Harika: cool to be uncool

by Frederic Friedel
6/11/2015 – "Chess in India has a new poster girl," says the Times of India. It is 24-year-old Harika Dronavalli, who has just bagged the Popular Choice award of the newspaper. In a candid interview the semifinalist of the 2015 Women's World Championship talks about travel, food, hobbies, general interests – and marriage plans. We have added some personal details to the story.

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One of India's top female GMs: Harika Dronavalli [Photo Alina l'Ami]

In this Times of India story, which is labeled "Excerpts from a freewheeling chat", Harika tells the author that she had to wait until she was 24 to take her first vacation. At the age of thirteen she became the youngest member in the Indian national team and after that never found time to do anything but play chess. After ten years she was eager to catch up, and after the Women's World Chess Championship desperately needed a break. So she went on a one-week holiday to Singapore, Sentosa Island and Malaysia, together with her sister. Harika sent us some pictures:

Harika and her sister Anusha (left) in the Bird Park in Singapore.

Jurassic: playing around with the dinosaur egg display at Universal Studios Singapore

In the Times article Harika tells Rupam Jain about her eating habits during chess tournaments. Before we come to that I (Frederic Friedel) would like to insert a little story.

Cooking at tournaments

Some years ago I met Harika at a chess event and, as always, had a great time chatting with her. Suddenly she said: "Frederic, can I invite you to dinner?" – "You invite me?" I asked incredulously (she was like sixteen at the time). Sure, she said, and when I asked her to what restaurant she said "No, in my room." Turned out she cooked a meal there, in a little rice cooker, with vegetables bought at the local market and homemade spices she carried around with her. The meal was delicious – and all the Indian players were jealous that I go to eat it, not them. I asked Harika why she did this – the meals in the hotel were part of the package. "But they are so bland," she said. "I can't taste anything!" Harika comes from Guntur, a coastal town in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The food from that region is know to be very spicy, but deliciously so.

Harika with her famous rice cooker, in my home in 2009

In fact I invited Harika to stay at our home, and she did so, giving us extensive lessons in cooking. Here's a recipe for vegetable biriani I got from her at the time. She even left her cook book behind – which is unfortunately in Telugu. That is a Dravidian language to which I have as much access as to hieroglyphics.

Playing blitz against John Nunn in the ChessBase office during her visit in February 2009

Back to the Times article: Harika tells the author how she travels with a "pressure cooker" (actually it is an electric cooker without pressure). "My mom packs all the necessary masalas for me. So, once I am in my hotel room, I cook. Of course, the hotel officials don't know that. Actually, I got caught in Russia this one time. I, like a stupid girl, kept the pressure cooker out and the someone at the hotel noticed it and took it away. Other than that one instance, I have never been caught. You know what? I actually made this practice (of carrying a pressure cooker and masalas) popular in the chess circuit. Now, some other players also do the same (grins, mischievously). I am not a great cook, but my co-players seem to enjoy what I make."

At the World Junior Champion Under 20 in 2008

The winners of the World Junior Championship in 2008: WFM Nazi Paikdze (Georgia), WGM Mariya Muzychuk (Ukraine), IM Harika Dronavalli (India), WFM Kübra Öztürk (Turkey), WIM Mary Ann Gomes (India)

Beating Chinese GM Zhao Xue in round four of the Women’s World Championship 2012

Earlier this year Harika Dronavalli went through to the Women's World Championship
against Mariya Muzychuk, who won their match and when on to win the title

Another aside: Back around 2008 Harika promised me that she would become a full GM (fulfilled), the Junior World Champion (fulfilled) and Women's World Champion (pending). When she lost very unluckly to Mariya Muzychuk in the rapid chess tiebreaks of the semifinals in this year's World Championship she actually apologized for this mishap. I had shown her some important functions of ChessBase 13 and she wrote me in Skype: "[31/03/2015 19:13:09]: Cloud engines were really useful, thank you so much for providing the needful. Maybe in future will make u proud. At least will try." You have already made me very proud, dear girl!

Chilling at home

Harika has been travelling to tournaments all over the world for the past fifteen years and says that she is now tired. Given a choice she'd rather stay at home, 24/7. "Actually I have become a homebird. I just love to laze around in my PJs and spend the entire day sitting in my room," she told the Times. "It's a task to get me out of the house." She reads chess books and play the game for hours. She is also addicted to TV series. "What I really like doing is plonk myself on a couch and binge watch TV. I watch every possible soap that is aired on TV, in any language. I know all the storylines and love drama."

Harika in 1995 at the age of four, with her father Ramesh and mother Swarna

Harika says that people find her strange, because she doesn't like hanging out and does not go out of her way to make friends. "Partying? It's just not my thing. I might go out for a movie once in a while with family. I don't even have another hobby, come to think of it. People must think I am 'uncool', but like I care.. I am 'cool' with that!"

Arranged marriage

But even that has its complications, Harika told the Times of India: "Back home in Guntur, people are like, 'OMG!' You are 24 and not married yet...?' And elsewhere, when I travel to bigger cities for a tournament for instance, everyone's like, 'OMG! You are just 24 and are already thinking marriage?' I think it all depends on where you come from, what your values are and how you are brought up... To each, their own. I'm content with the life I've led so far. Marriage is in the books, but when it happens it will be of the tradition kind:

I have never even fallen in love. When I tell my peers that, they ask me how's that even possible. Well, that's how my life has been. And I have made up my mind that I want to have an arranged marriage; I'm pretty sure about that. If love had to happen, it would have happened by now. But maybe destiny has other plans for me. My teammates say 'how can you live your entire life with someone you don't even know?' But really, like there's a single formula to successful relationships! Love marriage does not guarantee a 'happily ever after', neither does arranged marriage.

My logic is simple – if love hasn't happened yet, what's the big deal, I might as well get married and fall in love with the person I marry. My sister had a love marriage, by the way. She is married to filmmaker Bobby (who is now directing Gabbar Singh 2). My parents didn't approve of the match initially. My sister followed her heart and she is right in doing that. But I also think my parents were right in their own way. That's the thing with love – there is no right or wrong. But my decision works just as well, because I don't want to get into any complications. Of course, I will have the say on who I will settle down with.

To this yet another aside: many years ago I (FF) was driving home with an Indian friend when he said: "Fred, I'm planning to get married." – "Really?" I said, "That's wonderful. To whom?" His reply almost caused me to crash the car: "I don't know," he said. "You are not going to do an arranged marriage!" I exclaimed, and he got a long lecture on the evil of that concept. A year later he invited me to his house in India and we got to see how the process works: the parents have collected contacts from eligible partners, and when the son announced that he was ready they went through the list with him, looking for someone who was a good match. The family of the prospectiv bride was invited, and the two spent some time drinking tea in a separate room together. Then – and this is an important point – they could part ways and decide it was not the right match, without hurting anyone's feelings. The third young lady seemed very suitable, and my friend was able to escalate the getting-to-know-you part: the two went to a restaurant, alone, to share coke and ice cream. In the end they married, in a three-day ceremony, and have been happily married for well over a decade now. Main thing: they are extremely well suited to each other, it is a perfect match and she is the perfect wife for him. And I have come to the conclusion that the Western habit of searching for the person you intend to spend the rest of your life with in pubs and discos, while clearly superior, does have its disadvantages... </sarcasm>.

Highlights of Harika's Career

  • Winner; Asian Under-10 (Girls) at Bikaner (Rajasthan) in 2002. Also won the Under-18 title in the Asian Open Chess Championship in 2002 at Bikaner.
  • Bronze medal, World Youth Chess Festival (Under-12, Girls) in Greece in 2002
  • In the World Cup Chess at Hyderabad in 2002 she defeated former women world champion Maya Chidurdanidze.
  • Became youngest women International Master in Asia at 12 yrs.
    (i) First WIM Norm from Asian Youth Championship in Tehran, Iran, in 2002
    (ii) Second WIM Norm Women National ‘A’ (India’s premier national championship) in 2002.
    (iii) Third WIM norm from World Junior Championship in 2002 held in Goa, India
  • Won the board prize (Gold medal) on fourth board in the Asian Team Championship at Jodhpur (Rajasthan) in 2003.
  • Won Silver medal in the women category at the Commonwealth Chess Championship in Mumbai, India, in 2003. Here she got her maiden WGM and IM norms.
  • Silver medal, Asian Women Championship at Calcutta, India, in 2003. Harika finished her second WGM and IM norms.
  • Winner of the Bronze medal in the Under-12 category at the World Youth Chess festival at Greece in 2002.
  • Became the youngest WGM in Asia by winning the Commonwealth Under-18 title at Mumbai, India, in 2004. In addition, she collected her third and final WGM norm.
  • She got her third and final IM norm to become an International Master at Chennai in International Open Tournament.
  • At Mallorca in 36th chess Olympiad, she represented the Indian women team on third board and had the distinction of not losing any game in her maiden appearance.
  • She became World Under-14 Girls Champion at Elista, Kalmykia in 2004.
  • Won Silver medal in Asian Junior Girls championship at Bikaner, in December, 2004.
  • She won the Commonwealth Women's Championship three times in 2006, 2007 and 2010.
  • She has won three World Youth Chess Championship titles: in 2004, she won the Girls Under-14 in Heraklion, Greece, and in 2006, she won the Girls Under-18 in Batumi, Georgia.
  • She was awarded the Arjuna Award in 2007.
  • She was the leading female of the Gibraltar Chess Festival's 2008 tournament.
  • In 2008, she took the Girl's title at the World Junior Chess Championship at Gaziantep, Turkey, winning with a point to spare.
  • She won Bronze medal in 2010 Asian Games in Woman's individual rapid event.
  • She reached the quarter-finals of the Women's World Chess Championship 2010.
  • She became the second Indian woman (after Koneru Humpy) to achieve the title of Grandmaster at the men's level.
  • She reached the semi-finals of the Women's World Chess Championship 2012, but lost to Antoaneta Stefanova.
  • She won Bronze medal in Women Fide Grand Prix, Sharjah 2014.


Following the footsteps of Judit Polgar
2/3/2005 – At the Asian Junior Girls chess Championship at Bikaner, a 14-year-old Indian girl walked away with the silver medal. Harika Dronavalli, India's new mega-talent, has won more titles than anyone else in her age group. Chess arbiter and reporter Manmohan Harsh has interviewed her and describes her young chess career.

Meet Harika, Junior World Champion
8/24/2008 – She is seventeen, hails from Andhra Pradesh, India, and has just won the Under 20 Junior World Championship, ahead of the international – especially Eastern European – competition by a point and a half. Harika Dronavalli is is one of the nicest and brightest young ladies in the junior chess scene. Her goal: to be like Judit Polgar. Indepth interview by Özgür Akman.

Impressions from the World Championship in Chennai
11/22/2013 – The chess match is nearing its end and we are set to leave the south Indian city that is hosting it. The stay was very interesting and as promised we will be providing you with impressions around and outside the event. On one of the free days ChessBase editor Frederic Friedel accompanied two young chess ladies on a shopping tour and visited a famous temple in the city. Big pictorial report.

Harika on chess, life and more
1/2/2015 – She wants to do her best in the upcoming Women’s World Championship and to enter the Top Five in the world rankings. She is one of the chess queens of India and one of the top players in women chess for quite some time now. Meet grandmaster Dronavalli Harika, who is famous in the chess world for the beautiful smile she always wears. Here is an illustrated interview.

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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