GM Harika Dronavalli, part of the history-making women’s team at the recent Chess Olympiad, posted a message on her social media platforms about the dream of finishing on the podium, a feat she achieved in Mamallapuram, Chennai while being nine months pregnant.
India A team, comprising Koneru Humpy, R Vaishali, Tania Sachdev and Bhakti Kulkarni, secured bronze medal in the women’s section after a 1-3 loss to USA in the final round match. Harika had not featured in the last couple of rounds.
As many as five teams had realistic chances for gold going into the last round of the Women’s section in the 44th Chess Olympiad in Chennai. India A reclaimed its sole lead in the penultimate round and was ahead of the field with 17 points, followed by as many as four teams, all on 16 points: Poland, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Georgia. In the absence of the sanctioned Russia and the previous champions China, these teams formed the initial pool of favourites, making the last round wildly unpredictable. India A faced the USA, while the pursuers were paired against each other: Ukraine v Poland, Azerbaijan v Georgia.
The top Indian team looked invincible throughout the event, but towards the end, the #1 seed ran out of fuel. It was still enough to create history as they became the first squad ever from India to finish on the podium of the women’s section.
After the bronze medal finish, Harika posted this message:
“It’s been 18 years since my debut in the Indian women’s chess team at the age of 13, and having played 9 olympiads so far, I always dreamt about being on the podium for Indian women’s team and finally made it this time.
“It’s more emotional because I made it at 9 months of pregnancy. When I heard about Olympiad being held in India and when my doctor said that it’s possible to play if I stay healthy without any complications... since then my life revolved around making it to Olympiad and winning the medal.
“My every single step has been dedicated to make it possible. No baby showers, no parties, no celebrations, I decided everything will be only after winning the medal. I kept working every single day to make sure that I perform well. I literally lived for this moment from past few months and Yes, I made it. First ever Olympiad medal for Indian Women’s chess team.”
After seven successive wins and a draw with Ukraine came a first blow - a loss against Poland in Round 9. The hero of the Women’s section, WIM Oliwia Kiolbasa delivered her 9th consecutive win defeating Vaishali R and bringing back the intrigue of who would claim the gold. Nevertheless, in the next round, Koneru and colleagues pulled themselves together and came back to the lead with a convincing 3½: ½ victory over Kazakhstan.
But the last round proved that any fan euphoria was untimely - India suddenly lost 1-3 to the 7th seed, Team USA. Carissa Yip defeated Tania Sachdev, who had a fantastic 8 out of 10 undefeated before this game, and Tatev Abrahamyan won against Bhakti Kulkarni, also delivering her first loss. As a result, India A had to settle only for the bronze. The gold medals were left up for grabs.
The land of legendary female champions, Georgia maintains the status of one of the world’s leaders in women’s chess. In Chennai, they were rated #3 in the starting list, just a couple of rating points behind Ukraine, and lived up to the expectations. In Round 6, Georgian ladies lost to India A, which seemed like a possible match for gold at the time. However, long tournament distance and intense competition proved any conclusion premature. Georgia went on winning weaker opponents and made draws with Poland and Ukraine. In the last round, the experienced team had no mercy against the young Azerbaijan squad (who played a great event nevertheless). Nino Batsiashvili and Meri Arabidze won their games, securing at least silver medals.
Ukraine is one of the initial favourites in any women’s competition. No other team could boast two former women’s world champions on the roster, Anna Ushenina and Mariya Muzychuk. Yet the team started somewhat slow. Draws with Azerbaijan and Romania in Rounds 5 and 6 seemingly indicated that the team was not in its best form, but Ukraine never left the orbit of fighting for medals. In Rounds 8 and 9, the squad led by the Muzychuk sisters drew with direct rivals India A and Georgia. They did not lose a single match, which usually helps with possible tiebreaks, and confidently won the last two, including the most important one in the final round, against Poland. Mariya Muzychuk set the tone by winning against Alina Kashlinskaya on board 1, and Anna Ushenina defeated the discovery of the tournament, Oliwia Kiolbasa.
Ukraine and Georgia leapfrogged India A at the last moment, and all that was left was to calculate the complicated tiebreak by which Ukraine came out on top.
Ukraine won gold in the women’s section for the second time after Turin 2006; and this is the seventh time the Ukrainian women have won medals in the last eight Olympiads. But the 2022 victory, arriving at such a difficult time, is especially valuable.
Harika is one of the most decorated Indian players having won numerous medals at age categories and in open categories. She is a ‘Padmashree’ awardee and one of the most solid and consistent players on the Indian chess scene.
She has been the backbone of the Indian women’s team at the Olympiad for the last 18 years. Playing her eighth Olympiad in a row, Harika is in the process of setting the national record of continuous successive Olympiad appearances since she made her debut in 2004.
“I am optimistic about our chances but don’t want to put any pressure on ourselves. Of course, we are the top seeds on paper but at the end of the day, it matters on how we perform collectively,” Harika had said before the event. Pregnant in the advanced stages, Harika said she is still in the best possible shape mentally and is determined to give her best.
“Off board I have tried to keep myself in the best shape possible and chess-wise have kept up my practice and played in some online chess events till last week to stay in touch.”
Gold - UKRAINE - 18 points (413,5 tiebreak)
GM Mariya Muzychuk
GM Anna Muzychuk
GM Anna Ushenina
IM Nataliya Buksa
IM Yuliia Osmak
Silver - GEORGIA - 18 points (392 tiebreak)
GM Nana Dzagnidze
GM Nino Batsiashvili
IM Lela Javakhishvili
IM Salome Melia
IM Meri Arabidze
Bronze - INDIA A - 17 points (396,5 tiebreak)
GM Humpy Koneru
GM Harika Dronavalli
IM Vaishali R
IM Tania Sachdev
IM Bhakti Kulkarni
(With FIDE inputs)