"I am now more stable with lots of patience" - Humpy Koneru
Humpy Koneru is an inspiration to the entire chess community. She was off the chess grid for two years, taking care of her new born daughter Ahana. In this cut throat chess world filled with computer innovations and novelties a break of a few days is enough to make you feel outdated. How did Humpy, who made a comeback after such a long layoff, manage to not just start playing good chess, but win one of the strongest tournaments in the world - the Skolkovo Women's Grand Prix? How did she manage to improve her game so that she could rise to world no. 3 rankings behind just Hou Yifan and World Champion Ju Wenjun? In this interview we discuss each of Humpy's game at the Skolkovo Grand Prix in detail with the champion! "I am now more stable with lots of patience", says Humpy.
The FIDE Women's Grand Prix 2019-20 that began with the first edition in Skolkovo was an extremely strong event. It had all the top women chess players in the world including current World Champion Ju Wenjun, her challenger for the next World Championship match Aleksandra Goryachkina, former Women's World Champions Alexandra Kosteniuk, Antoaneta Stefanova, strong players like Kateryna Lagno, Harika Dronavalli, Elisabeth Paehtz, Valentina Gunina and a few more. The tournament was won by India no.1 Humpy Koneru.
With this victory Humpy earned 15,000 euros and also 160 Grand Prix points. The GP points especially mean a lot because the top two finishers at the end of Women's Grand Prix 2019-20 will qualify directly to the next Candidates. Each player has to participate in three out of the four Grand Prix events. Their points are accumulated to determine the top two players in the series.
Humpy's victory is extra special because since September 2016 she had taken a break from competitive chess for two years. In those two years Humpy became a mother, giving birth to her daughter Ahana. For a player like Humpy, who plays at the highest level, two years of break from competitive chess is quite a lot. Humpy made a comeback at the Olympiad 2018 in Batumi. Her performance there was nothing special and immediately in the next tournament - Women's World Championships 2018, she was knocked out in round two by Jolanta Zawadzka. The rustiness was surely showing.
If there is one quality in Humpy that has helped her to rise to the top in the past, it would be her never say die spirit. She was a fighter right since her childhood. Hardly making short draws, playing in the open section against strong male players to improve her game, and extreme amount of discipline helped her to create a niche for herself in the chess world. Yes, the two year's break had made her lose her top level chess touch. Yes, she no longer could give all her time to chess practice like before as she had a daughter to take care off, but Humpy didn't give up. She fought hard, practiced hard and played in some important events to make her comeback. After nearly a year persistent work, she had the biggest success in the month of September 2019. Humpy announced her comeback to the world of elite chess by winning the Skolkovo FIDE women's Grand Prix.
After the event. ChessBase India decided to get in touch with Humpy and did a detailed interview where the champion recapped her entire performance at the Skolkovo Grand Prix.
Interview with Humpy Koneru
Sagar Shah (SS): Humpy, first of all congratulations on such a big achievement – winning the FIDE Grand Prix 2019 at Skolkovo. You got a FIDE Wild Card for the Grand Prix series. What were your expectations before the event began?
Humpy Koneru (HK): Thank you very much. In fact I didn’t expect to get entry in this year's series. I felt very happy that I got the opportunity and I would like to thank FIDE for this gesture. My ambition was to play good games and I thought if I manage to be in top three places that would be a good result.
SS: Your results at the Chinese League leading up to the event were very good. Did you feel going into the event that you were playing your best chess?
HK: I played the Chinese league just to stay in touch with the tournament atmosphere. I had a feeling that I was playing some decent chess from this year’s Gibraltar tournament. So I was confident about my chances at the Grand Prix.
SS: How did you find the arrangements at the FIDE Grand Prix in Skolkovo. From the pictures the tournament looked quite spectacular.
HK: This was a very well organized event with modern arrangements. Right from the tournament logo to the venue to everything, it was all very classy.
SS: In round one itself you were pitted against Harika.
Humpy vs Harika, round 1
Harika lashed out with …b5!? Did you expect this? What were your calculations and assessment here during the game?
HK: I saw this move. but didn't expect her to play it as I considered this to be bad. I felt I had gained an advantage from the opening and after ...b5 my position should be moving in a winning direction. However, my biggest mistake was that I consumed a lot of time in the opening and missed the winning chances in time trouble.
SS: You made a solid draw against Marie Sebag in round two using the Petroff. Overall, you placed a lot of trust in the Petroff in the event and it served you well.
HK: Yes, it was not easy to prepare openings at this level after a professional break for two years. I found there are a lot of improvements everywhere. So I decided to keep it simple and solid.
SS: Then came this beautiful game against Kashlinskaya where you sacrificed a piece:
Humpy vs Kashlinskaya, Round 3
Neg5! How did it feel to execute this combination! It became one of the most popular games for a few days with several YouTube videos and social media sharing it!
HK: Well this opening was prepared few years ago. When she played ...Qc7 it was very much logical to check this possibility and it worked.
SS: You had a completely fine position against Kosteniuk but suddenly you made a mistake and you landed in a very tough endgame.
HK: It was not a mistake. I would say it was a blunder. A blunder to exchange the queens.
Kosteniuk vs Humpy, round 4
SS: Did you think you could hold this endgame?
HK: I thought if White can get the rook from the side and place it in front of his pawn, then it would be winning but I didn't see many of the tricks available in the position to Black as well.
SS: You made a solid draw against Goryachkina. She basically rose to the top of women’s chess in the years you were not playing. What is your opinion about her as a chess player? What makes her so strong?
HK: Well, after my game with Kostenuik I got tired and I was not in a mood to play fighting chess. So I went for an easy game against Goryachkina. She is strong in opening preparations and tactics.
SS: Cramling has just played f4 to stop e5. Yet you went ahead with this move anyway.
Cramling vs Humpy
SS: Was this an idea you had seen beforehand or you figured it out on the board?
HK: I found it over the board!
SS: In your game with Stefanova, you got an advantage right out of the opening and then you reached this critical position:
Humpy vs Stefanova, Round 7
SS: Why didn’t you just take the pawn on c5 here?
HK: I got a clearly better position out of the opening. But I overestimated my position. I missed her Rxf2 in the game. I tried to be too smart and it backfired!
SS: The game against Paehtz in round 8 was very smooth. Where do you think she went wrong?
HK: Her c5 was bad. It was a complete positional game and I played with better understanding. I feel that my Re7 and h6 were good moves.
Paehtz vs Humpy, Round 8
SS: In your interview to Keti Tsatsalashvili after the event, you said that the 9th round game against Gunina was really very important. It was a crazy and complicated game.
Humpy vs Gunina, Round 9
SS: How did you assess this position?
HK: Well, the Blumenfeld Gambit came as surprise from her. I decided to handle it in a practical way. I felt the above position had equal play for both sides.
SS: What was your mindset before going into the final game against Ju Wenjun?
HK: I had a half point lead and playing with the white pieces was a pleasant feeling for me. I thought I shouldn't let go of this opportunity.
SS: Were you tensed when she sacrificed a piece or you had seen it all the way to a draw?
Humpy vs Ju Wenjun, Round 11
HK: No, I wasn't tensed. I saw the entire plan when I played Qc3 that after ...Qxa3 Qxd3 a4 I had Qa6! followed by Nc5!
SS: Who are the people you would like to thank and dedicate this victory to?
HK: I should thank my family for their support. My husband and my parents who have taken the responsibility of Ahana while I am playing and my daughter also for letting me practise when I am at home. She has got used to seeing me with chess pieces. There are times when she comes to me and tells, "Mom, you play chess! I will also play here (with her toys)!"
SS: They say that becoming a mother makes you extremely fierce and you are no longer afraid of anything. Do you feel a change in your perspective towards life and game after becoming a mother?
HK: Yes. Now, I am a more stable person with lots of patience and I have even learnt to do well in the toughest of situations!
SS: Humpy, there are many people who have taken a break from chess for various reasons and want to comeback to it, but are never really able to. After a two-year break, you have managed to make a successful comeback on the chess board. How were you able to do it?
HK: Well, I don’t have any secrets. I worked hard since last 6 months on my game. For me the toughest was to stay in practise. There are times I wasn’t able to study chess in systematic manner. But when the tournament neared I kept up my focus during the entire event.
SS: Lastly, are you happy with the change in the women’s World Championship cycle. What’s your opinion of the new FIDE administration and their work for women’s chess?
HK: Yes! I think this cycle gives the best opportunity to the strongest players. This format doesn’t have place for luck. You need to play extremely well constantly. FIDE is doing a good job. The number of women's tournament have increased and so has the prize fund. This is obviously good for the development of chess.
SS: Thanks a lot Humpy for your time!