Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Queen of the Chess Board

Jennitha Anto has surmounted her disabilities to become a world chess champion

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by A. Raja Chidambaram

In June, India 's Jennitha Anto was playing the eighth round match against Viktor Strekalovski of Russia during the 13th World Individual Chess Championships, held at Velke Losiny, in the Czech Republic.
Pondering over her strategy, Jennitha went into a time pressure. She had to make her remaining moves within two minutes while Viktor had seven minutes (The rule is 40 moves in two hours). Jennitha felt a desperation within her. She wanted to win badly, because that would ensure that she would lift the individual women's title. But the pressure got to her. And she made a mistake. As a result, she lost.

I felt depressed,” she says. “I had come so near. I kept thinking, 'I lost, I lost.' My heart was beating very fast.”

Jennitha's father, and mentor, G. Kanickai Irudayaraj told her to be optimistic. “If you win the last game, you will be world champion,” he said. Her mother, Jayarani, and sister, Mercy Jacqueline, called from their home in Trichy and spoke words of hope.

Jennitha felt encouraged. Quickly, she logged on to the Internet and downloaded the games of her final round opponent, Marc Tillman of Switzerland and began preparing for the match. However, the next day, a nervous Jennitha drew the match and went into a three-way tie with two Russian players, Galina Malnik and Marina Kaydanovich, in the women's section.

The organisers – the International Physically Disabled Chess Association – then had to use the Buchholz Tiebreaker system. And luck was in Jennitha's favour. She squeezed past the Russian women and was declared the winner. (Incidentally, in these championships, men and women played against each other.)

Understandably, the Russians were not happy. “They are so used to winning all the time,” says Jennitha. “So they did not take the defeat well. The Russian team captain did not smile or shake hands with me.”

Thanks to this win, Jennitha received a cash prize of 250 Euros (Rs 21,000), and was also bestowed the title of Woman International Master by the World Chess Federation.
This victory was a culmination of a long journey for Jennitha. She was afflicted by polio at the age of three, and lost the use of her legs and her right hand. In fact, she moves the chess pieces with her left hand. At the age of nine, her father, a retired school headmaster, introduced her to chess. And within three months, she played her first tournament, for students, at Trichy, and won the first prize. “I felt inspired,” she says. Thereafter, there was no looking back. She won district, state, and national tournaments.

Her turning point came when the won the silver medal at the World Individual Chess Championship in Wisla, Poland, in 2007. “It was a big confidence-booster and I knew that I would win the title one day,” says Jennitha. “There is not much of a gap between Indian and international players.”

This is true, in the case of Jennitha, and it is all thanks to her hard work. “Jennitha puts in a lot of time and effort, for chess,” says her coach International Master Raja Ravi Sekhar. “She is always well-prepared. Apart from that, she plays very aggressively. She carries the fight to the opponent’s corner.”

But she has drawbacks, too. “Sometimes, she tries too hard to win,” says Raja. “As a result, she gets into time pressure, makes errors, and loses matches.” Nevertheless, before her World Championship win, Jennitha was already in the top ten among disabled players in the world.

Jennitha has been lucky that in participating in international tournaments, like the Chess Olympiad and the European Championships, she has received financial support from the Tamil Nadu state government, the Sports Authority of India and the All India Chess Federation.

Today, while basking in the accolades, for her win, Jennitha, a B. Com graduate, is beginning her studies to be a chartered accountant. But chess is her No. 1 priority. Her hero is the late world champion Bobby Fischer. “He was an attacking player and had tremendous self-confidence,” says Jennitha. “I also like [world champion] Vishwanathan Anand, because he is calm and plays in a relaxed way.” Jennitha aims to absorb the qualities of both Fischer and Anand to remain at the top. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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