18 September 2019

Mixed Valence

Dmitry Kryakvin reviews Rounds 1-3 of the FIDE Women's Grand Prix leg in Skolkovo

Twelve very strong chess players have come to the FIDE stage in Skolkovo, five of which are flying the Russian flag: Ekaterina Lagno, Valentina Gunina, Alina Kashlinskaya, and two Alexandras - Kosteniuk and Goryachkina, but the number of guests is higher. On a visit to the famous scientific city are Humpy Koneru and Harika Dronavalli, the reigning world champion Ju Wenjun, as well as Pia Cramling, Elisabeth Paehtz, Antoaneta Stefanova, and Marie Sebag! It is no wonder that an outstanding lineup of this caliber produces less decisive output than an average women’s competition; nevertheless, there is no lack of content in the games being played now. The most charged content is delivered by Valentina Gunina, who is in the lead going into round four. However, first things first.

Round one gave us as many as three decisive results; nevertheless, many a player were noted for their scientific approach in aiming at minimum risk, trying to get a small plus and develop it into something significant...This is purely men's chess, so untypical for women! Even the many-seasoned Pia Cramling was unprepared for such a turn of events and went down as White to the reigning world champion.


Cramling (2487) – Ju Wenjun (2576)

Round 1

A unique chess player, you want to cheer for Pia Cramling in any event, and added to this sympathy this time was also her conceptually correct choice of the opening - the Trompowsky! Sadly for the Swedish player's fandom, Ju Wenjun proved well prepared, having no troubles achieving equality, seizing the initiative and gradually bringing the point home.

 There is no arguing her high class as a world champion!  


A pair of bishops in action. The Chinese player's performance in the next twenty moves was virtually ideal.  

25.Nc5 Bf7 26.g4  

Cramling undermines Black's strong pawn center, but this is no big deal for Ju Wenjun as she is about to launch her queenside offensive.  

26…Bd6 27.Na4 fxg4 28.Bxg4 b5 29.Nc3 Bxb4  

A bishop pair advantage is that you can trade one of them when the need arises. Now White is in the defensive down a pawn, banking on the fact that with so little material on the board not everything is lost. However, Ju is of a different opinion.  

30.axb4 Nc6 31.Ke2 Nxb4 32.Bc8 Bg6 33.Bb7 Kd6 34.Ke3 Kc5  

Ten moves later and having committed not a single obvious error, Cramling's position has downgraded from substantially worse to losing. 

35.Bc8 a5 36.Bd7 Nc2+ 37.Kd2 Nd4  

Not only does this subtle relocation mount the knight into a safe square outpost, but also removes it from the way of own pawns.  

38.Ke3 Kc4 39.Kd2 b4 40.Na4 Kb3 41.Kc1 Ne2+ 42.Kd2 Nf4 43.Bb5 e4 44.Nc5+  

There is no marking time any longer, and Cramling gives up yet another pawn.  

44…Kxb2 45.Nb7


This is the only world champion's decision to be slightly frowned upon, even if unlikely to let the victory go. Slightly more precise is 45...Nd3!, since after 46.Nxa5 Nxf2 White will have to gradually sac both minor pieces to stop Black's passers from raging forward.  

46.Nxa5 Nd4 47.Bc4 

A better chance to bail out was in 47.Nc4+!? Ka2 48.Ba4 Nf3+ 49.Ke3 Nxh2 50.Ne5, and the activity of white pieces would have given him certain chances to escape in one piece.  

47...Nf3+ 48.Ke3 Nxh2 49.Kf4 Nf3 50.Nb3 Kc3 51.Bg8 Nd2 52.Nc5 Kd4 53.Ne6+ Kd3 54.Kg3 b3 

Now White has to give up a minor piece. Cramling resigned shortly after. 

It is not long before Ju Wenjun is to meet Aleksandra Goryachkina to defend her champion's title. The above game testifies to the Chinese player’s excellent form, and Goryachkina's performance in the same round also proves that everything is in full swing to prepare for the upcoming match.


Stefanova (2491) – Goryachkina (2564)

Round 1

1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Na3  



Although not a novelty, this continuation is a relatively rare guest in the tournament praxis that seems to put to shelf the early knight’s plunge to the rim of the board.  


I have come upon an amazing game featuring 5.Nxe5. It is worth mentioning that this correspondence game between high-ranking players finished on move 21 in Black’s favor: 5…Bb4+ 6.Bd2 Bxa3 7.Qa4+ b5 8.Qxa3 Qxd4 9.Qf3 Qxe5 10.Qxa8 Qxb2 11.Rd1 0–0 12.Qxb8 c3 13.Bc1 Qb1 14.Ba3 c2 15.Rc1 Qxa2 16.Qxa7 b4 17.e4 bxa3 18.Qxc7 Qb1 19.Qxc2 Qb4+ 20.Qc3 Qxe4+ 21.Be2 Qxg2 0-1, as in Boger - Fagerström, ICCF 2014. It is next to impossible to win anything in correspondence nowadays, let alone as Black and in twenty moves at that. I have no doubts that Goryachkina was well aware of the above game and the move made by Stefanova.  

5...exd4 6.Nxd4 c5 7.Ne2 Qxd1+ 8.Kxd1 Nc6 9.Nc3  

White has no time to recapture the pawn as he first needs to take care of the e4-square against the black knight.  

9…a6 10.Nxc4 b5 11.Nb6 Bg4+ 12.f3  



On the one hand, Black is in good shape after 12...Rd8+ followed by Be6, preventing White from untangling her pieces; on the other hand, we would not have had such a fantastic finale but for this slight error.  


Antoaneta Stefanova is not to be asked twice, exploiting any opponent’s inaccuracy without hesitation. As the tables are turning, it is now Goryachkina's turn to come up with precise play.  

13…Rxb6 14.axb5 axb5 15.Ra8+ Kd7 

A semi-engine-like 15...Nd8!?, intending to castle short, was beyond Aleksandra; instead, she sends her king forward notwithstanding any pins.  

16.fxg4 Nxg4 17.Kc2 Nf2 18.Rg1 Nb4+ 19.Kb1 Nfd3 20.g3  

So far, Goryachkina has been following the precepts of old masters (being up material, she uses pieces already in action rather than developing the underdeveloped ones), but now it’s time to return the pawn to complete the development.  

20…g6 21.Bh3+ Kc7 22.Rf1 f6 

22...f5 must have baffled Aleksanda in view of a natural 23.e4, but there is no keeping the extra material anyway, whereas after 23…Nxc1 24.Rxc1 Bg7 Black is in time to finish development. Although more solid, the f6 pawn move is slightly passive and allows White to build up on her initiative.  

23.Bg2 c4 

Even with a loss of a tempo, it was not yet late to go for 23...Nxc1 24.Kxc1 f5 25.g4 Rb8, but Goryachkina sticks to her plan, intending to post the bishop to c5.  

24.Bd2 Rb8 25.Rxb8 Kxb8 26.Rxf6 Bc5 27.Nxb5 Rd8  


The dust has settled, and White is up a pawn; on the other hand, there is a lack of thinking time, and all Black's pieces are in action. Having consumed her last seconds, Stefanova comes up with a seemingly winning move.   


The prophylactic 28.Na3 or 28.Nd4 was necessary towards getting a technically winning position due to a bishop pair and the exposed black king, but what is wrong with the text in the first place? A deadly check from b7 is a threat, after all...  


A nice stab! It comes as a reminder that the white king is as unsafe as his black counterpart.  

29.Rb7+ Kc8 30.Rc7+ Kb8 

White has a draw in her pocket, but who would take it after enjoying such a safe and easy game?   


White could have probed Black with 31.Bc1, agreeing to a draw by perpet after 31…Bxe3! However, Stefanova's followup error in time trouble proves fatal.  

31...Rd1+ 32.Ka2 Nc2!  

Black is the first to cash in! Despite having the move, an extra piece and an exposed position of the opponent’s king, White is unable to escape. Stefanova opted for 33.b3, and after 33…Nxb4+ 34.Kb2 Rd2+ 35.Kb1 Rxg2 went on to defend down a piece. Nevertheless, she had to resign some twenty moves later anyway.

Having started off with spectacular victories as Black, followed by two draws, Ju Wenjun and Alexandra Goryachkina are now going abreast. Their upcoming match is hard to predict, but their upcoming game in round ten is much looked forward to!

Valentina Gunina has yet to reach the world championship match, but her confidence and persistence over the board testify to her desire to achieve this goal in the near future. 

Gunina (2502) – Kashlinskaya (2487)

Round 1


Although down a pawn right now, who cares the material when it comes to Gunina's games?  

21.Rg1 Ne7  

Alina Kashlinskaya's decision to relocate the inactive knight to e4 is absolutely correct.  

22.Be1 Ng8 23.g4  

Not waiting for the opponent's knight to show up on f6, Gunina launches her g-pawn forward.  

23…Nf6 24.g5 

I am more than confident that something like 24.gxf5 exf5 25.Bxf5 Re8 never as much as crossed Gunina’s mind– why win back pawns when you can sac yet another one?  

24...Ne4 25.g6!? hxg6 26.Bh4 e5 

The following interesting line is offered by our “iron friend”: 26...Kh7!?, so that after 27.Rg2 Rh8 28.Rbg1 Kg8 not only is Black prepared to hide the king at the queenside, but to protect the g-pawn from h6 with the rook as well. Kashlinskaya has a different idea of giving back the loot to develop her c8-bishop. However, this idea is not without a drawback.  

27.dxe5 Be6 28.Rg2 Rac8 29.Rbg1 d4? 

For better or worse, Black is already obliged to go for 29...Kh7 30.Rxg6 Qxg6 31.Rxg6 Kxg6.  



The diagonal has been cleared for the bishop, but not completely as own e4-pawn is a spanner in the works of Black’s counterplay.  

30…fxe4 31.Rxg6 Bf5 32.R6g5 dxe3 

32...Rc7!? 33.Qd1 Qe6 34.Qxd4 Rd7 35.Qb2 g6 would have offered a feeble hope to escape. Now it turns out that Kashlinskaya's efforts to clear the pawn center only plays into the opponent queen’s hands.  

33.Qb2 Rg8 

As 33...Rc7 is no longer helping because of 34.Rxg7 Qxg7 35.Bf6!, the game enters the technical phase.  

34.e6! Bxe6 35.Qe5! Rge8 36.Rxg7 Black resigns.

Kosteniuk (2495) – Gunina (2502)

Round 2

1.e4 c6 2.Nc3 d5 3.Nf3 Bg4 4.h3 Bxf3 5.Qxf3 Nf6 6.g3 e6 7.Bg2 Nbd7 8.0–0  


This setup is a frequent guest at various tournaments Thus, Sergey Azarov and Arthur Gabrielian agreed a draw ten years ago after 8...Ne5 9.Qf4 Ng6 10.Qf3 Ne5. Needless to say, our principled girls will never go for a repetition, but Gunina’s followup exceeded all expectations.  


A novelty! Indeed, this is a big decision not so much in terms of chess as in terms of psychology.  

9.exd5 cxd5 10.Qe2 h4 11.g4 Be7 12.d4 Qb6  

The far-advanced h-pawn stops Black from castling short, producing ideas of the artificial castling instead.  


 The ex-world champion overlooks 13.g5! with the following lines, not hard to calculate: 13…Nh5 (a passive 13...Ng8 runs into a dangerous offensive arising after an explosive 14.g6!) 14.Bxd5 exd5 15.Nxd5 Qd6 16.Re1 0–0–0 17.Nxe7+ Kb8 18.Nf5 – and White’s edge is next to becoming decisive. Interestingly, the g4-g5 idea will be hanging like a Damocles sword over Black’s position for a few more moves!  

13...Rc8 14.a4 a6 15.a5 Qc7 16.Bd2 g6 17.Re1 Nb8 18.Bg5 

White does occupy the g5-square, but not with the right piece. After 18.g5 Nh5 19.Bxd5 Gunina would have needed to come up with some magic trickery, and even now it is not complete equality yet.  

18...Kf8 19.Na4

It is not yet late to crack down on d5 even if the line to calculate is no longer that clear-cut: 19.Bxd5 exd5 20.Qxe7+ Qxe7 21.Rxe7 Kxe7 22.Nxd5+ Kd6 23.Nxf6 Rxc2 24.Re1 Rxb2 25.Bf4+ Kc6 26.Re7 – White seems the one with initiative, but it is far from clear that everyone is prepared to go for a position like this (and this is only one of many continuations)

19...Nc6 20.Nb6 Rd8 21.Qd2 Kg7  

Black's regrouping is finally over! Now that the king is safe and the opponent’s pieces are biting on granite in the form of d5-pawn, Black can trade a couple of pieces and look for counterplay along the c-file.  

22.Bf4 Bd6 23.Bxd6 Qxd6 24.Ra3 Rhe8

Now it is Gunina’s turn to miss the strongest continuation: now (and later on, for example, on move 27) very strong is 24...Ne4!?, since 25.Bxe4 dxe4 26.c3 runs into a deadly 26…Ne5! with a family fork on f3.  

25.Rb3 Re7 26.Rbe3 Rc7 27.Rb3 Re7 28.Rbe3 Rde8 29.Rd1 Rd8  

Pressed for time, the opponents are marking time with their rooks, expecting each other to make some concessions. Kosteniuk was the first to falter.  

30.b3 Rc7 



Gunina’s aura is taking its toll once again and at the most opportune moment at that. 31.Na4, followed by Nc5, would have sealed the c-file, upon which Kosteniuk would have needed to come up with some precise defensive play, keeping the material balance level, at least.  

31...Nb4 32.c4 Nc2 33.c5 Qf4 34.Qe2 Nxe3 35.fxe3 Qg5, and no amount of defensive efforts from Kosteniuk was enough to bail out.  

So far, our European guests are keeping the situation under control - Elisabeth Paehtz's careful play resulted in three draws, whereas Cramling, Stefanova, and Sebag have scored minus one while fighting to the last bullet and playing real exciting chess.

Cramling (2487) – Stefanova (2491)

Round 2

Stefanova's opening has landed her slightly worse, and her sound reasoning convinced her to take proper measures to come back into the game.  


There is no saving the queenside, and Stefanova takes immediate aim at the kingside if not to checkmate, but at least to scare her opponent with such an idea.  

19.cxb6 axb6 20.Nc1  

20.Qd6 was also the way to go.  

20…Qe7 21.Nd3 Na5 22.Bxb6 Nc4 23.Qf4 Rc8 24.Bd4 Nxa3

Another piece of sound reasoning from Stefanova in that you have to suffer for something. Such active sorties as 24...Qe6 25.a4 Qh3 fail to a simple 26.g4.  

25.Rb8 Rb5 26.Rxc8+ Bxc8  

Up to that moment, Pia Cramling’s play was perfect, and no "tricks" worked for the Bulgarian player. Now it remains only to convert decent performance into material gains with some meticulous moves.  


The knight could have been bothered with a brutal 27.Ra1 h6 28.Nb4, as well as with a more aesthetic 27.c4! Nxc4 (27...Rb3 28.Bc5 Qd8 29.Nc1! – and the knight is doomed) 28.Qc7 Nd6 29.Bc5, resulting in a pin that would defy the unpinning powers of Harry Houdini, the Houdini engine and Alpha Zero put together.

27...Qe8 28.Bc5 Nc4 29.Bd4 

With all previous opportunities missed, finding 29.Bb4! d5 30.e4! with only seconds on the clock seems something out of this world. The game went on as follows:  

29...Na3 30.Ne5 f6 31.Nc4 Nxc4 32.Qxc4+ d5 33.Qc7 Bh3 34.f3 h5, and Stefanova managed to hold her ground in the opposite-colored bishops ending despite being down a pawn.  

In round three, the Indian players scored crucial victories as White.

Koneru (2560) – Kashlinskaya (2487)

Round 3

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Bb4 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bxf6 Qxf6 7.e3 0–0 8.Rc1 dxc4 9.Bxc4 c5 10.0–0 cxd4 11.Ne4 Qe7 12.exd4 Rd8  


Enjoying the family life, Humpy Koneru was away from chess and came back only awhile ago. However, her deep opening preparation in the trendy line shows that it was time well-spent.  


In 2015, Mamedyarov vs. Carlsen saw 13.Qe2 Nc6 14.Rfd1 Ba5 15.Ng3 Bb6 16.Qe4 Bd7 17.h4 Be8, in which White got nothing and was soon outplayed. I don’t know if the Qc2 move was deeply analyzed by the Kashlinskaya-Wojtaszek couple, but my weak engine immediately gives the bishop transfer to c6 as the first line.  

13...Bd7 14.a3 Ba5 15.b4 Bb6 16.Rfe1 Bc6 17.Rcd1 Qc7

It seems that until this moment the game was following Koneru's home analysis, and I failed to find a clear way to equality on close inspection: 17...Bxe4 18.Rxe4 Nd7 19.Rde1 Re8 20.d5 e5 21.Nxe5 Nxe5 22.Rxe5 Qxe5 23.Rxe5 Rxe5 24.g3 – and Black has problems.


Alina seems to have found a good continuation as she is ready to develop her knight on d7 and follow it by undermining with a7-a5. It all looks good, but the game is over in just three moves.  

18.Neg5! Bxf3 

It takes longer to win after 18...hxg5 19.Nxg5 g6 20.Nxf7!, but the overall outcome is beyond any doubt. Kashlinskaya allows her opponent to finish the game nicely.  

19.Qh7+ Kf8 20.Rxe6! Black resigns.  

Starting with two draws as Black, Harika Dronavalli's choice of the Bird opening 1.f4 sent Marie Sebag into long thinking. On  move twenty Harika snatched a pawn and calmly pressed her edge home.

Harika (2503) – Sebag (2450)

Round 3



In search of a psychological “breakthrough”, it was probably worth going for 12...e5 13.fxe5 Nxe5 14.Nxe5 Rxe5, although after 15.Bf4 Re6 16.g4 it is White who is in charge of the parade.  

13.Bd2 Rb8 14.Ne5 Ne7 

Since Black is unlikely to avoid material losses anyway, it was worth sacrificing a pawn for the sake of trading the dark-squared bishop: 14...Nb4!? 15.Bxb4 cxb4 16.Nc2 Nd7 with some compensation.  

The text allowed Harika to win and confidently convert a pawn after 15.b4 cxb4 16.Bxb4 Nf5 17.Nc2 Nd7 18.g4 Ne3 19.Nxe3 dxe3 20.Qxe3.  

No matter how hard the chess players try to play reliable and solid chess, intuition, armed with results of the first three rounds, suggests that 33% of decisive games is a temporary (or variable) phenomenon.  I am confident that many spectacular and decisive encounters will follow this warm-up.