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    Monday
    Mar232015

    Women's World Championship, Round 3, Day 1

    I'm going to try doing a quick post of today's action, and will turn things over tomorrow to a guest blogger. Your expressions of support have been greatly appreciated, not least the invitation to take things easy and not to rush to post. In part as a self-diagnostic, and in part because not blogging is making me a bit stir-crazy, I'll try this one now, and then resume my rest from the computer. Without any further ado...

    We're down to the Sweet 16 (an allusion to both a '50s rite of passage for teen girls and to where we are in the annual college basketball tournaments here in the U.S.), and so far the dominant player is the top seed, Indian GM Humpy Koneru. She won her first two matches with 2-0 scores, and got off on the right foot in this one with a convincing win over Alisa Galliamova. Perhaps there was one moment when Galliamova might have been able to cause some trouble early on, with 20...hxg2 first and only then ...Rc8. White (Humpy) would have enjoyed compensation for the slight material sacrifice, but Black would have been better off than in the game. In fact, material was only one part of the story. The second part became clear at move 26. By this point Koneru had played 21.gxh3 and 24.Kh1, and then 26.Rg1 was the punchline. Eventually that rook made its way to g7, and White's "blind pigs" (an old expression referring to a pair of rooks on the enemy second rank) decided the game.

    While Humpy's win was not much of a surprise, the victory of the other Indian entrant was. After defeating my pre-tournament pick (Irina Krush) in tiebreaks, she was up against one of the four remaining Russians in the field, former women's world champion Alexandra Kosteniuk. Kosteniuk was White in a Winawer and enjoyed a significant edge early on. To consolidate that edge and guarantee a "two result" game (i.e. either White wins or Black holds a draw) she needed to round up Black's passed a-pawn, which could have been done with 25.Rc3 a2 26.Rb3 followed by 27.Rb2 and snapping it off. Instead, she attempted to improve other aspects of her position, but thanks to some nifty tactics and the a-pawn's survival she was soon left with a lost position. Harika's technique was up to the task, and the Russian lost.

    Speaking of which...that was true of all four Russian women: they all lost. The aforementioned Galliamova was married to Vasil Ivanchuk once upon a time, but she is Russian and not Ukranian, and in addition to her loss and Kosteniuk's Natalia Pogonina and Valentina Gunina will also face must-win games tomorrow to avoid elimination.

    Pogonina's loss, with the black pieces against Marie Sebag, was exceptionally long and must have been correspondingly painful. The opening was a 4.d3 Berlin, and one interesting moment suitable for analysis came on move 14. White thought for about 16 minutes before choosing the positional 14.Bd3, clearing c2 for the knight. I suspect that she probably spent only 2-3 minutes on that move, at most, and spent most of the time puzzling through the complications beginning with 14.f4 exf4 15.Rxf4 g5. Here both 16.Qf3 and 16.Qd3 lead to all sorts of fun tactical possibilities, but they're probably more fun when one isn't playing in an elimination tournament with lots of money at stake.

    Moreover, Sebag's pragmatic approach may have been objectively best as well. It certainly worked out in the game, as she was soon clearly better and then even winning. Sebag's 25.d5 followed by the little tactical trick culminating in 28.Bxb5 picked off a clear pawn (28...Bxb5 29.Nd5 wins the bishop on c7, as 29...Qd7?? loses the queen to 30.Nf6+). Sebag was well on her way to victory, but a position arose where the advantage was no longer a comfortable one. From a computer's standpoint, the advantage grew, but so did the complexity of the win. It was not a "matter of technique"; instead, she had to find a precise move, the right idea, and couldn't just coast to victory. That precise move was 35.Rxd6!, and it was missed.

    By the time the players made the time control (after their 40th moves) Pogonina had reclaimed material equality and the position was approximately equal. (It could have been completely equal had she spotted the neat 39...Rxg3! 40.fxg3 Nf5+ 41.Kh2 Ne3 followed by taking the rook on d5 and using the counterattacking chances provided by the opposite-colored bishops. It's understandable that Pogonina missed or rejected this, as she was almost surely in time trouble.) So Pogonina had escaped, but with 44...fxe6 rather than 44...Nxe6 she had to start suffering all over again. In due course a rook ending was reached, with Sebag once again a pawn ahead, and Pogonina dutifully defended into the third and final time control (starting on move 61).

    That ending was objectively drawn, and on move 75 Sebag sacrificed her extra pawn in the hopes of making progress. By now the players were in time trouble again and living off of the increments, a state of affairs which was worse for Pogonina as the defender than for her opponent. Pogonina's 79...Ra1+ was dubious, though not fatal (she should have pushed her passer straight away), but on move 81 her decision to follow the hoary adage that passed pawns must be pushed cost her the game for the final time. She needed to find the subtle 85...Ra5!!, pinning the b-pawn; only thus could she have survived. She might have found this with more time, but to mind the real damage was done, practically speaking, two moves earlier. After 81...h4? the win was straightforward, though Pogonina could have put up much greater resistance with 86...Qxc6+! followed by 87...Ra6+ and 88...Rg6. Peter Svidler once famously failed to defeat Boris Gelfand in a queen vs. rook ending, so it was certainly worth a shot - especially considering how easy the win was after the move she played in the game. (White, for her part, probably should have chosen a different 86th move, at least unless she felt confident in her ability to win the Q vs. R. ending.)

    The fourth Russian failure came at the hands of Pia Cramling, one of the oldest players in the field. (Born in 1963, she is probably the oldest.) Cramling was a trailblazer in women's chess, one of the few women of her day who would, and could, regularly and successfully compete against men in open events. Before the game I heard or saw Gunina say that Cramling had "good fundamentals" and would always get the advantage, but that she (Gunina) would always trick her and win on time. That led me (together with a little bit of reverse ageism) to root for Cramling, and she didn't disappoint. She was winning practically straight out of the opening, and while Gunina played on forever and tried every trick, there was no escape. Cramling was a very deserved winner.

    It was possible to win even if one's opponent wasn't from Russia (though that seemed to help). Former women's world champion Antoaneta Stefanova had a winning advantage against Mariya Muzychuk, but that advantage needed consolidating due to her potentially overextended kingside pawns and the porousness of the squares behind them. (Black's rook on the second rank was likewise a factor.) Stefanova didn't manage, and soon Muzychuk had a significant edge. Stefanova defended stoutly and was seemingly on her way to a draw - until another error soon after the time control gave her a lost position. Like Pogonina, Stefanova had a third chance to save the game, and - like Pogonina - was unable to make good. Muzychuk's 58...g5 was a bit of a bait, and Stefanova bit. Had she ignored it with something like 59.Kd4! she probably would have saved the game, the point being that 59...gxf4 60.gxf4 Bxf4?? 61.Rxe7+ would win for White while even more sensible 60th moves for Black wouldn't be terribly worrisome. Black has to keep White's king out of c5, needs to keep the e7 pawn protected (and it can't be protected by ...Kf7 as a subsequent bishop move would allow d6+) and has to worry about keeping the f5 pawn protected as well - it can be targeted in various ways (especially but not only if Black plays ...Bxf4 at some point). All this to say that ...gxf4 wasn't really a threat. Unfortunately for Stefanova, she played 59.fxg5?, inviting the Black king across the board, and after that White had no chance to defend.

    The sixth and final winner of the day was the last Chinese player remaining in the competition, Zhao Xue. (There were nine Chinese players at the start of the tournament, with only Russia, with 10 players, having more representation in the field.) She defeated Bela Khotenashvili straightforwardly and smoothly, keeping alive her country's hopes for an all-Chinese world championship match later this year. (Outgoing champion and women's #1 Hou Yifan earned her spot in that match by winning the last Women's Grand Prix series.)

    Finally, the two draws. The first featured Georgian IM Meri Arabidze, who is the dark horse or Cinderella of the remaining participants, with a rating of just 2374. (Pogonina is the second-lowest rated player remaining in the field, and while she's only rated 2456 she was 2508 less than a year ago.) Arabidze had a big advantage against Viktorija Cmilyte for almost the entire game, and there were stretches when that advantage was decisive. Unfortunately for Arabidze, she allowed Cmilyte to exchange her way out of danger, not appreciating that the nature of her advantage was such that - barring subsequent material gains - it needed to be exploited in a middlegame setting.

    The second draw also featured a Georgian player - Lela Javakhishvili - and for that matter also featured a Muzychuk - Anna, who is Mariya's older sister. This was a strange game, agreed drawn in just 23 moves, and in a position where Black (Javakhishvili) appears to have a significant advantage. Earlier, it looked like Muzychuk was on the way to a serious advantage, especially had she played e5 a move sooner than she did.

    Anyway, that wraps up this rather long post. I hope you enjoyed it, and hope you'll be just as happy with the pinch-hitter(s) in the days to come.

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