Bhakti Kulkarni is not a new name in Goa. Many Goans will know her right from the time she started making a buzz in the media with her inborn talent of playing chess. She is a rare example of a child genius who began playing when she was just 2 ½ years old.! How many of you can play chess? Not many I’m sure, and those who do play can understand how difficult this game is. For Bhakti though, it was almost child’s play and today Bhakti plays at national level and ranks 38th in India and 3rd rank in the women’s section.
According to Bhakti, she inherited the skill of this game from her father who played chess whilst he was in college. “I feel I am very fortunate as my skill comes from my dad who was an avid chess player right from his college days,” said Bhakti adding that her father cold not peruse a career in the field of chess “due to financial constraints and like many parents, he decided to fulfil his dreams through me. I still remember that I used to sit on his lap while he used to play chess and that is how I learned this logical mind game at 2 ½ years of age. When I turned 4, I started playing tournaments.”
When Bhakti started out, there were hardly any other players as it’s such a tough game. “I still remember that when I started playing chess there were no girls in the game at that time and when the women state championships used to take place, organisers used to request the players’ mothers to get their children to join the tournaments as there were so few players at the time,” she said. Therefore, in the beginning, Bhakti hardly had any competition. “I started playing chess when I was supposed to be in kindergarten and I wasn’t the best player at that time. I recall that I’d sit on my mother’s lap and play because I couldn’t even reach the table!” she added.
Bhakti won her first state championship at the age of six. “I won my State Under-7 Championship and then got selected for the Nationals and it was in the year 1998 that I stood 3rd in the nationals. All this when I was around 6 years of age. From there onwards my parents decided that I had some talent in this field, and my father also said we should continue for another few years. As the years passed by, I was doing better and my skills were getting sharper with time. At an age many consider kids don’t do much is when my dad taught me which I consider as an advantage and this was one sport where I could take on people from any age group and excel in the same,” said Bhakti.
It is natural that when you take an active part in any sports, your studies will take a back seat and with Bhakti it was no different. “My involvement in the game took a toll on my studies. There were just two months before my exams, but being a chess player helped me a lot as it increases the level of focus, concentration and memory in a person so I could read something and would instantly memorise and understand it,” she averred. Bhakti is now a BA Graduate from Mumbai University.
Another challenge that every player faces in the initial stage is the financial constraint and they need a sponsor to take care of their trips to various places for competitions. For Bhakti, things started becoming more difficult in 2007. “Initially, I had no sponsors but in 2008 there was a turning point in my journey as we had the Goa Chess Association that had organised the National Beat Tournament which was an open tournament where women could also participate. Here, I got the title of the Best Goan as I had scored 8 points out of 11 in the game. The news of the victory spread like fire across the state and then one day I got the call from Shrinivas Dempo’s office saying that they would like to sponsor me and that is what I considered the biggest turning point in my life,” said Bhakti.
The journey becomes more comfortable when there is a good atmosphere and financial help always makes the journey smoother. “Initially my dad took care of all my expenses and training but even he had his own limitations and he had his work to take care of and support the family,” said Bhakti adding that “One might think the level of the game is just to get a board, and to play the game but that is not all it is as chess can be an expensive game and one needs a professional coach too. I was really fortunate to have Mr. Raghunandan Gokhale: the only Dronacharya Awardee in the field of chess. I met him when I was 7 years old. He trained me without taking any sort of fees for which I am really grateful of his assistance in this sphere of my life.”
Bhakti achieved a hundred milestones but she prefers to remain low profile and she never allowed her success to go to her head. “I was really happy and glad, but I kept a very low profile this was mainly because my major focus was on chess, whether I was becoming famous or not,” she said.. “Once I become the state grand-master I don’t have to play at that level again anymore. In the year 2016 I completed the titles of National Women’s Champion, Asian Continental Champion, Commonwealth Women’s Champion, and World School Champion. The only thing left to achieve is the World Championship Title, for which my preparations are heading and the competition will take place next year,” said Bhakti.
Bhakti is the only Goan and perhaps the only woman from the nation to enter into the world championship. “A very special thing about it is that it’ll be a knockout system where we have to play 2 games with the same opponent: one with the white and one with the black pieces of the game. Whoever scores 1 ½ will go to the next round, so this is basically a very crucial game for all the players involved and I am pretty happy to say that I’ve got selected for this World Championship.”
A lot of us may think that our journey is complete once we’ve achieved the highest accolade but for Bhakti it is different. She believes that maintaining a position is more challenging than winning and she is absolutely right. The real journey starts only after becoming a winner. “I am a professional chess player, so I essentially only play chess. Once I become a world champion, I will have to prepare harder to maintain this lead and position as this again would be a very difficult journey,” she said. According to Bhakti there is no finite career span for chess players like in other sports “The career span of a player in the game of chess solely depends upon the player, because you can continue to play for as long as you want, like Vishy Anand who is 50 years of age and still plays. Technically, age doesn’t matter in this game as long as the game played is good,” she says.
You may think that chess is just a mind and logic game which does not require any physical fitness but you’d be wrong. Fitness is mandatory in this game and one needs to maintain himself or herself. “In this game you need to keep your body fit in order for the mind to be fit. Before the games and tournaments, I indulge in some Pranayam and Meditation to keep the mind fresh. After the game finishes, I go for a long walk, or when I am home I would indulge in an hour of rigorous exercise,” said Bhakti adding that other than chess, which is basically her profession, she likes to indulge in other hobbies such as photography, “But I am no professional photographer. As I am fortunate to be able to visit other countries because of my game, I carry my camera. I also like to play table tennis, so I like to play post a game of chess during the tournaments and I also like swimming.”
After every journey there is a period when everyone decides to take some rest and in any sports it is most crucial. According to Bhakti, when she comes to the end of her career, she would become a coach. “I have already started online classes. Another dream of mine is to start a chess institute of my own but that would be essentially after becoming a world champion. I also believe that my dad will happily join me in this endeavour when it starts,” says Bhakti.
Bhakti adds “I think it is quite important to learn the game from an early age, as it not only helps you in the game itself but also helps academically. Benefits of the game are that it helps improve focus, concentration and memory. The game requires every player to think roughly around 10-15 moves in advance and also guess what our opponent will do, so the presence of analytical decision making has to be present and improves with time and experience. A player has to be hardworking, and the mixture of techniques as well as skills plays a really important part of every individual’s life in this game.”