The world crown eludes Humpy again
By Manisha Mohite – Wednesday, 24 September
She was the hot favourite but was blitzed away in the tie-breaks. Supporters, critics, and followers each had their say in Koneru Humpy's ouster in the semi-finals of the Women World Chess Championship. The reasons ranged from her crumbling under pressure, persistence with her father, Koneru Ashok as her only coach and to her choking under the tag of the top seed. More than a billion Indians had set their sights on Humpy becoming the first Indian woman to win a World title for we have never had any woman player in any sport who is the reigning world number one for all practical purposes (Judit Polgar, the highest ever ranked woman player does not participate in women events). Naturally, it was a national disappointment. So what went wrong? Were all the reasons valid? Most top players in India however felt that it was just one of those 'bad days'.
Let us not forget that Humpy is just 22 years old and she will have her moments under the sun. A rating of 2622 cannot just be swept aside, considering the fact that she is only the second woman ever in the world to cross this 2600 Elo mark. Her talent and strength are justified by the high rating she enjoys. A few things did not go her way on that particular day in the semi-finals tie-break. In the first regular game Humpy lost badly to Hou Yifan's superb game, and that pushed her to the defensive. In the second game Humpy scored a lucky victory and forced a tie-break.
The first game of the rapid could easily have swung her way. There was a general feeling that her persistence with the Breyer Variation in the Ruy Lopez, where Yifan comprehensively beat her in the regular game, was a wrong choice. But the very fact that Humpy had the confidence to repeat the same opening showed her depth of preparation, and within no time she had deviated into a new variation and was in a good position. Things, however, went astray, and let us not forget that Humpy's strength is more in the regular version of the game rather than in Rapid or Blitz. She did not lose because of the opening but lost against time.
'Whenever I compete in World Championships there is heavy expectation riding that I should become the champion. That does put pressure on me," Humpy had admitted to this scribe before leaving for Nalchik. To a certain extent it is the self-imposed pressure to which Humpy succumbed. The hesitation in going for strong continuations was visible as she opted for safe lines, which ultimately let her advantage slip. This is the second time that Humpy was knocked out in the semi-final, the previous time at Ekaterinaburg in 2004. In 2006, Humpy had lost in the second round.
Right from the time that she was unrated to becoming the second highest rated woman, Humpy has just had one coach, her father Ashok. It has worked all these years and there is no reason why it shouldn’t now. Super coach Elizbar Ubilava, Anand's second when he won the knockout edition of World Championship in 2000, commented: "Emotional bonding between the coach and player is crucial and it has worked magnificently for Humpy with her father. Humpy is world champion material."
The knock-out events have always been considered the graveyards for seeded and higher rated players and this time was no different. Reigning champion Yuhua Xu made an early exit while former World Champion Antoaneta Stefanova was knocked out in the quarterfinals. Yifan Hou, the 14-year-old who eliminated Humpy, is also one of the finest upcoming players in the world and at such a young age is rated fourth in the world. The newer generation has always excelled in the shorter versions of the game especially Blitz, and Yifan is no exception. Humpy's best chances were in the regular games or even in the Rapid. Some of the biggest casualties of the knock-out event have been Viswanathan Anand and Vladimir Kramnik when they were in the best of forms and enjoyed world rankings among the top three.
It will now be 2010 when Humpy would get a crack at the world title again, and until then she has to get tougher, mentally and on board
Viswanathan Anand on Humpy’s loss
I was quite sad to see Humpy exiting in the semi-finals. I was actually following the final tie-break live. After the first classic game that ended badly she managed to win the second game. This really shows she has a lot of determination in her. When it came to shorter time controls there is an element of gamble and things can go wrong. From personal experience I can tell you that when you play tie breaks the advantage you have with an opponent keeps diminishing as time controls get shorter. I think Humpy played very good chess and clearly she has done a lot of work. She should just forget Nalchik, take a break from chess and enjoy the ECC in Greece. Knockouts are different from tournaments and require a different kind of play as one mistake can be costly and then there is no looking back. I don't think she should feel the pressure, rather she should be fairly confident that all the work she has done would help her in the next event. Sometimes, when you are not chasing something with obsession you suddenly find yourself winning it.