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.
Tan Zhongyi during Game 1 of the final, which ended in a draw.
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.
Max Avdeev for World Chess by Agon Ltd.
Hou Yifan playing during the Grand Prix in Sharjah last month. She is the only woman in the Grand Prix for the overall title.
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.
Anna Muzychuk, left, during Game 3 of the final, which she won with a brilliant attack.
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. d4d52. c4c6The Slav Defense. It is very solid buy also offers dynamic
counterattacking possibilities for Black. 3. Nf3Nf64. Nc3e6The
Semi-Slav. 5. Qd3An unusual move. White's idea is to play e4 as quickly as
possible. 5... dxc46. Qxc4b5This structure usually arises in the Meran
Variation, but it is with the White bishop on c4, not the queen. 7. Qd3a68. e4c5Perhaps too ambitious. Black counterattacks when White is better
developed. 9. dxc5Bxc510. Qxd8+Kxd811. Bd3Bb712. e5Ng4The wrong way.
The knight would have been better on either d5 or d7. 13. Ne4Even better
was 13. Be4. If 13... Nf2, then 14. Bb7 Ra7 15. Ne4! Nh1 16. Nc5, or 15... Nd3
16. Kd2. 13... Bb4+14. Ke2Nd715. Bf4Nc5The 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. Nxc5Bxc517. Rhc1Bb6Black does not have time to take
the pawn on f2. 17... Bf2 18. h3 wins a piece. 18. Ng5Ke719. Be4Each move
by White gains a tempo, slowly building her advantage. 19... Bxe420. Nxe4Though 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... Rhc821. f3Nh622. g4Sealing the knight off from the game.
White is effectively up a piece. 22... Ng8After so many moves, the knight
returns to its original starting square. Sad. 23. Nd6Rxc124. Rxc1Black
is just about helpless. The threat of Rc6 is terrible. 24... Kd7Choosing
to give up a pawn in order to keep the rook out and reactivate her knight. 25. Nxf7Ne725... 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. Be3Bxe327. Kxe3Ng6Black 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. h5Ne729... Rf7 30. hg6 hg6 31. Rd1 is an easy win
for White. 30. Ng5Nd5+31. Kf2White's problems are substantially over. 31... h632. Ne4Ra833. a3a534. Nc3Rc835. Rd1Ke736. Nxd5+exd537. Rxd5Rc2+38. Ke3Rxb239. Ke4The rest is easy. White's four-pawn to
two-pawn majority on the kingside is decisive. 39... a440. f4Rb141. Kf5Rb342. Rc5Kd743. Kg6b444. axb4Rxb445. Kf5Ke746. Rc7+Kf847. Ra7Kg848. g5hxg549. fxg5Rb650. Rxa4g6+51. hxg6Rb152. Ra8+Kg753. Ra7+Kg854. g7Rf1+55. Kg6Ra156. 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. e4e6Tan returns to the French Defense, with which she did so well in
Game 1. 2. d4d53. Nc3As in Game 1. 3... Nf6Tax 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. e5The Steinitz Variation, named after the
first World Champion. 4... Nfd75. f4c56. Nf3Nc67. Be3Both players are
following theory and also playing logically. 7... Be7Black continues her
development, though it was not the only move. For example, 7... a6 made good
sense. 8. Qd2White signals her intent to castle queenside. Castling on
opposite sides is often a prelude to an attack. 8... O-O9. dxc5An
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... Bxc510. O-O-OQa5Still following a known path. 11. a3Be7An 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. Bd3The 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... a6There is nothing wrong
with this per se, but if Black had realized the danger, she probably should
have played 12... Nc5. 13. h4b5Continuing 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... Kxh715. 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... Kg816. Ng5With the not-so-subtle threat of
checkmate. 16... f5Of course Black must stop mate. 17. Nxd5!A very nice
move, much better than 17. Ne6. 17... b4Black is both trying to
counterattack and get her queen over to where the action is to help with the
defense. 18. Nxe7+Nxe719. Bd2?!Rb8?Missing a golden opportunity. After
19... Nd5, Black would be back in the game. 20. Qd6White 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... Qxd622. Bxd6Ng623. Nxe6Re824. Bxb8Rxe625. g3The dust has settled and White has a
rook and four! pawns for two knights. White's advantage is overwhelming. 25... Bb726. Rh2Nc526... Bc6 was a little better, but really it does not
make all that much difference at this point. 27. Rd8+Kh728. Bd6Ne429. h5Nh830. h6Nf7The pawn is poisoned 31. Rd7Rxd6Desperation. 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. d4d52. c4c6The 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. Nf3Nf64. g3Tan is
the first to vary. In the last regulation game, she played 4. Qb3, but that
did not bring any advantage. 4... Bf55. Nc3e66. Nh4White 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... dxc4Trying
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. Nxf5exf5Black'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. e3White no longer wants to fianchetto her bishop 8... Nbd79. Bxc4Nb6Best. Black mus make sure that White cannot form a battery along the
a2-g8 diagonal with her queen and bishop. 10. Be2Bd611. Bf3O-O12. O-OThe opening is over and Black has achieved full equality. 12... Re813. Qc2Qd714. b3Re7This is not a mistake, but I don't understand this move.
It certainly looks very artificial; 14... Rad8 certainly made more sense. 15. Na4Rae8?!This is bizarre. There was nothing wrong with 15... Na4; the
pressure down the b-file would always be manageable. 16. Nc5This is a
great position for the knight. 16... Qc817. Bd2Nbd518. Rac1Ne419. Bg2Despite Black's odd moves, her position is still quite good. 19... g620. b4Qc7Black 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... fxe422. b5Ba3Just in time to prevent material loss. 23. Rb1cxb524. Qb3Qd625. Qxb5Rc826. Qb3Kg727. Bc1Bxc128. Rbxc1Rc629. Rxc6Qxc630. Qa3Qb6?!The first small error; 30... b6 was better. 31. Rc1Qb4?An error; 31...
a6 was better. 32. Qxa7Nc333. Rf1Qc4Though Black has ganied activity
for her pieces, a pawn is a pawn. If White can consolidate, Black will be in
trouble. 34. Qa3Re635. Re1Ra636. Qe7Rxa237. Bxe4b538. Bf3b4Black'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... f641. Qxf6Ra542. 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 WorldChess.com. He is a FIDE master as well.