THERE IS STILL TIME TO START A SPRING PROGRAM!

John Henderson
By John Henderson

There’s a lot of title-related action coming up in 2020. Magnus Carlsen ended 2019 by winning the Rapid and Blitz World Championships, and now he has the ‘Triple Crown’ with simultaneous titles in Classical, Rapid and Blitz – but the Classical title is the one the Norwegian covets most of all, and that’s the one up for grabs later this year as faces his third title defence.

The Candidates starts in Yekaterinburg on March 15. The eight-player field vying to become Carlsen’s next title challenger is Fabiano Caruana, USA (defeated 2018 title challenger); Alexander Grischuk and Ian Nepomniachtchi, both Russia (FIDE Grand Prix); Teimour Radjabov, Azerbaijan, and Ding Liren, China (FIDE World Cup); Wang Hao, China (FIDE Grand Swiss); Anish Giri, Netherlands (Rating); and Kiril Alekseenko, Russia (Wildcard).

The 2020 Women’s World Championship Match got underway on January 5 in Shanghai, with the second half of the match taking place in Vladivostok: an equitable solution with China’s experienced reigning champion, Ju Wenjun, 28, looking to stave off what could well be a difficult challenge from the rapidly-improving 21-year-old Aleksandra Goryachkina of Russia.

Their 12-game match has a record prize fund – €500,000 (roughly $556,000) – for any women’s world championship, as world governing body FIDE strives to boost the financial reward for the women’s game, though this still falls well below what Carlsen and his challenger will earn later this year. After three tough draws in Shanghai, defending champion Ju Wenjun struck first blood to lead 2.5-1.5 in the match, as her challenger had to defend a very difficult position before she finally succumbed in the ending after missing a couple of difficult saving chances.

Also not to be missed is Carlsen and two of his potential title-challengers, Caruana and Giri, taking part in the first major of the year, the Tata Steel Masters, that gets underway on Saturday in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands – and to whet our appetite, there’s the plumb opening round clash of rivals Carlsen-Giri!

Photo: Ju Wenjun strikes first in the Women’s World Championship Match in Shanghai | © Lewis Liu / FIDE Women’s World Championship

GM Ju Wenjun – GM Aleksandra Goryachkina
FIDE Women’s World Championship, (4)
Slav Defence, Soultanbéieff variation
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.a4 e6 The Soultanbéieff variation not, as some wrongly believe, after some culinary dish or other, but the Russian-born 20th century Belgian master Victor Soultanbéieff, who left his name to this sharp variation in the Slav after introducing it to tournament praxis in the early 1930s. 6.e3 c5 7.Bxc4 cxd4 8.exd4 Nc6 9.0-0 Be7 10.d5 With a little lead in development, this is the best thing to do with the isolated pawn – jettison it as quickly as possible! And with it, Wenjun will retain a small, niggling advantage with no risk whatsoever. 10…exd5 11.Nxd5 Nxd5 12.Bxd5 0-0 13.Be3 Bf5 14.Qb3 All the engines will tell you White a small advantage, though nothing you’d think that couldn’t easily be dealt with. However, with White simply threatening to to plant her rooks in the center of the board, long-term, the position is just ‘uncomfortable’ for Black to deal with, so concessions have to be made. 14…Nb4 15.Rfd1 Qa5 16.Ne5 Nxd5 17.Rxd5 Qa6 18.Nd7 Be6 19.Nxf8 This has all been seen before: White emerges with the easier game, and Black suffers a little – but with a symmetrical pawn structure and matching pieces, usually Black – with careful play – can ride out the difficulties. 19…Kxf8N A novelty from Goryachkina – but just how good or bad is is it? More usual has been the recapture 19…Rxf8 20.Rad1 Bxd5 21.Rxd5 Rd8 22.Rxd8+ Bxd8 23.Qd1 Bf6 24.Qd7 g5 25.b4 where you can get into 25…Qe2!? 26.h4 Qe1+ 27.Kh2 Qxb4 28.hxg5 Qh4+ 29.Kg1 Bxg5 30.g3! Qh5 31.Qd5 h6 32.Bxa7 Qg4 33.a5 and a very awkward ending for Black to hold. That said, and seeing the difficulties Goryachkina’s novelty gives her, some commentators raised the question of what was wrong with the alternative ‘novelty’ recapture with 19…Bxf8!? which does seem to solve most of Black’s troubles, as 20.Qb5 (There’s no difference with 20.Qd3 Bxd5 21.Qxd5 Re8) 20…Bxd5 21.Qxd5 Re8 and Black is over the discomfort and very close to virtual equality. And to my eyes, this is the way to play for Black. 20.Qb5 The most logical way to break the pin, as it leaves Wenjun with a definite small edge, but can she capitalise on it? 20…Bxd5 21.Qxd5 Rd8 22.Qe4! With pinpoint accuracy, Wenjun shows exactly why the king recapture was wrong. 22…h6 Forced. The alternative of 22…g6? walks right into 23.Re1! and suddenly there’s a major threat of Bh6+ to have to deal with. 23.g3 Safety-first, but cutting to the chase with 23.Re1 was better, as now 23…Rd7 (It looks ‘spectacular’, but after you quickly get over the shock of 23…Qe2!? with the calm retreat of 24.Qb1! Black is still in the danger zone with the queen under attack, Qh7 threatened, and also now Bxa7.) 24.Qh7 f6 and Black faces a very awkward long-term defence. 23…b6 24.Rc1 f6? Goryachkina is overly-worrying about a Qh7 invasion, but this move just compounds her misery. The time was now to be brave and claim full equality with 24…Bf6! 25.Qh7 (Most definitely not 25.Rc7?? which goes down in flames to 25…Rd1+ 26.Kg2 Qf1+! 27.Kf3 Qh1+ 28.Kf4 Bg5+ 29.Kf5 g6+ 30.Ke5 f6+ winning the White queen.) 25…Qd3! which forces the trade of queens and easy equality for Black. 25.Kg2 Rc8 Goryachkina looks to ease her relief with the trade of rooks, but the resulting ending is still fraught with difficulties. Better again was 25…Qd3!? 26.Qb7 (Trading queens only helps Black: 26.Qxd3 Rxd3 27.Rc8+ Bd8! 28.h4 h5 29.b4 Kf7 with equality.) 26…Rd7 27.Qf3 Qa6! Covering the danger of Rc8+ and Qh5+. 28.Qc6 Qb7 29.Qxb7 Rxb7 30.h4 h5 and Black should easily hold this ending. 26.Rxc8+ Qxc8 27.Qd5 Goryachkina’s passive play has gifted Wenjun a very powerful queen – and the defending champion makes the most of her opportunity. 27…Ke8 28.h4! Looking to fix Black’s kingside pawns. 28…Qd7 29.Qg8+ Bf8 30.Qc4 h5 31.Kh2! A nice little finesse from Wenjun, with the king move side-stepping a ny possibilities of a n awkward queen check on d5. 31…Be7 32.b3 Kf8 33.Qc2 Bd6 34.Qe4 Bc5?! In an attempt to navigate a path to safety, Goryachkina fell into deep time-trouble by this stage, and now short of time, she blunders her best chance to potentially stay in the game with 34…Qe7! 35.Qh7 Qe6 36.Qxh5 Qxb3 37.Qg4 where White still has ‘chances’, but much of the danger has passed. 35.Bxc5+ bxc5 36.a5! In her time-trouble, this is what Goryachkina had overlooked, as Black’s a-pawn now becomes a major target. 36…Qe7 37.Qa8+ Kf7 38.a6 g6 39.Qd5+ Kg7 40.Qb7 Kf8? It is hard to believe, but this king move is the difference between losing and drawing – the only chance of saving the game was with 40…Kf7! and now after 41.Kg2 as in the game, Black avoids the zugzwang in the K+P ending with 41…f5! 42.Kf3 Kf6 That extra move up the board for the king makes all the difference! 43.Qxe7+ Kxe7 44.Kf4 Kf6 45.f3 g5+!! 46.hxg5+ Kg6 47.g4 fxg4 48.fxg4 h4 49.Ke3 Kxg5 50.Kf3 h3 51.Kg3 h2 52.Kxh2 Kxg4 53.Kg2 Kf4 and a book draw. 41.Kg2 Ke8 42.Qa8+ Even better was 42.Kf3!? getting the king as central as possible before contemplating the transfer into the K+P ending. 42…Kf7 43.Qd5+ Kg7 44.Kf3 Kf8? Oblivious that this is a losing plan, Goryachkina continues with the king shuffle – but it was not too late to try to save the game with 44…f5! 45.Kf4 Qf8 46.Qb7+ Kf6 47.Qc6+ (If 47.Qxa7 Qd6+ 48.Kf3 Qd5+ 49.Ke3 Qxb3+ 50.Kf4 Qc4+ and Black has a perpetual.) 47…Kg7 48.Qc7+ Kf6 and with Black threatening …Qb8+ or …Qd6+ and a perpetual, White has no constructive moves to male and will have to cede the draw. 45.Qb7 Ke8 46.Qd5 Wenjun doesn’t see the clear winning plan of 46.Qxe7+ Kxe7 47.g4! – but she doesn’t need to be asked twice! 46…Kf8 47.Kf4 Qc7+ 48.Ke3 Qc8 49.Qb7 Qd8 50.Kf3 Qe7 51.Qxe7+! Finally, Wenjun spots it! The winning plan is simple – just prevent Black from playing …f5 and there’s no Hail Mary save with …Kf6 and …g5! 51…Kxe7 52.g4! Kd6 [Now if 52…f5 53.gxh5 gxh5 54.Kf4 Kf6 White has the tempo-winning move 55.f3 that allows his king to get to g5 or e5 winning. 53.gxh5 gxh5 54.Ke4 Kc6 55.f4 Kb5 56.Kd5! [see diagram] This is a very instructive and accurate K+P masterclass now from Wenjun, as 56.Kf5? leads to just a draw after 56…Kb4 57.Kxf6 Kxb3 58.Kg6 c4 59.f5 c3 60.f6 c2 61.f7 c1Q 62.f8Q. 56…f5 57.Kd6 Kb6 58.Kd7! The Black king is being endgame-bossed. 58…Ka5 The crux of the position, as we will soon see in the game, is that taking the a-pawn losses the K+P ending, as the Black king gets stranded on the queenside. For example: 58…Kxa6 59.Kc6 Ka5 60.Kxc5 a6 61.b4+ Ka4 62.Kc4! Ka3 63.b5! axb5+ 64.Kxb5 Kb3 65.Kc5 and the White king wins the race to capture on f5. 59.Kc7! Again, pinpoint precision in the K+P ending from Wenjun, as Black can’t shuffle around her king with 59…Kb5 as now 60.Kb7 wins the a-pawn and the White a-pawn queens quickly. 59…Kxa6 60.Kc6 Ka5 61.Kxc5 Ka6 62.b4 Kb7 63.Kd5 1-0 Goryachkina resigns with the f5-pawn falling.

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