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The inspiring return of Koneru Humpy

by Sagar Shah - 29/12/2019

Koneru Humpy gifted the chess community of India a huge honour yesterday by becoming the Women World Rapid Champion. The 32-year-old played some phenomenal bit of chess to score 9.0/12 and was tied for the top place along with Lei Tingjie of China and Ekaterina Atalik of Turkey. However, based on the tiebreak Koneru and Lei advanced to a play-off for the first position. The Indian and Chinese both exchanged blows in what turned out to be quite a dramatic play-off but ultimately it was the ever hungry Humpy who came out on the top. We bring you a detailed, illustrated report along with a revealing interview of the champion.

The comeback girl of chess - Koneru Humpy

In 2016 Koneru Humpy decided to take a break from chess as she was about to become a mother. For two years she was off the chess board and she made a comeback at the 2018 Batumi Olympiad in Georgia. The start was slow as Humpy didn't perform well in her first few events. The Olympiad was decent and she was knocked out of the Women's World Championship in the second round itself. But that didn't deter Humpy from her goals! She worked hard and the result is here to be seen. She won the Skolkovo Women's Grand Prix ahead of all the best women players in the world. And now she is the World Women's Rapid Champion 2019!

Tired, but happy and satisfied. Humpy after winning the Women's World Championship 2019 | Photo: Amruta Mokal

After twelve rounds it all ended in a three-way tie. Lei Tingjie, who was leading the event, lost her last round to Ekaterina Atalik. This allowed not only Atalik to catch up with Tingjie, but also Humpy who beat Tan Zhongyi in the final round. Atalik, Koneru and Tingjie all ended on 9.0/12.

The most important game for Humpy was her win in the twelfth and final round against Tan Zhongyi | Photo: Amruta Mokal

However this win would not have been sufficient had Ekaterina Atalik not beaten the leader Lei Tingjie...

Lei Tingjie was leading the tournament with 9.0/11. Ekaterina Atalik, who was on 8.0/11, won her game and tied with her opponent for the top spot. | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Lei Tingjie's game against Atalik was similar to a lot of other games that she played at the event. She was losing right out of the opening, and then she fought back. She fought back so well that the position was drawn at a point and would have given her the title. But luck ran out for her and Atalik managed to convert a drawn rook endgame. This game was just about how the tournament went for Lei Tingjie. She had bad positions in so many of her encounters. But she never gave up, fought hard and was rewarded for the same. In the last round, she fell just short.

Humpy, Lei Tingjie and Atalik were now tied on 9.0/12. Because Koneru Humpy and Lei Tingjie had the best tiebreak, a playoff was organized between the two. Two games of 3 minutes + 2 seconds increment. If the score ends in a 1-1 tie, the match goes into an Armageddon where White has five minutes and Black has four with draw odds.

Lei Tingjie struck gold in the first game itself as she beat Humpy with the black pieces! | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Humpy was just too slow. As she mentioned later, it was very difficult for her to adjust from rapid to blitz. It seemed like a tall ask to make a comeback. Not only was Humpy 1-0 down in the match, she also had the black pieces. She took a practical choice of going for the Modern Defense. A slightly dubious opening, but just the perfect one in this situation where all that she needed was a fighting game. Very soon Humpy landed in a completely lost position. But it was no longer just a game of chess. With the amount of things on stake, there was a lot of pressure on Lei Tingjie as well. She missed many simple wins before letting Humpy make a comeback and level the scores.

With the momentum firmly on her side, Humpy was all pumped up for the armageddon. She lost the toss and Lei Tingjie decided to take the white pieces and an extra minute. The Armageddon game was a one way traffic as Humpy played solidly and Lei Tingjie was unable to make any headway. Very soon, the Indian GM built up a winning position and agreed to a draw by threefold repetition.

The first thing Humpy did after winning the title was to make a call home to her husband, who had been following all the action! | Photo: Amruta Mokal
Interview with Humpy after her victory

Transcription of the interview with Humpy:

Sagar Shah: Humpy this is the first world title for you, how does it feel?

Koneru Humpy: Yes, I am really excited with this victory. I didn't expect to win this title at all. Okay when I started in the morning I thought finishing in the top three would be the best result for me. But then I got the opportunity to play the tiebreak because the Chinese lost the final game. It was a dramatic tiebreak I would say because I lost the first game with White without much fight because I couldn't adjust to the new time control right away. After that it was a desperate situation for me, I had to win with Black and I chose the Modern. Of course, it is not a good opening but I have played it many times and I went for it because I just had to gamble.The final game was quite clean. I didn't have any problems in the opening and I was completely winning but since a draw was enough I just repeated the moves.

 

Sagar Shah: Today I think one of the most important games for you was against Tan Zhongyi in round twelve, right?

Koneru Humpy: Yeah, that was a very crucial game for me. It was similar to a Queen's Gambit Exchange variation. I had some minor advantage but I managed to find some tricks.

 

Sagar Shah: The move e4 in that game was quite surprising, yes?

 

Koneru Humpy - Tan Zhongyi

Koneru Humpy: Yes, I couldn't see anything better than e4. b2-b4 was too slow because Black had a5 immediately. So I went with e3-e4 and was looking at Ng5 Nxg5 Bxg5 f4 after which I felt Bf6 instead of Bh6 was better. But in the game after Bh6 things became complex and I had every bit of opportunity to make progress in that position with rook versus two bishops and a pawn in the center. She offered to repeat moves at one point but I just wanted to win and by that time my position was already very safe.

 

Sagar Shah: After winning the title you called home. What did your husband had to say?

Koneru Humpy: Yes I wasn't sure if they were following the tiebreaks or not. But it turned out they were following everything and they are of course very happy. It is indeed time for celebration for me and my family since this is my first world title. 

 

Sagar Shah: And what about your daughter? Would she be happy?

Koneru Humpy: [Laughs] She is still not big enough to understand these victories and losses but she will be happy to know that I am returning home!

 

Sagar Shah: You know Humpy when you were 2600+ everyone expected you to be a World Champion but you didn't manage to win a title back then. Did you find it easier to win it now because there were no expectations?

Koneru Humpy: Well, that's true as you say. But at the same time most people expected me to win in the classical not in rapid or blitz kind of things. So this victory was even a surprise for me. I couldn't believe I won it. My best was a bronze in 2012 World Rapid but later on I was never close to the title. So this is was really an exciting tournament.

 

Sagar Shah: Did you prepare specifically for this event?

Koneru Humpy: No, not at all. I just finished the Grand Prix and I hardly had some ten days. I didn't even practice much during that time because at home it is very important for me to spend time with my daughter.

 

Sagar Shah: You know Magnus Carlsen said a few minutes ago after winning the Rapid that his job was half done and he wanted to win the blitz as well. Is it same for you? 

Koneru Humpy: [Laughs] I am not thinking about winning anything. I just want to play and enjoy.

 

Sagar Shah: And lastly, does this result motivate you? To come back like this is actually a pretty inspiring story.

Koneru Humpy: Yes, this year has been a fantastic journey for me. I won the Grand Prix and was also leading the series and then this title happened. I also gained near about 30 rating points. So overall, it was a great year. Perhaps even my career best year.

 

Sagar Shah: You will also want to play for the classical title right?

Koneru Humpy: Well of course, I will keep playing like always. I don't know if I will win it or not but definitely I will give my best.

 

Sagar Shah: We all love your calmness Humpy. It is a moment of pride for all Indians, very well done.

Koneru Humpy: Thank you.

Humpy's friend Almira Skripchenko comes and gives her a warm hug after she won the title! | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Final standings after twelve rounds

Rk.SNo NameFEDRtgPts. TB1  TB2  TB3  TB4  TB5 
113
GMKoneru HumpyIND24389,0186,090,524050,0
25
GMLei TingjieCHN24989,0287,591,524140,0
331
IMAtalik EkaterinaTUR23609,0083,088,023740,0
430
WGMGirya OlgaRUS23658,5088,092,524630,0
56
GMTan ZhongyiCHN24968,5086,592,023820,0
61
GMMuzychuk AnnaUKR25928,5083,588,523780,0
74
GMMuzychuk MariyaUKR25188,5082,087,523500,0
87
WGMPogonina NatalijaRUS24948,5078,582,523610,0
924
IMBulmaga IrinaROU23838,0088,593,524080,0
1053
IMKashlinskaya AlinaRUS22938,0081,586,523900,0