29 November 2016

Once upon a freezing winter day...

The start of the FIDE Women's Grand Prix in Khanty-Mansiysk in the Review of Eteri Kublashvili.

While the World Championship passions run high in New York with both chessic and circumchessic worlds discussing each game between two "Ks" and the mass media eagerly devouring each and every Champion and Challenger's gesture and word (in that exact order) in an attempt to present the information as quickly and vividly as possible, Khanty-Mansiysk has given start to the final stage of the FIDE Women's Grand Prix.  

Why is this tournament so crucial for the women's chess? A winner of the series automatically qualifies for the match against the World Champion, this being not Hou Yifan but a player to take the FIDE Knockout World Championship in Iran. This might as well be Hou, if she decides to play in Tehran (unless the Chinese woman is scared off by the topic of "hijabgate", so hotly debated across the Internet) and wins it.

Before the start of the tournament the series was being topped by Humpy Koneru, but she and Zhao Xue do not participate in Khanty-Mansiysk, the latter of the two being so far the third in the overall standings. This lack is compensated by another four qualification candidates featuring in the event: Ju Wenjun, Alexandra Kosteniuk, Valentina Gunina and Harika Dronavalli. This competition is so crucial in the women's chess calendar that the Chinese admitted feeling out of balance emotionally exactly for that reason.

The Ugra capital embraced its participants and guests with 360C below zero - something of a warm hug. When leaving the airport premises you could feel like turning into an icicle should you stop moving. It is hard to imagine what it was like for the representatives of warm countries... However, it soon got warmer and they could even take a walk out-of-doors.

The chess tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk is traditionally organized on the highest of levels. The chief arbiter is Rathinam Anantharam (India), assisted by Mikhail Krjukov (Russia).

Round one was visited by the Ugra Governor Natalia Komarova, who, together with Geoffrey Borg, FIDE Chief Executive Officer, made the first move in table one game Pogonina - Girya.

The home-field advantage definitely plays into Olga's hands since she won game one from her national teammate to become one of the tournament leaders. Olga made draws in rounds two and three and defeated the tournament start underdog Lela Javakhishvili in round four to join into the share of 1-3 places with Valentina Gunina and Nino Batsiashvili.

Valentina Gunina takes no prisoners, which is something she is well known for. Having started with 2 out of two by defeating Lela Javakhishvili and Almira Skripchenko, Valentina slipped in round three against Sarasadat Khademalsharieh. However, in round four the Russian came back by defeating a sole leader Nino Batsiashvili to rejoin the share of first.

Prior to going down to Gunina Batsiashvili had a clean row of victories over Bela Khotenashvili, Dronavalli Harika and Alexandra Kosteniuk. It is worth noting that it is Nino's first time in Khanty-Mansiysk, which is also true for the guest from Iran.

Trailing half a point behind the leaders are Ju Wenjun and Sarasadat Khademalsharieh. The first two rounds saw the Chinese opting for rather aggressive openings, although later on she turned back to her usual positional style of play to make two draws in rounds three and four. Sara went through a very testing game against Alexandra Kosteniuk, alternatively teetering on the brinks of defeat and victory. She then went on to show her mettle by outperforming Valentina Gunina. In round four the Iranian player had no problems standing her ground as Black against Elmira Skripchenko.

Having scored fifty percent are Alexandra Kosteniuk and Harika Dronavalli, other players' standings are inferior to that. However, anything can happen with seven rounds to go yet. With November 23 being a scheduled rest day at the tournament, the recreation program embraces a tour of the city and a visit to the legendary mammoths, as well as attending a hockey match "Ugra" - "Admiral".

Running in parallel to the FIDE Women's Grand Prix is the men's Ugra Governor's Cup, held at the Ugra Chess Academy. A 26-participant event is topped by Denis Khismatullin with six rounds behind already.

The official tournament website operates with mind-boggling speeds, uploading the majority of pictures almost immediately after their taking, quickly populating the "Video Archive" section (the game broadcasting is carried out by the "Chesskast" company, while the English-language stream is ensured by Evgeny Miroshnichenko), quickly displaying the results and all other relevant data. Being a press officer of the tournament, I express deep gratitude to all representatives of the AI "UgraMegaSport" press service working for our tournament.