The ongoing debate on the development of women’s chess was highlighted in the December 2018 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine by staff writer Emma Baccellieri. In it, the article bemoaned the lack of financial reward on the women’s circuit, something that is being addressed by the now annual 2nd Cairns Cup, the female equivalent of the Sinquefield Cup, with a record prize fund of $180,000 on offer, and held at the always innovative Saint Louis Chess Club as part of their mission to help raise the profile of the women’s game.
There was also an interesting observation in the SI article from GM Susan Polgar, who believes women’s chess is more interesting to watch. “The women take more risks,” explains the eldest of the trio of famous glass ceiling-smashing Polgar sisters who took the chess world by storm in the 1990s. “They play more dynamically. And they make more mistakes, I’m the first to admit that. But from the fan’s perspective, I think they play more interesting games and they’re more enjoyable.”
And that seems to be the case in the ongoing 2nd Cairns Cup, the only all-female super-tournament to be found on the circuit. In Round 5, as the tournament heads for the rest day before the home stretch of the remaining four rounds, where the fighting spirit of the sisters were on show with all five games proving not only decisive, but also tactical battles.
The highlight of the fireworks-fuelled round proved to be Women’s World Champion Ju Wenjun making her move in the tournament with what transpired to be an entertaining, dynamic and initially faltering tussle against Russia’s Kateryna Lagno. After surviving what should have been an early scare, Ju Wenjun found her stride with a very clever sacrifice to win, and she now shares equal first on 3½/5 alongside ex-world champion Alexandra Kosteniuk.
1-2. GM Ju Wenjun (China), GM A. Kosteniuk (Russia) 3½/5; 3-4. GM H. Koneru (India), GM N. Dzagnidze (Georgia) 3; 5-7. GM M. Muzychuk (Ukraine), GM D. Harika (India), GM K. Lagno (Russia) 2½; 8. GM V. Gunina (Russia) 2; 9. GM I. Krush (USA) 1½; 10. FM C. Yip (USA) 1.
Photo: Not without some risks, World Champion Ju Wenjun makes her move | © Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club
GM Kateryna Lagno – GM Ju Wenjun
2nd Cairns Cup, (5)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 By a little transposition, we reach the legacy left to the game by the Russian master Semyon Alapin (1856-1923). The Alapin – normally reached via the more direct 2.c3 – is not normally an opening you see in top grandmaster praxis, but at club and tournament level, this is still a very popular and methodical way to meet the Sicilian. 3…d5 4.exd5 Qxd5 5.d4 Bg4 6.Be2 cxd4 7.cxd4 e6 8.Nc3 Bb4 9.0-0 Qa5 10.Be3 Bxc3 This is too risky. More natural was just getting on with developing the pieces with 10…Nge7 or 10…Nf6 looking to safeguard the vital d5 square and getting the king to safety by castling. 11.bxc3 Qxc3? And this is just too greedy! After 11…Nf6 the position remains balanced; White though retaining a little advantage after 12.Qb3 0-0! 13.Qxb7 Rfc8 but with …Rab8/…Nd5 coming, Black has full compensation for the pawn with his active pieces. 12.d5!N White is clearly better now with this intuitive central pawn push novelty. Previously seen here has been 12.Rc1 Qa5 13.Rc5 and White is in control – but Lagno cuts straight to the chase with her central pawn sacrifice, looking to bust the game wide open for her active pieces with the Black king still stuck in the middle of the board. 12…exd5 13.Qxd5?! This is a somewhat puzzling follow-up, as it only helps Black complete her development and safely castling. With White fully-developed, I thought the big idea of the pawn sacrifice was to keep the momentum with 13.Rc1! Qf6 14.Nd4! Bxe2 15.Qxe2 Nge7 16.Nxc6 bxc6 17.Bc5! leaving Black in a bit of a tangle with the king caught in the middle of the board. Trying to defend this position is not going to be an easy task. 13…Nge7 14.Qb5 0-0 Black looks to have dodged a bullet with her development now complete and her king castled. 15.Qxb7 Rfb8 16.Qa6 Rb2 17.Rac1 Qf6 18.Rfe1 h6 19.a3 Better was 19.h3! Bc8 20.Qa4 and Black still has to work hard to untangle her pieces. 19…Rab8 20.h3 Bc8 21.Qc4?! Any White advantage now evaporates with this wrong square for the queen. A better try was 21.Qa4! Bd7 22.Qf4! Qxf4 23.Bxf4 Rd8 24.Bc4 and suddenly it is all becoming difficult for Black, as there’s problems of just how to coordinate the pieces. 21…Be6! Black more or less has equality now with her easy development, only aided by her opponent playing 21.Qc4. 22.Qc5?! Did Lagno just miss her opponent’s coming shot? It seems so, otherwise she would have opted instead for the ‘safe’ option of 22.Qf4! forcing 22…Qxf4 23.Bxf4 Rd8 24.a4 Bb3 25.Bb5 where the bishop-pair and better-placed rooks offers White good prospects – but with careful play, nothing Black shouldn’t be able to cope with. 22…Bxh3! [see diagram] This must have come as a bolt out of the blue for Lagno, otherwise she wouldn’t have played 22.Qc5. 23.gxh3 Rxe2! The double sacrifice is the only logical follow-up, but a nice touch nevertheless. And with it, in a single stroke, Ju Wenjun removes a vital defender from the White camp to build-up her dangerous attack. 24.Rxe2 Qxf3 A double attack on e2 and h3 – and with White’s pawns now dropping off the board at an alarming rate, not only does she have near material equality, but Lagno now has to deal with a very exposed king. 25.Rec2 Panic begins to set in now with Lagno. It was better to ‘spread’ her remaining pieces to mitigate the danger to her king with 25.Rd2! looking to answer 25…Qxh3 with 26.Bf4 Rb6 27.Qe3 Qg4+ 28.Bg3 Nf5 29.Qf4 Qh3 30.Rd3 and equality with no difficulties, unlike what now transpires in the game. 25…Qxh3 26.Qd6 Rd8! The difficulty for Lagno is that, unlike Ju Wenjun, she struggles to coordinate her pieces. 27.Qg3 Qe6 28.Rc5 Nd4 29.Bxd4 Good but forced, as White can’t allow the Black knights to take up threatening outposts with potentially worrying forks on e2 and f3 to be constantly wary of. 29…Rxd4 30.Re5?! It was all getting a little awkward for Lagno, but this makes her task of staying in the game even harder – she had to try 30.Qe3 or even 30.Qf3, where any Black advantage is minimal at the most. 30…Qd7 Of course, it is tempting to play this move, as it controls the d-file and retains the option of the threat of …Rg4 – but Ju Wenjun missed a trick with the stronger move of 30…Qf6! that adds to the mix the threat of …Nf5 with a winning attack. If White stops this with 31.Rcc5 then 31…Ng6! and Black has a big initiative with the knight now coming to f4 or perhaps even h4, and the White king firmly in the danger zone. 31.Qf3?! The only saving try was to stay brave with 31.Qc3! looking to trade queens if the knight moves. 31…Ng6! Black is in total control now. 32.Re3 The last desperate try to hold on was with 32.Re4 Nh4 33.Qh1 Rxe4 34.Qxe4 but after 34…Qh3! it is hard to see how White can successfully defend this position, particularly as the best the engine sees is the ‘ugly’ 35.f4 f5! 36.Qd5+ Kh7 37.Rc5 Qe3+ 38.Kf1 Qxf4+ 39.Ke2 Qh2+ 40.Kd1 Qg1+ 41.Kc2 f4! and even if White somehow manages to trade queens, the kingside pawns will be winning for Black in any ensuing ending. 32…Rg4+ The White king is caught in the cross hairs of Black’s active pieces. 33.Kf1 Qb5+! 34.Ke1 Rg1+ 35.Kd2 Qb2+ 36.Rc2 Qd4+ 37.Rd3 Qa1 There’s no escape, as Ju Wenjun relentlessly hunts down her opponent’s king. 38.Re3 The only way to stop …Qe1 mate. If 38.Qe2 Nf4 39.Rd8+ (Alternatively, there’s 39.Rc8+ Kh7 40.Qe4+ g6 41.Qxf4 Qe1+ allowing Black to take the White king for a ‘little walk’ before trading down to a winning ending with 42.Kc2 Qb1+ 43.Kc3 Rc1+ 44.Kd4 Qb6+ 45.Ke4 Qb7+ 46.Ke3 Rxc8 and an easy win.) 39…Kh7 40.Qe4+ Ng6 41.Qe2 renewing the deadly threat of …Nf4, now that Qe4+ has been stopped. And if 41…f5! 42.Rcc8 the simple solution is just 42…Qb2+ 43.Rc2 Qxa3 and White has no defence – either the more likely scenario of her king getting caught or the prospects of a totally lost ending. 38…Rf1 39.Re8+ Kh7 40.Re4 f6 41.Qf5 If only White can get in Rg4 to consolidate, then all might not be lost – but Ju Wenjun has it all worked out. 41…Rg1! Certainly not 41…Qxa3 42.Rg4! Qd6+ 43.Kc3 Qe5+ 44.Qxe5 Nxe5 45.Rf4 where there’s still hope of saving the game. But with Rg4 now stopped, Lagno is in big trouble. 42.Re3?? The pressure is such that it all becomes difficult for Lagno to coordinate her pieces and defend her king, while at the same time having to worry about her a-pawn and a doomed ending – but she goes about it all the wrong way by inadvertently walking into a big tactic. The only try was 42.Qf3! that covers the a-pawn and the vital d1 and e1 squares, and Black still has work to do to convert the win. 42…Rd1+ 43.Ke2 Rd5! 0-1 It’s the sort of stunner you only fully appreciate after it is played on the board – and with it, Lagno resigns, as the only way to stop …Qd1 mate is taking the rook and walking right into the …Nf4+ fork and an easy win.