17 Feb

The Queen’s Gambit

American author Walter Tevis is famous for three novels that will always be known chiefly for their film adaptation — The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth - that created some of the most memorable characters in cinema.  He followed those best-sellers up with an unlikely 1983 novel, The Queen’s Gambit, all about a girl chess prodigy from Kentucky, Beth Harmon, who wants to be the best player in a male-dominated game.

After 38.Ba2!

Tevis wrote at the time of its publication, that: "I think it would be good if women don’t play in women’s tournaments at all. Doing so only reinforces the notion of their inferiority. I would like to see chess be a sexless game.” Somewhat prophetically, he wrote The Queen’s Gambit a decade or so before the rise of Hungary’s Judit Polgar, who even from a youth eschewed women-only competitions, and went on to become a world top-10 player who regularly played in super-tournaments alongside Garry Kasparov et al.

Polgar is now retired, and her successor as the world’s top female player by a distance is Hou Yifan, of China, and recently the reigning women’s world champion also announced she was abandoning the women’s game, and with it was also abdicating her crown.  But Hou’s move could well be motivated by mounting frustration at FIDE changing the format of the world championship to a knockout.

And it’s not only the changing of the format that’s caused a controversy with the Women’s World Championship that’s now underway in Tehran, Iran, as some players also boycotted the event - including the reigning US champion, Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, who led the protest campaign - due to the regime-enforced wearing of hijabs for all of the competitors, even during play.

In Hou's abscence, her countrywoman, Je Wenjun, is the top seed.  But  experience can be a big plus in a knock-out - and none come more experienced than Sweden's Pia Cramling, 53, who is not only the oldest player in the 64-player field, but she was also the first Western woman to attain the full grandmaster title - and she defied the odds at the last knock-out championship by reaching the semi-finals.

Pia Cramling | © David Lada FIDE Official Site

And in Tehran, her experience is once again coming to the fore with mini-match wins over WGM Katerina Nemcova (USA) - the Prague-born, Czech champion who attends University of Texas-Brownsville - and Elisabeth Paehtz (Germany) to reach the final 16 and now a big match-up with Alexandra Kosteniuk, the Russian former world champion.

GM Pia Cramling - WGM Katerina Nemcova
Women’s World Ch. KO., (1.1)
Queen’s Gambit Accepted
1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4 3.e3 Nf6 4.Bxc4 e6 5.Nf3 a6 6.0-0 c5 7.Bd3 Nc6 8.a3 White wants to stop Black from playing ...Nb4 and taking control of the d5 square with his knights - this is important, as we'll soon end up with an isolated queen's pawn position, where strategically the all-important square is the square in front of the IQP, here d5. 8...cxd4 9.exd4 Be7 10.Nc3 0-0 11.Bc2 First 11.Re1 continuing the build-up looks better, as Black still can't play for now 11...Nxd4 as 12.Nxd4 Qxd4 13.Bxh7+! wins the queen. 11...b6 12.Re1 Bb7 13.Qd3 Re8?! Black just really had to defend against the immediate threat on h7 right now with 13...g6 and accept the consequences of ceding control of the dark-squares around the Black king. However, in trying to avoid this weakness, Nemcova falls into a much-stronger attack. 14.d5! The pawn sacrifice takes full advantage that the Nf6 is overworked defending against Qxh7 mate! The net result is that White's forces now quickly take control of the board. 14...exd5 15.Bg5 Ne4 Black has difficulties defending the mate on h7, as the obvious earlier suggestion of 15...g6 would have dramatically fallen to 16.Rxe7! Qxe7 (Not 16...Nxe7? 17.Bxf6 with an easy win.) 17.Nxd5! winning. 16.Nxe4 dxe4 17.Qxe4 g6 It's too late now - White has harmonious piece play and command of the central files with her rooks. 18.Rad1 Qc8 19.Qh4 Bf8 20.Bb3 More accurate was 20.Rxe8 Qxe8 21.Bf6! with the strong winning threat of Ng5 and/or Bb3 on the horizon. 20...Qf5 21.Bf6 h6 Black has to stop the threat of Ng5. 22.Bc3 Bg7 23.Bxg7 The only misstep from Cramling in the game, as voluntarily exchanging pieces offers Black a instant relief. More difficult for Black to deal with was 23.Rd5! Rxe1+ 24.Nxe1 Ne5 (Again, if 24...Qc8 25.Rd6 is even stronger, as this time it threatens Rxg6!) 25.Rd6 and White has a very strong attack in the works. 23...Kxg7 24.Nd4 Rxe1+ 25.Rxe1 Qf6 26.Qxf6+ Kxf6 Nemcova has survived the worst of it, a lot of pieces have been exchanged that has taken the pressure off, and she has now emerged with a near-equal game - and with accurate play, the game should end now in a draw. 27.Nxc6 Bxc6 28.Rc1 Rc8 29.h4 Ke7 30.Rc3 Rc7 31.Kh2 Kd6 32.Rd3+ Ke7 33.Rc3 Kd6 34.Rd3+ Ke7 35.Re3+ Kd6 36.Kg3 Bd5? A self-induced blunder, most likely brought on by being in time-trouble attempting to fathom out how to defend against the earlier kingside assault. This is a shame, as after the simple 36...Re7 offering an exchange of rooks down the e-file, it's just a draw. 37.Rd3 Rc5 Nemcova is oblivious to what's coming, probably thinking there was nothing in the pin on the bishop - but she's now about to see what's wrong with her position. 38.Ba2! At any level, a backward, retreating winning move is the most difficult of moves to see on the chessboard. Here, the simple threat is just b4 and a4 winning material. 38...Ke5 39.b4 Rb5? Here, I can only imagine that Nemcova's digital flag had to be metaphorically hanging, as she could have held out better with 39...Bxa2! 40.bxc5 bxc5 and it is not so easy to win this, with Black's king being so active and the c-pawn dangerously pushing up the board. 40.a4 Bxa2 41.axb5 axb5 42.f3 Bc4 43.Rd1 f5 44.f4+ Ke4 45.Rd6 h5 46.Kf2 Kxf4 47.Rxg6 Ke4 Black just has too many weak pawns to defend to even think about trying to save this. 48.Rh6 Kd4 49.Rxh5 Bd3 50.Rh6 Kc4 51.Rxb6 Kxb4 52.Ke3 1-0

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