Humpy Koneru and the mother of all comebacks

by Sagar Shah
3/8/2020 – One player is conspicuously absent from the ongoing Women's Grand Prix in Lausanne, the current GP point leader, Humpy Koneru. Humpy's is an inspirational story — after two years of break from competitive chess, she is back to World no.2 with three huge titles in the last few months. It all began with the Skolkovo Women's Grand Prix, followed by the World Rapid Championship title and finally the Cairns Cup 2020 in February, the strongest ever tournament held in the history of women's chess, with a rating average of 2510. The event had all the top players in the world and Humpy scored 6.0/9, a half point ahead of World Champion Ju Wenjun. | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club

Winning against King's Indian — The main line Winning against King's Indian — The main line

In the classical system of the King's Indian White develops naturally and refrains from chasing ghosts looking for a refutation of Black's set-up. White instead relies on the fact that natural play should yield him a small but lasting advantage.

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Humpy makes a dream return

When you are planning to make a comeback to chess after a long gap, there are two things which stop you:

  1. The thought of giving up on the things that you are already doing.
  2. The fear of failure after making a comeback.

Humpy in St. Louis

In both respects Humpy had so much to lose. She had to showcase tremendous bravery to sit at the board on October 24th 2018 after a gap of nearly two years:

  1. Going to tournaments means that she could no longer spend as much time as she would have liked with her two-and-a-half year old daughter Ahana.
  2. As a world-class player, so many eyes were on her when she made a comeback. In her rusty state, she could have lost several games.

And Humpy did lose quite a bit at the start! She didn't perform up to the mark at the Women's Olympiad 2018, and was knocked out of the Women's World Championships 2018 in the second round. She also found that in the two years she had been away from the chess board, the level of preparation had improved significantly. The best techniques and tools of preparation had also changed. But just like everything in her life, Humpy fought hard! She didn't give up, she reinvented herself and the result is here for all of us to see.

Within just a year, she has won a FIDE Women's GP, World Rapid Championship 2019 and, most recently, the strongest ever tournament in the history of women's chess: the Cairns Cup 2020 (pictured). How can one not be inspired by such an achiever!

Humpy on winning the Cairns Cup 2020

The Cairns Cup 2020 had the strongest ever rating average for a tournament in women's chess - 2510. Humpy prepared hard for this event by dedicating 15 days specially towards opening preparation. In the first round she faced the surprise element of the tournament Carissa Yip. The 16-year-old youngster from the USA showed everyone what a fighter she was by scoring 4.0/9 and beating the World Champion Ju Wenjun in penultimate round. "She is good at calculation and time management, but lacks experience in strategic play," says Humpy. In their individual encounter, Humpy managed to outplay her towards the end. The game was intense, but Carissa got too passive when she had to seek counterplay. Humpy was at her clinical best once she got the advantage.

 

Carissa Yip, a young woman to watch out for in the years to come | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club

In second round of the tournament Humpy succumbed to a loss against Mariya Muzychuk. It was a Petroff which looked quite equal, but Mariya managed to drum up play with some enterprising moves. The crucial position was reached after move 18.

 

The right move here was to play 18...♛g5! Looks counter-intuitive because you are walking into a discovered attack Humpy had seen this move but was afraid of e6. Later as she realized, Black has a very accurate way to defuse the situation with ♜fe8!

 

The only person who could beat Humpy in the tournament finished joint third | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club

What was Humpy's mindset after the loss?

I was only hoping not to lose rating from this event! That being said, I was of course waiting for an opportunity to score.

And Humpy did have to wait for two more games. She made use of both her white games to steady her boat with draws against Ju Wenjun and Kateryna Lagno. In the fifth round playing with the black pieces against Nana Dzagnidze, Humpy got her chance 

 

Black had a powerful strike here in the form of 26...♞xf2. It was not so easy to see that after 27.♔xf2 ♜e4! Black is winning because not only is the knight on d4 pinned, but also Rg4 will attack the g3 pawn leading to a mating attack. The key point after ♜e4 being that 28.♗h3 is met with ♜d6! and the other rook joins in the attack via f6 or g6. Speaking about missing 26...♞xf2 Humpy said,

Yes, I felt that Nxf2 was winning but I wasn't accurate in finding the right continuation. As I was a pawn up, I decided to continue with the material advantage.

But this gave opportunity to Dzagnidze to fight for a draw. 

 

My assessment was equal earlier. In fact instead of ♕d4-d8, I was actually expecting ♕d4-h8 preventing my king from penetrating. I completely missed that in the above position after 45...♚h5 46.g4+! ♚xg4 47.♕d1 I have nothing better than a draw. 

 

Humpy's win over Dzagnidze wasn't the smoothest but it began her road to a comeback! | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club

Humpy's next opponent was Alexandra Kosteniuk. A fighting player who is known for her uncompromising chess. Humpy got just the kind of position that she would have liked.

 

Humpy felt that she was slightly better here. She began with the accurate move 19.♗b5! stopping the knight from developing on d7. 

 

It was quite impressive that Humpy managed to win this endgame! Objectively it is completely even. 

 

Humpy's win over Kosteniuk explained

Humpy drew her seventh round game against Irina Krush and in the eighth round had white pieces against Valentina Gunina. It was quite amazing that Gunina committed the same error that had been made by Anatoly Karpov against Humpy 14 years ago!

 

Instead of ♛c7-c6, Black usually plays 14...♞c5 in such positions. But what is wrong with 14...c6? Humpy already had this same exact position against Anatoly Karpov in 2006. She had found the winning idea of ♕f3-h3 back then, and she did so against Gunina as well! "I remembered the idea of 15.♕f3 and 16.♕h3, but did not recollect the whole Karpov game that I had played." The idea of ♕f3 followed by ♕h3 is so strong that Black's position simply disintegrates.

The entire game explained by IM Sagar Shah

 

With this win Humpy shot into the lead. She was also helped by the fact that Ju Wenjun who was sharing the lead with her succumbed to a loss against Carissa Yip. In the final round Humpy was solid as ever against Harika and with 6.0/9 won the tournament by a margin of a half point. With this she also moved to 2586 on the Elo rating list and became World no.2. When asked what becoming the world no.2 meant to her, Humpy is calm like always, "This achievement is nothing great. I am just back to what my ranking was before!"

Humpy's final scorecard

Name Koneru Humpy
Title GM
Starting rank 2
Rating 2580
Rating national 0
Rating international 2580
Performance rating 2627
FIDE rtg +/- 5,5
Points 6
Rank 1
Federation IND
Ident-Number 0
Fide-ID 5008123
Year of birth 1987
Rd. SNo   Name Rtg FED Pts. Res.
1 9 WGM Yip Carissa 2412 USA 4,0 w 1
2 1 GM Muzychuk Mariya 2552 UKR 5,0 s 0
3 10 GM Ju Wenjun 2583 CHN 5,5 w ½
4 3 GM Lagno Kateryna 2552 RUS 4,5 w ½
5 4 GM Dzagnidze Nana 2515 GEO 4,0 s 1
6 5 GM Kosteniuk Alexandra 2504 RUS 5,0 w 1
7 6 GM Krush Irina 2422 USA 4,0 s ½
8 7 GM Gunina Valentina 2461 RUS 2,5 w 1
9 8 GM Harika Dronavalli 2518 IND 4,5 s ½

Humpy

Humpy receives her winner's cheque of US$ 45000 from Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club

This is the highest prize money that Humpy has won from an event since her World Championship finals appearance in 2011.

"Playing at the Saint Louis Chess Club was an absolute pleasure", says Humpy. The event was very well organized." It's really a huge boost for women's chess that the Sinquefields and the Saint Louis Chess Club are thinking about women's chess in such a big way. For Humpy it couldn't have come at a better time. She is leading in the Women's Grand Prix series and is on the cusp of entering the Candidates. It's clear that she is playing some of the best chess that she has played in her chess career. Even the great Vishy Anand took note of it.

Humpy was quite thrilled to get these words from Vishy. "I am on cloud nine to get such a compliment from a legend."

Humpy with her family

Humpy is now back home with her family, spending some quality time with her daughter Ahana. This month she will take part in the PSPB team championships as well as Public Sector tournament. In May, she will play the last leg of women's GP at the Sardinia, Italy.

Indian masters talk about Humpy's comeback | Video: Shahid Ahmed / ChessBase India

A proud feeling for any Indian to be in the same frame as Humpy | Photo: Saint Louis Chess Club

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Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He is also a chartered accountant. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India website, the biggest chess news outlet in the country.

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