Believing in Miracles
Maxim Notkin reviews Rounds 4-6 of the FIDE Women's Candidates Tournament
The players needed no warm-up after the restart. Round 4 and 5 ended with 50% decisive games, and the pre-rest day round once again entertained us with battles without mercy. This makes my work as a commentator especially tricky – a single game sometimes has as many moments of interest as a whole round in a men's elite competition. Therefore, some intricacies will unavoidably be left behind.
Under such pressure keeping one's cool is difficult, and somehow the youngest participant of the event, Aleksandra Goryachkina, does a better job than her colleagues. She combined the starting 2.5/3 with the same amount on the second stretch, and is leading the pack with the respectable 1.5 point margin. Not that she plays very smoothly, but she does not make irretrievable mistakes.
A. Muzychuk– A. Goryachkina
Black's approach to a standard Italian setup is rather experimental – she delayed castling and moved her a-pawn to a5 rather than a6... After the white bishop retreated from c4 to b3, creating a positional threat of Nc4, Black defended against it by с7-с6.
Now 10.d4 poses a new question: how to hold the center? Computer analysis suggests that giving it up may actually be better. According to the machine, Black is just fine after 10...exd4 11.cxd4 Bg4, and therefore it advises to fight for the initiative with a non-standard11.Nc4!?
10...Bc7 looks in line with Black's strategy for this game, however, in order to go for it, one needs to find a tricky intermediate move five moves ahead: 11.dxe5 dxe5 12.Nc4 Qxd1 13.Rxd1 Nxe4 14.Ncxe5 0-0 15.Nxf7,
15...Nc5! (after15...Rxf7 16.Ne5! Black loses material).
Aleksandra chooses another natural way of protecting the pawn.
11.dxe5. 11.Nc4 is stronger, as 11...Bc7 is unpleasantly met by12.dxe5. In the case of12...Nxe5 13.Ncxe5 dxe5 14.Qxd8+ White picks up one of the pawns, either onе5 or onf7. And if12...dxe5 13.Qxd8+ Kxd8, then White can utilize weakening of the squares f7 andb6by the energetic14.Ng5 Rf8 15.Be3 h6 16.Nb6!
Similar motives can be heard at the background for the next couple of moves.
11...dxe5 12.Nc4 Qxd1.The engines advise to back off: 12...0-0.
13.Rxd1 Bc7. After13...Be6 14.Nd6+ Ke7 15.Bxe6 Kxe6 (15...fxe6 16.b3! followed byBa3) White gets a winning advantage by giving a check:16.Ng5+.However, had the knights on f3 and g6 been gone, Black would have been fine. Therefore, the best move here is 11...Nxe5! 12.Nxe5 dxe5.
The last critical moment of this game. By attacking the same weaknesses on f7 and b6 by 14.Ng5 0-0 15.Be3 h6 16.Bb6!, White could keep the initiative. However, Anna went for14.Be3 Bg4, and lost her advantage. A tactical outburst followed, and in the resulting equal ending Black's extra pawn had no meaning.
In the next round, Goryachkina perplexed Tan with a curious tactical idea, but then quickly proceeded to a dry and technical game.
A.Goryachkina– Tan Zhongyi
The most popular continuation in this Catalan ending is 14.Bd2, however, Aleksandra's14.Bb2 is also not unheard of.
14.Na5 Bb4 (14...f5, Gunina-Kashlinskaya, Russian superfinal, Novosibirsk2016; 14...Bd7!?) 15.Nc4 (15.Bd2, Rapport-Yu Yangyi, 2019) 15...Bd7 16.Rb1!?
One must start calculating the candidate moves with 16...Nc3, however, knowing that your opponent already did it at home makes it very uncomfortable.
My brief analysis shows that White has nothing after 17.Rxb4 Nxd1 18.Bd2 Rac8 19.Bxb7 Rc7 and next to nothing after17.Bd2! Nxe2+ (after17...Nxb1 18.Bxb4 Rfc8 19.Ne5 she gets two pieces for a rook) 18.Kf1 Bxd2 19.Kxe2 (a cure mating motif shows up after 19.Rxd2 Nc3 20.Rxb7 Rab8!) 19...Bg5 20.Rxb7. The computer also suggests16...Bb5!? Tan went for the third best line.
16...Ba4 17.Rf1 Bc3 18.Bxd5. Both 18.Ne3or18.e4 with a cherry on top18...Bc2 19.Na3! (19.Rxb7 Bd3) 19...Bxb1 20.Nxb1 would be a lot more combative.
After the text, a four rook ending arose. The former World Champion handled it rather carelessly, probably considering it a dead draw.
32...Rf6. Had Black shown more precision, she could obtain this position with the g7-pawn standing on g6 and the f8-rook placed on a more active square. Here 32...Rd6should be preferred, in order to meet33.g4 h5 34.g5 with34...g6.
33.g4 h5 34.g5 Rf4 35.Kg2!
An excellent resource! White threatens to box the rook byе2-е4, and after35...Rxh4 36.e4 only 36...Kh7 saves Black from an immediate resignation but it seems to lose anyway. However, there is35...Rf5 36.e4, and now 36...Rb5 allows to hold, similar to the line mentioned above.
The game saw 35...Rd4?! 36.g6. White won a pawn and created a passed pawn on the e-file. Black's defensive task became much more difficult, and eventually Tan cracked under the pressure.
48...Kf6? 48...Kf8 is the only chance, and in theory Black survives after 49.e5 (49.Kg5 Rxf3 50.Kxg6 Rf4) 49...Re1 50.Kg5 Rxe5+ 51.Kxg6, however, saving an endgame against h- and f-pawns is never easy in practice.
49.e5+ Ke6 50.Ra6+ Kf7 51.Kg5! Utilizing the fact that Black cannot play51...Rxf3, as52.Rf6+ transposes to a won pawn ending, White infiltrated to h6, won the g6-pawn and easily converted her two extra pawns.
There were many twists and turns in the game between heroines of the start, so we will disregard positional nuances, as promised.
White generally had an upper hand in the middlegame, and managed to break in prior to the control.
N. Dzagnidze– A. Goryachkina
Black just defended against the Ba4 threat byQb7-b5. Playing42.Bb3, White could renew it, bearing in mind the elegant Nb1-c3 andalso throwing in the idea of the g3-g4 break.Nana had similar ideas in mind, but her execution took more time and allowed activation of the enemy forces.
42.a4 Qa6 43.Bb3 Qc8 44.a5 Ne8 45.Qg6+ Kh8 46.g4 Ng7 47.Ba4 f4.
The computer suggests to forget about safety and go all out:48.Qxc6 Qxg4+ 49.Kf1 Qf5 (Black cannot afford losing thed5-pawn here) 50.Qa8+ Nf8 51.Ke1 with good winning chances.
The supposedly restricting 48.Kh3 allows Black to start regrouping: 48...Ne6. As soon as she plays ...Nhf8,the queen will be set free. Therefore, Dzagnidze's decision to sacrifice a piece cannot be blamed. However, by stubbornly keeping to play for a win, she lost her guard.
49.Nxe4 fxe3 50.fxe3 dxe4 51.Qxe4 Nf6 52.Qe5. White seizes control over the f4-square in order to avoid52.Qxc6 Nf4+ 53.exf4 Qxg4+ 54.Kh2 Qxf4+.
53.Bd1? 53.Bb3 Nf4+ 54.exf4 Qxg4+ 55.Kh2 Qh4+ 56.Kg2 gxf4 promises equality, and53.Kg3 is met by53...Nxc5. However, protecting the g4-pawn twice turns out to be a mistake!
53...Qa6! The bishop gets attacked ond1.
54.Bf3 (54.Qxe6 Qf1+ 55.Kg3 Qxd1) 54...Qf1+. The machine patiently continues 54...Kf7!, then takes onа5 and proceeds with an extra asset. However, the text move also gives Black the initiative, both on the board and psychologically.
55.Bg2 Qf2 56.Bxc6 Qh4+ 57.Kg2 Qxg4+ 58.Kf2 Kf7.
By trading a couple of minor pieces by 59.Bd5,White would reduce the number of defenders of the enemy king and could still hope for a positive outcome. Nana kept the bishop to fight the passed g-pawn, but her idea did not work, and eventually the pawn promoted.
The day before, the Georgian player also cracked under the pressure after having a very promising position for quite a while.
A. Kosteniuk– N. Dzagnidze
33...Nd5 followed by...g6, f5, Kf7(in various orders) gives Black a strong center. However, the knight suddenly begins to run away.
33...Nb5 34.a4 Na3 (34...Nd4)35.Bd1 Kf7 36.Bc1 Rh4? After36...Nb1 Black still has nothing to worry about, although the gains of such cavalry raid are questionable.
37...Kg6? Nana's hand seems to be possessed by demons. 37...Ke8 is the lesser of evil. Now White can either take an ending with two minor pieces for a rook after 38.Nf3 Re4 39.Bxa3 g6! 40.Rxe5+ Nxe5 (40...fxe5? 41.Bc2) 41.Nxe5 Rxe5 42.Bb4or41...Re1+ 42.Kh2 Rxd1 43.Nxc4 Rd3 44.Bb2 Kf7, or else go for 38.Bxa3 fxg5 39.Bg4 Rh6 40.Rxg5 Bxd6 41.Bb2.
38.Nf3! Re4 (38...Kxf5 39.Nxh4+) 39.g4!
Nearly all Black's pieces are attacked.
39...Nb1 (39...Bxd6 40.Rd5) 40.Bc2 Nc3 41.Nxe5+ fxe5 42.Rf3. Black resigns.
On the next day it was Alexandra who was on the receiving end. And her trouble began with a centralizing knight move! Chess is difficult indeed.
M. Muzychuk– A. Kosteniuk
Since 34.Nxa6 is not yet a threat due to 34...Rxd3, it is sensible to prevent f2-f4 by33...Bg7.
33...Nd4?! 34.Bxd4 Rxd4 (34...exd4 35.f4 is unattractive) 35.Nxa6 Rxc4. It is feasible that35...Bb5 36.Rxd4 exd4 37.Nxc7 Bxd3 is better than the text.
36.Rxc4 Bb5. After36...Rxd3 Mariya could fulfill Nana's idea: 37.Nb8! Bb5 38.Rxc7 Rb3 39.h3 (not blundering mate afterRb1+) with an extra pawn and some winning chances.
37.Nxc7 Bxc4 38.dxc4 Rd4? Once again the losing side gives up a bit prematurely. After38...Be7 39.c5 (if39.Nd5, Black survives with the opposite-colored bishops: 39...Rxd5 40.exd5 Bxb4 41.Bc8 Bxa5 42.Bxb7 Bb6) 39...Kf8 Black can still fight.
40.Bc8! Rxc4 41.Bxb7, and the passed pawns are unstoppable.
Kateryna Lagno improved her chances significantly during the second stretch, scoring 2.5 points in three games, just like Goryachkina.
Lagno was a moral winner of the opening duel with Mariya Muzychuk.
M. Muzychuk– K. Lagno
The exchange sacrifice employed by Lagno had been employed in practice, but it clearly surprised Muzychuk, thus giving Black a significant advantage on the clock. Initially Mariya decided against returning the material, which would minimize the risk (as in Fedorchuk-Giri, 2012), but then changed her mind. The consistent and not especially hard to find 16.Re1 would force Black to work to show compensation for the material. Perhaps Kateryna would bring her queen to g6 and move the rook to f8, but there are no concrete threats in sight, while White has a number of ways of solidifying and fighting for the initiative.
After 16.Nd2 Bxe4 17.fxe4 Qd7 the position is objectively even, but White's task is more difficult due to an exposed king. Combining clever maneuvering with not trading the queens, Lagno achieved a harmonious attacking setup.
27.Qe3. The computer recommends 27.Qxa7! – not because it is greedy, but to vacate the e3-square for a knight. Then 27...d5 28.f3 Bxg3 29.hxg3 Ne5 can be met by30.Rf1 dxe4 31.fxe4 g6 32.Ne3.
27...d5 28.f3 Bxg3 29.hxg3 Ne5. 29...dxe4! 30.fxe4 Ne5 is safer, as now White has to play 31.Qe2.The text allows her to get away by tactical means: 30.Rd1 with the idea30...dxe4 31.Qxe4!
30.Re1? This abstract maneuver failed to improve the interaction between White's defending pieces. Some of her next moves were also imprecise, but even with the perfect play her chances weren't great.
30...dxe4 31.fxe4 (31.Qxe4 Qxf5 32.Qxe5 Qxf3+) 31...g6 32.Nd4 c5 33.Nb5.
33...Nd3! The unfortunate position of the rook costs White a tempo.
34.Rb1. The machine gives34...Nf2! aiming at35...Qe6. 35.Rf1 is refuted by35...Ng4!, while35.Nc7 is met by the unexpected 35...g5!, and the queen finds the passage via h6.
Instead, Kateryna simply played 34...Qf2+ 35.Qxf2 Rxf2+ 36.Kg1 Rxb2 andeasily converted an extra pawn in the endgame.
The older of the Muzychuk sisters was a hair's breadth away from a loss against Lagno.
K. Lagno – A. Muzychuk
The computer evaluation puts one is disbelief. How on earth can it start with +2 after 18.Ng3! Bxc2 19.Qxc2 and approach +3 as the machine goes deeper?
It turns out, Black is unable to find an adequate defense against a brutal kingside attack: Re4-g4 andNh5 (Nf5). For instance,19...Re8 is met by20.Rxe8+ Qxe8 21.Nf5 (much stronger than the immediate21.Qxc7 Nc6) 21...Bb6 (if 21...Qd7, then the rook is being replaced by the queen: 22.Qe4! Rd8 23.Qg4) 22.Bd2, threateningRe1and Ne7+.
All this inconvenience is caused by the knight that jumped to g4, and after h2-h3 refused to come back to f6 and went to h6 andf7 instead. Not only it is completely useless where it is, it also causes harm, disrupting teamplay of other pieces. The h-pawn is partially responsible as well – pushing it a move before was timed poorly.
After 18.b3 Nc6 19.a3 Nh8 Anna managed to find the traveler some use, although it took a couple more of Kateryna's mistakes to eventually equalize.
We will keep the third game of the Vice-World Champion for deserts. Now let us analyze with sympathy and compassion the games of Gunina, who fell on last place after the Round 6.
N. Dzagnidze – V. Gunina
Nana chose the unambitious Exchange variation against the French. Normally Black regains a pawn by 7...Nbd7 8.Be2 Nb6,and if White tries to hold onto it by 9.Bg5 Be7 10.Bxf6 Bxf6 11.Qb3, then Black switches targets by 11...Bg4.Instead, Valentina goes for a much less popular move 7...Bb4, which is after 8.Bg5 normally associated with 8...Qe8+ 9.Be2 Nxd5 – this is how Evgeny Tomashevsky handled it in 1999 at the European U12 championship, for instance.
8...Nbd7 9.Be2 h6 10.Bh4 Nb6 11.0-0 Bxc3? Even without a tempo 11...Be7 gives Black a more or less decent game. The text move reminds me of a famous Russian grandmaster explaining creative principles of another one: “He has never missed a chance to exchange his bishop for the opponent's knight while improving the opponent's pawn structure”.
12.bxc3 Nbxd5 13.Rc1 c6 14.Ne5.
Black has clear problems with her pieces arrangement. The diagonal pin is troublesome, and if the queen moves away, the d5-knight can be challenged by с3-с4, undermining another knight. This is why Gunina decided to play the committal 14...g5. After 15.Bg3 Ne4 16.Bc4 Kg7 17.Re1 Nxg3 (both captures onс3 are refuted easily) 18.hxg3White lost the bishop pair, but the permanent weaknesses of Black's kingside is more important.
18...Be6. Perhaps18...f6 19.Nd3 b6 deserved attention, at least temporary driving the knight away.
And now Valentina undertakes an awkward maneuver, which gives her opponent the decisive tempo to regroup.
19...Qf6? (this square belongs to the knight) 20.c4 Ne7? 21.Rc3! White threatensRf3, winning a piece. The d4-d5 break becomes more dangerous as well.
21...h5 22.Rf3 Qh6 23.d5 cxd5 24.cxd5 Rad8 25.Qa1, and it was over in a few more moves.
Black's kingside defenses failed to impress in the following game, too.
A. Muzychuk– V. Gunina
15...Ne7? Once again the knight jump to e7 deserves a question mark. Black's regrouping costs time and yields nothing. Moving rooks on the back rank or pushing a kingside pawn to relieve the knight of its duties of protecting on h7 is better.
16.Ne5. The construction was are already familiar with.
16...Nc8 17.Re3 Nd6 18.Rh3 h6 19.Re1 b5. In light of the coming events, 19...Rfe8 is clearly superior.
20.Qc1. Nowa sacrifice on h6 is always in the air.
20...Nfe4 21.f3 Ng5 22.Rg3.
22...f6. The attack could be stopped by 22...Nf5,but it loses the d5-pawn after 23.Bxf5 exf5 24.Qf4! f6 25.Ng6 Qxf4 26.Nxf4.
23.Ng6 Rfe8 24.h4 Ngf7. Disadvantages of having a knight on f7 combined with the h7-h6 were well known to Anna. 24...Nf5 also fails to please Black, as after 25.Rg4 Nh7 (25...h5 26.hxg5 hxg4 27.fxg4 Nd6 28.gxf6 gxf6 29.Qf4) 26.Nf4 White wins at least a pawn.
25.Nf4 g5. Here we go again, g7-g5, but there is nothing better left.
26.hxg5 fxg5 27.Nxe6, and Muzychuk converted her advantage.
Between these two painful losses, Valentina had another big disappointment.
V. Gunina– M. Muzychuk
A highly original opening led to a rather dull position. Black should now play 24...Rxd1 25.Rxd1 Rd8.
24...Nd3. The d7-rook is loose, and White gains time to activate her pieces.
25.b4 Be7 26.Nb5 Rhd8 27.Nd4. Now 27...e5 loses an exchange to 28.Ne6 or28.Qe6+ Kf8 29.Nc6.Black holds only with tactics: 27...Ne5! 28.Qxe6+ Kf8 29.f4 Rxd4 30.Rxd4 Nf3+ 31.Rxf3 Qxf3 32.Re4 Re8 (weaker is32...Rd1+ 33.Be1, and the bishop must be protected in a more awkward manner – 33...Rd7) 33.Bd4 (forced due to...Bc5+ threat) 33...Qd1+ 34.Kg2 Qxa4.
The move Mariya played could lose on the spot.
27...Bxb4? 28.Qxe6+ Kf8 29.Rxd3. White also wins by29.Bxb4+ Nxb4 30.Qg4 Kf7 31.Rfe1! – threatening32.Ne6 Rxd1 33.Qxg7+ Ke8 34.Nc7#, White wins material.
29...Bxc3 30.Nf5! Qb7.
And here, as strange as it may sound, Gunina was let down by her eye for tactics. White wins with the elegant and not overly difficult combination 31.Qe7+! Rxe7 32.Rxd8+ Kf7 33.Nd6+ Ke6 34.Nxb7 Rxb7.
Valentina opted for 31.Nh6 gxh6 32.Rxc3 with a slightly better major piece ending. The adventures did not end there, however, as both players were in an aggressive mood.
44...Re1. Defending against a check on е7, Black in turn tries to drive the enemy rook away from g4. The computer shows another brilliant attempt to utilize White's exposed king: 44...Rh1!? with the idea 45.Re7+? Kh8! 46.Rxd7 Rxh2#, however, the only defense 45.g4! makes a draw. The most spectacular way to equality is 45...Rxh2+ 46.Kg3 Qd3+ 47.Re3 Rh3+! 48.Kxh3 Qf1+ 49.Kh4 (49.Kg3 Qg1+ 50.Kh3 Qh1+) 49...Qxf2+ 50.Kh3 hxg4+ 51.Kxg4 f5+ 52.Kh3 Qf1+ with the perpetual.
45.Rd4 Qe7 46.Qf5 Re5 47.Qd3 Qf7 48.f4 Re7 49.c5 Qg6 50.Qd1.
50...Re1? Black overdoes the trick, and it can backfire. 50...Rc7 leads to a draw after 51.Rd5 Qg4+ 52.Qxg4+ hxg4 53.Kxg4 a4 and after51.Rd7+ Rxd7 52.Qxd7+ Kf8 53.c6 f5 54.h3 Qf6+ 55.Kxh5 Qg6+ as well.
Now 52.Rd2 creates critical problems for Black. White's active king secures her a winning rook ending after, say, 52...Rc1 53.Rd7+ Kh8 54.f5 Rc4+ 55.g4.
However, the game saw52.Rd7+ Kf8 53.Qxg6 Rxh2+ 54.Kg4 hxg6 55.Rxa7, and a draw is inevitable.
We shall conclude the report with the game that made many online spectators bracing for miraculous survival.
Tan Zhongyi – K. Lagno
At this stage it was hard to expect that White will even need to think about survival.
The black queen has just been driven back, and White is not going to stop the chase. The correct approach is28.Rc1!, creating a threat of Bc2. Black has to reply by something meager like 28...Be8, and then after29.Bc2 Qd7 30.bxa5 White's d- and f-pawn can go forward and can hardly be stopped.
The former World Champion comes from the other side: 28.Re4?, but Black finds 28...axb4 29.g4 Nh4! 30.Qg3 Qg6 31.Bd4.
And after 31...Bxg4! the hunter becomes a prey. Had White played 31.Be5 the move before, this tactical shot would not work due to 32.Qxg4 Qxg4+ 33.Nxg4 f5 34.Rc4, but now the tactical madness yields Black a superior ending: 32.f5 Nf3+ 33.Qxf3 (33.Kg2 Bxf5) 33...Bxf5+ 34.Rg4 Bxg4 35.Qxg4 Qxg4+ 36.Nxg4 f6.
The conversion process went smooth for a while, and there was no doubt about the game outcome.
However, in this position Black missed a chance to bring the backward c-pawn into play by 52...с5,and her opponent was able to build a fortress.
The fortress is not impregnable. First Black must protect the f4-pawn by 67...Rf8, and then prepare and carry out с7-с5.Eventually she should overcome the obstacles and win. However, instead of slow and methodical way of winning, Kateryna opted for a forced line that brought her a much quicker victory.
67...Rxa2!? 68.Bxa2 Kc2 69.Bxf4 Kb2.
Tan continued 70.Bc1+? Kxa2 71.Nf4 Bxf4 72.Bxf4 b3, and resigned here.
Alas, the failed to realize the potential of her knight. After 70.Bxd6 cxd6 71.Ne3 (or even71.Nh4!) 71...Kxa2 72.Nf5 b3 73.Nxd6 b2 74.Ne4 white pieces are magically all over the place, and the game ends in a draw after 74...Kb3 (74...b1Q?? 75.Nc3+) 75.d6 Kc2 76.d7 b1Q 77.d8Q.