Five minutes after his game, Pentala Harikrishna emerges from the game-hall as fresh as he had entered the arena some three-and-a-half hours ago. Every strand of his hair was in place, the eyes were bright, and there were no visible strains of fatigue accumulated over three intense match-days and months of rigorous preparation. Besides the board, he is always decorous, seldom twitches, sniggers or sneers, or even bends over or stretches his limbs, much like a school prefect.
So, when he calls himself disorganised, it seems a blatant lie. He claims he does not have a regimented schedule, no specific time for preparation. One day, he might madly train outdoors, then there would be days at a stretch when he would hardly work out. “I could go days on end without playing chess, doing nothing literally, then there are days I just work continuously,” he had once said.
As though Harikrishna wants people to consider him as an anarchist. “I don’t like much order, even on the board. And I don’t like preparing for elaborate openings. I am more like a ‘get-into- the-game-and-figure-out-the-moves’ kind of a guy. I like to build on tension because I like to work in high-pressure situations,” he elaborated.
For this game though — against a tenacious Dimitrios Mastrovasilis of Greece — Harikrishna did prepare his opening game elaborately and admitted as much. “I came really prepared with my first 15 moves and everything went rather smoothly. He fought back in the middle but then I developed some nice patterns towards the end,” he says.
Mr Arvind Kumar, Managing Director CCPL, made the ceremonial first move of round 3 for Pentala Harikrishna of team India. #ChessOlympiad
📷: Lennart Ootes pic.twitter.com/E86D39BrDh
— International Chess Federation (@FIDE_chess) July 31, 2022
He began with a Catalan Opening — not one of his favoured openings, his favourite with the whites is the Sicilian Defence — but that enabled him a solid base, with the white’s light-squared bishop fiercely protecting the king. It’s often considered to be a positional opening where white plays for long-term pressure rather than an immediate attack.
That is the essence of his game, irrespective of his openings. Put the opponent under pressure with dour defence, block out his attacking paths, bottleneck him, induce mistakes and then go for the soft-kill. He does not do the spectacular, or the outrageous, a reason perhaps he’s underestimated, though he has been India’s number two behind Viswanathan Anand for a long time and held in high respect among his peers. Harikrishna explains his philosophy: “I don’t rush my moves, and would go for a win only when the patterns are clear.”
So, most of his early moves could be called defensive —building a wall around his king, stealthily moving pawns into positions where they could attack as well as defend, if need be. His opponent, a familiar veteran who defended as stodgily as the victorious Greece of Euro 2004, would dangle an easy pawn capture, or move his pieces so that Harikrishna might be tempted into an attacking move, whereupon he could counterattack. But the Indian is too experienced to fall for such tricks.
It was the first board-ploy he learnt, from his grandfather who introduced him to the game when he was barely five. Sensing his talent, the grandfather organised a tournament in his village Pratipadu near Guntur in Andhra Pradesh. Harikrishna would begin aggressively then lose steam midway through the games and end up losing all games. The grandfather advised: “Tire your opponents and attack them.” Weather the storm and whip up an avalanche of your own. He mostly does that and hence the ‘Mr Reliable’ tag.
After laying an elaborate trap, the decisive moves arrived. Harikrishna sacrificed his bishops in the 24th and 28th turns. The first move enabled him to position a knight deep into enemy territory, which exaggerated the problems for the opponent’s king. Mastrovasilis had no room to wriggle from there and surrendered the game. The endgame was quick but not furious. He did not storm his opponent but killed him drip by drip.
Later, Harikrishna elaborated the move: “I gave a lot of thought before sacrificing the double bishops as I wanted to ensure my calculations were right and reckoned that if it didn’t work out in a checkmating position, I held sufficient advantage to walk towards victory.”
The match got over in just 30 moves and lasted barely three-and-a-half hours, conveying an impression that he was all-out aggressive. But that is the deception and paradox of Harikrishna.
Appreciation has not winked on him, except in chess circles, where he is often referred to as the rock, as his stature befits. Maybe, it’s the way he plays his chess. He was also unfortunate that much of his time — he is already 36 — he has been in Anand’s shadows, though he was always deigned as the heir apparent. Then by the time Anand gradually began to slip away from the arc-lights, a new crop of players had emerged, a generation that is making rapid progress. A mid-career plateau did not help but Harikrishna has not withered away. He has retooled himself after shifting base to Prague, where he chiselled his game by playing in a raft of leagues in Europe, besides meeting his wife.
None of these, of course, matters to Harikrishna, fresh and motivated as ever. Even after an intense three-and-a-half-hour duel.