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MVP of Team India - Harika on her performance at FIDE Online Olympiad 2021

by Shahid Ahmed - 21/09/2021

Harika Dronavalli was under the weather during the Pool stage of FIDE Online Olympiad 2021. She played only three games and drew all of them. She wanted rest, which was provided to her. Thanks to her doctor, she managed to recover well in two days and played all her games in the knockout stage. Not only she played them all, she won them too, scoring 6.0/6, the highest individual score for Team India in the Knockout stage. IM Sagar Shah conducted an interview with her after the Indian team won the Bronze medal. This article is a transcript of the interview where Harika breaks down various moments from the game along with what went in her mind before, during and after the game, her mindset and much more. Photo: Amruta Mokal

Harika scored 6.0/6 in the Knockout stage

Harika Dronavalli scored 6.0/6 in the Quarterfinals and Semifinals for Team India in the FIDE Online Olympiad 2021.

MVP of Team India - Harika Dronavalli | Photo: Amruta Mokal
MVP for Team India Harika speaks about her phenomenal performance | Video: ChessBase India


Sagar Shah (SS): Harika, what a performance by you. India won Bronze, so your thoughts on that also on your 6.0/6 in Quarters and Semis.

Harika Dronavalli (HD): Thanks Sagar. Even I don't know frankly, how it happened 6.0/6. I just went game by game. I was just trying to play my best, give my best, one game at a time. Then two games used to be over and I used to be little relaxed now it's over. Then third game is there, then I am like, okay now I can't relax. I have to sit there. I have to focus. I have to play well. So it just went game by game. When things work, it will work in every way possible. So we should also say that okay things worked well for me in those rounds. Even that could be the reason behind 6.0/6.


SS: I was interviewing coach Abhijit Kunte and he told me that Harika said, in the pool stages, please give me some rest but then after two days I'll recover and I'll really play well in Quarters and Semis. Is that what happened?

HD: It was hard for me to tell that I won't play because I never did it. I have always been there to play in any condition but it was hard for me on medication. When I was playing, I was getting tired, I was not fast enough, especially in fast time controls, I couldn't understand. Normally I keep a lot of time and play but in the preliminaries, I was playing on seconds. I didn't even realize how the time was going. I realized things are going wrong. I wanted to recover from that so I requested that I will play the important rounds and then I want to recover first, I will definitely come back and I'll give all that I can for the prelims. I was just taking game by game.


In prelims, I should not spoil anything. In fact my first game was like really good, I got a completely winning position but then I saw suddenly my clock ticked down to like seconds. In that whole confusion, I lost winning position. So somewhere it was little and second was very normal like simple draw game, then I misplayed it in the end in seconds. So somewhere I could feel that I have become little slow. Abhijit dada also told, you can play some more games to get your confidence back, you can win some games, play just some one-two games extra. I said, confidence is not the problem right now. I just want to play in fit condition and I will just come back. So I am glad it worked out nicely like my promise has actually happened.


SS: We also have to thank your doctor that in two days you could get well so good medicines given because Harika you were like that one point in the match that we could bank upon. When I was commentating along with Samay, we would be like, this looks a little scary but on board no.4 Harika is there, she is getting a plus position. It was really nice. It reminded me of your Speed Chess Championship matches where you were very steady against let's say Kosteniuk or Lagno. You played really well in those matches.

HD: Thanks Sagar. It's a nice feeling of course that someone is relying on me. I mean frankly even I didn't know what would be my form during Quarters and all but the only thing is I was just trying to give my best. I was working in whatever way possible. I was working as much as I could, then rest and recover. The whole focus was just to be there and play. So I didn't even think about results. My whole point was, I should not spoil anything. I should be there, I should try my best. I should not spoil for the team. Somehow I trust my team so much I don't even see the games in between my game. I just don't even follow anyone. I just feel that somehow they will win. I should just not spoil. I will try my best, give my best. I should not just spoil it and just play and focus on the game.


SS: I think this is your attitude in general, right. Do what is in your control and not let mind waver into things which you cannot control like other things.

HD: Yeah maybe I can say, I am not very good at like two many things at a time, so I prefer to just focus on one study thing which I can do which is like to see my game but then already by Semis I understood there could be moments, where you might have to like see whether to take chances when needed. Still I am not good in all this, by mistake if I go and press someone's game, I don't want to disqualify like that. So I kept chess-results on the tab, just to refresh if needed. Somehow things went well, so I didn't even need to check the results and all.


SS: Were you a little bit disappointed that we couldn't make it to the finals, that we got Bronze medal. What's your feeling for that?

HD: Of course I think, every member of the team must have been disappointed. We understand it's sport, it happens but still the disappointment will be there and obviously I couldn't sleep whole night. It was emptiness suddenly, like there was so much happening in past one week, trying to play the games, prepare, so much to do and specially in this Quarter and Semifinals, there was so much to prepare because there were probabilities of three girls in each game for me. I couldn't leave chance so I was preparing for white-black for each player. It was a little hard, too much of work and everything. I couldn't even realize the days. So suddenly when it ended and you know it feels little bit of emptiness. It's not just about the result, it will take some time to get back yourself together and just to start fresh again for the next tournament.


SS: I think that's the same feeling that all the players are also having here like we were at the dinner table right now and Srinath was also saying that, now I feel tired. I think it's the dopamine effect, now that it's gone away and you feel like oh. Until then you are pushing yourself. There is excitement and all.

HD: Yeah I mean somehow I can't explain but I could never actually sleep the day the tournament finishes. I don't know the reasons behind it but I just feel like you know, I feel exhausted but at the same time I just cannot get sleep. It feels like completely different level of energy or whatever. A whole night I won't sleep. It will take some time to figure out to become normal, one-two days and then I am back to normal. Be it success or failure, it always becomes like this.


SS: The end of the tournament is always a bit stressful for you, now I can't...

HD: Yeah very stressful because the whole period of the tournament would be a schedule, going according to something then suddenly you have to change everything to normal, so it will take some time for me to get that switch.


SS: I think you played a tremendous game. There were a lot of complications but I think the critical moment came somewhere around here:

Harika - Buksa, Quarterfinals 1

Position after 27.Qd5+

She played 27...Kh8. It was very complicated because she has Bxf3 threat in the position . How far did you calculate when you played 28.Qxd6 ?

HD: Here it was already like I just understood she blundered a pawn. So first thing I did is, I grabbed it because I don't have choice, so I just took it. Then once she played 28...Bf6, I realized things are not easy and here I only had like a couple of minutes - one and a half or two minutes. Then I have to figure out a concrete line or else I can even end up in a problematic position. So I just started putting some tricks. When I saw 29.Rc7 Qe8. I couldn't find anything else in that time. I just first defended the c2-pawn, like push the queen then Qg6 and Bxf3 is a threat. Maybe for a computer, it makes it easier to defend this or even in Classical game, it could be easier but in seconds ticking, it could be either one's result. So I already understood that I have to find a safer way. Here when I played 30.Bc5, it was just a trick because in future she can play f4 or something. Anyway this bishop is not doing much. Maybe it's not a great move but practically I thought it's a threat. I saw here itself 30...Bxf3 31.gxf3 Qg6 32.Kf1 fxe4. These are obvious moves.


SS: If she had played 32...Rfe8, what was your intention here?

HD: At least, here I feel safer because things were clarified. The bishop is not there on g4. It already cleared out, she took on f3. My king is little safer, I have some pawns so it didn't feel so scary. When so many things are on the king, it felt like first I have to neutralize. Then I saw this trick. 32...fxe4 is obvious move. I just wanted to find something desperately that I should go into a safer position where only I can try. Then suddenly I saw that this trick, I started calculating, 32...fxe4 33.Qxf8 Rxf8 34.Bxf8 exf3 then what I can do, okay 35.Bxg7 I saw and immediately went for it. I already saw this when she played 30...Bxf3 if I am not wrong. I already understood if she moves and the only things I was worried about is if she plays 30...Rg8. There is no threat, either with Bxf3 or without Bxf3. I didn't know how to continue next in an easier manner, not to calculate much, just to make it simpler for myself, to get an easy flow in the position. Normally we see concrete lines, then I saw the 35.Bxg7 trick and I saw that 35...Kg8 is the best move. After 36.Bxf6, there is no mate at least. If she takes 36...Qxf6, the only thing I saw is, at least I won't lose here, let me go for this. I didn't know if it's winning also. I didn't even check it. I just thought this is safer position. So let me just give it a try. Maybe if she would have played this, it would have become little complicated... I can have repetition if I want. At least it's in my hands like what I want to do. That is the reason I went for it.


SS: This was the first win against Ukraine, then they changed to Zhukova...

HD: This also we were expecting a bit. Me and Shyam were discussing, somehow we felt Zhukova could play with white. So I was little prepared there. Even I played some old games. I thought okay let me play something simpler with black.

Zhukova - Harika, Quarterfinals 2

Position after 13...Nd3+

By here, I already forgot my prep. I think 13...Nd7 is the accurate or at least it's in my notes or something, but I played 13...Nd3 over the board in a practical sense. I couldn't see any straight away refutation.

Position after 17...Be8

16...Bd7 and 17...Be8 at least everything is fine. I got an equal position for Black. I think that's what I wanted to have, a solid position with black and then just play from there.

Position after 19.Nxd1

SS: I think here you might have noticed that Rc7 is not working because of Nd5...

HD: Yeah after 19...Ba4, of course we have to calculate when I'm giving 20.Rc7. I already understood that she cannot play but sometimes I surprised myself like you know I got surprised if I am thinking wrong or actually they blundered. It was hard for me to understand, is that easy? Can I get points that easily? So that's why I say when things work, maybe it will work in every possible like you know even when you see the best moves, maybe your opponent may play even better moves and do well. So it's just one of those moves like my opponent played 20.Rc7. Maybe in normal circumstances, she would never play but I think she was already less on time. She was trying to figure out to get chances and then she took lot of time. Already by here, I had seven minutes and she had two or one minute. So in that panic, I think she just tried to play something faster and blundered.

Position after 32.Nd1

SS: The conversion was very smooth. She went 32.Nd1 and Rxd1+ this is a very sweet feeling. You will go into a pawn endgame with an extra pawn, just very simple.

HD: I have been doing this tactics puzzles and all. Immediately I could, okay now I just have to quickly take this and exchange, so this I could see automatically.


SS: Then I guess somewhere as you said, you were not ready for blitz tie-break but it happened. That day you came to the stream you said, I decided to play something random...

HD: I also saw Sethu's tweet, laughing about it. Just that I felt it's a random opening for myself in general. Of course, Adhiban's course is there. I also saw it but just that you know, most of the times I don't remember. He gave so many variations. It's so hard to remember. It's not in one stride, it's like Adhiban's style, pieces will be flying here and there, like one move here and one move there. It is always hard for me to remember anything. That's why, I cannot confidently say that, yes I followed this because I always end playing on my own. I just played reverse Nimzo. That's why it became a random opening for me.


SS: I think the nice part of this game was once again the tactical blow here.

Harika - Buksa, Quarterfinals TB

Position after 34.Rfg3

HD: It's not so easy to convert this. You have to really get this grind of g4, h4, king to b1 and make sure that c4 never works, keep the rook there. Actually it takes too much time and if it's not, maybe there will be a draw. I had already played two games in-a-row, I just wanted to make sure that in blitz we should not give more chances for the opponent. So I was keeping in a position where I can only press. So I was happy to go here but suddenly I didn't even see. I was just playing very normal like one by one, developing the pieces to right squares. Then suddenly I was like, 35.Rxg7 is working. At first for a second I didn't understand whether I am right or wrong. Here it was surprising, I was calculating 35.Qxg7 36.Rxg7 Bxg7 36.Qxf7+ and all. Suddenly she took 35...Bxg7. I don't know if it's intentional or if I would have pre-moved Rxg7, it would have gone on the spot. Then I realized okay, it could okay it could be even a trick or maybe just like that. So I just took it.


SS: This helped India qualify to the Semis. You played this King's Indian, Bg4 line which is supposed to be slightly better for white and you went into this endgame which is very pleasant for white. How did you win this game?

HD: In the opening, first of all I didn't expect her to play that. So over the board, I just wanted to shift from the mainstream. Then I remembered this game of Caruana Bg4.

Zatonskih - Harika, Semifinals 1

Position after 6...Bg4

Normally castling, e5 is normal but when she played 7.Be3 also I quickly played 7...e5. It was like very normal, if she takes I'll have Bxf3, Bxe2, I didn't calculate much. I thought that is the move. I convinced myself that is the move and played fast 7...e5. Then I realized after 8.dxe5, something looks wrong already. It became into like exchange variation of King's Indian with a better version for White. I understoof then that I definitely messed up the move order so confidently and now I didn't want to lose at any cost and mess up the team's result. I was trying very hard to somehow survive, finding all the tricks possible, trying to exchange one bishop. Let's say I am attacking on h2, I don't even know if I am taking or not, I am just trying all my tricks to make it practically difficult for my opponent.

Position after 24...exd4

SS: Here, you got an opposite colored bishops, it's not the easiest.

HD: Here I am already pretty happy about my position because I had much worse position before like knight and against good bishops.

Position after 42...Rd6

SS: With this majority and the king coming in, it looked very dangerous. The rook and bishop attacking on the g6-weakeness, it didn't look easy.

HD: I think somewhere I also allowed this because I played little passively. Somewhere I should have got g5. I was little passive playing fast and she was playing literally on seconds like 10-15 seconds. So somehow I wasn't scared here. The only point I was scared in this game was in the middlegame where two bishops were there. It felt like really wrong like I landed up in very bad position and once I could get here, I was very happy already. I thought like somewhere some tricks will come and I'll survive. I was just playing fast with intuition and when this position came, 54.b6 happened

Position after 54...Bxb6

I was like, oh my god, did I miss something like 54...axb6 55.a6 is coming. Okay then why not just 54...Bxb6, my king is active. I am getting Ke3, Kxf3. It felt like I am good here, so I just took it 54...Bxb6 55.axb6 axb6 and I realized I am completely fine. I didn't expect myself to win but I already felt this is very wrong position for White, I can even end up winning and that's what exactly happened.


SS: I think time mattered a lot in this...

HD: Definitely becayse she was playing on seconds like she is a very strong player, but when it comes to seconds, it can happen in either way, like things can go out of control completely. Somewhere I was banking on that. I was also playing fast and I was really not so scared in the ending because of the time difference we had.


SS: You got Nazi Paikidze and overall it was a very smooth game. Did you like it?

HD: I would say I was really happy with this game. I was satisfied as a chess player to play a good game. I don't know too much about the structures but I just played and like the feel of the position with my own understanding. I just tried to figure out on the board and it was very strategical, so I enjoyed playing it and the way it ended also, it was very beautiful for me, from my part. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Some strategical mistakes by Black made it easier for me. This is one game, I am really proud of, from start to end.


SS: When we saw your game, the evaluation didn't fluctuate, like in this game we were sure that one point is coming here but then the other games we couldn't get in the points. Again the blitz tie-breaks came, were you like, will you play Anna Zatonskih or Nazi Paikidze, did you feel...?

HD: As the earlier experience with Ukraine, I thought maybe it's better to be prepared but then we thought like you know, it's already too much to think until there. I hoped that we won't land up in such situation. The first match we won 5-1, now it's just like I have to focus on the last game, play well and finish it off for today and prepare for tomorrow. More than a game, there will be less time because you are playing at night and next day it would be faster. There will be many girls in the team, I have to prepare for everyone, all strong women. I just have to focus on this game, finish it off. Then I was shocked suddenly for the way things went wrong. Then again I picked up myself, I thought okay things happen, maybe it is supposed to be an entertaining way, so let me fight one more time.

Paikidze - Harika, Semifinals TB

Position after 21.Nd4

I think in opening, I already got a very comfortable position. One thing I always don't think about, result especially in this online tournaments because okay sometimes some things can't be in your hand. The only thing I try to do is, to make it easier for myself, to play easier moves for long time. So that I don't need to sit there and think too much about one position, just try to make it easier for me. Luckily in this tournament, it worked for me.

Position after 24...Qd6

Here already I thought, this is the first time I actually landed a little bit nervous like time control where I got into 25 seconds. That's my least like, 25 seconds and I felt like something is wrong. Then I started playing like bullet style, like whatever I could see without blunder, let me play that. I couldn't even think until mate happened, oh actually there is no square and suddenly it's mate.

Final position after 34...Bd3#

SS: Yeah that was a very pretty mate here.

HD: The only thing I did is, I just tried to make simple moves where like I won't need to think like not to give myself a chance to make mistakes.


SS: Everyone actually in the team acknowledged that you were the MVP, played amazing chess.

HD: Just that one thing I don't believe in team championships is, something like you know it will happen, that someone will be in good form, someone will be in bad form. It is always important in the team event to play well in that particular round when one person is losing, when the other one could cover which happened last year, somewhere you know it was working out very nicely when someone was losing, someone could cover. This time it was not like exactly going that way, things were a little rough, from the beginning things were going, let's say when we drew with France, Slovenia. We had to be careful and I think we did pretty well until that one game of rapid. We don't know, like it's not in our hands completely, it can go either way. The second rapid match was crucial to go into Finals or not, I think there things went wrong, it wasn't easy to recover form there.


SS: Congratulations for the Bronze medal.

HD: Everything worked out nice I think. Okay it was not our team's tournament but success and failure is part and parcel of sports. So, this time we have to accept this and move on. At least we reached until Semifinals, so let's see the positive side and move on from this tournament.


Karthik follows your stream regularly and see what is happening in the game. He just sits in the next room, he sees the stream and in the between the game, he knocks, he says oh you won, okay play well the next game. I said like go go go, microphone is on, just go from here. Then again until the next game he waits. There is one thing I felt very satisfied when I made like 3.0/3 and also the team won which makes it double the happiness then Karthik was very very happy. I am very happy and proud, I just want you to become world no.1, 2, 3 whatever but go on top, I am feeling very happy and proud. That is one moment I felt like really nice that how much happiness we can give with our wins to people... It's very motivating also to make them happy. The best thing I do is play chess and if I can give happiness with that then why not?


SS: Very deep and nice thoughts Harika, thank you for sparing time for this interview. It was amazing talking to you.

HD: No, my pleasure always to express what all happened to me during the tournament, and thanks Sagar.

Replay the games


Follow Harika on: twitter, instagram and facebook.

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