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January 18, 2000

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The Rediff Interview / Aarthie Ramaswamy

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I am aiming for the women's Grand Master title

Aarthie Ramaswamy has been very busy talking to the press and appearing on various television channels ever since she became the under-18 girls' World chess champion. After Vishwanthan Anand's World junior title in 1987, Aarthieís is one of the most remarkable achievements.

India has two other World champions in P. Harikrishna, who won the under-10 title in 1996, and Koneru Humpy, the under-10 girls' champion in 1997.

Aarthie Ramaswamy A second year B. Com student, Aarthie played her first state tournament in 1990, in the under-10 category and finished second. Three years later (1993) she bagged her first National title when she won the under-12 event. From then on, she conquered everything in sight including the under-14 and under-16 categories in 1995. In the under-16 category, she beat leading players like Vijayalakshmy and Swati Ghate. 1998 saw her pick her first under-18 National title which she went on to retain last year. That achievement was indeed the crowning glory on the national firmament and it earned her a shot at the under-18 World Championship which proceeded to win in style.

Shobha Warrier recently met India's latest World champion of the 64 squares board. Excerpts from the conversation:

How did you get interested in chess?

It was just by accident that I got interested in chess. There was a chess tournament in my school when I was in the fourth standard and all my friends gave their names to participate in it. I didnít want to be left out, so I also went ahead and gave my name. Imagine, I didnít even know how to play chess then. Of course, I had seen my brother, Raja, playing with his friends and my father, but I had no interest in the game at all. I had only one evening to practice before the tournament. My brother helped me learn the basics that night. Can you believe, I came out second? After that, I began to take active interest in chess.

If you ask me what the motivating factor was, I would say, winning prizes! Now my role model is Judith Pogar and, of course, Anand, too, who has created a chess revolution here in India. If not for him, none of us would have been in chess.

You said winning prizes was the motivation. Do you enjoy playing chess now?

Till 1993, I didnít take chess seriously at all. But when I won the National championship for under-12 girls in Palghat in 1993, I felt differently. I felt elated and happy. Suddenly, I felt there was something more in chess than winning prizes. From then on, I started enjoying chess. Till then, I was not even seriously practicing. Whenever the coach came I practiced with him for an hour a day. And he came only three days a week. But after I won the National title, I began practicing regularly.

When did you get a coach? Before the Nationals itself?

In 1990, I got a coach to help me with my chess.

Why did you engage a coach if you were not very serious about chess?

One Mr. Manavalan from the State chess association saw me play chess and he was impressed. He could not believe that I had started playing chess only a few days ago. He then told my parents that if I was given proper training, I could come up. So, the chess association arranged a coach for me. But from 1998, I donít have a proper coach. I am working with another player, International Master R.B. Ramesh.

Is it not difficult to practice without a proper coach? What is your method of practicing these days?

These days I practice with some other players. We have formed a group - you cannot call it an association as itís an informal one. We meet at one place, play several games and then we analyse all the games that we have played. Thatís one way of practising.

Do you meet regularly?

Thatís the problem. All of us have to be here at the same time. The tragedy is that these days we go on tours a lot.

I read in The Week that you are not very familiar with computers and chess software. Donít you think it is very essential to be up to date?

Yes, it is very essential. I am slowly learning how to use computers. A couple of players in our group are very computer savvy. So, I am learning from them.

Now let me ask you about the under-18 girlsí World Championship, held at Oropesa, which you won. You were seeded 13th there. What was in your mind when you reached there?

Aarthie Ramaswamy I never thought that I would win the World title. I just wanted to come in the top three because last time I had finished 18th in the same tournament. But this time, as we were on our way itself, I had decided that I would do better this time. There is no point in making such trips if you donít achieve anything remarkable. But I beat the top seed (International Woman Master Evgenia Ovod of Russia) in the fourth round and shared the lead with Eva Moser of Austria in the fifth round. By the time I reached the seventh round, I was the sole leader.

How did you prepare yourself before your match again the top seed? You were only seeded 13th there and the Russian was the top seed?

After I beat the fifth seed in the third round, I was feeling quite confident. I told myself, I can do it, I can do it. There were 200 of Ovodís games in my coachís laptop computer. So, before my match with her, I saw several of her earlier games and was well prepared. Manuel Aaron, my coach, helped me prepare well. I was feeling good after the preparation. Everything went so smoothly on the board that I won the game very easily. I think, the credit goes to the software... Big Base or something!

What was your reaction after the victory?

I came out happily. I am not a very emotional person. Pretty cool. When I win a match, I am calm and composed. I donít go overboard after a win. But when I lose, I am like any other player. I feel very down.

But it was reported that after your defeat at the hands of the fifth seed player, the Czech girl Jana Jackova, in the penultimate round, you were very calm.

I donít know why, but even after I lost that very important match, I was very cool. I told myself, 'okay. I have reached this far. And, if I have to worry, I will worry after the last match.' The consolation in my mind was that even if I lost the last match or even drew, I would finish second which was more than I had hoped for. I wanted to come only in the top three! So, I had achieved my goal. That thought helped me remain cool. I thought, if I win, okay, it is fine. Itís a bonus.

Do you feel you won the last round only because you were relaxed?

Definitely. Ovod, the top seed, finished her game first and was waiting for my result. But I never bothered to turn and look at what happened on her board. I knew that if I had known that she had already won the game, there would be pressure on me to win my game too. So, I consciously avoided looking at her board. It was a long game and lasted for about six hours. Even when I found that I was in a winning position, I didnít relax or take any chance. I was totally concentrating on the game. Only after I signed my result, I looked in the other direction. Then I saw that she had won. But it didnít matter, as I knew I was going to be the champion. It was a tie and as I had defeated her earlier, I knew I would be the champion.

How did you feel after becoming the under-18 World champion?

To tell you the truth, I didnít feel anything when I was there. The Indian players congratulated me and thatís it. Only after I reached here, I understood what I had achieved. There was a grand reception and after that several felicitations.

Interviews too...

Yes. All this is new to me.

Are you enjoying these moments?

Yes, of course. The first two days, I was very busy. So many people dropped in and my house was full of people. Now, it is slowly getting back to the normal. Now I know that expectations have gone up but I do not want to confuse my mind with such thoughts. Once you feel the pressure inside, you will not be able to play your natural game. I will play as best as I can.

What is your next ambition now? Donít you want to play in the regular mixed tournaments like Judith Pogar?

I want to play more mixed tournaments so that I can improve the standard of my game. I am aiming for the women's Grand Master title.

So, you want to be the first woman Grand Master from India?

Yes. Two more players are on the verge of achieving it but I hope to achieve it soon. I am seeded for the under-20 World Championship and if I win that, I will get the Grand Master's title straightaway, without any norms. That is my best chance and I am looking forward to it.

Do you want to become a professional chess player like Anand?

I want to but it all depends on the sponsors. If I get a good sponsor, there is no problem and I will settle with chess.

Otherwise?

Otherwise, I will have to do something else for a living. I will take up a job after my studies; a job which will give me time to play chess too. I just hope that I get a good sponsor. There is a lot of awareness about chess in the country now. Newspapers like The Hindu give very good coverage to chess.

India has a lot of naturally talented young players and they are winning many championships when they are very young. I have read that as they grow older, they find it difficult to cope with the Europeans. Is it true?

Aarthie Ramaswamy It is. Europeans are very professional. They donít go to school or college, they only play chess. Here, we have to go to schools and colleges, write exams and then play too. All disadvantages. But up to 12, you can win with your natural talent; after that, it is very difficult to compete with them. As they grow older, they concentrate only on chess. And they get more facilities to grow as chess players too. There are a lot of big tournaments held in Europe and thus they get very good exposure. Their clubs generally sponsor them. We donít have such clubs in India except Goodricke in Calcutta, they sponsor only their players.

In Europe and Russia, there are lots of coaching camps too. I also would like to attend such camps but without a sponsor, it is very difficult. You have to spend at least 1-1.5 lakhs for each trip and I will have to take at least two trips a year to keep myself up to date. The Indian government used to sponsor one trip. It was the Indian government that sponsored this trip of mine to Spain. But we have to bear the other expenses.

Are you a religious person?

Not exactly. I just apply vibhoothi on my forehead. I do that only because everybody in my family does. But otherwise, I donít generally follow any rituals like going to temples before every match. Some people try to locate a temple wherever they are and visit the temple daily. Sometimes I do go to temples to feel calm inside.

Many sports persons are said to be very superstitious. Are you also superstitious?

I am not. One numerologist advised me to wear a green dress when I play important matches. He also told me that 1, 10, 19 are my lucky numbers. But this time I lost in the tenth round and can you believe, I was wearing a green dress that day! I am not superstitious at all. But my coach Manuel Aaron was a bit worried this time. He took a photo of mine when I was playing the tenth round and till then he had not taken any pictures. And I lost that round. So, when I was playing the last round, he did not even come anywhere near the hall. He came in only after I finished the game. Sometimes, it happens too. People who do not believe in superstition also get tensed up at the crucial moments.

Recently The Week arranged a rendezvous with Anand for you. How did your meeting with Anand go?

It was a dream come true for me. Last year when Humpy won, he called and congratulated her but this year, I could meet him in person. I not only met him, I was able to play some games with him too.

Photographs: Sanjay Ghosh

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