro has done for me," he says "Talent alone is not enough to do well in chess."
Vijayalakshmi says he is the most natural talent she has seen in Indian chess. "Who knows, he could be a second Anand."
Harikrishna would never tell you that he would want to emulate Anand. But Humpy would. "I want to win the men's World championship," she has often said. No woman may have ever done that, (the closest was when Judith Polgar, a good-looking Hungarian girl, entered the quarterfinals of the men's World Championship in 1999, and no woman may ever do, but she is not bothered by that.
Humpy took the first step in the direction when she won a men's GM tournament in Budapest, in June. She also made a men's GM norm there, something no Indian female player has done till date.
The GM norm came soon after she completed her WGM title. She had made her maiden WGM norm only last September when she won the Asian junior girls' championship in Mumbai. Like Harikrishna she doesn't believe in wasting time over trivial things like norms.
Last year Humpy won the National boys' under-14 championship, and she claimed the Asian under-12 boys' title in 1999. Last year she set a record for the youngest ladies champion of the British open championship. But it's the World junior title she cherishes most.
The styles of Harikrishna, whose father is not a player, and Humpy are not identical. But both are extremely strong in defence, though. Harikrishna has more of an allround game, but the competition is also that much stronger in men's chess. "He is the most difficult player to beat in India now," says GM Abhijit Kunte.
Humpy is rated eighth among the World's junior girls (according to the last ranking list, released by the world chess governing body, FIDE in July), while Harikrishna is just outside the top twenty in the boys' list. That is an indication that he will face stiffer challenges.
Like true champions, he lifts his game to another level when the situation demands. So does Humpy.
And they are ready to take on the world.
(8 September, 2001)
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