'This was my best chance to win gold' - Harika


"I'm struggling with time control," a faint voice politely answers at the other end of the line.

There's a brief pause. We both laugh at the misdirected chess suggestion. "Sorry, I meant struggling with time," Harika Dronavalli says, correcting herself. "I'm still in tiebreaker mode." You can hardly blame her.

Playing rapid tie-breaks, after inconclusive two-game matches in each round from the first until the semifinals, there's been no room for a breather through the length of the Women's World Chess Championships for Harika.

Now, she is suddenly spoilt by the luxury of time. For Harika, the past fortnight has been a particularly grinding one. For a large part of the tournament in Tehran, it looked like Harika would go all the way.

Eventually though, Harika, 26, settled for bronze - her third consecutive one at the tournament - after losing to China's Tan Zhongyi in the semifinal tiebreaker. It was not how she pictured the ending would be.

"This was my best chance," she says, the dismay seeping into her tone. "I was expecting more so I'm a little disappointed. But to come back with a bronze medal each time in such an unpredictable format is funny. I'm hoping it's a record of some kind."

Set to conclude on March 5, the World Chess Championship was in the eye of a raging storm in the months leading up to it, for the mandatory hijab or headscarf that it required female players to turn up in.

Since Iran was the sole bidder to host the tournament, the FIDE too had its back against the wall and couldn't afford to move it out despite player protests. Harika, though, has been seemingly calm and unaffected amid the furore.

"Initially it was a bit uncomfortable but then I got used to it. Actually I got so used to it that even after I returning to India I was looking for my headscarf," she says. "Wearing the hijab actually helped me save a lot of time ahead of matches. I didn't have to comb my hair at all." The tournament's 64-player knock-out format has been a bit of contentious because it's seen as a lottery, forcing the world body, FIDE, to introduce an alternating arrangement in 2010 as a measure of appeasement.

Under the current system, the women's world champion is decided in alternate years by the knock-out tournament and a classical match between the winner (of the knock-out event) and the Grand Prix winner. Harika, the world No 7, though, sides with the knock-out format, reasoning that it has worked for her.

"It has been good for me," she says. "Since we usually don't play the knock-out format through the rest of the year it makes the Championship special and interesting." The other Indian player in the tournament, Padmini Rout, was knocked out in the last-16 stage by incidentally Harika's nemesis - Tan.

Harika, who climbed to a career-best No 5 world ranking in July last year, feels losing the Armageddon tie-break toss in the semifinal is what cost her. The Armageddon or "sudden death" tiebreak is played as a last resort to break a tie between players, but as per the current format, black pieces hold a clear advantage.

According to Armageddon tie-break rules, a player playing with white pieces needs a win while those playing with black only require a draw to advance. Winning the toss and choosing to play with black, Tan progressed to the final as Harika ran out of time after 99 moves.

"This tournament has been a lesson for me on how to stay motivated in all circumstances. Mental strength, I've realized, is something I need to build on."

Harika's constant companion for most tournaments across the globe including the one in Tehran, has been her grandmother. The 68 year-old has little understanding of chess but has lately learnt to count the pieces.

"It helps to have her around and take care of all the non-chess aspects during events," Harika says. Ferrying her electric cooker and spices from home wherever she travels, Harika eats food cooked by her grandmother in hotel rooms during tournaments - a practice most hotels don't take kindly.

"Once in Russia, hotel authorities spotted the cooker in my room and took it away, returning it only during check-out," she chuckles. "Otherwise, I've been pretty lucky." At the end of a nervy fortnight, it's a sudden feeling of emptiness now.

"There's nothing to worry about. No match to prepare for. I'm still getting used to having so much time on my hands."