Goryachkina is the new World Championship challenger

by Antonio Pereira
6/14/2019 – Aleksandra Goryachkina had a winning position against Tan Zhongyi in round twelve of the Women's Candidates Tournament, but decided to go for perpetual check and sign a draw, as this secured her first place in Kazan. The 20-year-old will play Ju Wenjun in the next Women's World Championship match. Meanwhile, Anna Muzychuk, Valentina Gunina and Nana Dzagnidze won their round twelve games. | Photo: Anastasiya Karlovich

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An overwhelming performance

Getting such a clear-cut victory in a Candidates Tournament — with two rounds to spare — cannot but be regarded as a career-changing performance for a 20-year-old. Aleksandra Goryachkina will play her first World Championship match after having got her ticket with a commanding performance. While doing so, she also managed to climb to third place in the live ratings list, reducing the distance between her rating and that of Ju Wenjun from 55 to 22.4 points (for the time being). 

The game that confirmed Aleksandra's first place finished drawn, but she could have easily kept on trying to get a win, as she was clearly on top in the final position. By then, however, Kateryna Lagno — who still had a mathematical chance to catch up with her — had lost against Anna Muzychuk, which meant the half point was enough to secure the title. Nana Dzagnidze and Valentina Gunina also won in round twelve.

Results of Round 12

Aleksandra Goryachkina

Aleksandra Goryachkina will fight for the highest title in women's chess against Ju Wenjun | Photo: Eteri Kublashvili

Tan Zhongyi ½:½ Goryachkina: Anyone's game

For a third game with Black in a row, Goryachkina played the Caro-Kann Defence. A well-prepared Tan Zhongyi responded by blitzing out theory until move 16, when Aleksandra varied from a Giri v Navara game from last year. The Chinese grandmaster seemed more comfortable in the middlegame and slowly started putting pressure on Black's position. Tan Zhongyi could have left a scramble in the centre with a clear edge:


Aleksandra's 28...g6 gave White a chance to simplify into a superior position with 29.cxd5. White chose 29.g3 instead, preferring to prevent her rival from capturing the f-pawn — after 29.cxd5 ♞xf4 White had 30.d6, with an annoying passer on the d-file. 

When the time control was reached, Tan Zhongyi was a pawn up and had the pair of bishops, but her king was more vulnerable. The Chinese could not make progress and the players started to shuffle their pieces around, looking for some entrance into the opposite camp. So much shuffling must have befuddled Tan, as she blundered on move 52:


White's 52.f2 in the previous move allowed 52...h1 and Black has a strong attack on the light squares. Goryachkina could have tried to make the most of her initiative, but decided to repeat moves with 53.e3 e4+ 54.f2 g2+ 53.e3 instead — an understandable decision if we take into account the tournament situation!

Tan Zhongyi, Aleksandra Goryachkina

Tan Zhongyi missed her chances in the middlegame | Photo: Anastasiya Karlovich

A. Muzychuk 1:0 Lagno: Way too passive

Kateryna Lagno climbed to second place of the standings in round six and remained in that spot until her round twelve duel with Anna Muzychuk, who, after winning their direct encounter, is now in sole second place. The players started taking their time early in the game, as Lagno unexpectedly opted for 3...f5 after 1.e4 e5 2.f3 c6 3.b5 (there are so many more lines of the Ruy Lopez to memorize!). Kateryna's intention to play a sharp game became even more clear when she went 7...h6 and 8...g5, but when it was time to keep playing actively she made a quiet move that gave her opponent a free hand on the kingside:


Black needed to play 18...b5, getting counterplay and preventing White from creating a battery on the b1-h7 diagonal (as was seen in the game) — Lagno played 18...ae8 instead and White coordinated her pieces on the light squares with 19.e4 d8 20.d3.

White had a strong initiative, and eventually Black decided to give up an exchange to deal with the threats. Muzychuk kept her cool and did not falter in the conversion — Lagno resigned on move 45 in the following position:


White's rook will slowly but surely capture Black's pawns.

Kateryna Lagno, Anna Muzychuk

Anna Muzychuk and Kateryna Lagno swapped places in the standings table | Photo: Anastasiya Karlovich

Game analysis by Anna Muzychuk and Evgeny Miroshnichenko

M. Muzychuk 0:1 Gunina: "I feel completely dead"

After getting two consecutive wins in the longest games of each round (106 and 81 moves, respectively!), Valentina Gunina simply uttered in the post-game interview, "I feel completely dead". The 30-year-old Russian had been mentioning the fact that this tournament is too long for her in the previous rounds, but she has nonetheless bounced back from two straight losses in rounds nine and ten and is now on 5½/12.

Against former women's world champion Mariya Muzychuk, Gunina found herself in a rather uncomfortable position...until Mariya failed to play actively in a critical point of the game:


It is undeniable that White has the initiative, and here Muzychuk needed to bring one more piece to the party with 32.♖e3. The Ukrainian opted for 32.g3 instead, and found herself down an exchange in a queenless position after 32...b6 33.xc5 xc5 34.xc5 bxc5.

White was a pawn up still, which made Gunina's task quite difficult. The Russian was up to the task, however, and got the win on move 81.

Valentina Gunina

The ever smiling — even when tired — Valentina Gunina | Photo: Eteri Kublashvili 

Dzagnidze 1:0 Kosteniuk: A nice strategic win

In the early middlegame, Nana Dzagnidze and Alexandra Kosteniuk delved into a strategical battle with most pieces still on the board. When both of them were fighting to get key squares and coordinate their pieces, Kosteniuk started going for rather mysterious manoeuvres:


Dzagnidze declared afterwards that she did not understand the point behind Black's 21...c6, which simply wasted a couple of tempi and gave White an opportunity to slowly improve her pieces.

A couple of moves later, Kosteniuk sacrificed a pawn in order to open up the centre with 26...d5, but could not prove there was compensation for Black in the battle that ensued. On move 31, Nana repositioned her knight to a strong central square:


Dzagnidze declared that she was expecting 31...♞de5 here, controlling the c4-square. Instead, Alexandra opted for 31...c2, allowing White's knight to get to d6 via c4 in the next two moves. From this point on, it was hard to imagine Black surviving against White's coordinated army. Resignation came on move 48.

Alexandra Kosteniuk

Former women's world champion Alexandra Kosteniuk | Photo: Anastasiya Karlovich

Game analysis by Nana Dzagnidze and Evgeny Miroshnichenko

Standings after Round 12


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Antonio is a freelance writer and a philologist. He is mainly interested in the links between chess and culture, primarily literature. In chess games, he skews towards endgames and positional play.
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Arminio12 Arminio12 6/19/2019 12:32
Opinions are free, of course. It doesn’t make them fair. I’ll try and spell it out one more time.

Khalifman, Ponomariov, Kazimdzhanov: three players that never made it to the top the way “true champions” do and that have shown a lot less than what Ju and Goryachkina have done (and let’s not forget women should not be judged by men’s standards): they are numbers 2 and 3, and while Goryachkina will still have to prove that she’s worth it, Ju has not only won the women’s title but defended it successfully as well, which is more than can be said of most of her predecessors during the World Cup years circus. If you want a proper comparison, starting with Kramnik and Hou (fair enough), you should talk about those who are next best to Carlsen, like Caruana, Ding or a few other top spot men, not about three accidental champions you (say you) can handle yourself.

Apparently, to you it is a negative development that one Goryachkina can compete for the title, that one Ju can wear the crown and that one Hou can (and in all likelihood will) come back to the renewed WC-cycle. To me it is primarily positive: the best players will once again prevail, and the times of Tan and the accidental World Cup winners and one time champions will be over. Things are finally getting back to the way they should be. Don’t pretend they aren’t just because Hou couldn’t make it this time (she will next time). And finally, it might be way too soon to write off Goryachkina as a worthy world champion: she ’s only 20, she may still have something in store ...
Zagliveri_chess Zagliveri_chess 6/19/2019 04:46
@ Arminio12
Apparently you are entitled to your opinion as I am. I have never questioned the legitimacy of Goryachkina's accomplishment. She should be proud. I wish I could do that. The issue is that a World Champion who is not the best active player, constantly has own legitimacy issues in the eyes of his/her peers. I have discussed that with the 2 of the 3 players I mentioned. When congratulated they were always questioning inside them if the praise was genuine or ironic. I have played classical games with all three and the score was neutral. Played Kramnik and I did not even realized why I lost. Twice. That is the difference between a true World Champion and a rest.
Arminio12 Arminio12 6/18/2019 10:37
@ Zagliveri_chess

I’m sorry but that is a very biased view indeed. As to Hou, I fully sympathise: she should be there, in the WC-cycle. And she very likely will be next time. While she’s not there, however, the world’s number 2 is the best world champion you can have and number 3 the best challenger, and both far better than the likes of Tan and a number of others that earned their crown in the World Cup circus of the former FIDE leadership, as players like Khalifman, Ponomariov, Kazimdzhanov did in the men’s cycle. An unfair comparison, if it is to include Ju and Goryachkina. Those 3 men never made it to the top spots (peak ratings 12, 6, 11), the two women did, convincingly. In the Women’s Highest Ever list, Hou is 2nd, Ju 5th en Goryachkina (already) 13th. Better than quite a number of former World Champions, and much better than the said men in the men’s list. Making a lousy comparison just to degrade the best women behind Hou because you can’t have it that Hou isn’t at present the official World Champion is not what I would call a fair judgment. And judging a player on one game only, more particularly the last and perhaps least relevant game of all, is even less fair.
Zagliveri_chess Zagliveri_chess 6/17/2019 06:11
Traditionally, the World Champion was recognized as the strongest active chess player. Sometimes the championship match was very close and the claim that the winner was the best player questionable. After 12 draws in the latest championship match, there was no real evidence, at that moment in time, that one player was better than the other, but we somehow had to pick a winner, hence the rapid games, etc. If the best player in the world in not competing, then the title is not particularly respected and the sport is losing.

Based on understanding of the game, knowledge, and technique Hou is in a different class. She was forced to pursue alternatives because of how she was treated. Had she been from a western country, she would be royalty. Same thing for the Kosintseva sisters. To me the World Championship without Hou feels like a boycotted Olympiad with second-rated athletes winning gold medals. That translates into "going back to the dates when Khalifman, Ponomariov, and Kasimdzhanov…" A true championship candidate should not lose the black size of a Caro-Cann like a 2200 player.
Peter B Peter B 6/17/2019 04:08
You can't really compare Goryachkina to the old FIDE champions: she has won a full blown Candidates tournament. But if she is successful in the WWC match, I hope she follows Hou into mainly playing Open tournaments.
Arminio12 Arminio12 6/16/2019 05:16
“We are going back to the dates when Khalifman, Ponomariov, and Kasimdzhanov…" (2)

In addition to my previous post, I have found some info on Yifan Hou's choice not to take part. Apparently, there was a conflict of dates between the Kazan tournament and her timetable of her master's program at Oxford. She also said she would gladly take part again and do her best to make that happen.

All the more reason not to speak of "going back to the dates" of second rate world champions (with all due respect, as they quite knew about chess): looks more like we are going forward to the (new) days of Yifan Hou, or anyone else strong enough to do better. I don't know whether that might be Goryachkina - maybe this was a one time success for her - but that doesn't matter. Maybe she might, maybe someone else might, maybe Hou remains champion for ages … The future looks good anyway.

Aighearach Aighearach 6/15/2019 07:26
As a long-time Kosteniuk fan I wanted to say thank you to her for playing fighting chess! She could have tried for more draws, but she kept fighting, and it is what fans want, it is what chess needs.

Some of the best games ever were draws, but that does not describe most draws!

Fight fight fight! This is the heart of chess.

And without HouYiFan, it is just a regular tournament anyways.
Arminio12 Arminio12 6/15/2019 12:17
“We are going back to the dates when Khalifman, Ponomariov, and Kasimdzhanov …”

Not quite. You might say that we still are in those days, but we’re not exactly going back to them. With all due respect for Tan (Zhongyi is her first name), she is one of those lesser goddesses won the title. Winning a World Cup – not even Carlsen did that last time – is very nice but it is no way to choose a proper World Champion. In the new (or renewed) system, someone like Tan will probably never make it. Of course it is sad that Hou doesn’t take part but I think the previous system / FIDE-leadership is very much to blame. However, current World Champion Ju is the next best thing, as number 2 of the world and World Champion twice. If Hou can or will not participate, she is a worthy subsititute. Now Goryachkina has quite convincingly gained the right to challenge her. It is not a ‘lucky’ World Cup winner of sorts, but currently the number 3 in the world. Still young and perhaps more promising than we may have thought. All the same, when the number 1 does not participate, and number 2 and 3 compete for the title, that’s way better than the old “dates” you refer to. We are now trying to leave that period behind, we are definitely not going back to it, even though the best player does not take part. The next best players do.
ketchuplover ketchuplover 6/15/2019 04:10
I second that emotion
Zagliveri_chess Zagliveri_chess 6/15/2019 01:54
Nice to see the new generation advancing. However, both Zhongyi and Goryachkina are at least one level below Hou, and levels [plural] below the peak performance of J. Polgar. The title of 'World Champion' is suffering again, when the best player is not in the mix. We are going back to the dates when Khalifman, Ponomariov, and Kasimdzhanov were world champions, and that is really sad.
UncleTarrasch UncleTarrasch 6/15/2019 01:21
A worthy challenger for the world title. Congratulations Goryachkina!