It was Hillary Rodham Clinton who claimed she put millions of cracks in the highest and hardest glass ceiling of them all, though came short of shattering it. The same could well be said of Judit Polgar, whom many thought could have shattered the glass ceiling by being the first woman to challenge for the world championship title. But Polgar is retired, and the focus now is on China’s Hou Yifan - and she’s currently causing a sensation with a Polgar-like, awe-inspiring start to the Grenke Chess Classic in Karishue, Germany.
The strong eight player all-play-all that got underway over the Easter weekend is headed by no less a figure than World champion Magnus Carlsen, and includes top 10 elite players Fabiano Caruana Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Levon Aronian, not to mention a supporting cast of Arkadij Naiditsch, Hou Yifan, and local players Matthias Bluebaum and Georg Meier.
But the early story of the tournament has been Hou’s explosive start of a perfect 2/2 against strong opposition that’s made even more impressive by the fact that it has included a brace of dazzling, domineering wins over former US champion Caruana, the world No 4, and Naiditsch, the former German No 1, who now plays for Azerbaijan.
Now Hou - who has moved up to 2655 on the unofficial live rating list, close to finally breaking 2700, though some way off of Polgar’s peak of 2735 - sensationally leads the field on her own at the top on 2/2, half a point ahead of the chasing pack, and the women’s world No 1 is set for a showdown with Carlsen, the world No 1, in what’s now being billed as the big “Battle of the Sexes” clash of round 3.
Round 2 standings
1. Hou Yifan (China) 2/2; 2-6. Fabiano Caruana (USA), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Magnus Carlsen (Norway), Levon Aronian (Armenia) 1; 7-8. Matthias Bluebaum (Germany), Georg Meier (Germany) ½.
GM Hou Yifan - GM Fabiano Caruana
4th GRENKE Chess Classic, (1)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 Today's top-level chess is marked by long and subtle Catalans, complicated Grünfelds and complex Berlins, with heavy computer-assisted study opening up new avenues in these esoteric Jujutsu-like duels. The latter, despite having engine evaluations running at the bottom of the screens, is seldom, if ever, fully understood by the Average Joe chess fans. 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.Re1 And of all the lines seldom understood by those chess fans is the most common line played here at grandmaster praxis, the so-called 'Berlin Wall' endgame after 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 with a complex struggle ahead for both players. But most players are avoiding the complexity and strategic challenges of this line by, like Hou Yifan, adopting this simple little line that keeps the pieces (particularly the queens) on the board - and how it pays off for Hou! 5...Nd6 6.Nxe5 Be7 7.Bf1 0-0 8.d4 Nf5 9.Nf3 d5 10.c3 Bd6 11.Nbd2 Also possible is 11.Bd3 Re8 12.Rxe8+ Qxe8 13.Qc2 Nce7 14.Nbd2 f6 15.Nf1 that was seen in the recent US Championship clash between Sam Shankland and Wesley So that soon fizzled out to a draw. 11...Nce7 But Caruana follows the example of the man who took his US crown anyway with 11...Nce7, a common theme in such positions - but on the excellent live coverage, Peter Leko said he had deep reservations about this move, despite it being played a number of times. 12.Qc2 c6 13.Bd3 g6 Not so much an overprotection of f5, but laying the foundations for ...Ng7 followed by ...Bf5 to attempt to try and exchange off the bishops and lessons White's minor advantage in the position. 14.Nf1 But Hou has her own spoiling plan here with Nf1-e3 to prevent the swap of bishops. And now here, it's almost as if Caruana begins to get his plans mixed up that leads to White's minor advantage increasing. 14...f6 Caruana is trying to get in a "useful" move waiting for Hou to develop her Nf1 - but Hou counters with an even more useful "useful" waiting move. 15.h3! White's position looks more rhythmic than Black's, as h3 is more useful than ...f6, as White also now has the added possibility of the common Lopez knight manoeuvre of Nf1-h2-g4 hitting f6 and h6. 15...Rf7 Not a mistake per say, but you get the impression here that Caruana is beginning to let the position drift more and more. Perhaps he should have opted instead for his earlier plan of ...Ng7 etc? 16.Bd2 Bd7 17.Re2 c5?! There are signs Caruana's becoming frustrated now with the position, as he moves from one plan to another, only this one saddles him with an isolated d-pawn and his pieces all looking misplaced, whilst Hou's are looking to be in harmony. 18.dxc5 Bxc5 19.Bf4 Not only taking up a good, active position but also laying the groundwork for a mass exchange of pieces that would leave Black struggling to cope with the isolated d-pawn going into an endgame scenario. 19...Rc8 20.Rae1 g5 21.Ng3! Very subtle play indeed from Hou! Her minor advantage has now matured into a big positional advantage, as her bishops now fully control active diagonals. 21...Nxg3 22.Bxg3 a5 23.Qd2 a4 24.b4! Taking full advantage of the fact that the bishop can't retreat now with 24...Bb6 as 25.Bd6! leaves Black's position loose and vulnerable with the rooks on the e-file becoming a potent force. 24...axb3 25.axb3 Ng6 26.h4! Sensing that Caruana is on the ropes, Hou doesn't hold back with this energetic move that threatens to blow through Black's defences. 26...gxh4 There was no other option now, as 26...g4?! 27.Nd4! and Black is left with chronic pawn weaknesses and a position with more holes in it than a sieve! 27.Nxh4 Nxh4 28.Bxh4 The old Soviet school training trick of count the number of pawn islands continues to be a truism even today. 28...Qf8 29.Qf4! Impressive play from Hou, who now brings here queen into the game to complete her domination of the position. 29...Bd6 30.Qd4 This is total domination now. 30...Rd8 What else? Caruana can't challenge the queen with 30...Be5 as 31.Rxe5! fxe5 32.Rxe5 and White is close to winning. 31.Re3 Bc8 Caruana doesn't have time for 31...Bc5 as after 32.Rg3+ Kh8 there comes the sting in the tail with 33.Qxd5! Bb5 34.Qxf7! Qxf7 35.Bxb5 and all the active White pieces will soon swarm around the weakness on f6. 32.b4 Simply stopping any possibilities of ...Bc5 that now compounds Caruana's misery. 32...Kg7 33.Bb5 The domination theme continues, this time the threat being Re8. Honestly, I'm beginning to worry about Caruana's continued crisis of confidence, as this position is almost as humiliating for him as the one he had to defend recently when he was sensationally crushed by Yaroslav Zherebukh at the US Championship. 33...Bc7 34.Re8 Qd6 There's always the slim hope that Hou might overlook the threat on h2 - but Caruana soon discovers that slim has left town. 35.Bg3 Qb6 36.Qd3! The way Hou has controlled her pieces in this game is almost like poetry, with everything connecting and rhyming in harmony. 36...Bd7 37.Bxd7 Rdxd7 38.Qf5! Hou has simply outplayed Caruana from the early middlegame - and now she's coming in for the kill, the immediate threat being Qg4+ mating. 38...Bxg3 39.Qg4+ Kh6 40.Qh3+ 1-0 Caruana resigns rather than face the unstoppable mate after 40...Kg6 41.Qxg3+ Kh5 42.R1e5+! f5 (The only way to stop the quick mate after 42...fxe5 43.Rxe5+ Rf5 44.Rxf5+ Kh6 45.Qg5#) 43.Rg8 Qg6 44.Qh2+ Kg5 45.f4+ Kg4 46.Rxg6+ hxg6 47.Qh6!