John Henderson
By John Henderson

The countdown to the start of the biggest chess event of the year, the eager-awaited World Chess Championship match taking place at The College, Southampton Row, Holborn in London, between the two-time Norwegian defending champion, Magnus Carlsen, and his American challenger Fabiano Caruana, is now inexorably ticking down to the start of the contest, as both title combatants appear later today at the glitzy opening ceremony that will decide the colour sequence in their €1m, 12-game match, with game one getting underway less than 24 hours later on Friday.

Pundits, punters, patzers and grandmasters alike all believe that this will be a very tight contest between the world’s top two players – and even “Historic,” claims Tarjei J. Svensen. The top Norwegian chess correspondent and ardent Carlsen watcher notes that “In 1990 there were 70 points between World #1 Kasparov and World #2 Karpov, while now only 3 points separate Carlsen & Caruana – the lowest difference ever.”

Interviewed by Time magazine ahead of the match, challenger Caruana believes “It will be a fight that is blow-for-blow, with each of us trying to get the upper hand, trying to impose our will on the other guy. It’s not a physical sport. But if people are into these one-on-one duels, chess is in a way similar to that.” And even Carlsen is wary of the fact that he faces a tough and determined challenger in Caruana, whom he believes will be better prepared than his previous title challengers, Visy Anand and Sergey Karjakin. Speaking to the Norwegian tabloid newspaper VG, before departing for London, Carlsen said “On paper, this is my absolute worst opponent. That’s why I think the match will be different than previously.”

All week, the mainstream media have also been getting in on the act by busily profiling the players and publishing features on the match, ranging from The Times, The New York Times, The Guardian, France 24, and Deadspin online magazine, to name but a few I’ve linked to.

And as we enter the final countdown of the hours and minutes until the players sit down for the first game on Friday, let’s not forget that there’s also another title contest being fought out right now: the Women’s World Chess Championship that’s heating up in freezing Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia.

The 64-player knockout event has now been whittled down to 32 – but not going forward to the final 16 will be Irina Krush, the last American left in the competition, who was comprehensively beaten 1.5-0.5 by reigning champion and top seed Ju Wenjun of China, with the damage all coming in the first of their two-game mini-match.

Photo: Irina Krush was simply outplayed and outmatched by reigning champion Ju Wenjun | © Official site

GM Ju Wenjun – GM Irina Krush
Women’s World Ch., (2.1)
Queen’s Gambit Accepted
1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4 3.e4 e5 4.Nf3 Bb4+ 5.Nc3 exd4 6.Qxd4 Qxd4 7.Nxd4 Nf6 8.f3 Bc5 This is a line that’s known to lead to a lot of draws, and that suits Irina, having Black in the first game against the reigning Women’s World Champion. 9.Be3 Nc6 10.Nc2 Bxe3 11.Nxe3 Be6 12.Bxc4 Bxc4 13.Nxc4 0-0-0 14.Rd1 Nd7 Also an option had to be 14…Rxd1+ 15.Kxd1 Rd8+ 16.Ke2 and trying to defend this position. 15.Ke2 Nde5?! There’s not much in the game with the queens coming off, and the strong possibility of the rooks also being traded down the d-file, and you can’t really say this is a bad move per se – but ever little inaccuracy now for Irina simply builds up, making her task of securing a draw harder and harder. And here, this was one of those little inaccuracies. Better was 15…Nc5! 16.Rd5 (If 16.Rxd8+ Rxd8 17.Rd1 Rxd1 18.Kxd1 Kd7 Black should easily be able to hold this position.) 16…Ne6!? with the cunning plan of playing for …f5, …Ned4+, …Rxd5 and …Nxf5 with good chances of drawing with more pieces and pawns being traded. 16.Nxe5 Nxe5 17.f4 Nc6 18.Ke3 f6 19.h4 Rxd1 20.Rxd1 Rd8 21.Rc1 Rd7 22.g4! [see diagram] Here, in essence, is the dilemma for Irina. Material-wise, we have an equal ending, with the same number of pawns on the board, with White having a 4:3 majority on the kingside, Black a 3:2 majority on the queenside – but the whole game is decided by the fact that all of Ju’s kingside pawns are already mobile and storming up the board, and her king is supporting them. This means that, with accurate play, Ju should be able to convert this to an endgame win; Irina’s only hope is to try to get into a rook ending where she can activate her rook. 22…h6 23.Nd5 Ne7 The White knight is too powerful on d5, and Irina rightly seeks to trade it off to ease the pressure on her position. Every little will help, and, notoriously, there’s always more chances to save a bad position by heading for a rook and pawn ending. 24.Nxe7+ Rxe7 25.f5 Kd8 26.g5! This breakthrough brings Ju’s rook into the game. 26…hxg5 27.hxg5 fxg5 28.Rg1 Ke8 29.Rxg5 Kf7 30.Rg2 It is important for the rook to also defend, especially along her vulnerable second rank, and allow the White king to come to f4 and g5 to be protected from checks from behind. 30…Rd7 31.e5 Rd1 32.Kf4 Rf1+ 33.Kg5 Ke7 34.e6 The winning plan is simple: Kg3 and Rd2-d7+ – once the rook gets to the seventh, the game is effectively over, as the Black king will not only be stuck on the backrank, but the Black pawns will also be vulnerable. 34…c6 35.Kg6 Rf3 36.b4 a6 There’s no salvation whatsoever here. If 36…Kf8 37.Rd2! Rg3+ 38.Kh5 is just as bad as the game, as White’s rook easily comes to d7 to wreak havoc. 37.Rd2 Rg3+ 38.Kh7 Rg5 39.Rd7+ The end is nigh, as the placard-waving, street-walking doom-mongers would proclaim. Ju’s rook bosses the seventh rank, making all of Black’s remaining pawns vulnerable to capture. 39…Ke8 40.Rxb7 Rxf5 41.Kxg7 Rf4 42.Kg6 Kd8 43.Kg5 Rf2 44.a4 Rf1 45.a5 Rf2 46.Rd7+ Ke8 There’s no defending the c-pawn. If 46…Kc8 47.Rf7 Re2 the king comes into the game to help push home the e-pawn. 48.Kf6! 47.Rc7 Kd8 48.Rxc6 Rb2 49.Rb6 Ke7 50.Kf5 1-0

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