The Women’s World Championship that ended last week was missing some of the world’s top players, a result of issues with the venue and the format.

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Last week, Tan Zhongyi, a Chinese grandmaster, became the Women’s World Champion. She did it by winning a 64-player knockout tournament held in Tehran that included most of the world’s top players. For this triumph, Tan earned $48,000.

The tournament was exciting and there were some great games, particularly in the final, in which Tan beat Anna Muzychuk of Ukraine in a playoff. By all rights, it was a moment for women chess players to shine. Instead, the tournament and some of the problems surrounding its organization were a reminder that women chess players still trail their male colleagues in respect and prestige.

Some of the world’s top players boycotted the competition because of a requirement that all women in Iran, including the players, wear a headscarf. The most notable were Anna Muzychuk’s sister, Mariya, who is a former Women’s World Champion; Nazi Paikidze, the reigning United States Women’s Champion; Irina Krush, a seven-time U.S. Women’s Champion; and Carolina Lujan, an Argentinian international master. Humpy Koneru of India, currently ranked No. 4 in the world, and Tatiana Kosintseva and Alisa Galliamova of Russia, who are both in the top 30, also did not play, although they did not state their reasons publicly. A few others who received invitations also did not go.

The most significant omission was a compatriot of Tan’s — Hou Yifan of China, the top-ranked woman in the world, who was the reigning titleholder before the tournament began. In an interview, Hou said that she did not play in protest of the format because it is not a good way to determine the world champion. She believes that only a long match, like the one that was played in New York City last November for the overall title, is the way to demonstrate who is the strongest player in the world. In a knockout tournament, she said, just one error can send a player home, but in a long match, players have a chance to recover.

Indeed, while Tan is obviously a very strong player, she was the ninth seed in the tournament and is ranked No. 13 in the world. It is the second time in recent years that a player outside the top five has won the championship by winning a knockout tournament. In 2012, Anna Ushenina of Ukraine, who was the 30th seed, won the tournament. In that tournament, Hou was knocked out in the second round, but reclaimed the title by easily defeating Ushenina in a match in 2013. (Hou had earned the right to play for the title by winning the 2011-2012 Women’s Grand Prix.)

So why was the tournament held in Iran? And why has the World Chess Chess Federation, also known as FIDE, the game’s governing body, adopted a knockout format to sometimes decide the women’s champion?

The answers to both questions is apparently the same: sponsorship and money.

The Women’s World Championship tournament was actually supposed to be held last October, but there were no bidders. During last September’s Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan, representatives of the Iranian Chess Federation offered to stage it in their country. One caveat was that Iran insisted that the women would have to observe local laws and play wearing the headscarves, a requirement that immediately brought protests from some players and others, including Emil Sutovsky, the president of the Association of Chess Professionals. FIDE ultimately accepted Iran’s offer, even after receiving a petition signed by more than 16,000 people protesting the decision. Perhaps FIDE felt it had no choice.

FIDE officials have also said that the knockout format was adopted to try to make the women’s championship more exciting to sponsors, both by expanding the field of players competing for the title, and by making the result less predictable. It has certainly accomplished both goals, but it has also, as some players complain, “devalued” the title because the champion is not always the best player, or even close to it.

Ironically, in many ways, women’s chess is better off now than it has ever been. There are about two dozen women who have the full grandmaster title – far more than 20 years ago. Hou, who is 23, said that there are also many more opportunities for women now than when she learned the game in 2000, and she liked many changes in the world championship cycle, specifically citing the Grand Prix.

Nevertheless, she said that she will not play again in the women’s cycle until FIDE dispenses with knockout tournaments and only has matches decide the title. “I think it should be the same cycles as the men’s world championship,” she said. She suggested another possibility would be that FIDE keep the knockout tournament and perhaps have the winner of that play a match against the winner of the Grand Prix, with the winner then playing another match against the reigning champion.

“I talked with FIDE and I understand the problems,” Hou said. “But look at other sports. Most of them have the same system for selecting the champion for men and women.”

Until or unless FIDE changes its system, and finds a way to attract more sponsorship for its marque events for women, its champion will not be its best player and, it seems, women’s chess will continue to struggle.


The final of the Women’s World Championship was a best-of-four matchup. After a draw in Game 1, Tan took the lead by winning Game 2.

Tan Zhongyi vs. Anna Muzychuk
Women's World Championship | 0:39:33-0:23:33 | Round 6.2 | 28 Feb 2017 | 1-0
1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 The Slav Defense. It is very solid buy also offers dynamic counterattacking possibilities for Black.
3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 e6 The Semi-Slav.
5. Qd3 An unusual move. White's idea is to play e4 as quickly as possible.
5... dxc4 6. Qxc4 b5 This structure usually arises in the Meran Variation, but it is with the White bishop on c4, not the queen.
7. Qd3 a6 8. e4 c5 Perhaps too ambitious. Black counterattacks when White is better developed.
9. dxc5 Bxc5 10. Qxd8+ Kxd8 11. Bd3 Bb7 12. e5 Ng4 The wrong way. The knight would have been better on either d5 or d7.
13. Ne4 Even better was 13. Be4. If 13... Nf2, then 14. Bb7 Ra7 15. Ne4! Nh1 16. Nc5, or 15... Nd3 16. Kd2.
13... Bb4+ 14. Ke2 Nd7 15. Bf4 Nc5 The computer prefers 15... f5 in order to breakup White's center or dislodge the White pieces in the center. Both make sense. The problem with Nc5 is that it allows White to keep control of the center.
16. Nxc5 Bxc5 17. Rhc1 Bb6 Black does not have time to take the pawn on f2. 17... Bf2 18. h3 wins a piece.
18. Ng5 Ke7 19. Be4 Each move by White gains a tempo, slowly building her advantage.
19... Bxe4 20. Nxe4 Though the position is symmetrical, the space advantage that White has in the center and the beautiful outpost she has for her knight on d6 give her a clear edge.
20... Rhc8 21. f3 Nh6 22. g4 Sealing the knight off from the game. White is effectively up a piece.
22... Ng8 After so many moves, the knight returns to its original starting square. Sad.
23. Nd6 Rxc1 24. Rxc1 Black is just about helpless. The threat of Rc6 is terrible.
24... Kd7 Choosing to give up a pawn in order to keep the rook out and reactivate her knight.
25. Nxf7 Ne7 25... Rf8 does not win because of 26. Rd1 and Black can either play 26... Kc8, allowing 27. Nd6, or 26... Ke7 27. Rd6! Rf7 28. Bg5+!
26. Be3 Bxe3 27. Kxe3 Ng6 Black tries to gain counterplay against the e-pawn, but it does not quite work.
28. h4?! It was difficult to calculate, but 28. Ke4 was possible. After 28... Rf8 29. Ng5 Rf4 30. Ke3 Ra4 31. Rd1 Ke7 32. Rd6, Black's e-pawn will fall.
28... Rf8?! In fact, 28... Nh4 was playable. After 29. Rh1 Ng2 30. Kf2 Kf7 31. Nd6 Nf4 32. Rh7 Nd3 33. Kg3 Ne5 34. Ne4 Rg8, Black is still holding on.
29. h5 Ne7 29... Rf7 30. hg6 hg6 31. Rd1 is an easy win for White.
30. Ng5 Nd5+ 31. Kf2 White's problems are substantially over.
31... h6 32. Ne4 Ra8 33. a3 a5 34. Nc3 Rc8 35. Rd1 Ke7 36. Nxd5+ exd5 37. Rxd5 Rc2+ 38. Ke3 Rxb2 39. Ke4 The rest is easy. White's four-pawn to two-pawn majority on the kingside is decisive.
39... a4 40. f4 Rb1 41. Kf5 Rb3 42. Rc5 Kd7 43. Kg6 b4 44. axb4 Rxb4 45. Kf5 Ke7 46. Rc7+ Kf8 47. Ra7 Kg8 48. g5 hxg5 49. fxg5 Rb6 50. Rxa4 g6+ 51. hxg6 Rb1 52. Ra8+ Kg7 53. Ra7+ Kg8 54. g7 Rf1+ 55. Kg6 Ra1 56. Rf7

Muzychuk struck back quickly with a brilliant attack in Game 3.

Anna Muzychuk vs. Tan Zhongyi
Women's World Championship | 0:04:33-0:25:33 | Round 6.2 | 01 Mar 2017 | 1-0
1. e4 e6 Tan returns to the French Defense, with which she did so well in Game 1.
2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 As in Game 1.
3... Nf6 Tax is the first one to vary. In Game 1, she played 3... de4 and had few problems equalizing. Obviously concerned that Muzychuk would have prepared for that variation, she adopts the Classical Variation. Unfortunately for Tan, Muzychuk turns out to be well prepared for this.
4. e5 The Steinitz Variation, named after the first World Champion.
4... Nfd7 5. f4 c5 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. Be3 Both players are following theory and also playing logically.
7... Be7 Black continues her development, though it was not the only move. For example, 7... a6 made good sense.
8. Qd2 White signals her intent to castle queenside. Castling on opposite sides is often a prelude to an attack.
8... O-O 9. dxc5 An important move. Castling queenside immediately would be a mistake because Black could then play 9... c4 and Black could then quickly muster an attack.
9... Bxc5 10. O-O-O Qa5 Still following a known path.
11. a3 Be7 An odd move. There was no threat at the moment, so why retreat? A move like 11... a6, preparing to expand on the queenside and start the attack seemed more worthwhile.
12. Bd3 The first move that is unusual, though it seems logical. More common are 12. Kb1 or 12. h4. The problem with this move is that Black can chase the bishop by playing 12... Nc5.
12... a6 There is nothing wrong with this per se, but if Black had realized the danger, she probably should have played 12... Nc5.
13. h4 b5 Continuing with the normal plan in this type of position.
14. Bxh7+! A bolt from out of the blue. Though this may not be strictly the best move, it immediately puts tremendous pressure on Black and it gives White a good chance to win the game. Muzychuk probably prepared this variation as it would be a bit unnerving to come up with this at the board given the stakes.
14... Kxh7 15. Qd3+! A move that has a few purposes: It prepares to possibly slide the queen across the third rank to the h-file if it should be opened, and White's queen knight can now move without allowing a trade of queens.
15... Kg8 16. Ng5 With the not-so-subtle threat of checkmate.
16... f5 Of course Black must stop mate.
17. Nxd5! A very nice move, much better than 17. Ne6.
17... b4 Black is both trying to counterattack and get her queen over to where the action is to help with the defense.
18. Nxe7+ Nxe7 19. Bd2?! Rb8? Missing a golden opportunity. After 19... Nd5, Black would be back in the game.
20. Qd6 White does not miss her second chance. She now wins material.
20... Qc5?! 20... Qb6 was better, but Black is busted no matter what.
21. Bxb4?! 21. Qe6+ would have been better, but almost anything should lead to a win at this point.
21... Qxd6 22. Bxd6 Ng6 23. Nxe6 Re8 24. Bxb8 Rxe6 25. g3 The dust has settled and White has a rook and four! pawns for two knights. White's advantage is overwhelming.
25... Bb7 26. Rh2 Nc5 26... Bc6 was a little better, but really it does not make all that much difference at this point.
27. Rd8+ Kh7 28. Bd6 Ne4 29. h5 Nh8 30. h6 Nf7 The pawn is poisoned
31. Rd7 Rxd6 Desperation.
32. Rxf7

After the regulation part of the match ended in a tie, the match went to a two-game rapid playoff. Game 1 was drawn. Tan won Game 2 to clinch the title when Muzychuk walked into a mating net. 

Tan Zhongyi vs. Anna Muzychuk
Women's World Championship | Tehran IRI | Round 6.6 | 03 Mar 2017 | 1-0
1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 The Slav Defense, just as Muzychuk played in her two regulation games. Since she drew the last one rather easily, she evidently did not feel any need to change what she did last time.
3. Nf3 Nf6 4. g3 Tan is the first to vary. In the last regulation game, she played 4. Qb3, but that did not bring any advantage.
4... Bf5 5. Nc3 e6 6. Nh4 White moves to eliminate Black's "bad" bishop (which is no longer bad since it is outside the Black pawn chain) before she can play h6 and preserve it.
6... dxc4 Trying to highlight one drawback of White's plan. It is going to be harder to win this pawn now the knight can no longer go to e5.
7. Nxf5 exf5 Black's broken pawn structure is not a major problem. The pawn on f5 restrains White's center, as does the pawn on c6. And Black will have the d and e files for her rooks.
8. e3 White no longer wants to fianchetto her bishop
8... Nbd7 9. Bxc4 Nb6 Best. Black mus make sure that White cannot form a battery along the a2-g8 diagonal with her queen and bishop.
10. Be2 Bd6 11. Bf3 O-O 12. O-O The opening is over and Black has achieved full equality.
12... Re8 13. Qc2 Qd7 14. b3 Re7 This is not a mistake, but I don't understand this move. It certainly looks very artificial; 14... Rad8 certainly made more sense.
15. Na4 Rae8?! This is bizarre. There was nothing wrong with 15... Na4; the pressure down the b-file would always be manageable.
16. Nc5 This is a great position for the knight.
16... Qc8 17. Bd2 Nbd5 18. Rac1 Ne4 19. Bg2 Despite Black's odd moves, her position is still quite good.
19... g6 20. b4 Qc7 Black is having trouble finding a plan. She is basically sitting and waiting, while White has found somethign to do on the queenside.
21. Nxe4?! An error in planning. As the computer shows, 21. b5 was good. After 21... Bc5 22. Be4 fe4 23. Qc5 Rc8 24. Qa7, White has won a pawn.
21... fxe4 22. b5 Ba3 Just in time to prevent material loss.
23. Rb1 cxb5 24. Qb3 Qd6 25. Qxb5 Rc8 26. Qb3 Kg7 27. Bc1 Bxc1 28. Rbxc1 Rc6 29. Rxc6 Qxc6 30. Qa3 Qb6?! The first small error; 30... b6 was better.
31. Rc1 Qb4? An error; 31... a6 was better.
32. Qxa7 Nc3 33. Rf1 Qc4 Though Black has ganied activity for her pieces, a pawn is a pawn. If White can consolidate, Black will be in trouble.
34. Qa3 Re6 35. Re1 Ra6 36. Qe7 Rxa2 37. Bxe4 b5 38. Bf3 b4 Black's b-pawn seems like it could win the game for Black, but...
39. Qe5+ Kh6?? A blunder that ends the game. But even after 39... Kg8 40. d5, White would still have an edge.
40. g4! Black cannot stop checkmate.
40... f6 41. Qxf6 Ra5 42. h4


Dylan Loeb McClain is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience. He was a staff editor for The New York Times for 18 years and wrote the paper’s chess column from 2006 to 2014. He is now editor-in-chief of He is a FIDE master as well.