03 Mar

The New Queen & The Greek Gift

The classical stage of the near month-long Women’s World Championship knockout in Tehran, Iran between ex-champion Anna Muzychuk of Ukraine and Chinese underdog Tan Zhongyi ended with honours even, tied 2-2 with one win a piece.  But after a series of nerve-wracking tiebreak-deciders, the surprise winner turned out to be Zhongyi, 1.5-0.5, as the number 9 seed dramatically snatched the crown with the biggest victory of her career.  

After 17.Nxd5!

Little known outside of China, Zhongyi, 25, from Chongquin, played well and took her chances throughout the controversial 64-player knockout tournament.  Along the way, she not only beat ex-champion Muzychuk in the final, but also Dronavalli Harika and top seed Ju Wenjun, the strongest woman player after reigning champion Hou Yifan, who opted to abdicate her title in preference for competing exclusively now in mixed events, due to the controversial knockout format.

Hou Yifan’s gripe was that the knockout element is widely perceived to be something of a ‘lottery’, and it would have been better if the winner went forward to challenge the reigning champion in a match for the title, as happens with the Grand Prix.  As it is, there’s a weird Fide set-up with regards to the women’s world crown, where the winner will play the Grand Prix winner - unless the same player wins both events - next year as the official challenger.  So next year, we’re set for a Tan Zhongyi vs. Ju Wenjun showdown.

Despite looking waif-like, new champion Zhongyi looks to have a steely resolve who doesn’t easily bend under pressure, as her performance in the Tehran final shows. After striking first in game 2, she suffered a major setback with a very sore loss in game 3, being on the receiving end of a ‘Greek Gift’, and not many thought she would recover after suffering such a heavy blow - but recover she did!

Of all chess sacrifices, the Greek gift with a lighting-bolt strike on h7 is surely the most famous.  Although this presumably derives from the Trojan Horse and Virgil’s famous warning in his literary epic The Aeneid, “timeo Danaos et dona ferentes” (I fear the Greeks even when they bear gifts) it actually involves the sacrifice of a bishop by White on h7 and not a knight!

New Queen, Tan Zhongyi! | © David Lada

But here the exact etymology of the Greek gift is unknown, however my ever-reliable Oxford Companion to Chess makes the reasonable assumption that it comes from Gioachino Greco, a well-known 17th century Italian chess master and writer whose parents were Greek.  His games were some of the earliest record in chess, and this Bxh7 sacrifice was seen in many of them.

GM Anna Muzychuk - WGM Tan Zhongyi
Women’s World Ch. Final, (3)
French Defence, Classical Steinitz
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 The Classical French Steinitz sees White gaining a big advantage in space, but Black having a rock-solid position with his pawn formation that can come into its own if we get to the endgame. 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 Be7 8.Qd2 0-0 Interesting here is delaying castling to keep White guessing with 8...a6!? - a move that will always come in useful for a queenside pawn storm that will come in this line anyway. 9.dxc5 Theory dictates that this voluntary release of the tension in the centre is best, because White has to find a role for his white-squared bishop, and ideas such as Bd3 can get hit with ...c4 and a gain of a tempo. 9...Bxc5 10.0-0-0 Qa5 11.a3 Be7?! I'm not so sure about this, although it does look to bolster the dark-squares to prevent the annoying Ng5. But accepting a weakness and exchanging pieces might well be the best plan here, so 11...Bxe3 12.Qxe3 a6 with the idea of quick counterplay with ...b5-b4 etc might be preferable. 12.Bd3 Now that ...c4 is no longer an option, White can put her bishop on the best diagonal, with menacing threats aimed towards Black's king. 12...a6 13.h4! The trouble with Black's position is that her counterplay on the queenside is painfully slow in comparison to White's lightening strike coming on the kingside. 13...b5 I suppose the last chance to stage some sort of defence here is with 13...f6 14.exf6 Nxf6 . Although even here, Black has many vulnerable open lines around her king - but this was certainly better than what comes next. 14.Bxh7+! For about the umpteenth millionth time in the annals of the game, the Greek gift comes with deadly intent in mind. 14...Kxh7 15.Qd3+ Kg8 Worse was 15...g6 as there now comes the overwhelming attack with 16.h5! Kg7 17.hxg6 fxg6 18.Nh4! Bxh4 19.Rxh4 Rh8 20.Rxh8 Kxh8 21.Qxg6 with mate to follow. 16.Ng5 f5 As in the game, 16...g6 falls to the crippling blow of 17.Nxd5!! exd5 18.Nxf7 Rxf7 (No better is 18...Kxf7 19.h5! with an overwhelming attack for the sacrificed pieces that leaves the Black king wandering around in No Man's Land.) 19.Qxg6+ Rg7 20.Qxc6 Rb8 21.Qxd5+ Kh8 22.f5! and the silicon gods may well say White has 'just' a little advantage here, but in practical terms Black's position is very difficult to play with all those passed pawns rushing up the board on the kingside. 17.Nxd5! Now we have the horse being sacrificed, and this should prove enough to blow Black to smithereens. 17...b4 Black can't afford to play 17...exd5 as 18.Qxd5+ Kh8 19.Qxc6 and the loose rook on a8 is not so much White's target, but rather Qg6 and the forced mate. 18.Nxe7+ Nxe7 19.Bd2? Nerves, plain and simple - and this induces a bad blunder in a winning position, ruining a perfect game.  Muzychuk was so intent on delivering the mate by clearing a path for her queen to f3-h5-h7, while at the same time holding up Black from playing ...bxa3, but she couldn’t see the wood for the trees with the simply winning plan of 19.Qd6! bxa3 20.b4! a2 21.Kb2 Rb8 22.c3 and White will soon be recouping her sacrificed material with the big bonus of retaining a winning advantage. 19...Rb8?? The tension of the occasion affects both players equally, as Zhongyi, having come under a series of heavy blows, succumbs to the relentless pressure and misses the clever defensive resource that thwarts the mate, with 19...Nd5! 20.Qf3 Ra7! (ingeniously defending her vulnerable h7 square) 21.Qh5 N7f6! 22.exf6 gxf6 23.Rh3 Rg7 and White has to prove that there's a win here. Certainly, Black's position is the more difficult to play - but crucially, there's no clear-cut win for White. 20.Qd6! White now has the easiest of wins, as she recoups her material while still retaining the dominant position. 20...Qc5 21.Bxb4 Qxd6 22.Bxd6 Ng6 23.Nxe6 The game is basically over here - Black just prolongs the agony to avoid being yet another 'victim' of a miniature in the annals of the game by losing in under 25 moves. 23...Re8 24.Bxb8 Rxe6 25.g3 Bb7 26.Rh2 Nc5 27.Rd8+ Kh7 28.Bd6 Ne4 29.h5 Nh8 30.h6! The final, decisive blow. 30...Nf7 31.Rd7 Rxd6 32.Rxf7 1-0

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