06 Feb

The Lady Doth Protest Too Much

Reminiscent of Shakespeare's masterpiece, Hamlet, the reputation of the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival was marred recently with a baffling protest that came from the more normally amenable Women’s World Champion Hou Yifan, regarded as China’s golden girl, who bitterly complained that “her pairings were being manipulated” throughout because she had faced more female opponents than anyone else.

After 32...d3!

The “Super” Open has made a name for itself by being one of the strongest and most popular open tournaments on the circuit that can be entered by anyone - and one that encourages more woman players than any other by offering inducements of additional generous financial rewards and conditions.

But in the last round, Hou resigned after five moves of silliness against the Indian GM Lalith Babu, that started with the moves 1.g4 and 2.f3.  Afterwards, Hou said she was "really, really upset" for the "unbelievable and weird pairings" that meant seven of her 10 opponents during the event were women. She said in her post-game interview, that she brought her concerns to the event's chief arbiter earlier in the week, but to no avail. So she decided on a very public display of protest: throwing her final game.

However, it is extremely doubtful whether any intentional manipulation was going on, as Brian Callaghan, the festival organizer, confirmed that the pairings were all made directly from a computer throughout - and a computer would only be interested in her rating, score, and colour sequence, and not the fact that she had played the lion’s share of her opponents in a mixed open event who were of the same sex.

Hou, who recently left the women's chess circuit following several spats with governing body Fide (thus soon to be abdicating her title) for mixed events, where she can compete against men (much like Judith Polgar), was clearly frustrated by playing seven women players in her first event since making the announcement - but regardless of whether your protest is right or wrong, it is very unsporting to show disrespect to a sponsor and a fellow player in your dissent by intentionally throwing a game.

Hou's "protest moment" | © Gibraltar Chess Festival

And I would imaging that Hou’s frustrations was probably compounded further by the fact that she lost in round 8 to her fellow compatriot, Ju Wenjun, who herself went on to record a career-best performance as she finished on a score of 7/10 to take the Women’s prize of £15,000 ahead of the much-fancied Hou, who was the pre-tournament favourite.

GM Hou Yifan- GM Ju Wenjun
Tradewise Gibraltar Masters, (8)
French Defence Classical, Steinitz Variation
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 Be7 8.Qd2 0-0 9.dxc5 Nxc5 10.0-0-0 a6 11.Qf2 Hou cuts across Black's plan of expanding on the queenside with ...b5 and ...Qb6. 11...b6 12.Nd4 Qc7 13.g3 Bb7 14.Bg2 Na5 The battle-plans for both sides are clear: Black will attack on the queenside, and to counter this, White sacrifices a pawn to take advantage of the active pieces to generate her own attack. 15.f5!? Qxe5 If not this, then White will continue with f6 and bludgeon open lines to Black's king. 16.Bf4 Qf6 17.h4 e5 18.Nxd5 Bxd5 19.Bg5 Qd6 20.Bxe7 Qxe7 21.Bxd5 exd4 22.Bxa8 Rxa8 23.Rhe1 The dust has settled, and Hou wants to try and create activity on the central files with her rooks, fearing that after the simple pawn recapture with 23.Qxd4 Rc8! (threatening ...Ncb3+) 24.Kb1 Nc6 25.Qd2 Qf6 26.Qf4 Qe5 and Black's knights will take the upper-hand. 23...Qc7 24.b4 It may well weaken Hou's defences around her king, but this double-edged move is practically forced now if White wants to stay in the game. 24...Nc6!? [Too über-cautious. More direct was 24...Nc4! 25.Qxd4 (If 25.bxc5? bxc5 26.Qf1 Ne3 27.Qf3 Rb8 28.Rxe3 (forced; otherwise White's king will get mated) 28...dxe3 29.Qxe3 Qa5 30.Rd5 Qxa2 31.Qxc5 Qa1+ 32.Kd2 Qf1 and with White's king wondering around dazed and confused in the wilderness, Black has a winning advantage.) 25...Na4 and the knights look threatening, as they move in with intent on White's weakened king. However, Ju most likely preferred 24...Nc6 as the knight covers some of the vulnerable squares where perhaps Hou's rook could infiltrate. 25.bxc5 bxc5 26.Qf4 Qb6 White's king is very vulnerable to attack from Black's forces - and the only hope Hou has of surviving this, is exploiting her opponent's back-rank vulnerability. 27.Qd6 h5?! After 27...Rb8 28.Qd7! there would be an 'honourable' draw with a repetition, after 28...Qb1+ 29.Kd2 Qb4+ 30.Kc1 Qb2+ 31.Kd2 etc. However, Black gambles a little by providing an escape square for her king - and the gamble pays off. 28.Re5? A cheap threat to take on c5, and most likely induced by time-pressure, as now White's pieces get in a self-inflicted tangle. The best way ahead was still the back-rank route with 28.Qd7! again, forcing Black into the complicated and risky continuation of 28...Nb4!? 29.Re8+ Kh7! (Not 29...Rxe8?? 30.Qxe8+ Kh7 31.Qxf7! covering the a2 square!) 30.Rxa8 Nxa2+ 31.Kd2 Qb4+ 32.Ke2 Qc4+ 33.Kf3 Qc3+ 34.Rd3 Qxc2 35.Rxd4! cxd4 36.Qxd4 Nc3 37.Re8 and White should win, but it is not so easy with the king wandering around in the opening, as this could lead to a perpetual. Of course, all of this is easy to see with the 'silicon certainty' of an engine and no time pressures! 28...c4 29.Rde1 c3 The threat to White's king continue to be a major headache to deal with - and not helped by the fact that your digital clock is metaphorically ticking down by this stage. 30.Re8+ Rxe8 31.Rxe8+ Kh7 32.Qd5? Hou simply misses Ju's killer blow. To stay alive, she had to risk the walk of shame with 32.f6! Qb2+ 33.Kd1 Qb1+ 34.Ke2 Qxc2+ 35.Kf1 Qf5+ 36.Ke2 Qb5+ (Not 36...Qxf6? 37.Qxf6 gxf6 38.Kd3 and White is winning, as her king controls those dangerous passed pawns leaving the rook to pick off the weak pawns.) 37.Kf2 Qf5+ and a draw by repetition, as White can't move the king to safety on the kingside with 38.Kg2?? as Black can simply take on f6 now with 38...Qxf6 as the exchange of queens is winning with the king out of reach of the passed pawns. 32...d3! This comes as a hammer blow, as it opens up the new threat of ...Qg1+ and gets ...Nb4 in with tempo. 33.Qxd3 There's no other option.  If 33.cxd3?? Qb2+ 34.Kd1 Qd2# 33...Nb4 34.Qe4 No better is 34.Qe3 Nxa2+ 35.Kd1 Qb1+ 36.Ke2 Qxc2+ 37.Ke1 Qb1+ 38.Kf2 c2 winning. 34...Qg1+ 35.Qe1 Qg2! 36.Qe4 There's no defence to the mating threats on c2. If 36.Re2 Qd5! with no way to meet the threat of ...Nxa2+ followed by ...Qb5+ and ...Qb2 mate. 36...Qd2+ 0-1

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