6 April 2015

The Crown for Mariya

Eteri Kublashvili and Vladimir Barsky cover the Final Match of the Women's World Chess Championship.

On April 5, the world gained the 15th women's chess champion: Ukrainian grandmaster Mariya Muzychuk.

During the championship's final stage in Krasnaya Polyana, the weather was like a woman's mood, changeable and mysterious: on the first day it rained, then it was sunny, it snowed on the final match's third day and it was warm and sunny again on the fourth. Such was the stage that was set for the Women's World Chess Championship, a battle of nerves amid complete exhaustion. 

The final match was a duel between players who had completed a grueling marathon and tackled all the challenges. Muzychuk was able to save several hopeless positions against the rating favorite Humpy Koneru and Harika Dronavalli. Her fluke was so incredible that the thought crept in: "Mariya is so lucky that she is bound to win."

Natalia Pogonina, too, was able to regain the score in three energy-draining matches (against Marie Sebag, Zhao Xue and Pia Cramling) after losses in the first games and then win the tie-break matches. Western media even dubbed the Russian the Queen of Comebacks.

Remarkably, the two finalists are very good friends, which they mentioned at press conferences several times. 

Grandmaster Sergei Rublevsky analyzes the final match's first two games:

Pogonina – Muzychuk
Game 1

"A trendy Anti-Meran variation, quite reliable for Black, was played in the first game. Black came up with a novelty — 16…Be6; before that only 16…Nd7 had been played, as far as I am familiar with the theory. In principle, 16…Be6 is a decent move too, but there is nothing scary for White in it." 

"When Mariya brought her bishop back to c8 on move 22, White's advantage began to take shape. White had a very interesting move 23.Nc1, with the aim to move the knight to c5 and block the black pawns. I think that a greater advantage could have been achieved here rather than after 23.Kg1. Bringing the king to g1 was also an interesting move, however, because after that there is the threat of bishop g2 with a subsequent f2-f4,  and then Black needed to play a really subtle game to maintain equilibrium. She had to find the maneuver 24…Bd6 and then bring her bishop back to f8, but this is hardly within human capabilities; and Mariya failed to find this line. Meanwhile, after the trade-off on d8 Natalia, instead of playing 27.Nf4, should have made the straightforward move 27.Nd4!, which would have posed real problems for Black."

"The knight is heading for f5. But Natalia moved her knight in the wrong direction: to c5. As I already said, she should have done this earlier, on move 23. But now there was no point in playing so: White was unable to set up a blockade on c5."

"After 32…Qа5 it was Black who could have seized the initiative, but the game was drawn, which was a totally logical result. In a nutshell, the straight-forward move 27.Nd4 could have posed serious problems for Black, but Natalia failed to see that. Her opponent would have struggled to defend in time trouble."

Muzychuk — Pogonina
Game 2

"Natalia had an awesome position after the opening. The opponents seemed to exchange surprises: one played a Ruy Lopez instead of a Scotch Game, and the other responded with a Breyer system. I can say that Natalia was the one who understood the intricacies of the opening better and had an excellent position at some point. Unfortunately, Natalia got afraid of something and failed to make the move Nd7 to transfer the knight to е5. Black's position became passive."

"After the time trouble ended, the competitors' exhaustion probably showed, and the play was inadequate, as I would put it. What was happening on the board was beyond my understanding. In the end, Mariya proved the better and put on a decisive attack." 

"How can you explain Natalia's failure to remove the rook to d8 to avoid the a4 bishop's attack?"

"It's very difficult to understand, as well as White's totally unforced exchange sacrifice. I think Mariya could have won much more easily without giving the exchange away. And if Natalia had withdrawn the rook from the attack, the position would have changed completely."

"So White did not have any clear win there?"

"No, not right away. There was little time left, so the game could have finished with any result. In any case, Black should have played 51…Rd8 without hesitating and then let things happen as they will."

Grandmaster Evgeny Miroshnichenko shared his impressions on games 3 and 4:

"Obviously, Pogonina was prepared better in game 3. She played quickly and confidently, while Muzychuk seemed to be choosing among several continuations on every move. I think that White should have played 20.Qe3, instead of 20.Qe1. I haven't checked this idea with a computer, but it seems to be much better than the move in the game. Gradually, Black reached a comfortable position and then outplayed her opponent. Interestingly, the white knight stayed on h3 for as many as 25 moves! At one moment, it seemed that it was Black, and not White, who had the extra piece... 

It seems that Mariya missed some good practical chances for a win. The position was not forced, Natalia just had to maintain the pressure, but she clearly lost the thread of the game. For instance, she could have kept the queens or played the endgame more accurately. Both rivals were inaccurate in the endgame, even at the very end when Natalia played Kg3, allowing ...h5. I don't know if there was a win there, but it was worth the effort. 

I also think that Black should have captured on f5 instead of playing e6-e5. Most probably, the endgame would have still been equal, but there would have been a greater chance to drive the point home. Furthermore, after White played f5, some practical chances could have been sought for: exf5, then probably Bf6. The passed pawn is still there, there are three pawns for a piece: one can play for a victory without any particular risk. Mariya probably thought that she would win the rook endgame...  This was a game full of suspense!   
There were quite a few mistakes in the fourth game. Of course, each of the girls' mistakes can be attributed to their nervousness, but not to their lack of understanding of chess. I was surprised by Natalia's opening choice. In the broadcast, you can see how flabbergasted she was by Mariya's third move, even though something like that was pretty obvious. Both Mariya and Anna Muzychuk had played this earlier; on top of that, White would be satisfied with a draw. That's why I expected more aggressive openings from Natalia.  

White had an excellent position, but then, all of a sudden, Mariya moved her pawn to g4 and faced problems where there should have been none. Sergei Rublevsky studied the game with a computer later on and found out that White was out of danger all the time, but it was evident that Mariya was worried. She missed several good opportunities to simplify the game and played in a very clamped manner. But the last move before the time control, 40...Qh6, gave White a chance to force a draw. 41.Bxf7+ was a worthy end for the championship. After that move, White just couldn't lose..."

In this position, White chose 41. Bxf7+ 

The media made an extensive coverage of World Championship's final round: Russia's federal channels sent out some big news items, while the TASS news agency, RIA Novosti, Interfax and leading print media published reports on the tournament on a daily basis. Gazeta.ru made online reports on all the games of the final match. At the press conference, Natalia Pogonina pointed out that the number of cameras had even shocked her somewhat.  
During the press conference following the final match, the new world champion thanked FIDE, the Russian Chess Federation and the city of Sochi for the championship's excellent organization. "I was even worried at the beginning because everything was so well organized here: usually, when a tournament starts so perfectly, it ends on a sad note. Luckily, my fears proved to be groundless," said Mariya.

Interestingly, this is for the second time over the past three years that a Ukrainian female chess player has become the winner of a knockout world championship: in 2012, Anna Ushenina tried on the queen's fur cap in Khanty-Mansiysk. Now Muzychuk will be defending her title in a match versus Hou Yifan, who has certainly been following the events in Sochi.

On April 6, a grand closing ceremony was held, attended by Chairman of the Match's Organizing Committee, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, and President of the Russian Chess Federation Andrey Filatov.

The ceremony was moderated by Mark Glukhovsky, the RCF Executive Director, and was conducted in a very friendly atmosphere. The World Champion and the Vice Champion received a gold and a silver medals produced by Adamas Jewellery and cups made by the Imperial Porcelain Plant. Mariya Muzychuk was also handed a crown produced specifically for this occasion.

India's Harika Dronavalli, who shared the third and the fourth places, received a congratulatory plaque. The participants thanked the organizers and the sponsors for the perfect event and expressed hope that Sochi would become a venue for many major chess tournaments. 

Dvorkovich: "We did our best to make sure that the world's best women chess players feel cozy and comfortable here, in the mountainous cluster of Sochi, where the Winter Olympic Games were held just a year ago. I think that your magnificent play that we observed has proven that we have achieved this goal. Your play matched the light, somewhat provocative championship emblem that we approved earlier. I would like to emphasize that Russia will remain a hospitable venue for all the chess players of the world."

Filatov: "Frankly speaking, even before the championship started I was dreaming about a Russian-Ukrainian final match. As an alumnus of the Ukrainian chess school and the President of the Russian Chess Federation, I felt torn between my two homelands. Of course, I strongly supported Natalia Pogonina, who accomplished a real sports feat as she came back after a loss three times during the championship. And now I congratulate with all my heart Mariya Muzychuk, who has won in a fair sporting contest. Becoming a world champion at 22 is a fantastic achievement!"  

Ilyumzhinov: "Sochi has become the chess world's capital, and we hope that every year will see events of a global scale here. I would like to thank the participants for their uncompromising fight and the organizers for the wonderfully held championship."

Muzychuk: "I would like to thank the Russian Chess Federation, FIDE and the tournament organizers and sponsors. The event was organized at the highest level. Very good conditions for playing were created. I am very pleased to have won here!"

After the closing ceremony was over, a press conference with Dvorkovich, Filatov, Ilyumzhinov, Muzychuk and Pogonina was held. According to the world championship rules, the new champion will have to play a match for the crown with the former champion Hou Yifan (China) at the end of the year. The FIDE President told the journalists that China had expressed its willingness to host the match. He added that he was also expecting offers from Lviv and Kiev. 

The evening was crowned by a festive cocktail reception. The RCF President Andrei Filatov wished FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov a belated happy birthday, and a beautiful chess cake was brought into the hall. The exquisite cake became the centerpiece of the program: before cutting it up and eating it, almost everyone took a photo with it. To sum up, the three-week chess marathon was crowned with a wonderful celebration.