By this time if you have finished watching Queen’s Gambit, the American mini-series on Netflix, you must have drooled over Beth Harmon’s chess moves, and been fascinated by how a girl at a young age stormed the world of chess heavily dominated by male and eventually becomes the World Champion. The game of chess has probably never been this glamourous before. Sheathed by an astounding screenplay and presentation the series has given the sport one of the biggest impetus ever. While we gazed with awe at Harmon’s antics on our screen, we might not know about India’s very own Harmon – Koneru Humpy.
Starting chess at an early age of six
Humpy’s journey has quite been like that of Harmon who steered her way forth through the men’s world of chess and has created her own identity for herself. Hailing from the small town of Gudivada in Andhra Pradesh, Humpy’s chess journey began at the age of six. She was named “Hampi” by her parents, which derived from the word “champion”. Her father later changed the spelling to Humpy, to more closely resemble a Russian-sounding name. Her interest in the game was birthed from her father who once a state chess champion in Andhra Pradesh. Her gradual interest later urged her father to quit his job as a professor and train and mentor his daughter.
My guru ,mentor and the person behind my success.Happy teacher’s day!! pic.twitter.com/4GdRJSHJmL
— Koneru Humpy (@humpy_koneru) September 5, 2020
At the nascent age of six, Humpy was the district champion and subsequently went on to win national championships in her age categories. By this time, she was a winner of two World Youth Chess Championship titles. Humpy was destined to shine when she became the youngest woman grandmaster of the world in 2002 at the age of 15 years, 1 month and 27 days, beating Hungarian Judit Polgár’s previous record by three months. Humpy retained the record for six years when Hou Yufin eventually broke it in 2008.
Ruling women’s chess and yet drawing criticism
Since 2005, Humpy has spent just one month outside of the top five women rankings. After she earned the grandmaster title, she had already disrupted the male-dominated status-quo of chess in India, for which she had to come under the radar of her critics. A bit of falter in her consistency drew criticism as people said she earned her GM by playing in weaker tournaments in Europe and not in the highly-competitive scene ecosystem in India. Besides, a woman GM was always seen as weaker against men.
In 2008, Koneru made it to the semifinals of women’s world title and lost Yufin in tie tiebreaks. Koneru repeated as a semifinalist in 2010 before losing again to Hou, who won her first world title that year. In terms of individual tournaments, in 2008 Koneru had top-four finishes at the 3rd Kolkata Open Grandmaster Chess Tournament and the Ruy Lopez Chess Festival before taking the Mumbai Mayor Cup with 9/11 points. In the same event the following year, she tied for first along with three others. Another impressive major tournament performance came at the 8th Gibraltar Chess Festival in 2011. Koneru finished half a point behind a group of leaders that included several 2700-rated GMs like Michael Adams, Gata Kamsky, Francisco Vallejo Pons, and Etienne Bacrot.
Koneru also gained attention in the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix. For four consecutive series of the event (2009-11, 2011-12, 2013-14, and 2015-16 editions), she finished as the runner-up, the first three to Hou and the last time to GM Ju Wenjun. As the top board for India in the 2011 FIDE Women’s World Team Championship, Koneru won individual gold with 6/8 points. The team finished fourth that year. In 2015 at the same event, she won individual bronze for India, which finished fourth.
The Arjuna Award winner of 2003 and later a Padma Shri in 2007, Koneru is known in the world of chess for her tactical positions and endgame abilities.
The battle in a world dominated by men
With an ELO of 2586 and a world ranking of three, she has made a mammoth establishment in the chess universe where only 37 women have earned the GM title, compared to 1,683 men GMs. She still holds the belief that men are superior in chess compared to women. In a previous interview, she had mentioned, “I have seen male players display a wider repertoire of moves. They shift between openings quite often and are quite aggressive in their style of play. When it comes to women, there are many top players who have limited opening moves, but the preparation behind those moves is deeper. A game between a woman and a woman is very different from a game between a man and a woman because psychologically men intend to try to make a point in that match. So, the game tends to become wilder.”
Big comeback after childbirth
In September 2016, Koneru took a break from chess to give birth to her daughter and take care of her. Two years later, she came back with a bang to play for India at the 2018 Chess Olympiad, where she scored 5.5 points and helped her team finish in eighth place out of 151 teams. 2019 turned out to be her big year when she finished in a three-way tie for first and then beat GM Lei Tingjie on tiebreaks (in armageddon) to win the 2019 World Rapid Championship, her first world title.
After giving birth to her daughter Ahana in 2017, Koneru’s form has simply seen a surge following her hiatus. At the Cairns Cup in 2020, which is considered the toughest tournament for women in chess, Humpy edged past World Champion Ju Wenjun by half a point for the top prize of $45,000 and overtook her for the second place in the world ranking, following three major wins in six months. Her Cairns Cup victory made it three major wins in just six months. Following the globally-imposed lockdown owing to coronavirus, the FIDE Online Chess Olympiad turned out to be a rollercoaster ride for Humpy. The 33-year-old went from tasting defeat from a seemingly better position in the preliminary round against Mongolia due to a power failure at home in Vijayawada to holding her nerve and winning a crucial Armageddon game in the semi-final against Poland. Her performance came as crucial for team India, for the first time ever were announced champions of the Chess Olympiad, jointly with Russia.
Humpy has cautiously decided not to take part in the fourth and final leg of the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix Series which will be held in Gibraltar from January 17 to 29. “In the view of the prevailing pandemic, I thought it not worth taking the risk to travel all the way and hence I will not be playing in what is a very important event,” World No. 3 Humpy had said in an interview.
The ONGC employee continues to work on her opening and middle-games as she believes no one can be a complete player at any given point in time.