Harika Dronavalli got down at the Hyderabad airport with the World Championship bronze medal. She had valiantly fought 64 top woman chess players in the world in Tehran, and put up a creditable performance. Too bad she is not a cricketer. If she were, the entire city would have surely been waiting for her arrival at the airport. But she is a chess player. World class for sure, but not a cricketer! She collects her baggage, comes to the arrival section, hugs her proud parents and goes back home without the slightest of furore.
Chess is a sport often underestimated by the spectators. Seeing two people hunched over a board with 64 squares and moving 32 wooden pieces gives an impression of a laid-back sport which requires only brain power. Ask any top player and you will realise that nothing can be farther from the truth. Chess is a sport that demands extreme levels of physical fitness, training and dedication. The twelfth world champion Anatoly Karpov, while playing his World Championship match against Garry Kasparov in 1984, lost eight kilograms because of the stress. Clearly, the games took a toll on his health.
The same has been the case with the recently crowned World Women's Chess Championship bronze medallist Harika. The girl from Hyderabad prepared meticulously for the World Championship that was held in Tehran from 11 February to 5 March 2017. The compulsory wearing of the hijab didn't come in her way of participating in the tournament. Becoming a World Champion was her dream since childhood and she wanted to fulfil it at all costs. With her team of coaches and seconds she prepared not only different opening schemes, worked on calculation and tactics, studied possible endgames, but also ensured that physically she was as fit as possible. The World Championship was a knockout event. The margin of error in such formats is extremely low. One error and you are sent packing.
With dogged determination and unparalleled levels of fighting spirit Harika won the hearts of millions of chess fans all around the world. She was very near to winning the semi-final against Chinese Tan Zhongyi. A last minute error was the end of the road for Harika in the tournament.
Painful exit!Will keep haunting for time to come & letting you all down.Failed to change the colour,its the third in a row at the #WWCC2017
— Harika Dronavalli (@HarikaDronavali) February 25, 2017
Although the loss was depressing, one thing that everyone would perhaps agree upon is that Harika performed exceedingly well to win bronze medal in this 64-player knockout event. She won all her matches in the high pressure tie-breaks, ousting top players in the world like Dinara Saduakassova, Sopiko Guramishvili and Nana Dzagnidze.
This is Harika's third bronze medal at the World Championship level. The first two were in Khanty-Mansiysk in 2012 and Sochi in 2015. Harika has won the World Juniors in 2008, Commonwealth women's title in 2010, Asian Championship in 2011 as well as World Online Blitz Championship in 2015. She received the Arjuna Award in 2008.
Chess is perhaps one of the very few sports in which India has a host of dominating players like five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand, and Pentala Harikrishna in the men's section, and Koneru Humpy and Dronavalli herself in the women's section.
Thanks to these gems as well as a number of youngsters coming up, experts all around the world have started to predict that India will be a powerhouse of chess – just like what Russia is currently – in the years to come. In a interview with Firstpost in December last year, noted chess journalist and the founder of the biggest chess software company Frederic Friedel echoed the same opinion.
Yet when Harika came home to Hyderabad, after a successful tournament in Tehran, she was greeted on the airport by only her parents. There was no mad rush to meet her, no one waiting with garlands, in fact, absolutely no one apart from her family who came to welcome her.
Why was it the case? Why do we all burst break into wild celebrations when our cricket team returns from a successful series, but choose to stay indifferent when someone like Harika does the country proud in a sport that is played by 605 million people around the world?
When we put the question to Harika herself, she said, "I didn't feel bad that no one came to the airport to receive me or that my efforts were not recognised. I know that it is going to take some time to bring the change. And in order to change the perception towards chess I am trying to do my bit."
It is high time that our officials and media realise that there is more to sports in our country than cricket. India has a bright future in this global sport called chess and it is only by respecting champions like Harika can we inspire more people to take up the checkered game.
Sagar Shah is an International Master and the CEO of ChessBase India.
Updated Date: Feb 28, 2017 18:57 PM