Women’s chess has been through a lot of controversies in the past couple of years. From Nigel Short's controversial claim about women's innate ability to play chess to Hou Yifan's withdrawal from the world championship cycle and her later, alleged protest in Gibraltar by resigning in only five moves, women’s chess events and figures saw a lot of stories and more media attention in the past couple of years.
However, the most colorful of these stories was the protest against the mandatory official Hijab custom during the women world championship in Tehran, Iran. Some of the players withdrew early on and protested to FIDE for its location choice to host the Women World Championship in 2017, while some others withdrew (e.g. ex-Women World Champion Mariya Muzichuk and World Championship finalist Koneru Humpy) for not considering it suitable to play in Tehran. Still, the majority (Anna, Mariya’s older sister is playing) made it to Tehran and are ready to kick off the event, Saturday, February 11th. It should be noted that Thursday and Friday are considered weekend days in Iran.
The tournament is a knock-out event comprised of sixty-three players from twenty-eight countries. Why sixty-three? It is due to the very sad news that took place three weeks ago: IM Cristina Foisor, five-time Romanian champion, and a frequent player in the Women World Chess championship, passed away. Cristina Foisor’s life was chess: it was her passion, her job, and her family. She was married to IM Ovidiu Foisor and both of her daughters Sabina (WGM) and Veronica (WIM) are both very strong chess players. FIDE and organizers decided to keep her seat in the championship in her name to honor her memories and career. Thus her opponent WGM Olga Girya (2458) will play the second round.
IM Cristina Foisor had a long and successful career and she was a competitive and strong player in the chess scenes until the very last days. The knight was her favorite piece! She will be remembered among chess players and enthusiasts. (Photo credit: Personal family album)
Nevertheless, the Foisors have a representative in this championship: Sabina Foisor, who happens to be fiancé of your author, represents the USA in this event (she has played in four Olympiads for the US so far). Organizers and officials of this event took this as an opportunity to officially honor the career of her mother in the opening ceremony.
WGM Sabina Foisor receives tributes, the statue of a knight (horse) and flowers, from Iran’s Minister of sport and youth affair, Masoud Soltanifar, and president of FIDE Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. (Photo: Reza Mahdipour)
The gifts in memory of Cristina Foisor
Having reviewed the dramatic pre-tournament incidents, let us see what the tournament is about and review its logistics, conditions, and facts. The tournament is taking place in Tehran, Iran from Februaury 11th (today) until March 3rd. The playing venue and official hotel is Espinas Palace Hotels and resort, situated in the north-western part of Tehran.
Espinas palace hotel’s lobby: designed in Persian empire style with the Achaemenid warrior statue on the right side and French-style chandeliers!
Hotel Espinas Palace at night. A brand new five star hotel in accordance to western standard. In a private conversation with some of the players and delegates, I heard a good degree of satisfaction regarding the facility and its service. (photo: Reza Mahdipour)
A view of Alborz mountain from the 19th floor of Espinas Palace hotel in Tehran’s winter. (photo: Sabina Foisor)
Espinas Palace view toward the city. This road goes right into the heart of one of the big business centers in northern part of Tehran. (photo: Sabina Foisor)
The opening ceremony took place on February 10 and the press conference was on the 9th. The press conference was brief and only covered, although thoroughly, by national TV and press.
The hosts of the press conference: (front) – FIDE CEO Geoffrey Borg, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, Shohreh Bayat (Deputy Chief Arbiter and secretary of the Iranian Chess Federation), Mehrdad Pahlevandazdeh (President of the Iranian Chess federation and head of the organizing committee). (rear): local stars and representatives of Iran: from left to right: WGM Mitra Hejazipour (Asian champion 2015), IM Sarasadat Khademalsharieh (first Iranian woman to obtain the IM title and one of the wild card winners), WGM Atousa Pourkashiyan (ex-Asian champion, and wild card winner).
I am sure hosting this event was a challenging matter in spite of financial difficulties for an event of this magnitude. Although Iran had hosted the Women GP once in 2016, organizing an event of this size (64 players) compared to the GP (12 players) is a different league in terms of complexity. Thus, it is no wonder that Mehrdad Pahlevanzadeh used all his human resources until the very last minute to make sure everything would go smooth and calm.
With the tournament hall design done, it is time to prepare the boards and pieces!
With all the criticism and controversies, there is a lot at stake for Iran’s chess federation in order to prove its potential and competence despite all of the national mandating laws. Here we see a number of packages, customized for each player, though their contents have yet to be revealed to your author!
The efforts of Iran Chess Federation should be considered paid off because the field attracted major women players... and with great players come great coaches!
Top seed is GM Ju Wenjun from China. Fresh from a great result at Gibraltar, the Chinese has crossed 2600 and is at the pinnacle of her career.
Two ex-world champions: Antoaneta Stefanova from Bulgaria (second from left) and Zhu Chen from Qatar (second from right), accompanied by their well-known coaches Ivan Cheparinov (left) and Victor Bologan (from Moldova) on the right.
From left to right: Olga Goryachkina (WGM) (Russia) (far left) – ex-world champion Anna Ushenina (Ukraine), IM Lillit Mkertichian and GM Elina Danielian (Armenia)
Two strong GMs from Ukraine sitting next to each other: current world rapid and blitz champion Anna Muzychuk (left), and Valentina Gunina.
Monsieur et Madame! GM Pavel Tregubov and ex-world champion Aleksandra Kosteniuk: husband and wife, coach and player? However you like it!
GM Jacob Aagard (an award-winning coach and author), coaches WGM Sabina Foisor in this event. It seems Jacob has a couple of purple tricks up his sleeves to lighten Sabina’s mood...
...Or not. 'Huh? You did not like it?'
GM Natalia Zhukova from Ukraine, seated next to her coach GM Anton Korobov also from Ukraine
GM Pia Cramling from Sweden was the true hero of last knock-out championship by reaching the semi-final
More well-known commentators and coaches: GM Evgenij Miroshnichenko and GM Mikhalchishin
IM Padmini Rout and GM Harika Dronavali (busy with her phone) from India
From left to right: GM Yakovich, Melia Salome, new mom Sopiko Guramishvili
Last knockout tournament finalist, Natalia Pogonina
WIM Shamima Akter from Bangeladesh and ex-Asian champion IM Irene Sukandar from Indonesia
GM Ivan Sokolov, Iran’s head coach
Ju Wenjun got white for her first game
Chief Arbiter Anastasia Sorokina from Australia and her deputy IA Shohreh Bayat are going to do their best to ensure the best playing condition for the players. Here we see Sorokina in a tense mood. What could be the cause?
It seems that Geoffery Borg found a way to ease the tension for these two ladies who are going to run the event over the next 20 days
First round pairings