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FIDE declaring India-Russia joint winners is fair, says Harika Dronavall

Harika Dronavalli
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Harika Dronavalli

Highlights

29-year-old from Guntur aims for world No.1 spot, urges youth to aim high

Grandmaster Harika Dronavalli, dubbed as one of the promising chess champions' in the world, finds the FIDE Online Chess Olympiad title win as very magical and something close to her heart."FIDE's verdict for joint-winners is fair and unprecedented."

This event has many firsts to its credit apart from being the first-ever Online Chess Olympiad. The Indian team, which topped the group, was the first to make it to the quarterfinals and for the first time ever the title was shared by the finalists — India and Russia.

Playing a considerable number of games overall, the 29-year-old from Guntur produced some phenomenal results while her best win came in an evenly fought contest against Lilit Mkrtchian of Armenia. Harika, who scored 4.5/7 points in Pool matches and 3.5/5 in the knockouts, fought tirelessly for the team and thereby ensured the balance of the side.

Harika had given up schooling to pursue a career in chess at a very young age and there was no turning back thereafter. In 2007, at the age of 16 she was honoured with the Arjuna Award and last year she was felicitated with the Padma Shri for her contributions towards the field of sports.

World No. 9 Harika, a member of the winning side, is one among the three Indian woman who figure in the top 10 rankings, the others being reigning World Rapid Champion Koneru Humpy in number three and R. Vaishali world number 10. It comes at a time when no Indian men players are in the top ten in the world's open section.

The excerpts from the interview

In the history of the Olympiad, India ended its title drought with a dramatic win. As a member of the winning team, how do you perceive this.

I consider this as very magical because it's the first time ever and to be part of the team is really special. When I started in 2004, I was only 13 years, it was my dream to win a team medal in the Olympiad because it is a prestigious one and like the Olympics, we have an Olympiad in chess separately. So that was my dream since the beginning. I won many individual events most of time but this is something close to my heart, always wanting to win as a team and it was going on and on every time. I think that the maximum best we had got is fourth and we missed the podium a couple of times but the format was also different. Men and women tournaments were held separately, so it was a completely different format and in 2014, the men's team fetched bronze.

This year because of the pandemic they changed the format and made it online, each team consisted of six players in a mixed format ­—men, women, 2 junior Under-20 players (1 girl and 1 boy). The teams also had the provision for six reserves, plus a team captain. The time control for this event was 15 minutes + 5 seconds increment per move. This is the first time ever that we played as a team and as a country. As a whole and to win a title in such a unique event is historical and something really special. In chess history, I am sure that in future also people will say these players won the first-ever chess title in first-ever online Chess Olympiad and that makes it always special for us and obviously India too.

Being part of the winning side how do you see the performance of the Indian team

I am proud to say that our team had some of the best minds in world chess, including Anand, team captain Gujrathi, Harikrishna and Humpy. We began the tournament on a high note to finish as Group toppers and also emerged as the first team to seal quarters slot. Every player in the team kicked in at some point of the game and there were many strong individual performances too but what stood out was we fared well as a collective unit. Moreover, the tournaments new format comprising of men's, women's and a junior board as one single unit instead of as separate categories also worked in our favour.

In the finals against Russia, India tasted victory in a controversial way. Do you think that the title has lost its sheen for having to share the title with Russia.

It has nothing to do, at our end we were focused in our game, even while playing against Mongolia we had internet issues but we raised no issues as it was from our end. Thereafter, we had over two days of non-playing time during which all steps were taken to ensure uninterrupted internet and power supply and so we had no problem at all in the quarterfinal and semis. In finals too we had no issues but suddenly that day during the last match we lost our internet connection soon after my game for two minutes, even Zoom got logged out. I didn't understand and felt lucky that my game was over but at the same time, everyone experienced a breakage of the network that too at a crucial point wherein we were closing in on a win in the second game of the last three after having drawn the first three games with Russia. It was a global outage where all faced internet failure for a couple of minutes and we got the doubt when most of the people watching online lost connectivity at the same time. That's when we realised that it has nothing to do at our end and it was some other major problem. We made an appeal to the appeal's committee to see what has gone wrong as our players lost on time. On thorough scrutiny they understood that it was a global server breakdown experienced in India and some other countries as well, because of which we lost our crucial match on time. They checked the match position and found out that we were in a similar situation with Russia so it would be unfair if they say to start the game because there is hardly any break time sufficient enough to speak to anyone or check the engine as you know the position already. In a physical game, the players are in front of you and can start again but here in online the options are many for players. So to ensure justice to both the teams which have performed excellently so far, they decided to declare India and Russia as joint winners of Online Chess Olympiad. We were ready to accept any decision, as we all knew we had given our best.

In the quarter too India had a problem, Armenia withdrew from the championship after a similar issue had cropped up. But why is that their appeal was not considered.

On the Armenia side one board had an internet problem and they said it's a server problem but the organisers said the servers are perfectly alright and it was restricted to one board alone, so their appeal was not considered. Upset over this Armenia walked out of the Olympiad but still we all waited patiently for over two hours hoping the game would continue, but they had packed up. Discontent over the decision, Armenia pulled out of the game, however Fide imposed no penalty/fine for the misbehavior. Whereas, in our match against Russia it was a global outage and moreover we had not put any undue pressure on the committee, we were ready to humbly accept any decision.

You began to pursue chess at a very young age and over the years which one do you consider as more challenging — an individual game or a team event.

Definitely at any day team event is challenging, individual is something you play for yourself, you are not responsible for anyone's result, so you are free to do whatever you want and even if you lose, it's your problem, you get upset, something or the other but when you play as a team you have to be responsible for each one of the members that constitute the whole team be it 6 or 12-member side, depending on the championship and the country also. It is definitely a double responsibility, so I would say a team event is much more stressful than an individual one but that's what makes it fun because it's very interesting to watch for spectators as a team.

This is hopefully the first time you have played from home, so did that in any way influence your game.

It's difficult to say because there are both sides to it, let's say if I am comfortable at home having all the good food in the comforts of home but at the same time since beginning we used to have a battle ground if there is a tournament we go there to fight and be there, we are totally focused and we don't have any other small distraction. When you are at home you have other things to do suddenly and at the same time you have to be so focusedas in a tournament outside so this is completely a different game.

So there are some positive points and some negative as well, but in this pandemic this is the best they could do. We were under the supervision of videos and they were checking the screen shares, they had taken all the precautions so that no one cheats. It was a game we were playing over the screen which I think is much more tiring than a normal chess game on the board but at the same time you need to think with the brain so this goes both ways. But in this pandemic at least instead of wasting time this has been the best event under the present circumstances.

Your achievements in world championships so far?

I have won three bronze medals in the Women's World Chess Championship, in 2012, 2015 and 2017. From India, no woman has ever won a world title in the classical format, but Koneru Humpy is the reigning champion in World Rapid chess. I have clinched Asian Games bronze, won Asian women's championships, Commonwealth women's game and bronze medals in many women's tourneys.

Which format do you prefer or in other words have an edge over?

For me I prefer blitz formats, which is a three minutes game but in general all formats are equal for us and it's just a matter of time duration and obviously based on that we bring out changes in our strategies and moves.

India as such is not short of grand master but are we not lagging behind on the medals' front?

Chess has fetched a lot of medals compared to other sports events for India just that the recognition is a bit less. We have all the major titles in relation to any other sports to say in various categories like juniors, sub-juniors, kids, boys, girls, men and women. We have showcased brilliant performance and as I said recognition is a bit less as it is not an Olympic event, but there is an equivalent to it, which is the Olympiad. I feel that not being an Olympic sport could be one of the reasons why it has not got the recognition or response it deserves. Yet we have a lot of upcoming players with many achievements to their credit. Name any tournament internationally, we have for instance Vishwanathan Anand a five-time world champion, Humpy and myself too have bagged many international medals. Similarly, there are many upcoming talents who have clinched titles in junior, sub-junior categories but the people at large know little or have no knowledge about them.

Do you see a wide gap in the next generation, especially chess?

In men there is not much gap but in women there is a lot of void with regard to the next generation players, still we have upcoming youngsters like Divya Deshmukh, R Vaishali and Vantika Agrawal who played well in this online Olympiad, but I think a lot of support is needed to reach to new heights.

Could you please tell something about you and what do you plan to do next?

I gave up academics at a young age because of chess and took the game as a profession from the beginning. My degrees are the awards that I won. I couldn't make it in studies as I had too many tournaments and at a young age I was selected for the national senior championship, I was into Olympiad, into junior world championship and was playing international open tournaments. So I didn't get much time to continue my studies, but I am very happy for the right decision that my parents took at that time because of which I am here today. Daily 6 to 7 hours I practice online, study a lot of books relating to chess and check daily games to keep myself updated. My aim is to become world no 1 for which I need to sharpen my skill and hope post pandemic may open up new horizons for me .

Do sportspersons get timely support, what's your take?

Speaking about the support, I am employed at Indian Oil and they are always there to help me and stand as a pillar of strength behind me. I have not received incentives or anything from the government for the past many years but that doesn't bother me as I am used to it. Definitely there is lack of support from the Sports Ministry but from where we came and where we are now, we can survive without their support but there are many budding talents who need to be nurtured. It would definitely be great if they could bring a shift in the policy and ensure that they get what they deserve, giving impetus from the grassroots. The youngsters must be passionate about what they do – "work hard, aim high, believe in yourselves and success will be in your hands".

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