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Interview with Asian Women's Champion Bhakti Kulkarni

by Sagar Shah - 20/06/2016

"Let's start afresh!" were the words of Bhakti's coach Raghunandan Gokhale when the girl from Goa was struggling in her chess career. With meticulous planning and right selection of events, the duo had made sure that Bhakti was in the best possible form before her Asian Championships in Uzbekistan. And the 24-year-old showed one of the most powerful performances of her chess career winning the title with an Elo performance of 2505! ChessBase India brings you an exclusive interview with the 2016 Asian Women's Champion.

Six women players from India went to play the Asian Women Individual Championships held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan from the 26th of May to the 3rd of June 2016. Bhakti Kulkarni was the last seed amongst them. But what mattered more than the rating was the fact that Bhakti was in the perfect frame of mind. She was hungry to play good chess and ready to learn from her mistakes. With such an attitude it didn't come as a surprise when she won the Asian Championship 2016 with a score of 7.0/9.


The 2016 Asian Champion Bhakti Kulkarni with her glittering trophy


Final Ranking after 9 Rounds


Rk. SNo   Name FED Rtg Bdld Pts.  TB1   TB2   TB3 
1 15 WGM Kulkarni Bhakti IND 2296   7,0 0,0 5,0 2318
2 5 WGM Saduakassova Dinara KAZ 2415   6,5 0,5 5,0 2307
3 10 WGM Soumya Swaminathan IND 2346   6,5 0,5 5,0 2279
4 17 WGM Nguyen Thi Mai Hung VIE 2276   6,0 0,0 5,0 2338
5 18 WGM Hoang Thi Bao Tram VIE 2263   6,0 0,0 4,0 2336
6 20 WIM Vo Thi Kim Phung VIE 2173   6,0 0,0 4,0 2254
7 1 IM Khademalsharieh Sarasadat IRI 2459   5,5 0,0 4,0 2258
8 3 IM Munguntuul Batkhuyag MGL 2442   5,5 0,0 4,0 2215
9 7 WIM Tokhirjonova Gulrukhbegim UZB 2390   5,5 0,0 3,0 2239
10 12 WIM Pratyusha Bodda IND 2336   5,0 0,0 5,0 2211


Bhakti's performance of 2505 earned her 50 Elo points!


We contacted Bhakti Kulkarni after her tournament ended and sent her a few questions. The girl from Goa sent us frank and honest answers, which we now present to you. It is an interview from which all of us can learn something.


Sagar Shah: Bhakti, what a tournament! Tell us, is the biggest result of your career till date?


Bhakti Kulkarni: Thanks! Of course this is the biggest till date! I am on cloud nine after playing nine best rounds of my career. Everybody had written me off before the tournament began and that’s why the success is so sweet.

SS: You had a better position in almost every game you played. Even the games that ended in a draw were better for you. How did you prepare before this event that you played at such a high level?


BK: I was in bad shape mentally after Asian Teams in Abu Dhabi. My low rating did not inspire confidence in my team mates or coach. I did my best by scoring 4.0/4 whenever I got a chance but was disappointed for not getting more games.
When I came back to India, [Raghunandan] Gokhale sir bluntly told me that if I want to be trusted in team events, I have to perform. “Let us start afresh,” he said. Since he hardly goes out of Mumbai, he asked me to play in Mumbai first. "Let us treat these tournaments your training ground,” he commented. I was aghast. It was a low rated tournament. I didn't want to play but finally relented. And it proved to be the turning point. After scoring 8.0/9, I lost one Elo! But I gained rich experience and discovered a new Bhakti. The games were not published, so I could experiment with new ideas. I just enjoyed playing against talented sub-2000 players.


SS: After Mumbai you played another tournament in Nashik. Do you think that event helped you at the Asian Continental?


BK: Yes! I was seeded fifth and stood second after losing to the eventual champion N. Srinath and drawing with IM Sameer Kathmale. I scored 8.5/10. Scoring eight wins each in both tournaments in the hot weather was sort of achievement, I feel. Surely playing in Mumbai and Nashik was part of our plan of preparations. I got 16-17 Elo too. Gokhale sir came down to Nashik for my preparation and it worked.


The 19 rounds in Mumbai + Nashik was a great experience for me. It also proved to me that playing in tougher conditions in India can be a very educative pre-tournament workshop. I learnt to be vigilant in plus positions. The talented players from Maharashtra used to fight until the very end and indirectly educated me on how to keep maintaining and then increasing my advantage.

I would like to mention my game against Pawan Dodeja (also my teammate in MCL). He defended stubbornly throughout the game and had I not improved my psychology, I would have allowed him to escape with a draw. But I concentrated and maintained the small plus until the 80th move to win the game. I knew that if I concentrated like that game, Asian Woman title is not far away.


Being in the right frame of mind before a crucial event is of extreme importance


SS: What was your aim before the tournament started in Uzbekistan?

BK: If I tell you that I was bursting with confidence and raring to go before the Asians you may be surprised. I had beaten all the contestants somewhere or other – though I had lost too. With new preparation and psychology, I assumed I could do it. I was also an underdog and there was no pressure on me. Let us think this tournament also as a training ground instead of Asian Continental Championship, I assured myself.


Bhakti Kulkarni - Soumya Swaminathan


Can you find the positional plan that Bhakti (White) came up with in this position? 


SS: After a hard fought draw against Padmini you were able to positionally outplay Soumya. How did you find this idea of Rc1 and b4 (in the above position). It was a very strong plan.


BK: It was Gokhale sir who had showed me that plan while preparing against Benoni. He taught me how to play against both the setups - when Black would place his queen on c7 or on e7. Soumya is a very good player with black pieces and has always given me head aches with her Benoni. So it was understood that she would go for it again. 


[Event "15th Asian Continental w"]
[Site "Tashkent UZB"]
[Date "2016.05.28"]
[Round "3.6"]
[White "Kulkarni, Bhakti"]
[Black "Soumya, Swaminathan"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "A62"]
[WhiteElo "2296"]
[BlackElo "2346"]
[PlyCount "83"]
[EventDate "2016.05.26"]


1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5 e6 4. Nc3 exd5 5. cxd5 d6 6. Nf3 g6 7. g3 Bg7 8. Bg2
O-O 9. O-O a6 10. a4 Nbd7 11. Bf4 Qc7 12. Rc1 {Interestingly Li Xueyi had
played till Rc1 against Mitra in first round and I was worried if the Chinese
coach had found out b4! However it was not to be.} Re8 13. b4 Qb6 14. bxc5 Nxc5
15. Nd2 Bf8 16. Nc4 Qd8 17. a5 Bf5 18. Nb6 Rb8 19. Re1 h6 20. Nca4 Nxa4 21.
Qxa4 g5 22. Bd2 Nd7 23. e4 Nxb6 24. axb6 Bd7 25. Qb4 Rc8 26. Rxc8 Bxc8 27. Rc1
Bg7 28. Rc7 $18 {White is completely dominating.} Re7 29. Rc4 Bg4 30. e5 Bf5
31. exd6 Rd7 32. g4 Bd3 33. Rc7 Rxd6 34. Rxb7 Bb5 35. Qc5 Be5 36. Rc7 Qf6 37.
b7 Rd8 38. Rc8 Bd7 39. Rxd8+ Qxd8 40. d6 f6 41. Ba5 Qe8 42. Bc7 1-0


SS: Chigorin Defence! Now that is something new in your repertoire. How did you decide on this opening and that too employing it in such crucial games?



The great Russian Mikhail Chigorin employed this opening exactly 120 years ago in 1895!

BK: "If Morozevich can employ it and beat strong grandmasters, why don’t you try against your opponents?" Gokhale sir asked me before starting our preparation in the Chigorin. Since I trust his chess acumen to the fullest, I studied it. By employing Chigorin, Nitish Belurkar (Goa State Champion and member of Indian Youth Olympiad Team) won comfortably against talented IWM Sakshi Chitlange at the Nashik tournament. After watching the way Nitish had won, I knew that we have found some surprising weapon. I played it against Sarasadat Khademalsharieh and Li Xueyi and won both the games.


My experience with Sarasadat is that she gets rattled if she suspects that her opponent is better prepared. She had lost to me when I played the Trompowsky against her in Asian Indoors in Korea. At that time she had threatened to win b2 with Qb6 and I did not protect it. She lost her nerve and did not accept it. In round eight Li Xueyi had not expected me to repeat the opening thinking that it was a one game shock and got shocked herself. Even after the Li game, Vidit [Gujrathi] and Sethuraman asked me whether I really repeated Chigorin against the Chinese! They are supposed to be quite well prepared in the openings but I went ahead fearlessly.


Two Chigorin games


Sarasadat Khademalsharieh - Bhakti Kulkarni, round four


[Event "15th Asian Continental w"]
[Site "Tashkent UZB"]
[Date "2016.05.29"]
[Round "4.3"]
[White "Khademalsharieh, Sarasadat"]
[Black "Kulkarni, Bhakti"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "D07"]
[WhiteElo "2459"]
[BlackElo "2296"]
[Annotator "Sagar Shah"]
[PlyCount "74"]
[EventDate "2016.05.26"]


1. d4 d5 2. c4 Nc6 {Bhakti came to this tournament armed with the Chigorin
which turned out to be a great decision.} 3. Nf3 Bg4 4. cxd5 Bxf3 5. gxf3 Qxd5
6. e3 e5 7. Nc3 Bb4 8. Bd2 Bxc3 9. bxc3 {This is one of the most important
positions in the opening and in general a good one to improve your
understanding about the game of chess. White has the bishop pair and strong
central pawns where as Black has a flawless pawn structure and two knights.
All in all White should have a theoretical edge but it is not so easy for
White to play as there is no safe parking spot for his king.} Qd6 10. Bd3 Nf6
11. Qc2 O-O (11... O-O-O {is the usual place for the black king. But as White
has done nothing too active Black goes for 0-0.}) 12. O-O Rfd8 13. Rab1 b6 14.
Rfd1 Ne7 15. Bf1 Ng6 16. Qf5 c5 17. Be1 cxd4 18. cxd4 Qc6 $1 {A powerful move
taking aim at f3 pawn and threatening Nh4.} 19. Rbc1 Qb7 20. Qh3 (20. dxe5 Rxd1
21. Rxd1 Nh4 $17 {And the f3 pawn falls.}) 20... exd4 {White's pawn structure
is completely ruined.} 21. Bg2 dxe3 22. fxe3 (22. f4 exf2+ 23. Bxf2 Nxf4 $19)
22... Qe7 23. Bf2 Rxd1+ 24. Rxd1 Qa3 25. f4 Rf8 26. Qf3 Re8 27. Qc6 Qxa2 {
Black has two extra pawns but with the double bishops for her opponent she
should remain careful.} 28. e4 Rf8 29. Qc1 Qe2 30. Rd4 Qg4 31. e5 Nh5 32. h3
Qf5 33. Be3 Nh4 34. Bf2 Nxg2 35. Kxg2 h6 36. Qe3 Rc8 37. Qf3 g6 {Everything is
under control and Sarasadat saw no reason to continue. A very nice win for
Bhakti.} 0-1



Li Xueyi - Bhakti Kulkarni, round eight


[Event "15th Asian Continental w"]
[Site "Tashkent UZB"]
[Date "2016.06.02"]
[Round "8.1"]
[White "Li, Xueyi"]
[Black "Kulkarni, Bhakti"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "D07"]
[WhiteElo "2105"]
[BlackElo "2296"]
[Annotator "Sagar Shah"]
[PlyCount "80"]
[EventDate "2016.05.26"]


{It was crucial for Bhakti to win this game to maintain the lead over the
field and once again she goes for the trusted Chigorin Defence.} 1. d4 d5 2. c4
Nc6 3. cxd5 Qxd5 4. e3 e5 5. Nc3 Bb4 6. Bd2 Bxc3 7. Bxc3 (7. bxc3 {The
position would be similar to the game against Sarasadat. But here there has
been no Bg4xf3. Li Xueyi tries to play more positionally by taking with the
bishop.}) 7... exd4 8. Ne2 Nf6 9. Nxd4 O-O 10. Nb5 {This is a risky line where
White wins the c7 pawn but lags seriously behind in development.} (10. Nxc6
Qxc6 11. Rc1 {is a safe line for White without too many risks.}) 10... Qg5 11.
h4 Qh6 12. Nxc7 Rb8 $6 {This is surely not a piece of home preparation by
Bhakti as she cannot afford to lose time with this move.} (12... Bg4 {is
definitely the main line.}) 13. Nd5 Ne4 14. Bb5 Nxc3 15. Nxc3 a6 16. Be2 $6 (
16. Bxc6 Qxc6 (16... bxc6 17. Qc2 $14 {is not a huge edge but quite a pleasant
position for White.}) 17. O-O $14) 16... Bf5 17. Qa4 (17. Qd5 Qf6 18. Rd1 Rbd8
19. Qf3 $14) 17... b5 18. Qf4 Qxf4 19. exf4 Nd4 20. Rd1 Rbd8 21. g4 $2 {
The decisive error of the game.} (21. f3 {followed by Kf2 and White would have
survived.}) 21... Bc2 $1 22. Rd2 Rfe8 (22... b4 {was more accurate.} 23. Nd1
Be4 $1 24. Rg1 Nc2+ $19) 23. Rh3 (23. Kf1 {and White can still fight.}) 23...
b4 24. Re3 (24. Nd1 Rxe2+ 25. Rxe2 Nxe2 26. Kxe2 Bxd1+ $19) 24... bxc3 25. bxc3
Nxe2 26. Kxe2 Ba4 {The rest is easy.} 27. c4 Kf8 28. Rxd8 Rxd8 29. Ra3 Bd1+ 30.
Ke3 Bxg4 31. Rxa6 Bf5 32. Ra5 g6 33. Ra3 h5 34. Rc3 Ra8 35. a3 Ke7 36. Kd4 Kd6
37. c5+ Kc6 38. Ke5 Ra5 39. Kf6 Rxc5 40. Re3 Rc2 0-1



The beautiful view from Bhakti's room


SS: You sometimes have problems keeping your nerves. Before the crucial final round what was going through your mind and how did you manage to control your emotions?


BK: It is really true that I have had lots of problems with my nerves. Especially during the last rounds. But after Mumbai and Nashik, everything was different. I had been taught how to think (also how not to think) while playing. Incidentally the last round in Nashik against Vinay Kumar Matta was a race against clock, as I had to catch a flight from Mumbai to Delhi on way to Tashkent. I won the round and rushed to catch the taxi. GM Vidit Gujrathi and I made a dash towards the Airport and made it just in time.

After I won against Li in penultimate round I was confident. I was feeling a tad nervous but the tension vanished when I met GM Adhiban during dinner. He is a very positive person. He told me to continue as if there are few more rounds to be played. I stopped thinking about ninth round as the last one. I just followed my routine of preparing on the internet with Gokhale sir and my morning walks. I admire Soumya for her concentration and ability to win crucial rounds. I followed her example.


The smile that comes after victory is always preceded by tension, nervousness and controlling your emotions until the final game comes to an end


Joint secretary of AICF Kishor Bandekar receives Bhakti at the Goa airport on her return from the Asians


SS: Whom would you like to dedicate this success to?

BK: I cannot think that I could have achieved this success without Gokhale sir and his wife Anupama madam. Anupama madam had won the Asian Women title in 1985 and 1987. She was with Tania Sachdev when Tania had won the Asian title in Teheran in 2007. Very rich in experience, she talks only when she has some positive inputs. When they saw me completely broken up after Dubai Open, the Gokhales took charge of things and changed everything. What can I say about Raghunandan Gokhale sir as a coach? Everybody knows depth of his knowledge and understanding of chess.


One of the most famous chess couples of India: Arjuna awardee Anupama Gokhale and Dronacharya award winner Raghunandan Gokhale 


SS: What does qualifying to the next World Championship mean to you and how will you prepare for that?

BK: I do not know when the World Women Championship is and where it will be held. The All India Chess Federation will let me know well in advance. Let me digest this success first. To be the lowest rated player in the Indian Team and win ahead of top Asian women is like a dream.
It is my dream to play in the World Women Championship and I am going to give my best.


SS: What are your impressions about the fourth edition of MCL and your team Ahmednagar Checkers? (subsequently the MCL took place and Bhakti's team finished fifth)

BK: I love to play team championships. I would give my best to Ahmednagar Checkers. Sasikiran is a stalwart and Shardul is like my younger brother. He is a very strong player now. With my pet roommate Tania and theoretician Sagar Shah in the team, I am seeing this as an opportunity to improve myself. Mrunalini Kunte will be an added incentive as the team coach. I have never met the owners (Siddharth Mayur, Dhaval Shah and Narendra Firodia) but I am touched by their personal congratulatory messages.


In the Maharashtra Chess League we came to know that Bhakti is an excellent singer


The Checkers team. From left to right: Sagar Shah, Sasikiran, Shardul Gagare, Sankarsha Shelke, Bhakti Kulkarni and Pawan Dodeja 


SS: What events will you be playing next?

BK: I am going to play in Czech Open in Pardubice. It will be very tough I feel.

SS: Thanks a lot Bhakti for your time and hats off to the way you played in the tournament. This interview will help many players to learn a lot about how to prepare for important events.

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