Somewhat lost among Fabiano Caruana’s dominant victory at the recent Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee, where amidst the hype of the American possibly going on to have another title-tilt at Magnus Carlsen, was the little matter of another tough world title battle going on: the Women’s World Championship Match, where defending champion Ju Wenjun (barely) defended her title against the spirited challenge from 21-year-old Aleksandra Goryachkina.
The intriguing first leg of the 12-game match in Shanghai, China, ended tied at 3-3 – but in the challenger’s homeland of Vladivostok, the second leg looked at one stage to be swinging Goryachkina way, with the crown looking to be seemingly slipping from Ju’s grasp in a veritable rollercoaster of twists and turns that saw the lead change hands several times in the fluctuating contest.
After finding herself largely being out-prepared and outplayed by her young Russian challenger, and losing Game 8 to go behind for the first time in the match, Ju showed up for Game 9 wearing a black leather bomber jacket with the word “Whatever” emblazoned on the back. The result of the Chinese world champion’s fashinista “Whatever” moment? – winning an improbable two-game win streak!
This left Ju with a 5.5-4.5 lead with just two games left to play. But in yet another twist, Goryachkina bounced right back in the final Game 12 to tie it all up again at 6-6 by the end of the classical contest. But in a hard-fought tiebreak playoff last Friday, Ju’s experience finally came to the fore as she finally fought of Goryachkina by 2.5-1.5 to retain her title. The prize fund of €500,000 (roughly $554,000) was a record for the women’s title.
Arguably the match turned Ju’s way with what proved to be a wayward – and very instructive – eight-move endgame sequence in Game 10, starting at move 47, where, for the first time in the contest, Goryachkina’s nerves and inexperience saw her dramatically losing what really should have been an elementary endgame draw.
Photo: Ju Wenjun celebrates retaining her title, narrowly seeing off the spitited challenge from Aleksandra Goryachkina | © Michael Friedman/Eteri Kublashvili (official site)
GM Aleksandra Goryachkina – GM Ju Wenjun
Women’s World Championship, (10)
Queen’s Gambit Declined, Exchange variation
1.c4 e6 2.Nc3 d5 3.d4 Nf6 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Bg5 c6 6.e3 When you are leading in a world championship match, and games now fast running out for your opponent to strike back in, then the Queen’s Gambit Exchange variation is just the thing you want to see on the board, because, generally, this should lead to a “safe” position for White. 6…Bf5 7.Qf3 Bg6 8.Bxf6 Qxf6 9.Qxf6 gxf6 10.Nf3 So far so good for Goryachkina, as she’s traded the queens and crippled Ju’s kingside pawns – and this gives here a healthy little edge. 10…Nd7 11.Nh4 Be7 12.Ne2 f5 To keep the game open, Ju decides that she can’t allow her opponent to get a grip of the f5 square with Ng3 and Nhf5. 13.g3 Bxh4 But both players see their kingside pawns shredded. Goryachkina appears to have an edge given Ju’s miserable, locked-in bishop on g6, but the young Russian never hits on a clear path to exploit her edge. 14.gxh4 Nf6 15.Nf4 Nh5 16.Kd2 Nxf4 17.exf4 Ke7 Black can’t “free” her bishop with 17…Bh5 as will run into 18.Bd3 immediately forcing the bishop to retreat back with 18…Bg6 where now 19.Rhe1+ Kd7 20.Re3 gives White a big advantage. 18.Be2 h5 19.Rae1 With the Black bishop now effectively in “lock-down”, perhaps the way ahead for White was 19.Bd3!? with the plan of Rhg1-g5 and following up with Rae1-e5 targeting the f5-pawn. 19…Kd6 20.Bd3 Rae8 21.Re3 Rxe3 22.fxe3 a5 23.a3 With Ju’s bishop suffering from “locked-in syndrome”, and effectively just a big pawn, it is hard to see how Black is ever going to survive this let alone go on to win! 23…b6 24.b4 Opening the game up – but If White really wants to play it safe, then the best way to go about this is 24.Rg1! c5 25.Rg5 Ke6 26.Be2 and Black is going to have to press the notorious “gamble button” by sacrificing the h-pawn if she wants to avoid the stranglehold. 24…axb4 25.axb4 Ra8 26.b5 It is around here that Goryachkina’s position begins to drift. 26…c5 27.dxc5+ bxc5 28.Rb1 Kc7 29.b6+ Kb7 30.Rb5 Rc8 For the first time the pendulum begins to swing in Ju’s favour: White’s b6-pawn is vulnerable to being picked-off, and she has potential in her more mobile queenside pawns. 31.Be2 f6 32.Ra5 Rc6 33.Ra7+ Goryachkina is temporarily going to lose a pawn – but with many of Black’s pawns vulnerable to the rook that’s now infiltrated from a7, it is hard to see how Ju can fo anything other than hold for a draw here. 33…Kxb6 34.Rd7! Black’s kingside pawns will not be going anywhere anytime soon, so White rightly first picks-off the d-pawn. 34…Re6 35.Rxd5 Kc6 36.Bf3 Rd6 37.Rd3+ With all of Black’s pawns weak and vulnerable, Goryachkina still believes she has a winning shot here to make her the favourite to capture the crown, so she opts not to trade the rooks (which does looks very drawish). 37…Kc7 38.Bd5 Be8 39.Kc3 Bb5 40.Rd2 Ra6 41.Bb3 Bd7 42.Rg2 Be6! More or less forcing the trade of bishops – and with it, the ensuing rook and pawn ending looks an “easy” draw. Well, that was what the commentators, pundits and fans likewise all believed! 43.Bxe6 Rxe6 44.Kd3 The more logical conclusion to the game should have come with 44.Kc4 Kc6 45.Rg6! Re4+ 46.Kd3 c4+ 47.Ke2! Re6 48.Rh6 Kd5 49.Rxh5 c3 50.Rh8! and the c-pawn isn’t going anywhere, for example: 50…Rc6 51.Rd8+ Kc4 (Black has to be careful, as 51…Ke4?? walks right into 52.Rd4#) 52.h5 Rb6 53.Rc8+ Kb3 54.h6 Rb7 55.h4 Rh7 56.Kd1 Rxh6 57.Rb8+ Kc4 58.Kc2 Rxh4 59.Rc8+ Kd5 and a draw. 44…Kd6 45.Rg8 Kd5 46.Rd8+ Rd6 47.Rc8 Self-inflicted, no sympathy! Goryachkina has strayed into a dangerous endgame scenario – and now trading the rooks with 47.Rxd6+ Kxd6 48.Kc4 sees Black winning the K+P ending after 48…Kc6 49.h3 Kb6 50.Kc3 Kb5 etc. 47…Rd7 48.Rh8 c4+ 49.Kc3 It’s likely still all draw, but the problem is that Black looks to have a big position and holds all the cards in the ending, so there is lots for White to worry over – and it suspiciously looks as if the “worrying” part got to the young challenger. 49…Re7 50.Kd2 Ra7 51.Rxh5 Ra2+ 52.Kc3 Ra3+ 53.Kb4? [see diagram] An unbelievable moment of madness from Goryachkina, who at the most decisive moment of the match, finally shows more than a bit of nerves and inexperience in what should really have been a drawn ending. It should have been second nature for a top player in this ending to play the vital 53.Kb2! to keep the c-pawn under control, where now 53…Rb3+ 54.Kc2 Ke4 55.Rh7! Kxe3 56.Rc7 Ra3 57.h3 Kxf4 58.Rxc4+ Kg3 59.Rc6 Kxh4 60.Rxf6 Kg5 61.Rb6 is holding for White, as we now have an textbook endgame draw as the king quickly crosses over to e2 and the drawing Philidor position. 53…Rb3+ 54.Ka4 Ke4 55.Rh8 Rb7! Fatally cutting the White king off from all the action. And with her king now marooned on the a-file only able to look-on as a spectator, Goryachinka has no way of stopping Ju’s monster c-pawn running home. 56.Rc8 Kd3 57.h5 c3 58.h6 c2 59.Ka3 Kd2 60.Rd8+ Kxe3 We are being a bit pedantic here, but the “right way” to win this ending was with 60…Kc1 61.Rc8 Kb1 – but I guess the opportunity to also snatch a pawn en route to winning this way was just too tempting for Ju! 61.Rc8 Kd2 62.Rd8+ Kc1 0-1 Goryachkina resigns, as there’s no stopping her opponent’s …Kb1 and the c-pawn queening.