Humpy goes from prodigy to world champion, two decades on
She is back! That’s was the refrain in the chess world as Koneru Humpy made a brilliant return to chess, re-launching her career after a two-year hiatus for the birth of her daughter Ahana. The second highest-ranked player in women’s chess for over a decade, Humpy struggled a bit initially when she returned to the circuit in 2018 but has found her groove this year, making a brilliant start in the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix, a series of four tournaments from which the top two will feature in the Candidates Match to pick the challenger to take on reigning world champion Ju Wenjun of China in 2021.
After completing two rounds, Humpy leads the standings, finishing on top in the first event at Skolokov, Russia (Sept 9-23) and joint first in Monaco (Dec 2-15) in the 16-player competition in which each player has to play three of the four events. Two more events will be held in Lausanne (March 1-14, 2020) and Sardinia, Italy (May 2-15, 2020).
On Saturday night, Humpy took a giant step in her tremendous comeback by winning the world rapid title in Moscow, beating her Chinese rival in a thrilling playoff that went to the wire. In the rapid section of the King Salman World Rapid and Blitz Championships being played in Moscow, the 32-year from Andhra Pradesh defeated Lei Tingjie in the Armageddon game after they were locked 1-1 in blitz chess, the shortest format in the game. It is a measure of her brilliant form this year that Humpy has gone on to triumph in rapid chess, her least favourite format, that too after losing a tie-break game on time trouble.
In the 12-round rapid section in which four games are played on each of the three days, Humpy was fifth after the first four rounds but slipped to 13th after losing to Bulmaga Irina of Romania in the sixth round. She drew the next game against Anna Muzychuk of Ukraine and beat Georgia’s Dzagnidze Nana in the eighth round. But she was still not in a comfortable position going into the final day.
Back at fifth position on the final day, things took an unexpected turn for Humpy as she won her first world title in dramatic fashion, beating Tingjie in the playoffs.
Humpy was not in the running at the start of action on the third day. After draws with Atalik and Kateryna Lagno of Russia in the ninth and 10th rounds, she won the last two rounds to force a tie for the top spot, defeating another Chinese Tan Zhongyi in a dramatic, topsy-turvy 12th round game. “When I started my first game on Day 3 I did not imagine I would be at the top. My hope was to reach the top three. I didn’t expect to play the tie-break games. I lost the first game on time but came back in the second game. It was a gambling game, but I won. In the final game, I had a better position and it was a comfortable win,” Humpy said later.
In the playoffs against Tingjie, she started with white pieces but lost the first blitz game when she ran out of time. Normally, a player would lose hope after such a defeat but she fought back to win with black pieces, forcing the Armageddon game.
Humpy chose the Modern Defence, which involves a gamble, and got slight advantage in the middle game. She improved her position, and with time running out, her opponent Tingjie allowed three perpetual checks to force a draw. That ensured she won the title comfortably.
Humpy shot to fame in 1997 when she won the girls’ Under-10 World Championship and repeated the feat in the U-12 and U-14 sections in the next two years, going on to win the world junior girls title in 2001. She became the youngest player to win the International Master title and earned the Grandmaster title, open to men and women, at the age of 15. In 2007, she crossed the Elo rating of 2600, only the second woman player, after Judith Polgar of Hungary, to achieve the feat. Though Humpy remained at the top of her game in the next decade, she somehow failed to win the title that mattered her the most—the Classical World Championship. She reached the semi-finals on four occasions but could not progress further. Once she reached the final but lost to Hou Yifan of China.
Often, people questioned her temperament and cited her reluctance to train with anyone other than her father Ashok, who had coached her since she was five.
But on Saturday, she made her breakthrough. Her performance in the Women’s Grand Prix Series proves the second innings could prove more successful for Humpy.
IN THE RACE FOR BLITZ
On Sunday, Humpy shared the second spot at the half-way stage in the blitz section. At the end of the ninth round, she shared the second spot with three others on seven points. Vidit Gujrathi shared the top spot with three others, including Magnus Carlsen, in men’s blitz.