The young masters

Print edition : September 15, 2001

Pentyala Harikrishna and Koneru Humpy emerge as the brightest rising stars in the world of Indian chess.

THE two prominent names in Indian chess today other than Viswanathan Anand are Pentyala Harikrishna and Koneru Humpy. Both are world-beaters in the sense that they are fast sinking many of the records Anand set early in his career. They are among the top teenage sporting celebrities of the country. The fascinating thing about them is that both are rising fast and it is hard to predict what they would achieve next. They have sufficient talent to achieve just about everything in the world of chess. "Their achievements will encourage and inspire thousands of other Indians to take to the game," said P.T. Ummer Koya, secretary of the All India Chess Federation (AICF).

Pentyala Harikrishna. By winning the grandmaster title at a younger age than Viswanathan Anand did, this teenager from an agricultural family in Andhra Pradesh has aroused great expectations.-ARVIND AARON

Humpy's triumph in the world junior girls' championship in Athens on August 29 is a milestone in her career and the third most important achievement for Indian chess after Anand's world chess title of 2000 and the world junior title of 1987. The other newsmaker of August was Harikrishna who, at 15, became India's youngest grandmaster at Kolkata. He then went on to win the Commonwealth Championship in England and is perhaps the youngest person to do so.

One of the major reasons for their success is corporate support. Thanks to such support, the players get more time to think about the game rather than worry about their tour arrangements. Harikrishna is backed by Wipro, the information technology giant, and Humpy by the public sector Bank of Baroda. Harikrishna admitted during a felicitation function in Bangalore recently that if the other players get such support they would also play better.

What makes Harikrishna and Humpy stand out in the ranks of talented Indians is their ability to win crucial games and events. If winning the world under-10 championship at Menorca in Spain in 1996 attracted sponsors for Harikrishna, in Humpy's case it happened following her triumph in the world under-10 girls' Championship at Cannes, France in 1997. The two have built up their fortunes through hard work, determination and, to an extent, parental support. The governments also continue to help talented players. According to an AICF source, Humpy was a special entry in the world junior championship that she won on August 29 and the government had cleared a large 11-member team. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu presented Rs.25 lakhs and a house to Harikrishna after he became a grandmaster.

BORN on May 10, 1986, Harikrishna, unlike many other chess players who are city-bred, comes from an agricultural family in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. He learnt the moves from his grandfather.

Although he has won only one world title (Under-10), Harikrishna has been making rapid strides in his career which he started with the ambition of becoming a super grandmaster. It will be fulfilled when he crosses the 2,600-mark, moving on from his present score of 2,522 Elo points. In January 2000 he was listed as a FIDE Master with 2354 Elo points. In one and a half years he has added 168 points to become a grandmaster. He will be acknowledged as one in the January 2002 list.

In the last one year, Harikrishna has been steadier than before. His Indian trainer Varugeese Koshy said that when he left Chennai for Guntur his chess suffered and he was not able to concentrate fully on the game. In the last one year, Koshy said, they have not had much time together since Harikrishna had been playing a lot of tournaments or preparing in Bangalore with Evgeny Vladimirov of Kazakhstan who had trained Gary Kasparov.

When Harikrishna arrived in Istanbul for the Chess Olympiad last year he was tired. The captain gave him good rest and fielded him up the board order as a surprise. He lived up to the captain's expectations and made his maiden 10-game grandmaster norm by remaining undefeated. He unnerved big names like Jonathan Speelman of England by turning down their draw offers.

India's strong showing in the early rounds at Istanbul made major tournament organisers sit up and take note. The organisers of the Corus Chess Tournament invited Harikrishna to play first in the Reserve Group at Wijk aan Zee, a snow-filled Dutch village. Harikrishna declined the offer despite requests from players like Genna Sosonko, the Dutch legend.

Koneru Humpy. With four world titles to her credit, she is making rapid strides in her chess career in a characteristically unassuming manner.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Within a week of the Olympiad, the Netherlands made an offer to take him into the Grandmaster Group 'B'. This meant that he would play a closed grandmaster tournament, which would be held alongside the main super category tournament. He was 14 then and took three days before signing in his participation. At Wijk aan Zee this January, he stretched top players such as Mikhail Gurevich and Boris Gulko before making draws. Harikrishna was delighted to play in the same hall as world champions Viswanathan Anand, Vladimir Kramnik and Kasparov and he attracted the attention of the big stars. Playing in Wijk aan Zee, he made a nine-game grandmaster norm and Kasparov referred to him in his speech at the closing ceremony.

Having already won two grandmaster norms covering 19 games, he needed a five-game norm to win the grandmaster title since his Olympiad norm can also be considered a round robin norm. Players making all title norms from the Swiss format tournament have to touch 30 games. Those making one round robin norm will be awarded the title if they already have a norm covering 24 games. The nine norms he made from the Asian Championship at Kolkata were technically sufficient for him to win the title. But nobody seemed to have realised that the Olympiad norm had the flexibility to be considered a round robin norm. It was only when Harikrishna went to England for the Commonwealth Championship that it was pointed out (by Stewart Reuben) that he had indeed completed the title in India. The delay was a matter of interest only for the record because FIDE would have anyway awarded him the title in its next congress in Greece in September 2001.

At Kolkata, Harikrishna qualified for the World Championship to be held in Moscow from November 24. He missed the world junior championship but will give it a shot later. Players like Gata Kamsky and Vladimir Kramnik too wanted to play the world juniors late in their careers but they had grown so strong in the game by then that playing in it became irrelevant. The same could happen to Harikrishna, given the record that he has become a grandmaster at a younger age than Anand had.

UNLIKE Harikrishna, Humpy comes from a chess-playing family. Her father Koneru Ashok was a national 'B' player from Vijayawada. She works for about six hours on chess every day. She prepares by downloading games from the Internet, using the desktop computer presented by The Sportstar in 1998. (The magazine awarded her the prestigious Young Achiever Award in 1999 for winning the world under-12 championship at Oropesa del Mar in November 1998.) In 1999 she failed to defend the title. She made up for this failure by winning the Asian under-12 championship at Ahmedabad.

Humpy won the Asian junior title in Mumbai in September 2000 to gain a nine-game world grandmaster norm. In the Oakham Junior and the events in Hungary she obtained her other norms. In the final round of the world junior in Athens, she needed a win for the title and got it when her German opponent, Elisabeth Paehtz, blew a winning position and missed a repetition. Humpy had not expected to win this event. She will be listed as a woman grandmaster in the next ratings list. After Vijayalakshmi, she is the second Indian to win the title.

Humpy's career is marked by a series of records. In the women's national 'B' in Chennai in December 1998, she qualified for 'A'. She is the youngest to win the British Ladies Championship: she broke a 61-year-old record at Somerset on August 11, 2000. A journalist from England rated her performance at Somerset as the best by an under-14 girl since the time of the Polgar sisters.

Humpy now has four world titles under her belt. She won the under-10 girls title at Cannes in 1997, the under-12 girls title at Oropesa del Mar in 1998, the under-14 girls title at Oropesa del Mar in 2000 and now the under-20 (junior) girls title.

Humpy seems all set to win a few more titles when she competes at Oropesa del Mar 2001 and in the world women's championship in Moscow in November.

Humpy's father is her trainer, besides the computer. Ashok quit his teaching job to devote his full attention to Humpy. He travels with her to all tournament venues. Although she has reached a stage where she is stronger in the game than her father, an unassuming Humpy believes that she still learns from him.

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