The World Chess Championship clash between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana became the focus of attention for the mass media and chess fans around the globe. Rightly so, as it was a tense struggle with the match deadlocked, and Carlsen going on to sweep his American challenger in the tiebreak playoff to retain his tile. But while all eyes were on that battle, sadly it overshadowed another world title clash that was running almost in parallel to London in the Russian town of Khanty-Mansiysk.
The old Fide regime made the somewhat bizarre PR choice of having the Women’s World Chess Championship knockout clash with the big main event in London. After just a couple of rounds, as Carlsen and Caruana got set to do battle, just about everyone in the media and the chess world had switched their attention to London.
But as the starting field of 64-players got whittled down to the final two, defending champion Ju Wenjun of China took on surprise Russian underdog Kateryna Lagno for the title. And going into the final game of their four-game mini-match, a major upset looked to be on the cards, as Lagno not only had the advantage of the White pieces but, in golfing matchplay terms, she was also dormy 1 and only had to avoid losing to win the title.
But nerves and an attacking motif attributed to the fourth World Champion Alexander Alekhine came to Ju’s rescue, as she sensationally won the final game to tie the match and force a tiebreak playoff. After the first two rapid tiebreak games ended in draws, Ju had more than her fair share of good fortune as she went on to win the next two games to win the match, and with it, she also retained the title she only won in May of this year after beating Tan Zhongyi.
‘Alekhine’s Gun’ is the powerful priyome (as the Russians would say) of doubling rooks on an open or semi-open file with the queen supporting from the rear, which often exerts enormous pressure on the enemy position. The story goes that the term was coined by a magazine editor after Alexander Alekhine used such a manoeuvre to overwhelm potential title-rival Aaron Nimzowitsch at San Remo in 1930.
It’s never been established just which editor exactly did the coining and in whatever magazine, but the name stuck in chess lore – and now this fearful weapon has again been ‘reloaded’, and in a game that ultimately swung a world championship match!
Match score: Ju 5-3 Lagno – after tiebreak playoff
Photo: Ju Wenjun and trainer Yu Shaoteng celebrate after winning the title | © Official site
GM Kateryna Lagno – GM Ju Wenjun
Women’s World Chess Championship, (4)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 g6 4.0-0 Bg7 5.Re1 e5 6.a3 The cautious approach. If you remember back to game 5 of the Carlsen-Caruana match, the American hit out immediately with the more adventurous try of 6.b4!? attributed to Georgia’s free-thinking Bukhuti Gurgenidze (1933-2008), hailed as one of the most original players of the Soviet era. 6…Nge7 7.Nc3 0-0 8.Bc4 d6 9.d3 h6 10.Nd5 Kh7 11.c3 f5 12.exf5 It’s clear Lagno is trying to be as cautious as she can, needing only to draw to win the title, hence her timid approach. While there’s always the fear of Black playing …f4 and going for the kingside storm, better though was 12.b4! f4 13.bxc5 dxc5 14.Rb1 and some nice weak point to target as Black will have to risk everything with a do-or-die mission. 12…gxf5!? Safer was the recapture 12…Bxf5 – but Ju has no other option here other than to roll the dice. 13.b4 Ju’s all-in gamble is beginning to pay off, as Lagno doesn’t go for the critical line with 13.Ng5+! Kg6 (The knight is taboo. If 13…hxg5? 14.Qh5+ Bh6 15.Bxg5 and Black is lost.) 14.Nxe7+ Nxe7 15.Nf3 and with Black’s king wandering about in the wilderness, it’s doubtful Ju would have been able to launch any kingside attack. 13…Ng6 14.b5?! The nerves are getting to Lagno as she starts to crack before our very eyes, as she misses her best shot to lock the game down with 14.bxc5! dxc5 15.Rb1 as Black will have to play 15…b6 (Unfortunately, after 15…Be6?! Black walks into a tactical storm after 16.Ng5+! hxg5 17.Qh5+ Bh6 18.Re3! and there are no easy answers to the big threats of Rh3 and Rxb7.) 16.Ba2 and it is difficult to see how Black can conjure up any dangerous kingside threats now, as any pawn advances on the kingside will leave the Black king open and exposed. 14…Na5 15.Ba2 Be6 16.Qa4 b6 17.Bd2 Lagno still has a little grip on the position – but crucially, she has allowed Ju to keep her pieces on the board for when she decides she has to ‘go for it’. 17…Rg8 18.Rad1?! As the threat of d4 is never going to be good here, Lagno has simply lost what proves to be a vital move – better was just tucking the king to safety with 18.Kh1. 18…Qd7 19.Nh4 Bh8! Also good was 19…c4! – but by now, Ju firmly has designs on loading her gun for carnage down the g-file. 20.Nxg6 Rxg6 21.Qh4 Rag8 22.g3 Qf7 23.c4 Bf6?! The pressure is now getting to Ju – but, in her defence, in the heat of such a tense battle, it would be so very easy to miss a very subtle and lethal move that’s quickly spotted by the playing engines. She should have continued 23…f4! 24.Bxa5 and now 24…Bf6!! 25.Nxf6+ Rxf6 and there are no easy answers to …Rg4 trapping White’s queen. The best White can hope for now is 26.Bb1 Rg4 27.d4+ Kg7 28.dxe5 dxe5 29.Qxf6+ Qxf6 30.Bc3 and still some “play” in the position – but Black has a big advantage. 24.Nxf6+ Rxf6 25.f4! A crucial move for White in a critical position. 25…Rg4 26.Qh3 Rfg6 27.Rf1?! Lagno loses her nerve with the threat of ‘Alekhine’s Gun’ being loaded on the g-file. After the simple 27.Qf1! Black will have to do something about the looming threat of fxe5 and the game opening up in the centre, and will not have enough time to press on with the attack of …h5-h4 etc. 27…Qg7 Alekhine’s Gun is now loaded. 28.Kh1 Bc8 More clinical was crashing through with 28…Rxg3 29.hxg3 Rxg3 30.Qxg3 Qxg3 etc – but it is hard not to be tempted with the sudden switch of the bishop to threaten further havoc with additional threats down the a8-h1 diagonal. 29.Qh5 Bb7+ 30.Kg1 Rxg3+! [see diagram] Alekhine’s Gun has been fired, and there’s no escaping a forced mate now. 31.hxg3 Rxg3+ 32.Kf2 Rg2+ 0-1 Lagno resigns, as …Qg3 mate is unavoidable.