Koneru Humpy's belated world title a fresh breath of life

Koneru Humpy speaks on the phone after her title win. According to Humpy's husband, she called him to make sure he'd gotten the news of her win and to check if their daughter had gone to bed. Amruta Mokal

Minutes after her final Armageddon battle at the World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championship in Moscow, Koneru Humpy grabbed her jacket and phone and darted across the playing hall. The swarm of journalists waiting to get a word out of the newest women's rapid chess champion struggled to keep pace.

Back in Vijayawada, closing in on midnight, Humpy's husband Anvesh Dasari waited for his phone to beam to life. "I won!" the voice at the other end crackled, half in excitement, half in anticipation. Five years into marriage and Anvesh, an electrical engineer by profession, confesses to not being entirely hooked to the moving pieces and alphanumeric notations that make up Humpy's world. On Saturday night, though, he could not peel his eyes off the laptop screen.

"I know the pieces and how they move," Anvesh laughs, "But I still haven't been able to wrap my head around the sport. When she called me after the final game, she wasn't sure if I had got the news and she also wanted to check if our two-year-old daughter had slept. When I told her that I'd been following her games, she was quite surprised and overjoyed."

Three years ago, Humpy went into a self-imposed break from the rigours of competitive tournaments, with motherhood taking over her life and waking hours. She hit the comeback trail at the 2018 Batumi Olympiad, an event she had skipped through a large part of her career, and went on to win her first major championship since her return at the Skolkovo leg of the FIDE Women's Grand Prix in September this year. For Humpy, the current World No. 3 among women behind Hou Yifan and Ju Wenjun, it's been an arduous wait for a world title. In the classical format, she made the semifinals in 2004, 2008 and 2010 and finished with a bronze medal in the rapid tournament in 2012.

Saturday's games were nothing short of a racy cliffhanger for Humpy. For someone who more than relishes her share of movie outings, the 32-year-old too might well agree. Following eight rounds of play over two days, four players - Irina Bulmaga, Tan Zhongyi, Lei Tingjie, and Mariya Muzychuk - shared first spot with 6.5/8 points, while Humpy was bunched in the second rung with Olga Girya, Kateryna Lagno, Harika Dronavalli, Ekaterina Atalik, and Anna Muzychuk at 6/8.

The standings were scrambled in the final round and Humpy soon found herself in a three-way tie for first place with Tingjie and Atalik.

"When I won my first game in the morning, I didn't have any expectations to finish first," says Humpy, "I thought finishing in the top three would be a great result. But when I reached the tiebreak, I thought this could be a wonderful chance to win my first world title."

She lost the first game on time, but mounted a comeback in the second. "It was a gamble," she reflects on her second game, "but I won. The final game turned out to be a comfortable win. People have been expecting me to win the classical world championship for many years now but each time I've lost in the knockouts. Surely, no one counted me among the likely rapid contenders. I was seeded 13th and have never been too good in this format. So it's really an unexpected win."

Her father Ashok Koneru, a former national chess player who introduced Humpy to the sport when she was five years old, quit his job as an applied science lecturer to be able to coach and accompany his daughter to tournaments. Originally named Hampi, it was later modified to its current version by her father to give it a Russian flavour. Aged six and seven respectively, she won the district and state-level tournaments and went on to lord over the national championships through her pre-teen years which culminated in the world junior title in 2001. "I picked up chess from my father who was a mathematician," Ashok tells ESPN, "His only condition to allow me to pursue it was if I could beat him in a game. I did. It happened all over again when Humpy defeated my father and then me when she was 10." She earned her International Master title at the age of 12, became a Grandmaster at 15 and by crossing a 2600 ELO in October 2007, turned into the second strongest female chess player in history after Judit Polgar.

Despite the glory and gold dust earned by women chess players, the gender gap in the sport remains yawning. Since its inception in 1886, the World Chess Championship, which is open to both sexes and has Magnus Carlsen as its reigning champion, has never in its history had a female winner. The gulf is telling in the ratings as well. The women's No. 1 player Hou Yifan has a current rating of 2664 in comparison to Carlsen's 2872.

For Humpy though, this belated world title is nothing short of a resurrection. Little more than a year ago she was, by her own admission, struggling to reorient herself with the travails of transit and the grind of tournament environment. "Whether she would return to the chess circuit again was never a question for us," says Anvesh, "We both knew she loved the sport too much to be able to stay away for too long. It's not easy as new parents, especially for her as a mother, to travel for tournaments leaving our daughter back at home. But we both decided to manage our schedules in a way that always one of us is there at home for her.

It's also brought about a perceptible shift in goals. Humpy is not chasing ratings and is now in it for herself. "She's also a lot calmer and mature at the board now," says Anvesh, "At least that's what she says, there's no way I could tell!"