31 March 2015

And Then There Were Two

Semifinals of the World Women's Championship Match: report by Eteri Kublashvili and Vladimir Barsky.

For the first time since 2008, a Russian has made it to the Finals of the Women's World Chess Championship. After outplaying Pia Cramling on the tie-break, Natalia Pogonina became a finalist of the Sochi chess marathon. She will face the Ukrainian Mariya Muzychuk, who defeated Harika Dronavalli in an extremely stressful tie-break match.
Grandmaster Sergei Shipov summarized the results of the Semifinals' classical matches: 

"In the first round of the Semifinals, one of the entire Championship's best games was played. The way Cramling gradually outplayed Pogonina is a demonstration of extraordinary skill. I am sure that this rook endgame can easily be included in textbooks, it's a great learning opportunity for any chess player, young or old. Pia followed the "no haste" principle, although she could have played faster at some point. Natalia did not make any blunders — just a couple of inaccurate moves at the end of the opening. Black hoped that passive defense would bring her the desired draw, but she underestimated the attacking opportunities and the craftiness of her skilful opponent. This is why I believe that Pia's win was totally logical.

"As for Mariya Muzychuk and Harika Dronavalli's game, it was not so fundamental. Mariya had some real chances for a win, of course, but her inefficient use of time let her down. When a crucial moment arrived, she was already in time trouble and became nervous: that was evident. After she made a few rash moves, the victory was out of Mariya's reach.  
"As for the second day, I think Cramling was 'burnt out', and probably chose a completely wrong opening line. In principle, the move 2...a6 would have been justified if Pogonina hadn't responded so cunningly, which Cramling had not expected at all.  As it was, the opponents exchanged surprises. When the opening ended, Pogonina got a clear game plan in the center and a big advantage. There were inaccuracies, of course. At one moment, Cramling could have had a serious counterplay, but since she was completely exhausted too, she made a couple of superficial moves, got under a direct attack and lost almost without a fight."

Pogonina — Cramling

A race on the board: Black started undermining the queenside, but White's threats on the opposite side of the board proved to be more serious. Pressurized by her opponent and finding herself in time trouble, Cramling began to choose less-than-perfect defensive resources, and her position soon became very bad.

29. h5 Qd8 30. axb5 (as it turned out later in the game, White benefits from the opening of the a-file) 30...axb5 31. Qg4 Qe7 32. Rd3 Rg8?! 33. Nf6 Rh8 34. Rg3 d5

35. hxg6 fxg6 36. Qxg6+ Kf8 37. Ra1 Ra7 38. Nd7+! – a beautiful finishing blow, after which Black resigned.

"Anyway, I don't remember any knock-out World Championship where a player would tie the score after a loss three times in a row. Chess history is being made right now, and what Natalia has done is a feat. No matter how the championship will end for her, I think she is the heroine of this race. 

"As for the second game between Mariya Muzychuk and Harika Dronavalli, they followed the same scenario as on the first day, but with a change of roles. Harika had a big advantage right after the opening. And Mariya might be reproached slightly, because her choice of the opening was somewhat less than solid. Harika is a rational positional player, so it was quite logical that White got a big edge. But the Indian seemed to be very tired too: she took her time before starting active operations, although White should have played d5 earlier. Furthermore, she shouldn't have traded off the bishops, the knights and then the queens. With all her actions, the Indian player made life easier for her opponent, which resulted in a dead drawn rook endgame. So I think the opponents are square: one missed a win, the other gave away a considerable advantage. As I see it, these opponents are a complete match."  
The gravity center of the Semifinals shifted to the tie-break. Pogonina and Cramling's first game was fairly equal, but at one point Pia set up an unpleasant attack with her knight, which could have made the game difficult for Black. But this did not happen, and the game soon ended in a draw by move repetition. 

In the second game, Natalia, same as in the classical games, got a promising attacking position, and Pia had to defend. But the realization of the advantage was not as quick as the spectators had expected. 
Pogonina – Cramling

Here Natalia thought that after 28. Re7+ Kg8 29. Re8 Black would have an attack against the king on h1, so she played 28.Re8?, complicating her task significantly. A completely excusable oversight after three grueling matches with last-chance wins and tie-breaks! Nevertheless, after winning an endgame with rooks and opposite-colored bishops on move 116, Pogonina became the World Championship's first finalist.

The match between Harika Dronavalli and Mariya Muzychuk was even more dramatic. Surprisingly, Harika was the second Indian player (after Humpy Koneru) against whom Mariya miraculously saved a hopeless position and even won them. This cannot be accounted for by anything other than huge luck.

In the first rapid game, Harika, playing White, launched a powerful attack and only had to find a couple of accurate moves before bringing the point home.

Dronavalli — Muzychuk

White would have had a major advantage after 33. Bc1, with Black having to give the extra piece back and defend a dreary endgame with a pawn less. But Harika played 33. Qf3?!, and after 33...Qb7 she made a blunder – 34. Rc2?, walking into a fork. The game soon ended with Mariya taking the victory.

In the next game, Mariya won a pawn, but Harika was able to retort with a devastating counterplay. Black missed the strongest continuation at one point, but was able to win a strong-willed victory.

In the first 10/10 game, Harika had a considerable edge and then won two pawns. In the ensuing queen endgame, it seemed that it was time for Black to resign, but Mariya put up such stubborn resistance that Harika made a one-move blunder, and a theoretically drawn pawn endgame resulted. Having made a draw in a winning position, the Indian seemed unable to recover and lost the second game virtually without a fight.

As a result, Russia's Natalia Pogonina and Ukraine's Mariya Muzychuk will fight for the champion's crown, thus proving wrong Sergei Shipov's pre-start forecast that an Asian player would triumph in the Sochi knockout event.

April 1 is a day off at the tournament, after which the final match will begin. It will consist of four classical games and, if necessary, a tie-break.