Every March in America, the NCAA men's basketball tournament blankets newspapers and the Internet, and attracts millions of television viewers over the course of three weeks. The phenomenon is known as ‘March Madness’, and it all evolves around the ‘Science of Bracketology’ in predicting the winners, as 64 teams become 32, then 16, then 8, then 4, then 2, and finally #1.
And bracketology is now also part of the chess lexicon. In 2000, FIDE introduced their knockout World Cup tournaments, that for a brief period was also carried over to World Championship tournaments. Initially many felt this was an unfair and untested system in chess, but what most were not aware of is that this format actually played an historic part in our game’s own rich heritage, with knockout brackets being adopted for the first-ever international tournament in London in 1851!
But nevertheless, with its nerve-wracking moments of madness involving a long series of mini-matches and sudden-death playoffs, many felt this to be an unfair way to decide a world championship title - but the brackets knockout formula has continued with successive World Cups. However, in the women’s game, its back in fashion to decide the world champion - and that’s the format currently adopted right now in the Women’s World Championship in Sochi, Russia, which had a starting field of 64 players, now whittled down to the final eight.
China’s Hou Yifan, the current women’s world champion, dislikes this format, so she diplomatically skipped Sochi in preference for sunnier climes of playing in Hawaii. But as winner of the 2014-15 Grand Prix, she automatically has the rights to a title match later this year against the winner in Sochi.
Hou Yifan’s absences does, though, leave the door open for an almighty-clash in the women’s game, if the top seed in Sochi, India’s Humpy Koneru, wins the title. Hou Yifan is now the undisputed world #1, and Koneru is #3 on the rating list, behind the now retired Judit Polgar. If the Indian can battle her way through to the title, we’ll get a glamour showdown between the world’s top two female players for the first time in over a quarter of a century.
And with six wins in six games in Sochi, Koneru easily went forward to the quarterfinals after beating Alisa Galliamova of Russia. But will nerves or the madness of the knockout system deprive her of what she covets most of all, the women’s title - and with it, a big marketable match with Hou Yifan?
H Koneru - A Galliamova
Women’s World Ch., (3)
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e3 e6 5.Nf3 Nbd7 6.Qc2 b6 7.Bd3 Bb7 8.0–0 Be7 9.b3 dxc4 10.bxc4 c5 11.Ne5 cxd4 12.exd4 Nxe5 13.dxe5 Nd7 It's a battle of preferences: Black would love to see all three minor pieces exchanged off, as the endgame would favor Black due to White's weak queenside pawns. For White, the challenge is to keep the pieces on the board to seek active outposts for her pieces. 14.Bf4 g5! With the White queen and bishop already on h7, castling was always going to be difficult for Black - so she goes on the offensive. 15.Bg3 h5 16.h3 h4 17.Bh2 g4! 18.Be4 18.hxg4 h3! 19.Be4 Bxe4 20.Nxe4 hxg2 21.Kxg2 Qc7 and it's the White king that's not looking secure. 18...Bxe4 19.Qxe4 gxh3 20.Nb5 Rb8? Black blinks first, suddenly fearing the possibilities of a potential Qxa8 followed by the knight fork on c7. However, Black has her own threats first - 20...hxg2! 21.Rfd1 Rc8 22.Nxa7 Rc5! 23.Rd2 Qb8! 24.Rad1 Qxa7! 25.Rxd7 Qxd7 26.Rxd7 Kxd7 and Black's combined forces are to be favored. 21.gxh3 a6 22.Nd6+ Bxd6 23.exd6 Qg5+ 24.Kh1 Rc8 25.Rae1 The tables are now well and truly turned - Black has no time to co-ordinate her forces. The threat is the simple f4-f5 and blasting a hole in the Black king defenses. 25...Kd8? 25...Qc5! with the idea of Qc6 exchanging queens was better for Black. Also, the king was needed to defend f7. 26.Rg1 Qc5 27.Qf4 Qf5 28.Qxf5 exf5 The exchange of queens doesn't make Black's task of defending any easier - the powerful White rooks will prove decisive. 29.Re7 Rf8 (See Diagram) 30.Bf4! Rxc4 31.Bh6 Rh8 32.Rxf7! Kc8 32...Rxh6 33.Rg8+ Nf8 34.Rgxf8 checkmate 33.Rgg7 The doubled-rooks on the seventh is fatal for Black - mate or heavy material loss soon follows. 33...Nc5 34.Be3 Rd8 35.Bxc5 Rxc5 36.Ra7 Kb8 37.Rgb7+ Kc8 38.d7+ 1–0