Old-timers and chess coaches always talk of playing a tournament with a clear mind. Good preparation, adequate rest and peaceful mind, they say, would help a chess player reap rich rewards. Dronavalli Harika would readily agree to all these, especially after her breakthrough victory in the Fide Women’s Grand Prix Series event in Chengdu, China, on Thursday.
In the five-tournament Grand Prix series which started in October 2015, a player has to play in three events and earn enough points to bag the overall title and also claim a spot in the World Championships. When the fourth leg started in Chengdu, Harika was nowhere in contention having finished eighth among 12 competitors in Tehran, Iran. She did not participate in the first two events in Monaco (Oct 2015) and Batumi, Georgia (Feb 2016).
But Chengdu brought in a change of fortunes as she went there well prepared after a brief rest period and played at a high level to finish undefeated in 11 rounds, winning three and drawing eight games to finish with seven points out of a possible 11. Compatriot, Koneru Humpy, who took over the lead from Harika midway through the 11 rounds, gave her a strong fight. Harika, the 25-year-old from Guntur defeated Humpy, four years elder to her and the world no 3 from nearby Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh, in the seventh round and took the lead back. She held on to her advantage by playing draws, surviving some anxious moments in the 10th and 11th rounds against Zhao Xue of China and Olga Girya respectively.
Humpy won her last two games to join her on seven points but Harika claimed the title thanks to better tie-break.
Harika spoke to Hindustan Times over phone from Chengdu on her performance in the Women’s Grand Prix series and the road ahead. Excerpts:
On her overall performance in the 2015-16 Grand Prix cycle:
I was there in the last cycle too(the 14-15 cycle), so I am used to this tournament. In this cycle, the first one which I played, Iran, went really bad because I was really tired having played other events and I couldn’t perform well. So this win was really needed. I felt, I should win this somehow to get back this chance to get qualified for the World Championship. Now at least I am back in the race so it all depends on how I do in my third event in the cycle.
On what went right for her as she did not do well in the previous event of the series in Tehran, Iran:
I just played with a clear mind, I was fresh also. I had some off time before this tournament so I could play peacefully from the beginning. Last time it went wrong (Harika finished 8th among 12 competitors with 4.5 points) because I had to do lot of travelling. I played some events before Iran, like I had a really long trip before it. So I couldn’t get adequate time to get peaceful and play. Here it was completely different, I came much ahead, I had my time and I happily played like game to game and tried to give my best in every game. This is a long tournament so every game you try to give your best and in the end I could see the chances, I tried to be a little bit more cautious.
On pressure in the final round game with Humpy hot on her heels:
There was no pressure. I was sure that if I can draw or win, I was sure that I can win the title. There was little bit pressure somewhere in the back of my mind to be extra careful so I could not take my chances completely like on a normal day. But I was not worried at any point of time, I knew that things were going smooth and I only concentrated on my game. Yesterday’s game (a draw against Zhao Xue of China) was really a bit crazy so after that I was sure that I will definitely win the title.
On it being her best title so far:
Definitely this was one of the best titles so far I can say. But as per achievements, I regard the World Championship bronze medal much tougher and much more satisfying.
On her overall performance in Chengdu:
I was the only unbeaten player in this tournament so it went consistently.
On the final round game against Olga Girya in which she faced some anxious moments:
Today I could have done better but it doesn’t matter because OK a game here and there can happen especially in key moments when you are near to the title. But in general, I am quite happy, I am gaining 36 points from here, my world ranking improves so, definitely I am quite happy.
On the turning point in Chengdu:
The win against Koneru Humpy was the turning point because she was leading till then, half-point ahead of me so that win changed the table.
On beating Humpy in the crucial seventh round game and their rivalry:
Nothing like that actually, we are playing quite often at this higher level tournament so now we are used to it (playing against each other). For us it is just a tournament, it is like (playing) any other player. It is not like it is a special competition or something between us, only for viewers it is more interesting to see us playing together and competing against each other, in general for us it doesn’t matter, it is just a tournament and we are opponents. It is a healthy competition.
On her chances of qualifying for the World Championship match:
I want to stay positive. Definitely if I win that (last event of the GP Series 2015-16), the tournament, the last one, I will have very good chances.
On her schedule after Chengdu:
I am playing for the Indian team in the Chess Olympiad in September (at Baku, Azerbaijan), after that I have this Grand Prix series event in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. After that in December, I have the world Rapid and Blitz Championship.