In an insightful chat with NT BUZZ, Goa’s first woman International Master, Bhakti Kulkarni, recounts the path she followed in her quest for the various titles, the highs and lows of the journey and her success mantra

MARIA FERNANDES | NT

Bhakti Kulkarni may be young but her achievements outnumber her age. Ranked third in India and thirty eighth in the world, the National Woman Champion from Margao also holds the title of Woman Grandmaster and Goa’s first woman International Master.
Hailing from a middle-class family, Kulkarni took up chess at a very early age. She believes that it was her father’s love for the game that attracted her to it. “Being an only child, I was very close to my parents and at home, chess reigned supreme, hence I took to it like a fish to water,” she says.
Her father Pradip was her first chess teacher and she learned the initial moves and tactics from him. “My love for the game was such that I wanted to play all the time. So much so that my father noticing my enthusiasm and talent for the game took special permission from my school principal so that I go in late and use the time to practice,” she shares.
Academics too was given importance and one was not sacrificed for the other, unlike chess where sacrifice is a part of the game she says. “Chess is a game that is very similar to life and teaches you many things like patience, focus, calmness, and more. In chess like in life, you sometimes have to give up a piece to gain something bigger.” Chess coaching, school, studies and more chess was what the day was like for her. “I knew what my goal was and I worked hard towards it. Nothing comes easy in life; hard work is an essential ingredient in the recipe for success, along with talent,” she stresses.
Today too Kulkarni practices for about seven hours a day. “Chess is a game that requires a lot of practice and I am now trying to intensify my focus in those seven hours and actually increase my practice time. With technology, practising is no more a problem.” With the time and energy invested in the game, Kulkarni has had to sacrifice a lot on different levels. From missing family functions to being away from home on her birthday, she has done it all. “If you have your mind set on a certain goal then you need to keep to that. Obstacles, setbacks and defeats will come, but you need to persevere,” she says.
Kulkarni’s list of accolades is long but some notable achievements include first place at World Schools Chess Champion (Girls) at Singapore, 2008; gold medal at the Asian Continental Chess Champion (women) at Uzbekistan, 2016; and gold at the Commonwealth Chess Champion (Women) at Scotland, 2014; besides many others.
Travelling around the globe is part and parcel of Kulkarni’s chosen path and adjustments have been many especially during her travels. She recalls a tournament she went for in 2016 in Uzbekistan where she had to make do and survive on fruits as there was no option for vegetarians besides mashed potatoes. “Initially when I use to travel abroad there were times when I had a problem with food, as in some places there wasn’t much choice for vegetarians. However, I did not let that get in the way of reaching my goal which was playing the game to the best of my ability and hopefully winning. Today however this problem doesn’t arise as we go well-prepared,” she says laughing.
It is all round preparation for Kulkarni when she has to play at tournaments. “It is really team work and I rely on my coach’s guidance who minutely studies my opponent’s games and I just follow his instructions. This way I remain aloof from the awe of opponent’s name and fame,” she says. Through online databases she and Raghunanda Gokhale (her coach) study the games of her opponents, their weaknesses, and their style of play, before deciding whether attack or defence is required.
Keeping fit through exercises and yoga, Bhakti admits is very crucial to her game. “Chess is a game that requires you to sit for hours at end and for this fitness is extremely important. Often, I am travelling and cannot go to a gym so I exercise in the room or go for a walk. Without a fit mind and body, there is no focus which is crucial when playing chess.” Speaking on the benefits of mediation, she says, “Every move and tactic in chess decides the final outcome so as a chess player you have to be very alert and at the same time very cool and calm. Meditation helps in this matter. Focus and perseverance in my opinion are needed in every field if one has to succeed.” Here she mentions the two books on positive thinking that have stood her in good stead – ‘Tough times don’t last; tough people always do’ by Robert Schuller and ‘Mystical Power’ by Sampada Kunkoliekar.
In the ups and downs in her life and career, Kulkarni says her parents, Pradip and Priya and coach Dronacharya awardee, Gokhale from Mumbai and his wife Anupama have been her pillars of support and strength. “I can say that I got the support from the right people at the right time! After I met my coach I started winning medals in the international events and got qualification to the world class tournaments in 2008. I owe a great deal to my coach without whom I would not have reached this far,” she says.
She also mentions the support she has received so far from her sponsors. “Till 2007 I had no sponsors. My dad used to somehow manage my expenses hence I could not play tournaments abroad and to get international ratings I had to play at different tournaments around the world,” she says.
Besides the travelling fare, hotel stay along with food and other miscellaneous expenses, she says, amounts to quite a bit. “2008 was the turning point in my career when Shrinivas Dempo started sponsoring me. This helped me take part in international chess tournaments and win many laurels for Goa/India. What I am today is because of Dempo family and the Dempo group of companies.”
Perseverance especially in times of hopelessness, focus topped with hard work, says Kulkarni, is the mantra for her success. “Also, determination and belief in myself,” she adds.