Two-year-old Ahana doesn't wait to get home to rummage through her mother's travel bags anymore. She opens them up at the airport arrival gate, parts the pile of clothes and fishes out her prize. A wristwatch and a toy magic wand from Moscow this time. Resting beside them, a 35cm tall sterling silver trophy gilt in gold, cradling a crown on its head goes unnoticed, untouched. That it roughly took 150 hours to craft and her mother, Koneru Humpy, a good part of her career to bring home is a perfunctory detail the toddler cheerfully skips. For Humpy, it's just a happy, teary reunion with her daughter back in Vijayawada after close to a fortnight away.
The newest women's world rapid chess champion, 32-year-old Humpy can scarcely believe how the wheels have turned during her time away from the sport. Post her maternity break, she returned in September 2018, to a new, flatter chess world. "Earlier," says the world No 3, "only the top GMs had access to the best hardware. Now even the newest and youngest GMs are working with the kind of technology that a top 10 player has access to. It was the biggest change I noticed on my comeback. Suddenly, everyone has really deep opening preparation and just about any player you run into can surprise you with novelties." Humpy struggled to find a toehold and floundered in all three tournaments she showed up in on her comeback trail in 2018 - Olympiad, Classical World Championship and World Rapid Championship.
"It was an exhausting run until the Skolkovo GP leg in September last year. My opening preparation was not up to scratch and because I didn't have a clear strategy I also suffered on time," says Humpy. "It's also twice as much taxing especially in closed events because I was not just preparing for specific opponents everyday but also updating my know-how on the lines I'd been out of touch with."
In the absence of a trainer to assist with the spadework on the preparatory lines and variations, Humpy was crushed under the weight of the volume of work she had to tend to on her own. Through her early years, her father, a former national player, doubled up as coach and travelling companion for her tournaments. Now, she's largely on her own and says she wouldn't want it any other way. She ended up winning in Skolkovo with a draw against reigning women's world champion Ju Wenjun, picked up prize money of approx INR 12 lacs (approx USD 16710.75) and moved up a spot to world No 3. The Monaco GP title a week before the Moscow event suddenly offered her the sure-footedness she'd been lacking. Plonked into the rapid chess terrain, one far removed from her comfort zone of classical play, she dug into the invisible ledges and climbed through the playoffs for a title she never punted herself of standing a chance. She was always seen as a contender for the classical world title, came within sniffing distance, losing in the 2011 final to current women's world No 1 Hou Yifan and hasn't gone around to winning one since.
She is reminded of old foe Ju's polite, cautionary remark ahead of the Moscow event. "Humpy, why do you even want to play rapid which you're really no good at when you'd rather stick to classical?" Humpy laughs, "Now, here I am. Even I didn't see this coming. No matter which format, it's still a world title," she says. "I'm yet to hear from Ju though!" From being placed second in the blitz competition that followed, Humpy ended up finishing 12th after successive losses in the final three rounds.
"It's unfair to say all women don't try hard enough." Koneru Humpy
For all the talk around women's chess almost existing in a far off exoplanet, away from the searing brilliance of their male counterparts, Humpy says it would take nothing less than a 'miracle' to produce a female world champion. She is quick, however, to dispute Yifan's views on the rationale behind it. According to Yifan, women are "less focused" than men, are at a physical disadvantage and don't train as hard. The 25-year-old Chinese player and University of Oxford student's comments prised open a fresh discourse on the already billowing man vs woman gender gulf in chess. Only three women - Judit Polgar, Maia Chiburdanidze and Yifan - have, in the history of FIDE rating lists since 1971, cracked the world top 100.
"I think women players face similar challenges like the men do in their tournaments," says Humpy. "It's an unfair summation to say all women don't try hard enough. We are of varying strengths and I agree we are weaker perhaps than the men but it's also a lot like saying why don't the top female tennis players beat the top guys. We're different, that's why there's gender segregation in sport."
Through the months leading up to motherhood and the ones that followed, Humpy weaned herself off chess. In the fourth month of pregnancy, she developed pre-natal complications, which, she believes, turned her into an even more devoted mother. "From chess being the only thing I ever thought about and training nine hours a day to suddenly not following a game or moving a piece, it was a huge change. Honestly, I didn't really miss it," she says. "I was happy to discover the things I'd never experienced earlier like being with my daughter and celebrating festivals with the entire family. At the back of my mind I always knew I'd return to chess, I just didn't know when."
Now, Humpy trains roughly four hours a day, but even that revolves around her daughter's schedule. "It's more about what can be done than what should be done," she says, "It can be four hours, it can be zero." Her choice of tournaments too follows a similar trajectory. She was to travel to Gibralter for a tournament later this month but now finds herself dithering. Her next event is the Cairns Cup in Saint Louis, Missouri from February 6th. "I realize I'm tired from the close-together tournaments over the past few months. Also I want to be able to spend more time with my daughter so I'll be skipping travel and competition in January." She endorses the truth in the delightful clichés entwined with motherhood. The experience, she says, has been transformative. She's now more patient, tolerant and forgiving toward her own form and results.
"It's changed my outlook toward what I want out of tournaments. Earlier I'd be all worked up from Day 1, obsessing about winning any event I went to. Now I don't even check the standings until perhaps the penultimate round. I don't stress myself out and can enjoy my game a lot more."
There are other contests though she ardently wants to win.
Among the glossary of terms her daughter babbles and dips into everyday are 'knights' and 'bishops'. She is aware that her mother plays chess but isn't entirely sold on the idea of her landing trophies for it. "All my trophies are at my parents' home," Humpy says, "so my daughter is absolutely certain that they belong to her grandfather. Every time I try to explain that they're mine, she nods her head in disagreement and laughs almost as if to suggest that I must be joking. I must keep up my efforts to convince her."
It's a goal Humpy will be chasing this year.