“In my spare time, I watch shows like Kaisi Yeh Yaariyan and Sumit Samhal Laga. People make fun of me for watching every serial there is in every Indian language that I understand! But that is how I relax,” giggles the country’s chess champion, Harika Dronavalli.
The 24-year-old Arjuna awardee from Guntur in Andhra is ranked number two in the country and number 14 in the world. Harika is the only other woman in India after Koneru Hampi to achieve the grandmaster title in men’s category and, she also holds the title of international master.
To be a sportsperson is to dedicate one’s whole life to it and in the process, make many sacrifices. Harika dropped out of school at the age of 13 and since then, all the knowledge that she has acquired is by travelling to various countries for chess tournaments. “To achieve big things one must take big risks,” she says. “If I look back, I can say I never had a regular life like other kids. I had to dedicate my whole time in practicing chess and had to cope with lots of pressure during tournaments, at a very young age. At that time, it was difficult as a kid. But now if you ask, I will never regret and I am happy with all the things I gave up in this journey because of which I am here right now.”
The jovial girl puts on no airs and is very down to earth. On asked how she manages to be this way, she says, “Whatever I achieved, I never think about it and all the time my focus is on what to achieve next.”
In spite of her achievements, Harika is not as recognized as one would think, and she attributes this to only one reason. Chess is not a very viewer-friendly game. With other sports such as cricket and football, one can see how the game is playing out and the excitement reaches its zenith when they are about to score a goal or hit a six. In chess however, one needs to understand the game to truly enjoy watching since the thought process behind a move cannot be seen.
Harika works 7-8 hours a day and attributes her success to her family and coach NVS Raju. “I can safely say my family is the main reason for my chess career. I don't even know what society said at that time as my family has been a guard and never let any discouraging words come up to me. Most of her funding was taken care of by her family but she says as you earn more laurels to your name, more people and companies come forward to offer sponsorships,” she says.
When asked about the plight of those who cannot afford the expenses of the game, Harika honestly says, “For people who can't afford, it gets extremely difficult to continue in sports and many people get back to studies due to this. Government funds will only start when a player shows good results at the national or international level. So there could be many talented players who can't achieve their dreams due to financial problems.”
The grandmaster enjoys travelling so much that she says it gets difficult to stay in one place for a long time, even if the place is home. She has been to around 50 countries. All of them except one have been professional trips, so she does not get much time for herself but she is used to it, she says.
“There is major dominance of a few sports in this country. Consequently, players from many other sports do not receive the kind of exposure to lift them to international level. I think it is most important to increase media coverage on sports which are not being recognized and in this way it will increase sponsors and viewers and at the same time, it will be encouraging for the players too,” says Harika.
It is always an uncomfortable feeling when I lose, she says. Harika is not one to rest on her laurels and is not satisfied with the bronze that she won at the world championship. “My most important goal is to become Women's World Champion. I am constantly training and participating in strong events to improve my game.”
The game has only just begun, and there are a lot more moves ahead for the chess grandmaster.