An interview with Dronavalli Harika (1/2)

by Priyadarshan Banjan
11/28/2015 – With a rating of 2513 Dronavalli Harika is India’s number two woman player. The 24-year-old is well on her way to the top, and has climbed the ranking ladder steadily over the past couple of years and recently won the World Women's Online Blitz. She discusses her performance at the 2015 Women’s World Championship, where she won bronze, how she prepares for games and tournaments in this in-depth interview.

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India's poster girl for chess: Harika won the 1st FIDE World Online Women Blitz Championship
which was held in Rome, Italy on 26th of November. More than 300 players from
39 countries partipated in it. Harika won the first prize of US $3000.

Priyadarshan Banjan: In March and April this year you played in the Women’s World Championship and won bronze. But your goal was to win the World title and you almost pulled it off. How did you prepare for this event?

Dronavalli Harika: There is a huge difference between ‘almost pulling it off’ and actually winning it. Of course, I worked a lot for the World Championship and I am fortunate that I got the support and training from some wonderful friends and trainers. Nevertheless, I would like to share the complete story when I actually achieve my goal.

In the crucial game of the semifinal Harika, who was playing with White against the later Women’s World
 ChampionMarya Muzychuk, played 83.Qe3 here, which results in a textbook draw after the queen trade!

PB: That one last match-up in the 10+10 format in the semi-finals against Marya Muzychuk tested all your emotional and mental powers. Does it haunt you that you played 83.Qe3 in a won position as White and later lost as Black?

Harika: It was a very painful moment. I had at least 2 minutes left. It was not about the clock, but the whole situation that led to the 10+10 match -- I handled my first loss in the rapid match held earlier well and afterwards played with determination. Somehow, I managed to win the second rapid game to force another set of tiebreaks.

But it cost a lot of emotional energy to claw back from that situation. Before I could return to my normal mode and calm down, the next round of the 10+10 match began. I managed to get a winning position in the first game and a lot of thoughts and emotions flooded my mind: particularly strong was the thought that I should be careful and should not spoil this chance.

Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, I could not think calmly and just played according to intuition. After the fateful queen move I realized to my horror that although I am two pawns up, the position is still a draw! In the second game I just collapsed emotionally.

Captured on video: the fateful queen move 83.Qe3

PB: How tough is it to switch off after a bitter loss and focus on future games, especially in such back-to- back matches?

Harika: I believe that some things happen for a reason. That experience taught me a lesson. In the future I will react better in such situations. This is precisely why I appreciate Maria’s strong nerves when she had to defend precarious positions in crucial moments. That is not easy and maybe that's why she deserves to be World Champion.

PB: Anyway, your performances were clean and strong. What other conclusions did you draw from this World Championship?

Harika: I am happy about the positive reviews I received about my games in the Women’s World Championship, but playing good chess in only one tournament is not enough. Therefore, I should try to keep my performance on that level and learn from the mistakes. Not winning the title is disappointing, but on a positive note, I won back-to-back bronze medals in World Championships. This gives me the confidence that I can achieve it one day -- it is a realistic goal.

PB: This format of establishing the World Champion is similar to the system Magnus has advocated recently. What do you think of Magnus’s idea and the format in general?

Harika: I think, his suggestion is good -- to play world championships every year and to play in knockout format. But there are lots of debates about the right format of World Championships. Everyone will have an opinion and a reason about what should be and what should not. It would be great if FIDE once and for all could find a system that all officials, players, sponsors, media and fans agree to.

At the Qatar Masters, 2014

PB: Rapid games are a decisive part of this format. How fair is this? Do you think it adds some sporting element to the game? Luck, maybe?

Harika: To some extent luck plays a part in any tournament. But it is still not fair to blame the format for everything. In the second and in the third round I won with this very format and thus I can hardly say it is unfortunate when I lose. When we accept the challenge to play an event with this format, we should just try to do well. If we lose it is simply because our opponent played stronger on the given day.

PB: The press was visibly excited about the way this 2015 Women’s WC progressed. The 2015 World Cup, in which Svidler lost a dramatic finale against Karjakin, brought excitement and entertainment galore. The knock-out format leads to a much larger field and more people from more countries will feel the Championship fever. The knock-out duels also lead to more adrenaline rushes than, say, a 12-game match between two individuals. Do you think the entertainment value of the knock-out format makes it the right way to sell the brand of chess?

Harika: I agree that the knockout format is more entertaining for viewers. It is special because it is so different from regular tournaments. However, to decide who is going to be World Champion by playing only a four-game match in the final does not sound good. Therefore, I think the format of the men's world championship cycle is much better than the format of the Women’s World Championship – the men still have the World Cup, but it is only part of the World Championship cycle, not the World Championship itself.

Only the crown is missing… (2015 WCC, Khanty-Mansysk)

PB: Does it worry you that the format of the World Championships changes continuously?

Harika: No, not at all. I never think much about the format. To become Women's World Champion is the only thing that matters to me.

PB: Tournaments seem to get tougher and tougher these days – the time-controls are different, the time-limits shorter, you have tournaments with one game per day but also tournaments with two games per day. Moreover, players of all levels get better and know more about chess. How do you cope with the tension of chess tournaments? Are you able to sleep easily?

Harika: It is a well-known fact that chess has become tougher over the years. As professional players we get used to all kinds of formats and schedules but I prefer tournaments with single rounds. The playing schedule never affects my sleep but, of course, it is always difficult when you had bad days (because you played badly or lost or drew a winning position) or if next day’s round is crucial. Nevertheless, with experience you handle these tense moments better.

At the PokerStars Isle of Man Tournament, 2014

PB: How do you react to losses in tournaments? Some people cry, and Anand once said that he goes to the gym to tire out and to be able to find sleep. Former Indian National-A player Mr. Arvind Shastry says that he used to punish himself by going for long random walks to tire out. How do you spend the rest of your day/night after a loss?

Harika: It depends on the importance of the round. However, I have to admit that I am still bad at coping with losses. But I am trying to improve. Normally, I just try to watch some movies or serials and tire myself out.

PB: Let’s talk about appearance fees. Grandmasters usually get appearance fees and have their expenses paid. But do male players and female players get different appearance fees? Do you think appearance fees for women are not high enough?

Harika: Maybe I am not the right person to ask. My priority is mainly to be able to play in a strong tournament with good playing conditions. I am happy and content because I am able to do that. To be honest, in many tournaments I get much better conditions than a male player with a rating that is similar to mine or even much better because I am a female player. Therefore, I am just enjoying but I do not compare. Although in general, it would be great if chess players got better paid and the prizes were better -- be it for men or women players.

– Part 2 of the interview will follow soon –

Priyadarshan Banjan is a 23-year-old club player from India. He works as an editor for ChessBase News and ChessBase India. He is a chess fanatic and an avid fan of Vishy Anand. He also maintains a blog on a variety of topics.


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