Like buses these days, World Chess Championships are coming along in twos. This coming Friday, the media focus will firmly be on Norway’s Magnus Carlsen as he defends his title against a determined American challenger, Fabiano Caruana, in what’s expected to be a close 12-game World Championship match in London. But before that, already underway in freezing Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia is the big battle that will determine the outcome of the Women’s World Championship title.
Somewhat controversially, again this is a 64-player knockout event that will run through 1 to 23 November. The total prize fund is $450,000 with $60,000 going to the winner. The top seed is reigning champion Ju Wenjun of China – but she’s been forced to defend her title after only winning it just under six months ago in a delayed match against her fellow countrywoman, Tan Zhongyi, the winner of the 2017 knockout world championship in Tehran, Iran.
The field also includes former world champions Alexandra Kosteniuk (Russia), Mariya Muzychuk (Ukraine), Antoaneta Stefanova (Bulgaria) and Anna Ushenina (Ukraine). Other favourites include Humpy Koneru (India), Kateryna Lagno (Russia), Anna Muzychuk (Ukraine), Aleksandra Goryachkina (Russia) and Valentina Gunina (Russia). Representing the U.S. is Irina Krush and Sabina Foisor.
But missing from action in Khanty-Mansiysk is Hou Yifan, the Chinese and Women’s world No.1 and former three-time world champion herself, who respectfully declined her invitation to play because of the knockout format. She has a point, as not everyone particularly enjoys the vagaries of the knockout format. While it creates a lot of drama, this is no way to decide a world championship title – even more so when you consider that the game’s governing body, FIDE, will be running two entirely different world championship systems in the same month.
But there is good news. Last week, the new FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich announced he would be ending this anomaly in the women’s world championship, and that he would also be looking to “raise the prestige” of both world championships going into the future by upping the budget for both prize funds. And indeed, there was a further announcement from FIDE before the start of the opening round, confirming that all semi-finalists (except for the eventual winner) will qualify to a forthcoming Women’s Candidates’ Tournament, which will be part of the new 2019-2020 cycle.
As we’ve come to expect with the knockout format, surprises do happen, and the opening round of mini-matches witnessed a few early high-profile casualties, with Russian star Olga Girya and Germany’s Elizabeth Paehtz having an early exit Both U.S. players went to a tiebreak decider, with Sabina Foiser being beaten by former champion Antoneta Stefanova – but the good news is that Irina Krush easily prevailed 3-1 against Inna Gaponenko of Ukraine, and she’s now rewarded with a big second round match-up with defending champion Ju Wenjun.
Photo: Irina Krush eases her way into the second round – and now plays the defending champion! | © Official site
IM Inna Gaponenko – GM Irina Krush
Women’s World Championship, (1.4)
Sicilian Defence, Richter-Rauzer
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Bg5 The Richter-Rauzer was named in honour of two leading masters from the early part of the 20th century: Vsevolod Rauzer, a recognised Soviet opening theory expert, and the German master Kurt Richter. 6…Qb6!? More usual is the big main-line with 6…e6 7.Qd2 a6 8.0-0-0 Bd7 – but with this being a rapid tiebreak game, and Irina already ahead in the playoff by winning the first game, she opts to gamble with this risky choice as a surprise weapon, hoping to upset her opponent’s opening preparation. 7.Nb3 The critical test has to be 7.Be3, but, in Gaponenko’s defence, White invariably opts for a quieter life with 7.Nb3. 7…g6 Another surprise from Irina, who again opts for a further risky sideline. More normal is a standard Sicilian set-up with 7…e6 8.Bd3 Be7 9.0-0 0-0 etc. 8.Bxf6 This has to be the best test of Black’s risky set-up. 8…exf6 9.Qd2 Not exactly the most earth-shattering of moves when you need to play for a win-at-all-costs. Instead, more energetic and challenging was 9.Bb5!? and following up with Nd5. 9…Be6 10.0-0-0 0-0-0 Irina cannily waits to see which wing her opponent castles on, and castles there also, thus avoiding the chances of the game going random with a speculative kingside attack. 11.Nd5 Bxd5 12.exd5 Ne5 13.f4 Bh6! Gambling with her risky opening choices has proved a success for Irina, who now dominates the dark-squares across the board. 14.Qc3+ Kb8 15.Rd4 f5 16.Be2 Nd7 17.Rb4 Qc7 18.Rc4 Qb6 19.Na5 Faced with either repeating moves and a quick draw and being knocked out of the competition, Gaponenko has to come up with a risky plan in an effort to stay in the match. 19…Rc8! A very accurate move that should have seen the game ending with a draw after 20.Nc6+ Ka8 21.Na5 Kb8 22.Nc6+ etc – but the match scenario dictates that Gaponenko must find a way to play on, whatever the risk now. 20.Qa3?! Rxc4 21.Nxc4 Bxf4+ 22.Kb1 Qc5 Black is a pawn up, dominates the dark-squares and should have no problems in converting the win here. 23.Qb3 Trading queens is no option, with the tiebreak scenario. 23…Re8! Irina now has total domination. 24.Bf3 Nb6 The clinical win was 24…Bxh2!, but I dare say Irina’s move was a tacit offer of a diplomatic draw that would have taken her through, after the forced sequence of exchanges after 25.Nxb6 Qxb6 26.Qxb6 axb6 etc. 25.Na3 Rightly, Gaponenko refuses any further trade of pieces and rather go down now in a blaze of glory. 25…Bxh2! [see diagram] But there’s no need to hold back the winning move now. 26.c3 The bishop was, of course, taboo: if 26.Rxh2 Qg1+ 27.Bd1 Qxd1#. 26…h5 27.Nc2 Bg1 28.Nb4 Re1+ 29.Bd1 Qe3! Threatening …Qd2 winning on the spot. 30.Qc2 Nc4 31.Nd3 Rf1 32.a4 There’s no hope for White. If 32.Rh3 Qe4 with multiple pins and forking options. 32…Qe4 33.Nc1 0-1 Gaponenko resigns before Irina can play 33…Rxd1 winning a piece.