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After a simply horrific start of 0/4 for IM-elect Carissa Yip in the annual 2nd Cairns Cup held at the Saint Louis Chess Club, the 16-year-old wildcard from Massachusetts – who was also the youngest competitor in the field – dazzled everyone with a barnstorming second-half performance in the tournament that arguably could be ranked among one of the best achieved by a teenage girl since the dramatic rise of Judit Polgar in the early 1990s.

After her disastrous start, Yip showed her mettle with a comeback unbeaten score of 4/5, the highlight proving to be a quite remarkable and breathtaking demolition of the reigning World Champion, Ju Wenjun of China, in the penultimate round. And such was the manner of Yip’s powerhouse victory – and in what was her first-ever meeting with the world champion! – that commentator GM Yasser Seirawan was almost (but not quite!) left speechless for once, described it to be: “an electrifying moment for American chess fans.”

Yip’s crushing win also played a deciding factor in the eventual outcome of the only super-tournament on the women’s circuit. Going into the final round, overnight sole leader Humpy Koneru of India had what soon proved to be a very precious half-point lead over Russia’s Alexandra Kosteniuk, who simply had to beat Ju Wenjun to be in with a chance of a share of the top prize.

But with the her slender lead at the top, cannily Koneru quickly drew with her compatriot Dronavalli Harika to safely go into the clubhouse as leader and favourite to take the $45,000 first prize, the highest tournament purse in the women’s game. This left Kosteniuk needing to beat Ju Wenjun, but the ex-world champion was edged out in a nervy tussle by the reigning world champion, who took the second prize of $35,000. Kosteniuk had to be content with a share of third place alongside another ex-world champion, Mariya Muzychuk of Ukraine, to take home $22,500 respectively.

“After my second round loss, I did not expect to make it all the way to the top,” said Koneru following her Cairns Cup victory. “This was quite a strong tournament and very similar to the Women’s Grand Prix. There were rounds in the Cairns Cup that did not have a single win, which shows the strength of this year’s field.”

Kudos to the overall victor, but the real winner in the eyes of the chess fans proved to be that standout second-half performance from Carissa Yip, who is now very much the future for US women’s chess, as she sensationally took down the reigning world champion (Ju Wenjun), last year’s winner (Valentina Gunina), and a 7-time US champion (Irina Krush). Already Yip is the youngest-ever American female to make expert, master, WGM and IM. Since only two American women have made GM, that’s the only other record left for the teenager – but I have a feeling that it will be sooner rather than later before she also adds that venerable title in the game to her name.

Final standings:
1. GM H. Koneru (India) 6/9; 2. GM Ju Wenjun (China) 5½; 3-4. GM M. Muzychuk (Ukraine), GM A. Kosteniuk (Russia) 5; 5-6. GM K. Lagno (Russia), GM D. Harika (India) 4½; 7-9. GM N. Dzagnidze (Georgia), GM I. Krush (USA), FM C. Yip (USA) 4; 10. GM V. Gunina (Russia) 2½.

Photo: It’s a major breakthrough moment for Carissa Yip, as the 16-year-old takes down the regining world champion | © Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

GM Ju Wenjun – FM Carissa Yip
2nd Cairns Cup, (8)
Ruy Lopez, Smyslov/Barnes Defence Deferred
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 g6 It was probably Vasily Smyslov who is best known for developing the theory of the Spanish fianchetto defence (though with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 g6), which is now widely regarded as one of Black’s most solid choices. But the latest wrinkle is to play it with the interpolation of 3…a6, attempting to avoid some of the critical lines normally associated with this system, namely 4.Nc3. 5.d4 exd4 6.c3 The pawn sacrifice is also another tricky line to negotiate for Black. 6…Bg7 Accepting the gambit does give rapid and easy development for White, as after 6…dxc3 7.Nxc3 Bg7 8.Bg5! Black is forced into 8…f6 where now 9.Be3 offers more than enough compensation for the pawn. 7.cxd4 b5 8.Bb3 Nge7 9.d5 The testing line is still going to be 9.Nc3 keeping all the options open by not realeasing the tension in the center. 9…Na5 10.Bd2 Nxb3 Black can’t be greedy by going for 10…Bxb2? as 11.Bxa5 Bxa1 12.Nc3 Bxc3+ 13.Bxc3 Rf8 (Definitely not 13…0-0?? 14.Qd4 f6 15.d6+ Kg7 16.dxe7 Qxe7 17.Bd5 c6 18.Bb4 and Black can resign.) 14.d6! and already White is well on top. 11.Qxb3 c5 12.Bc3 f6 13.a3 Pushing the d-pawn on with 13.d6 is only going to make a long-term target of the d-pawn, as after 13…Nc6 14.a3 Bb7 15.0-0 c4 16.Qc2 0-0 Black is more than OK with …Na5 and …Rc8 coming, leaving White with a problem of not how to defend d6, but now also e4. 13…d6 14.h4 Designed to panic the world champion’s younger, less experienced opponent – but Yip takes it all in her stride, realising the kingside attack is just all bluff and bluster, as she castles right ‘into the storm’. 14…0-0! 15.Nbd2 Qe8 For now, the queen was better off on d8. The simple plan of 15…Bd7 and following up with …a5 would have left White in something of a dilemma to come up with a credible plan to stop the queenside expansion. 16.0-0 Bd7 17.Qc2 Rc8 18.b3 h6 Not the best move to play, but also not the worst. Yip probably wants to play ..f5 to open the game up a bit, but doesn’t want to allow a possible Ng5, hence …h6 – but a more solid option was 18…Bh6 where, slowly but surely, Black’s pieces look better placed for the next phase of the game. 19.a4 Ra8 20.axb5 axb5 21.Rxa8 Qxa8 22.Ra1 Qb7 23.Qa2 Nc8! If anything, it was around here that it soon became clear to all that Ju Wenjun had begun to lose the thread of the game, as Yip takes over the initiative – and how! 24.Ne1 b4 25.Bb2 Bb5 26.Nc2 Looking to quickly get in Nc3-e3-c4 and White will be OK – but Yip also has her plan. 26…Bd3 27.Ne3 Qe7! The e-pawn is the big weakness – and defending it with 28.f3 only allows 28…f5! and suddenly White is in big trouble. 28.Re1 Nb6 29.Qa1 Ra8 30.Qc1 h5 Fixing White h-pawn before Ju gets ideas of playing h5. 31.Nec4 Nxc4 32.Nxc4 Ra2! Suddenly, Yip is on top – but how she develops her attack is what impresses most of all. 33.g3 Kh7! With the cunning strategical plan of …Bh6 and all of Black’s pieces are in play with a commanding position. 34.Nd2 Bh6 35.f4 Qa7! Ju finds herself being stretched by her very resourceful young opponent. The big threat is …c4+ winning on the spot. And in the space of four very powerful and accurate moves, the world champion is now left for dead. 36.Nc4 Qd7! Now the threat is …Qh3 or …Qg4 penetrating the vulnerable kingside defences, and honing in on the weak kingside pawns. 37.Re3 Bxc4 We’re being a little pedantic now, but the engine tells us that the best tactical route was first playing 37…Bxf4! 38.gxf4 Qg4+ 39.Kh1 Bxc4 40.bxc4 Qxf4 – but really, there’s no difference. 38.bxc4 Qg4 Threatening …Bxf4. 39.Kh1 There’s just no easy solution. If 39.Rd3 f5! 40.exf5 (Alternatively, 40.e5 dxe5 41.Qb1 Rxb2! 42.Qxb2 e4 43.Rb3 Bxf4 and 40.Qb1 fxe4! 41.Rb3 Rxb2! 42.Qxb2 Bxf4 is all crashing through.) 40…Bg7! 41.fxg6+ Kxg6 42.Bxg7 Qe2! is mating. 39…Bxf4!! [see diagram] It’s moments like this that a 16-year-old can only dream about, as you show no fear by ripping right into the world champion during your first encounter with her! 40.gxf4 Qxh4+ 41.Kg1 Qg4+ 42.Kh1 Qxf4 43.Qb1 There’s simply no defence. If 43.Re1 Qh4+ 44.Kg2 Rxb2+! 45.Qxb2 Qxe1 46.Qxf6 Qxe4+ is more or less what actually happens in the game anyway. And you know you are in a bad way when the best option the engine suggests is 43.Rb3 Qxc1+ 44.Bxc1 Ra1 45.Kg2 Rxc1 46.Kf2 Rxc4 and a hopelessly lost R+P ending where you are -4 pawns! 43…Rxb2 44.Qxb2 Qxe3 45.Qxf6 Qxe4+ The game is effectively over now, but Yip has to be careful she doesn’t allow Ju to salvage a draw with a perpetual check – and she does this by bringing her king up the board. 46.Kh2 b3 47.Qf7+ Kh6 48.Qf8+ Kg5 49.Qd8+ Kf5 50.Qd7+ Ke5 51.Qg7+ Kf4 52.Qf6+ Kg4 53.Qe6+ Qf5 54.Qxd6 Qf2+ 55.Kh1 Qf3+ 56.Kh2 Qh3+ 57.Kg1 Qg3+! 0-1 The trade of queens forces Ju’s resignation, as Yip’s b-pawn will be queening with mate.

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