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The Elo race against Anand is not important!

by Sagar Shah - 05 May 2016

India number two Pentala Harikrishna played in one of the strongest Round Robin tournaments of his career - The Altibox Norway Chess 2016. He performed very well scoring 4.5/9. In this interview he speaks about his tournament, how he prepared himself, what went wrong, how he fought back and how did he find Markus Ragger as his second. With the focused and single minded approach he has towards the game, we have a feeling that this 30-year-old will go a long way and will soon be a household name in the elite chess circles. And what about his Elo race with Vishy Anand? Well, it is not so important was his straightforward reply!

 Photos by Joachim Steinbru (JS) and Fiona Steil-Antoni (FSA)


"Hi, Sagar! Thank you for your message. Busy in preparing things for Norway. Interviews after the event. Hope you understand." This was Hari's reply when I asked him for an interview prior to the Altibox Norway Chess 2016. One could literally sense the seriousness with which the Indian grandmaster was preparing for the tournament. Of course, I didn't disturb Hari with the questions but I made sure that I get to ask him loads of them after the event was finally done! And so, once the nine rounds were over, I sent the questions over to him and the soft-spoken grandmaster from Guntur, who now spends most of his time in Serbia, gladly gave us his answers.


Harikrishna finished seventh at the Norway Chess 2016. His losses against Magnus Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik were compensated with wins over Li Chao and Anish Giri. 

The final results cross table

Interview with Pentala Harikrishna

SS: You were playing a super tournament after a huge gap. The last one was in Biel in July 2014. How did you prepare yourself for this event? 

PH: I played two Bundesliga games in March after the Mind games in China. So I had time to prepare for Norway. I won't be able to give away the whole process, but general training and focusing on opponent’s openings were some of the areas I concentrated on.


After a long hiatus, Hari was back to fight it out against the best in the world at the Norway Chess 2016 (FSA)

SS: In the first round you were paired with the black pieces against Magnus. Were you a tad nervous before the game? How was your experience of playing the World Champion?

PH: Pairings were decided by the outcome of the Blitz event which took place one day prior to the main tournament.  So I wasn't really bothered with the pairings.  Some players prefer to have five whites, but for me, it did not matter much that I got four.
I forgot my preparation against Magnus after which I spent a lot of time in order to find a way to continue.  For me, I have nine opponents.  For me, my playing strength and focus during a game is more important than whom I am playing.


SS: How did you recover after your first round loss?

PH:  I did not think much about the loss. I just prepared for my next round game and I think with each game my play got better!


 Super stylish Hari about to enter the playing hall (FSA)

SS: I found your game against Grandelius to be of extremely high quality. Until what point was it your preparation and were you upset that you botched up a very promising position?

PH: It was not my preparation to give up a pawn. I found this idea over the board. I felt that Black has excellent compensation for the pawn. I could have played better and put more pressure. But I didn't have much time to analyze these games in detail and in such events you are always thinking about your next encounter.

Hari has something to show Nils on his mobile phone! (JS)

SS: You played the mindball game on the rest day. How were you so good at it?

The strongest Mindball game player amongst the elite chess players! (FSA)

The last few seconds of the video shows Hari winning his game against MVL

PH:  Yes it was my first time.  In fact, it was a long struggle and MVL fought back. The video which you saw was just the final part! So it appears that I won very easily!


[Ed.: On the rest day the players indulged in a sport called the Mindball game! Here is how the game works:

Mindball Game is contained in a table. On the table top, a ball is moving back and forth during the game. The players wear headbands with electrodes which are connected to the table.

The electrodes are wired up to a biosensor system. The system that is used to measure the body's biological signals registers the electrical activity in the brain - so called EEG (Electroencephalogram is an electrical waveform that is recorded from the brain by using electrodes placed on the head).

The players and the audience can follow the players’ mental process during a game as the players’ brain activity is presented graphically if a monitor is attached to the game table. Mindball Game is an exciting and social game where the audience can follow the match by watching the ball on the table, the graphics and the players, thus giving biofeedback (neurofeedback) to the players.]

The World Champion tried his hand at the Mindball game, but as you can see from the image, the ball is near him and that means he is on the edge of defeat. (JS)

SS: It seemed as if you went in for a kill against Li Chao opening the game with the ultra-aggressive d4 Nf6 c4 g6 f3!? Can you take us through the game?

PH: Li Chao came up with an interesting idea by closing e5 and h5. At first, I thought white should be much better. After few minutes of thought, I understood that the position is quite unclear. I think h4 after Nh7 is the best move for white as I mentioned in Press conference. What I played in the game is interesting too. I would say that this game against Li Chao is my favourite game from the event.

Hari and Li Chao are good friends off the board, but on the board they played like mortal enemies! (FSA)
[Event "4th Norway Chess 2016"]
[Site "Stavanger NOR"]
[Date "2016.04.24"]
[Round "5"]
[White "Harikrishna, Pentala"]
[Black "Li Chao"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "E60"]
[WhiteElo "2763"]
[BlackElo "2755"]
[Annotator "Sagar Shah"]
[PlyCount "83"]
[EventDate "2016.04.18"]
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. f3 {Hari goes for the same move that Magnus Carlsen used
to beat Li Chao at the Qatar Masters 2015.} c5 {This time instead of d5, the
Chinese player goes for c5 which in some ways transposes the game into Benoni/
King's Indian structures.} 4. d5 d6 5. e4 Bg7 6. Ne2 O-O 7. Nec3 $5 {Nec3 was
also used by Anand in his only Classical win against Boris Gelfand in the 2012
World Championship Match.This is how Igor Stohl describes this move. "Rather
unusual, but the underlying idea is sound enough. Instead of bothering to find
a good square for the Ne2, White will rather look for another post for his Nb1
- it might go to a3, or more probably to d2 after Be3(g5).} e5 {This is where
Harikrishna's opening preparation came to an end. This is a pretty rare move.}
8. g4 h5 $5 9. h3 {Looking to cause some major problems with the move Bg5 now.
Li Chao prepares for this.} Nh7 10. Be3 (10. h4 {Hari was looking in this
direction. But after} Bf6 11. gxh5 Bxh4+ 12. Kd2 g5 {He was not so sure about
his position. It looks like after} 13. Kc2 $16 {White should be better.}) (10.
gxh5 $6 Qh4+ $1 11. Kd2 Qxh5 $13) 10... h4 $5 {Black prepares a very
interesting idea of exchanging the dark-squared bishops.} 11. Qd2 Bf6 12. Rg1
Bg5 13. Bxg5 Qxg5 (13... Nxg5 {would have been better than the game
continuation.}) 14. Nb5 $1 {This forces Black to retreat with the queen.} Qe7
15. g5 $1 {Blocking the g5 square so that it cannot be used by the black
pieces.} a6 16. N5c3 Nd7 17. Qg2 Kg7 (17... f6 18. gxf6 Rxf6 19. Qg4 g5 20.
Qxh4 Rxf3 21. Nd2 Rf4 22. Qg3 {is quite a messy position but no so bad for
Black.}) 18. Nd2 f6 19. gxf6+ Qxf6 (19... Rxf6 20. Qg4 $16) 20. Nd1 $1 {
A brilliant idea. Black's plan was to play Rf7, Nf8, g5 and Ng6. However, Hari
is quick to take measures against that and prepare Nd1-f2-d3 in order to break
in the centre with f4! This truly shows how strong he is.} Rf7 21. Nf2 Ndf8 22.
Nd3 b5 (22... g5 {was the critical test.} 23. f4 $1 {A similar idea like in
the game.} exf4 24. e5 dxe5 25. Ne4 $44 {With excellent compensation.} Qg6 26.
Qe2 (26. Nxe5 f3 $19) 26... Nd7 27. O-O-O) 23. O-O-O $1 g5 24. f4 $3 {This is
clearly the best move in the game! Black's position is ripped to shreds after
this.} exf4 25. e5 $1 {Pawns are not really so important at this moment!} Qf5 (
25... dxe5 26. Ne4 Qh6 27. Nxe5 Re7 28. Nc6 $16) 26. e6 f3 (26... Re7 27. Qe4
$1 $18) 27. Qh2 Bxe6 {Black sacrifices the piece for a few pawns but it is not
enough.} 28. dxe6 Qxe6 29. Nf2 Qe3 30. Ng4 Qf4 31. Qxf4 Rxf4 32. Nxf3 $1 {
Always tactically alert!} bxc4 (32... Rxf3 33. Bg2 $18) 33. Ngh2 Ne6 34. Rxd6
Nd4 35. Rd7+ Kh8 36. Ne5 Nf8 37. Rf7 Re4 38. Rxg5 Rd8 39. Rxf8+ Rxf8 40. Ng6+
Kg7 41. Nxf8+ Kxf8 42. Rxc5 {A power packed game by Harikrishna. Especially the
moves f4 followed by e5.} 1-0 

SS: It is very rare to see the super solid Anish Giri lose in such a tame fashion as he did against you. What was his critical mistake in the game and how did it feel to beat such a strong opponent?

Anish is usually very alert when his position is going downhill and quickly pulls the emergency brakes. But against Hari, he wasn't able to do that. (JS)

Anish Giri - Harikrishna, round six

PH: 15.fxe6, I felt was a mistake. I don't think it is losing after this. However, White's counter chances on king side are stopped. 15.f6 is critical and unclear.  Obviously, I was pleased with my play. However, I did not think it is so important to feel happy about your victory when three strong opponents are waiting for you in the next rounds.


SS: After these two wins you were just half a point behind the leader Magnus Carlsen. How did you spend your second rest day?

PH: There were no activities like the earlier rest day. As it was nice and sunny, Markus and I went for a nice and long walk.


SS: How did you decide on Markus Ragger as your second for the event?

PH: He is my team mate in Solingen which I joined for the 2015-2016 Bundesliga season. We interacted with each other during the Bundesliga and that's how Markus joined me in Norway. I must say that he did an excellent job.


Magnus with his second Peter-Heine Nielsen and Hari with his second Markus Ragger (FSA)

SS: You played a fighting draw with MVL in round seven but then you lost to Vladimir Kramnik. It seemed that you had equalized out of the opening but your position went downhill pretty soon. What exactly went wrong?

PH: My games against MVL are always interesting. I missed some chances and later on I had to play accurately to make a draw. Against Vladimir, it seemed like Black's position is fine out of the opening. However, there are many points to be solved and I missed the Ng5 move. After which It went downhill. There was some suggestion of computer with which I could fight. During a game, it is not so easy to calculate as much as a computer does!

 17.Ng5! was the move by Kramnik that threw Hari off balance!

It's never easy to face the big Vlad! (JS)

SS: 4.5/9, 50% score and a seventh place finish. How happy are you with your performance at the Norway Chess 2016?

PH: There will always be ifs and buts! I am satisfied with my play. Somethings I am sure that I need to work on and improve. I will get a clearer idea after I analyze in detail, but I am not going to share with you!

The tournament settings at the Altibox Norway Chess 2016 (JS)

SS: You are now just 6 Elo points away from Vishy Anand. Do you pay attention to this race about the India number one in terms of rating or is it not too important for you?

Harikrishna has been on Anand's toes for quite some time now

PH: I understand that chess lovers from India are excited about it. In a way, this race is good if it attracts more people to the game of chess in the country! As for me personally, this is not the most important thing.


SS: What’s next on your agenda? Which tournaments will you be playing?

PH: I will be playing in Shamkir followed by Danzhou.


SS: Any plans to play for Team India in the Olympiad 2016 at Baku this year?

PH: It is too early to discuss it.


SS: Thanks a lot Hari for your time. Entire India is following your progress and we are hoping that you inch your way to the 2800 mark and soon become the World Champion!

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