28 March 2015

The Scourge of Chinese

Vladimir Barsky and Etery Kublashvili review the Quarterfinals of the World Women's Championship.

The Quarterfinals of the World Women's Championship Match saw Natalia Pogonina, Russia's only remaining player, defeat Zhao Xue, China's only quarterfinalist, and advance to the Semifinals.

Natalia's coach Pavel Lobach is on cloud nine, but is also more worried about Natalia than anyone else in SCC Galactica, the event's venue. The two-time Olympic champion has been training with Pavel since she was a child, so he knows her very well and it is hard to oppose their efficient team. Natalia chose the Benko Gambit, the favorite weapon of her junior tournaments, as a psychological trick prepared specifically for Zhao Xue. Although this choice drew a lot of criticism, one thing remains a fact: the Benko Gambit brought Natalia two important wins. At the press conference following her victory in the match, Natalia shared a tip her coach had given her before the second tie-break game: "If you have a choice between a mate in 10 and a perpetual check, choose the perpetual check!" Natalia followed this advice to the letter, thus eliminating her third Chinese opponent from the championship (earlier, she defeated Guo Qi and Jun Wenjun).

The Russian and the Chinese had a dramatic quarterfinal match. Natalia started with a loss but was able to come back in the second game.

Zhao Xue — Pogonina

White has just mistakenly captured a bishop on d4, and after 23...exd4 Black would have gained a solid advantage: 24.Bxc4 is bad because of a double attack: 24..Qb4. "We both must have been so tired from the pressure that, despite having a lot of time, we erred. This happened because of the pressure," said Natalia at the press conference. In the game, she captured on d4 with the queen, after which it seemed for a long time that she had no more chances for a win. But the Chinese, who would have gladly settled for a draw, began to play for simplifications too straightforwardly, thus finding herself in a slightly worse position. On top of that, Xue made a serious blunder immediately after the time control was passed:

After 41.Kg2? Black found the beautiful attack 41...Rb1!, following which White "wobbled": 42. Qa5 Qd3 (better 42...Qd4!) 43. Kh3 (43.h4 is more resilient, and after that Black still has to find 43...Qd4) 43...Rb2 44.Qc7? Rxf2 45. Qxd6 Qc3! 46. Rb1 Qc8+. White resigned.

Pogonina was certainly stronger in the rapid games, while Zhao seemed a little confused. After winning the first game, Natalia made a draw from the position of strength in the second.

Pia Cramling pulled off another surprise: the Swedish player defeated Valentina Gunina and Anna Muzychuk, the strongest female players of the young generation, one after the other. It's not a secret any more where Pia, who has been playing chess for many years, gets her inspiration. She admitted at a press conference that she just loves the game of 64 squares and seeks to achieve perfection in it. This maximalist approach helped the Champion of Europe of 2003 and 2010 advance to the Semifinals of the World Championship. 

The Cramling – Muzychuk match started with a long prelude, like Metallica's compositions: the opponents seemed to be measuring each other up, and both classical time control games ended in a draw. In the rapid games, they exchanged blows, with Pia getting the first win and Anna having to even up the score. In the 10+10 mini-match, the Swedish player proved to be the stronger, defeating the Ukrainian 1.5-0.5.

Muzychuk – Cramling

Black has a good compensation for the pawn, largely thanks to her active king. At this point, Anna made a small gaffe — 36. Rd3, and got a nasty stab: 36...Nh3!

It turned out that White's pieces were "hanging", and an important tempo had to be wasted to return them to a good position. But a tempo was exactly what she didn't have: 37.Rd1 d3+ 38.Kf1 Rf8+ 39.Kg2 Nf2 40.Rf1 d2 41.a3 d1Q, and Black won soon after that.

Meri Arabidze, the Championship's discovery, was unable to continue defending the honor of her country because the smiley yet combative and pushy Harika Dronavalli stood in her way. The first game ended in a short draw, but in the second game Harika was able to outplay Meri in the endgame. As a result, this match was the only one to complete without a tie-break. 

Dronavalli – Arabidze

This five-piece endgame has plenty of hidden traps. It's not easy to see why 73...Rg5 loses, whereas a check on g8 saves the game. No surprise that, with their flags hanging, both opponents kept erring. The last to make a mistake was the Georgian chess player.

The indestructible Humpy Koneru staggered. In the first classical game, the Indian player outsmarted Mariya Muzychuk in the opening and won a pawn, but then missed a beautiful tactical blow and lost. However, she was able to even up the score in the second game. In the first tie-break game, Humpy got a promising position again, but Mariya was able to equalize, and a draw followed. In the final game, Humpy gained an edge yet again, but blundered like she had done in the classical game.  

Koneru – Muzychuk

In an overwhelming position, Koneru made a one-move blunder: 35.Qc1?, and after 35...Nd3! it turned out that an extra rook does not save the day. 36.Bd8 didn't get White out of the woods due to 36...Rxe1+ 37.Qxe1 Qc5+ 38.Kf1 Nxe1, with a win to follow soon.

It is worth noting that, according to the regulation, all the semifinalists make it to the next FIDE Grand Prix Series. The Semifinals matches start on March 29. Natalia Pogonina is to play Black against Pia Cramling, while Mariya Muzychuk will take on Harika Dronavalli in the other match.

Photos by Kublashvili, Barsky and Karlovich