With her second straight win to start the tournament, Hou Yifan is the sole leader.
Four of the world’s top nine players are in the Grenke Chess Classic, including Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion from Norway. But after two rounds, none of them are leading the tournament. Instead, it is Hou Yifan of China, the world’s best woman player, who has a perfect score of 2 points, a full point ahead of most of the rest of the field.
Grenke Chess Classic
Hou Yifan is off to the best start possible with two wins.
Hou beat Georg Meier of Germany in Round 2. I really felt Meier’s pain in this game. Playing White, he obtained a very pleasant position against Black’s “hanging” pawns on the c- and d-files. But hanging pawns have some dynamic potential. It only took a couple mistakes for the tide to turn, and a couple more for White to be brutally checkmated. It reminded me of how I lost a similarly pleasant position against Jeffrey Xiong in the recent United States Championship.
1. d4Nf62. c4e63. g3d54. Bg2Bb4+5. Nd2O-O6. Nf3b67. O-OBb78. b3Nbd79. Bb2Qe710. Ne5Rfd811. Nd3Bd612. e3Rab813. Rc1Ne414. cxd5exd515. Re1c516. dxc5!White gives Black hanging pawns pawns on the c- and d-files. 16... bxc517. Qc2Rbc818. Nf4Nef6A necessary but unfortunate retreat for Black.
( 18... Ndf619. Nxe4Nxe420. Rcd1This is also no fun for Black. )
19. Nc4!Energetic and strong. 19... Bc720. Red1!Now the pawn on d5 is very hard to defend. 20... Bxf4Another move that Black did not want to make, but there was no choice.
( 20... Nb621. Nxb6axb622. Bxf6Qxf623. Nxd5And White would be up a pawn and Black would have no compensation. )
21. exf4Ba822. Ne3Meier's pieces are very active and his bishop pair dominates the board. 22... Qe6
( 22... d4?Black would like to play this, but it is not good because: 23. Nf5!Qf824. Bxd4!And the tactics work out in White's favor. 24... cxd425. Qxc8Rxc826. Rxc8Qxc827. Ne7+ )
23. Nf5?!A step in the wrong direction
( 23. f5!After this move, Black would have problems. The only way to maintain the defense of the d5 pawn would be: 23... Qd6But this could be met by 24. b4!c425. Qa4!When Black cannot hold her position together. )
23... Re8!24. h3?
( 24. b4White has not played precisely, but after this move, he would have still have had a clear edge. )
24... d4!Black has accomplished her goal. The hanging pawns are advancing, the bad bishop on a8 will be exchanged for the good one on g2. The tide is turning quickly. 25. Bxa8Rxa826. b4Rac827. Qb1?
( 27. Re1!This move was best. White is at least equal after 27... Qxe1+28. Rxe1Rxe1+29. Kg2 )
27... Ne4!28. g4g629. Nh4?
( 29. Nh6+Kg730. bxc5White had to try this, but it does not look like it is enough to survive. 30... Kxh631. Bxd4Black's king position gives White some play for being down a piece. )
29... Nxf2!White's position is hopeless now. 30. Kxf2Qe2+31. Kg1Re332. Qc2Rg3+33. Kh1Rxh3+34. Kg1Qe3+White resigned instead of facing 35. Qf2 Rh1, which is the only way to immediately avoid mate.
1. e4e52. Bc4Nf63. d3Nc64. Nc3Na55. Nge2Bc56. O-OO-O7. Ng3h68. h3d69. Bb3c610. Na4Nxb311. axb3Bb412. Bd2Bxd213. Qxd2d514. Qb4b615. Nc3c516. Qa3d417. Nce2a518. f4Be619. Rae1exf420. Nxf4Nd721. Qa1Qg522. Kh2Ne523. Qd1Rae824. Nge2Ng625. Qc1Qe526. Kg1Nh427. g3Ng628. Kg2Qd629. Kh2Ne530. Kg2Black has a somewhat more comfortable position, but White is very solid. In an attempt to create some winning chances, Caruana opens the position. 30... f5!Black's pieces are more prepared for action than White's. 31. Nxe6Rxe6!?Very enterprising.
( 31... Qxe6This was a simpler continuation and would have been my choice. White's king is a little uncomfortable and Black has a space advantage. He would have a slight edge. )
32. exf5Qd5+33. Kg1?This loses
( 33. Kh2!This move was necessary. After: 33... Ref634. g4!White could hold his strong kingside pawn chain together. After: 34... Nf3+35. Rxf3Qxf336. Qf4Qc637. Ng3After White plays Ne4, I believe he should have full compensation for being down an exchange. )
33... Ref6!34. Nf4
( 34. g4Nf3+35. Rxf3Qxf336. Qf4If the White king were now on h2, he would be fine. But in this position, the problem would be: 36... Qxh3 )
34... Nf3+!35. Kf2
( 35. Kh1Qb7Very effective. White cannot avoid catastrophic losses. )
35... Qxf5!36. Kxf3Qxh3!White will soon lose his extra piece and then just have an exposed king with no compensation. 37. Re4
( 37. Rg1Rxf4+ )
37... g538. Ke2Qxg3Black will soon be down two pawns, with no compensation. While Caruana did recently lose a game in which he had a two-pawn advantage, he did not do that this time. 39. Rf3Qg440. Qh1Rxf4
Levon Aronian, left, and Magnus Carlsen played to a draw in Round 2.
Matthias Blübaum of Germany defended a pawn down, opposite-colored bishop ending for a very long time against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, but ultimately succumbed to the pressure. There would have been four decisive results in Round 2, but Carlsen missed a win against Levon Aronian of Armenia. I’m sure Carlsen will not be happy with himself for this one:
1. e4e52. Nf3Nc63. Bb5a64. Ba4Nf65. O-OBe76. Re1b57. Bb3O-O8. a4b49. d3Bc510. c3bxc311. bxc3Rb812. Bg5h613. Bh4g514. Bg3Nh515. Nbd2Nxg316. hxg3Qf617. Nc4d618. Ne3Be619. Bxe6fxe620. Qc2h521. Rab1Rxb122. Rxb1h423. gxh4gxh424. Rb7h325. Rxc7hxg226. Qe2Ne727. Ne1Rb828. Qg4+Ng629. Nf3Rb230. d4exd431. e5dxe532. Nc4Rb1+33. Kxg2e434. Qxe4?Carlsen misses his chance. He was under some pressure, but not that much- I would have expected him to find the winning maneuver:
( 34. Nfe5!The knight on g6 is lost. Black can try to create counterplay with his pawns but it will be insufficient: 34... e335. Rf7!Perhaps this is the move Magnus missed? )
34... Nf4+!35. Kg3Ne2+!Well calculated. White cannot easily avoid a perpetual check. 36. Kg4
( 36. Qxe2Qg6+37. Kf4Qf5+38. Kg3Qg6+ )
36... Qf5+!37. Qxf5exf5+38. Kxf5White did avoided the perpetual check, but at a high cost. With the queens off the board, the Black king is safe for a move or two, and after: 38... dxc3!He has a very dangerous passed pawn. Carlsen managed to create some problems for Black, but none that he was unable to resolve. 39. Rxc5c240. Rc8+Kg741. Rc7+Kg842. Kf6Rg143. Nxg1c1=Q44. Nxe2Qh6+45. Ke7Qh7+46. Kd6Qd3+47. Kc5Qxe248. Kb6Qxf2+49. Kxa6Kf850. a5Ke851. Nb6
Hou faces Carlsen in Round 3 on Monday, and though she has White, she will most likely have an uphill battle in trying to maintain her perfect score and her lead.
Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 4 in the country. He is a professional player and recipient of the Samford Fellowship in 2013, the most prestigious award in the United States for young chess players. He was also a member of the team that won the gold medal at the 2016 Chess Olympiad. He is at @GMShanky on Twitter, has his own site, and is also on Facebook.