Only in the weird and wonderful make-it-up-as-you-go-along world of FIDE - Fédération Internationale des Échecs, the French acronym for the governing body of world chess - could a silly situation arise where we know months in advance who the world title challenger will be but not the champion. That title match is for the Women’s World Championship - and, believe it or not, China’s Hou Yifan, the current world champion, will be the official challenger!
Confused? Well, let me try to explain the latest FIDE farrago. Hou Yifan qualified as challenger by easily winning the 2013-14 Grand Prix but decided not to enter the mayhem of this year’s 64-player Women's World Championship that is currently underway in Sochi, Russia. In contrast to the Open/Men’s cycle, the similar-styled 128-player knockout World Cup is just a stepping stone for entry into the World Championship Candidates’ cycle. But FIDE, in their infinite wisdom, decided a few years ago that the Women’s World Cup should act as the world championship.
Hou Yifan - now the undisputed women’s #1 - has painful memories of losing her title in Khanty-Mansiysk in 2012 when she was knocked out early by Monika Socko (Poland) and Anna Ushenina (Ukraine) went on to take the title. But as the winner of the 2011-12 Grand Prix, Hou Yifan was her challenger in a title match in 2013 and crushed Ushenina 5.5-15 without losing a game.
The champion is know to be against this unfairness of deciding the women’s title on an annual basis in this way, so this is her quiet and diplomatic form of protest by not playing in Sochi - and also curiously missing on her homeland is another serious contender, the Russian #1 Kateryna Lagno. There was also some confusion about the actual format and sponsorship and the rumor mill was rife that the Russian federation also had to step in at the eleventh hour.
Knockouts are indeed a lottery with this form of mini-matches and speed tiebreaks - and in the first two rounds, both of the US’s top two, Irina Krush and Tatev Abrahamyan were knocked out by the same player, India’s GM Dronavalli Harika.
D Harika - T Abrahamyan
Women’s World Championship, (1)
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.Bg5 The Torre Attack is simple chess at its best - White develops the pieces on sensible squares, has a solid pawn structure, safely castles before looking to push for e4. 3...Bg7 4.Nbd2 d5 5.e3 0–0 6.Bd3 c5 7.c3 Nbd7 8.0–0 b6 9.Qe2 Bb7 10.Rad1 Ne4 11.Bh4 h6 12.Ba6 Bxa6 13.Qxa6 g5 14.Bg3 Nxg3 15.hxg3 Qc7 16.Qe2 Rac8 17.e4 e6 Black would have been better with 17...cxd4 18.Nxd4 Bxd4 19.cxd4 dxe4 20.Nxe4 Qc4 - but, needing to win, wants to keep the pieces and tension on the board rather than exchanging. 18.exd5 exd5 19.Rfe1 Nf6 20.Qd3 Qb7 21.Nf1 c4 22.Qf5 b5 23.a3 a5 24.Ne3 b4 25.axb4 axb4 26.Ne5 Rcd8 27.N5g4! Exchanging knights makes Black's task of defending even harder, as it removes a defender of the weak d5-pawn. It also lets White go into the ending with the advantage of the good knight vs bad bishop. 27...Nxg4 28.Nxg4 Rd6 (See Diagram) 29.Ne3! The nub of the whole position: from here, the knight ties down all of Black's pieces to defend d5. 29...Rfd8 30.Qc2 Rb6 31.Qe2 bxc3?! Releasing the tension can only help White in winning. 32.bxc3 Rb3 33.Rc1 Rb6 33...Bf8 34.Nf5 and the knight, powerfully placed on f5, leaves the bishop frustrated, as it has to defend the kingside. 34.Nf5 Re6 35.Qc2 Rde8 36.Rxe6 Rxe6 37.Rb1 Now White's easily winning: she has all the active pieces, the knight dominates the bishop, and Black can't defend d5. 37...Qc7 38.Ne3! Qa5 39.Rb7! Threatening Qf5 winning on the spot. 39...Qa6 40.Qb1 Qc6 41.Qb5 The easiest route to victory - when the queens get exchanged, Black's d5 pawn falls. 41...Qd6 42.Qd7 Qxd7 43.Rxd7 Rb6 44.g4 Rb1+ 45.Kh2 Rb3 46.Nxd5 Bf8 47.g3 Allowing for Kg2 to defend f2. 47...Rb5 48.Nf6+ Kg7 49.Ne4 Rb2 50.Kg2 Ra2 51.Rc7 1–0