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Curly hair, never say die attitude, and a heart of gold!

by Sagar Shah - 20/02/2018

When the stakes are high, more often than not she delivers. This is one of the qualities that makes a champion and Padmini Rout surely is one of the greatest ones that Indian chess has ever produced. They say that your present qualities are an echo of what you have learned when you were young. Hence, it's always interesting to dig up the past and learn more about these great players. Sagar Shah caught up with Padmini after her fourth consecutive national title and did an in-depth interview with her. This article gives you a clear insight into how Padmini Rout functions and what makes her the player that she is. 

Indian women's chess is synonymous with two names - Humpy and Harika. These two Indian players are the only female grandmasters that we have in our country. However, we have a princess and she is fast turning into a queen. It seems almost certain that she would join Humpy and Harika right up there at the top. She is none other than the 24-year-old Padmini Rout.

From 2014 to 2017 Padmini has dominated Indian women's chess like no one else. She has won four consecutive National titles. A constant member of the Indian team at the Olympiad, World teams, Asian teams and just about any important event. We caught up with her after her fourth victory to know exactly what is so special about her. How does she make sure that she is a cut above the rest of her opponents. IM Sagar Shah was present at the end of the National Premier 2017 in Surat and interviewed the crown princess of Indian chess.

Interview with Padmini Rout:

Sagar Shah interviews Padmini Rout

Transcript of the interview:

Dream big! That's what those eyes say! Photo: Amruta Mokal

Sagar Shah(SS): Padmini, or should I call you Paddu?

Padmini Rout(PR): Yeah, you can call me Paddu.


SS: Who are the people who gave you this nickname Paddu?

PR: Initially I think it was my friends from my school. But then, when I started playing chess, it stopped. And then, suddenly, I think, it was in Spain or somewhere during a tournament that my friends started calling me Paddu again. So now everyone calls me Paddu.


SS: So Paddu, you have won your fourth National title! There’s this glittering trophy next to you. Does it become boring or routine for you to win the Nationals?

Padmini with the glittering trophy after she won the National Premier 2017 | Photo: Amruta Mokal

PR: Well, this time it was really interesting because at some point it didn’t look like I was going to win. After the way I played in the second half games, it didn’t feel routine anymore. So I am very happy that finally, I won the tournament.


SS: What does this National Championship victory mean to you?

PR: I think last year was more important because the World Cup qualification was on the line. This year, I don’t know. The rules are changing a lot. I don’t know what the rules are now. Maybe, for the teams, I will be there. But, I think 2014 and 2016 were really important to me because of the world cup spot. And this year, it is also crucial because it is the most important women’s tournament in India. So, I feel, it’s good to retain my title.


SS: Do you think that after Humpy and Harika you are the strongest women players in India?

PR: I think I still have to prove myself. Even though I had a good rating sometime back, for the past year, it hasn’t been so well for me. So I will do my best to come back again and I hope this is just a start.


Complete focus | Photo: Amruta Mokal

SS: What is your ambition in chess?

PR: I want to become a very strong chess player and Grandmaster soon. That’s my short-term goal as of now.


SS: And what about your long-term goal?

PR: My long-term goal is to become as strong as I can, to push my limits and see what comes. It can be anything!


SS: Who are the people you would thank for this victory?

PR: I would like to thank my parents because they have always been there to support me. When I lost my game against Mary, I was very upset. So my father called me and he encouraged me to focus on the remaining games. Also, before the last round, I spoke to Surya Shekhar Ganguly. He gave me a really important piece of advice. He said, in such a situation you just have to be ready for a long fight. You have to play on until only the kings are left on the board. 


Also, I think, I was more in control during the first half of my games. I would like to thank my practise partner Arghyadip Das. He was in Bhubaneshwar and has helped me a lot.


SS: Padmini, what is your quality of yours that you think separates you from other women players in India?

PR: I don’t think I am the right person to answer this question. You can be the one, perhaps, to tell me what separates me from the rest.


SS: For me, it is definitely your fighting spirit, its unparalleled to anyone else.

PR: Yes, I always believe in myself and try to fight till the end.

These trophies don't come on their own, they are the result of hard work and self-belief 

SS: Usually, such qualities are developed due to past experiences and a person’s upbringing. Do you think that this fighting quality in you is because of something that happened to you in your childhood?

PR: I think, since childhood, I have been always very determined. I also believe that the people close to me like my father, my trainers, etc. have played a huge role in making me who I am. They also have similar qualities like me. 


SS: Padmini how did you start playing chess?

PR: I started playing chess when I was 9 years old. I just learnt it as a hobby.

Little Padmini, already fascinated with rooks! | Photo: Facebook page of Padmini Rout 

SS: That’s quite late!

PR: Exactly! Actually, there was no intention of becoming a chess player. We had no idea that there were so many chess tournaments happening around or that there is an association or federation. My father used to play all sports so he taught me how to play chess. 

Whenever we would go to our native place, he would take me to his friend’s house where he played and I would sit and watch. I used to get really bored because of watching them play again and again with each other. Back then, I didn’t like chess so much. I would sit with my uncle’s daughter and listen to her playing musical instruments. This was at the time when the Telegraph school chess tournament happened in Bhubaneshwar. My elder sister brought the circular from the school and I participated in it. 

Padmini with her elder sister Emlee Rout | Photo: Facebook page of Padmini Rout

On the day of the tournament, I saw that the number of participants was huge. In fact, the organisers of the event were so taken aback that they eventually announced that if a player failed to win a game in the first three rounds, they would be disqualified.


If I could remember correctly, I lost my first two rounds. But in the third round – when I was in a must-win situation – I scored. Then on, I think I won all the rest of my games. As my prize, I won a cap and a T-shirt. But, unfortunately, I forgot it in an auto rickshaw. That’s how I got my first taste of a chess tournament. This tournament was organised by the state association. So, we got to know that there was a state selection for under-9 girls around the corner. Since I had won a prize in my first tournament, my confidence was high and I decided to give the state selection a try. 

Proud parents!

This tournament, too, turned out to be a successful one for me. I finished first and qualified for the nationals! In the nationals, I finished 8th, which I think is quite a great feat for a first-timer.  After doing well at the nationals, I attended my first Grandmaster coaching camp at Calicut. I met a lot of players there and it was quite an experience to meet them all!


Post this, I won the under 11 nationals when I was in class 7. This was a crucial year for me because normally when a chess player reaches class 8, 9 and 10, they leave chess for studies. In my case, however, it was quite the opposite. I started playing more and more during these years. Since I had won the under 11 nationals, my parents thought that I was doing well. In the very same year, I won the under 13 nationals and also Asian under 12. Seeing my achievements, my school also started supporting me. I was among the very few sportspersons they had. So they granted me leaves. If my exams clashed with tournaments, my school would conduct my exams later. That’s how slowly I got into chess.


Padmini with one of her first coaches Pillai sir | Photo: Facebook page of Padmini Rout

SS: At the age of 9 you started and by 12 you already won your Asian title!

PR: Yes, I think my initial success came really fast.


SS: Who taught you back then?

PR: I had local coaches like Raju sir, Satya sir. When I won my first national championship, Neeraj sir trained me. We had training camps with Neeraj sir. He is one of the most amazing Indian coaches I think 


SS: You mean N K Mishra?

PR: Yes, Neeraj Kumar Mishra.

Neeraj Kumar Mishra - one of the best coaches that Padmini had 

SS: And, during that period, who was your role model?

PR: Viswanathan Anand is everyone’s role model. He is our favourite player. Among Indian women players, I like Humpy and Vijayalakshmi very much; and of course, I like Judit Polgar, too.


SS: Among Indian men and women players who would you call your best friend?

PR:  Surya Shekhar Ganguly is a very good friend of mine and also Soumya and Mary.

With her best friends - Mary and Soumya | Photo: Facebook page of Padmini Rout  

SS: Okay, you’ve played Soumya and Mary in a lot of tournaments, so that’s understandable. But how did your friendship with Surya develop? As a trainer and a trainee, how did you come closer?

PR: I think more than a trainer, he is my guide. He is always there to give me good advice. If I am going wrong somewhere, he would tell me what and what not to do. It’s chess which is the main connection. We both love chess and that’s why we are friends.


SS: What do you do for physical fitness?

PR: I used to go swimming but now the pool has closed down. Now I’ve started learning table tennis and I also do Yoga.

 Padmini playing badminton at the Asian Continental 2017 | Photo: Lennart Ootes

SS: Yes, about yoga, I wanted to ask you if it’s something that Surya has taught you.

PR: I was always into yoga. Perhaps, it’s the other way round. I’m the one who got him into yoga (both laugh). I am not sure. Okay, yoga has been there since an eternity. I guess everyone in India has done yoga at some point. I like yoga a lot because it keeps you flexible.


Padmini Rout, Surya Ganguly and Sri Sri Ravishankar at the Bangalore Ashram | Photo: Facebook page of Padmini Rout

SS: During the tournament do you indulge in physical training?

PR: Yes, I do. I think yoga is the only thing which you can do regularly during tournaments because you don’t need much to do it. Just a yoga mat and some space in the room is all it takes. And I think it’s really very important to do something during the tournaments.


SS: Padmini, I would like to ask you about your hair, what is the secret of it?

Padmini and her famous curls! | Photo: ChessMine

PR: My hair has always been like this and I think my father also has got curly hair. So it comes from him. And they are bushy because it is difficult to manage so I am like: “okay fine, they can be as they want to be”. Besides, I don’t like straight hair at all; I love curly hair and I’d like to thank everyone who loves my hair.


SS: So, in short, I should mention here that anyone who would want to marry Padmini at some point has to love her hair.

PR: Yeah, that’s probably one criterion (laughs).

The rare case of Padmini having straight hair | Photo: Facebook page of Padmini Rout  

SS: So Padmini you now have four national titles and many international titles – including but not limited to Asian and world titles. What would be your message to the Indian women player in particular and also to the chess community at large?

PR: I think all the women players should keep higher goals like to become Grandmaster and compete in the open section as much as they can. All the kids who are growing up, and also who are very young, it's better to aim high. And, I think, boys become grandmaster faster because they get the opportunity to face grandmasters from the beginning. So they have to toughen themselves up that way. And for women also, I feel, from the beginning, if you start to think similarly and if you have to compete in the open section, they will definitely become much stronger.

'Maari chhoriya chhoro se kam hai ke!' (My daughter is not less than boys!) 

SS: Thank you so much Padmini. Keep playing, keep inspiring and we hope that you become a grandmaster very soon.

PR: Thank you so much.

The golden girl of Indian chess! Photo: David Llada

Special thanks to Nongsha Angom for transcribing this interview and Aditya Pai for editing.

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