The lone woman blazing a trail for her gender in the FIDE Grand Prix cycle is Hou Yifan of China - and recently, due to many disagreements with the governing body over the direction of the women’s game, the No.1 female player “abdicated” her crown by not taking part in the controversial Women’s World Championship in Tehran, Iran, and announced she would only take part in “open” competitions now.
From the outset, Hou didn’t agree with the new knockout format for the championship - but there was an even bigger outcry to come, as players from the West discovered they were obliged to wear a hijab headscarf during play to comply with the country’s strict religious laws. And this turned what should have been a high-profile tournament into a media fiasco, with several players boycotting the tournament.
At the time, FIDE president Kirsan Illyumzhinov (who brokered the deal with the Iranians), said that it had to be held in Tehran, as the Iranians were the only ones willing to sponsor the event - but now that excuse has backfired because the Iranians refused to pay out the prize money. And last week, the FIDE Presidential Board announced that they have now suspended the Iranian Chess Federation from all chess activities worldwide until the contracted full payment has been made.
Hou may feel she’s well out of it now, as she attempts to emulate Judit Polgar’s legendary feats by concentrating all her efforts now solely on open events. And indeed, Hou got off to a flying start in the Moscow Grand Prix by beating Russia’s beat Ian Nepomniachtchi to record the only win of the first round. She was joined in the early lead by her fellow countryman, Ding Liren, before losing to him in round three.
China, who initially made their mark by dominating the women’s game, have since gone on to capture team gold in the 2014 Olympiad gold medal in the open section - but the next logical step is seeing one of their players making it through to the Candidates’ tournament for the first time and, with it, a possible crack at Magnus Carlsen’s world title. And in Ding Liren, who shares the lead with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov at the Moscow midpoint rest-day, could well be their best hope of doing so.
1-2. Ding Liren (China), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 3½/5; 3-6. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Peter Svidler (Russia), Alexander Grischuk (Russia), Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan), 3; 7-13. Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Anish Giri (Netherlands), Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), Pentala Harikrishna (India), Boris Gelfand (Israel), Evgeny Tomashevsky (Russia), Jon Ludvig Hammer (Norway) 2½; 14-16. Francisco Vallejo Pons (Spain), Hou Yifan (China), Saleh Salem (UAE) 2; 17. Ernesto Inarkiev 1½; 18. Michael Adams (England) 1.
GM Hou Yifan - GM Ding Liren
Moscow Grand Prix, (3)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 The name Giuoco Piano - one of the oldest recorded openings in chess, played in the 16th century - means 'quiet game' in Italian. And like its name, it is initially very quiet with a slow build-up as both sides position their pieces for the middle-game battle. 3...Nf6 4.d3 Bc5 5.0-0 0-0 6.a4 d6 7.c3 a5 8.Bg5 h6 9.Bh4 g5 10.Bg3 Kg7 11.Re1 g4 12.Bh4 Ne7!?! A somewhat enterprising solution, threatening ...Ng6 with a good game. If Black goes for 12...gxf3 13.Qxf3 then - despite being a piece up - the "eternal pin" on f6 seems to lead to an equal game. Instead, Ding Liren ops to confuse things a little, not fearing any dangers from his voluntary king wander. 13.Bxf6+ Kxf6 14.d4 Bb6 15.Nh4 Kg7 16.Na3 exd4 Best to play this now, as it will leave a weak pawn on d4 should White consider any dramatic queen move to attack the Black king. 17.cxd4 Nc6! There's now a nice target on d4 to hone in on. And if White now plays 18.d5, then 18...Ne5 and Black has a dominating knight outpost on e5 that will control the game. 18.Nf5+ Bxf5 19.exf5 h5 20.Nc2 Qf6 21.Re4 Again, White doesn't want to allow the knight outpost after 21.d5 Ne5! and an easy game of it. 21...Qxf5 22.Bd3 Qg5 23.g3 f5 24.Rf4 Rae8 25.h4 gxh3 26.Qf3 d5 27.Rd1 Re4! The positional exchange sacrifice leaves Hou Yifan with chronically crippled pawns on d4, f4 and f2, and Black a big winning potential now. 28.Bxe4 fxe4 29.Qe3 Rxf4 30.Qxf4 Qxf4 31.gxf4 Ne7 Not only heading to g6 to pick off the f4 pawn but also safely securing Black's pawn structure by making way for ...c6. 32.Kh2 Ng6 33.f5? This looks like a time-trouble error. The only practical chance Hou Yifan has of saving this is by trying to liquidate as many pawns as possible now, so she should have tried 33.Kxh3 Nxf4+ 34.Kg3! (Much better than 34.Kh4 c6 and Black has consolidated his position, and will look now to target those pawn weaknesses on d4, f2 and b2) 34...Nd3 35.b3 c6 36.f3! The only try. 36...Bc7+ 37.Kh4 Kh6 38.fxe4 dxe4 39.Rf1 Bf4 40.Rg1 Black is still better - but if White can successfully swing the rook to the back rank to threaten the queenside pawns, it will not be so easy for Black to win. 33...Nf4 34.f3 c6 35.fxe4 dxe4 36.Re1 Bc7! The discovered check makes all the difference - Black is easily winning now. 37.Rg1+ There was no time for 37.Rxe4? as 37...Nd3+ 38.Kg1 h2+ 39.Kg2 h1Q+! 40.Kxh1 Nf2+ easily wins. 37...Kf7 38.Rf1 Kf6 39.Kg3 Kxf5 40.Ne3+ Kg5 41.Nc4 h4+ The rest of the game needs no further explanation; Black simply pushes home his two passed pawns, one of which will win material - and with it, the game. 42.Kf2 Nd3+ 43.Ke2 Bf4 44.Nxa5 h2 45.Nxb7 Nc1+ 46.Kf2 e3+ 47.Kg2 e2 48.Re1 Bd2 49.Rh1 Nb3 50.Kxh2 e1Q 51.Rxe1 Bxe1 0-1