The month of May has seen further evidence that China’s long march from chess obscurity to chess supremacy continues with a series of good results. In early May, Wei Yi, the 17-year-old teenage world No.1, captured his third successive national title, and with it a place in the FIDE World Cup. Then Wang Hao won the Asian Continental Championship on tiebreak in Chengdu, China, to also book his spot in the World Cup - and now comes the standout performances of Chinese No.1's, Ding Liren and Hou Yifan, at the FIDE Moscow Grand Prix.
In winning the Moscow Grand Prix, Ding Liren moved into second place in the GP overall standings - and now he could be set to become the first Chinese player to compete in the Candidates’ tournament, where the winner of which will determine Magnus Carlsen’s next title challenger. And in doing so, Ding Liren bounced back into the world’s top-10.
But his victory in Moscow overshadowed yet another Chinese success story with Hou Yifan’s fighting performance from start to finish. After beating Ian Nepomniachtchi and Jon Ludvig Hammer, the women’s world No.1 ended her campaign on a high with an impressive last round win over back-marker Ernesto Inarkiev, to finish on 5/9 and a multiple tie for third place - and she now moves into the world’s top 100, placed now at #84.
And perhaps the most remarkable aspect of all this is that more Chinese still play Xiangqi than western chess - and a number of its leading players, at least of the generation before Hou Yifan and Wei Yi, played Xiangqi at a high level before they switched to what we just call “chess”. Among those that switched was a remarkable man who made the Chinese a force for chess dominance: Liu Wenzhe, who died in 2011 at the age of 70.
He had been influenced by “fraternal visits” of grandmasters from the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s - part of the attempt by Moscow to seal ties with Mao’s China. But as Liu explained in his very readable and extraordinary book Chinese School of Chess, he regarded the Soviet School as excessively scientific. Liu proposed a unique Chinese chess philosophy stemming from the Book of Changes, the first records of which date from around 670 BC.
His devotion was to make China the dominant chess power - an ambition all the more remarkable, as in the period 1966 to 1975, during the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four, when western chess was banned, he spent those bleak years in a state of near-starvation, translating more than a million words of Russian writings on chess. Yet only two years after that ordeal was over for Liu, playing in the 1978 Chess Olympiad, he became the first Chinese player to beat a western grandmaster - and in truly spectacular style, with a sensational queen sacrifice against Jan Hein Donner of the Netherlands, that dramatically announced China’s arrival on the chess scene.
So Liu started the revolution, and then he was the one charged with building the framework for how China would succeed in dominating the chess world by becoming their first national coach, much like Mikhail Botvinnik (dubbed 'The Patriarch'), the first Soviet world champion, who also imposed his ferocious work ethic on a generation of players that followed.
GM Ernesto Inarkiev - GM Hou Yifan
Moscow Grand Prix, (9)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 The Giuoco Piano is one of the oldest recorded openings in chess, played in the 16th century, and 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...Bc5 4.0-0 Nf6 5.d3 d6 6.c3 a6 7.Re1 0-0 8.Bb3 h6 9.Nbd2 Ng4 10.Re2 Kh8 11.h3 f5!? This is the only logical continuation after ...Ng5. 12.exf5 It's an old trick that can be found in several tricky opening lines, as it's dangerous to take the knight. For example: 12.hxg4 fxg4 13.Nh2 g3! and Black has a winning attack. 12...Nxf2 Hou has no other option now other than to take on f2. But in reality, White should be OK, but she's taking a calculated risk that White will not find it easy to complete his development - and this is what she's banking on for her compensation. 13.Rxf2 Bxf2+ 14.Kxf2 Bxf5 15.Qe2 If White could easily complete his development, he would be better here - but the time taken to unravel allows Hou to start pushing in the center and create some weaknesses in the White camp. 15...d5 16.Kg1 Qd6 17.Bc2 Rf7 I thought that 17...Rae8 and keeping the pressure on the center looked better - but what do I know, as the innocuous ...Rf7 brings about an almost immediate misstep from Inarkiev! 18.b4?! This is wrong - Inakrkiev should have played either 18.a3 or a4, both of which would have been much safer. 18...a5! The very reason why 18.b4 is wrong. 19.Bb2 Did Inarkiev just simply miss that 19.b5 Qc5+! 20.Kh2 Qxc3! is winning for Black? It certainly looks like it. 19...axb4 20.cxb4 Nxb4 Perhaps better was 20...Qxb4!? 21.Bb3 Re7! 22.Rf1 Bh7 and Black is much better here, with the central pawns starving White's minor pieces of space to operate in. 21.Nxe5 Re7 22.Ndf3 Kg8 Hou needs to be wary of any possible future tricks with Ng6+ or even Nf7+ - so she wisely takes the time out now to prevent this. 23.Qd2 Nxc2 24.Qxc2 c5 25.Qb3 Kh7 26.Kh1? Inarkiev falters at the critical moment, and badly - he had to try 26.d4 c4 27.Qd1 b5 28.a3 Rea7 29.Qe1 where White remains in the game, although after 29...Ra4 White's position is the more difficult, as he'll always be on the backfoot here. 26...d4! Now Hou seizes her moment to disconnect White's minor pieces. 27.Bc1? A further mistake, but White looks doomed anyway. If 27.Nc4 Qg3! 28.Qd1 Bxh3! soon crashes through. And if 27.Qd1 Rxe5! 28.Nxe5 Qxe5 29.Qf3 Be6! White is in trouble, as the threat of ...Bd5 is hard to meet. 27...Rxe5 28.Bf4 Qd5! The point of Hou's sacrifice on e5, as the threat of ...Qxb3 prevents White capturing on e5. And now, with the material gain and no pin to worry about, Black has an easily won game. 29.Rb1 Qxb3 30.Rxb3 Rd5 31.Ne5 Rxa2 The game is effectively over here; the rest needs no further comment. 32.Rxb7 Re2 33.g4 Be6 34.Nc4 Rd8 0-1