Cairns Cup: Plot twists

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
2/15/2020 – Ju Wenjun and Humpy Koneru are still sharing the lead of the Cairns Cup after a seventh round in which things could have taken a different path. The only decisive result of the day saw Mariya Muzychuk beating Valentina Gunina — Muzychuk got a much better position, lost her advantage and ended up winning when Gunina overestimated her chances. Meanwhile, Ju Wenjun could not convert a clear advantage, and Humpy saved a half point in a difficult endgame. | Photo: Austin Fuller

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Muzychuk beats Gunina

Valentine's Day is a major celebration of love and romance in the United States, but that did not prevent the players from showing a combative spirit on most boards during round seven of the Cairns Cup. The two games that finished first were logical, well-played draws — Carissa Yip was particularly in control against Harika to get her first half point of the event — while the remaining three could have easily ended up with different results than the ones we saw when the action was over.

At some point, it seemed highly probable that Ju Wenjun would go into the last two rounds of the event a full point ahead of her closest chasers. The world champion was two pawns up in an endgame while Humpy Koneru was facing a dire prospect in her game against Irina Krush. In the end, Ju failed to convert her advantage when Nana Dzagnidze found a powerful knight move, and Humpy managed to hold the rook endgame a pawn down. 

Almira Skripchenko, Anastasiya Karlovich

Commentators from the Russian webcast, Almira Skripchenko and Anastasiya Karlovich, dressed for the occasion | Photo: Lennart Ootes 

Dzagnidze played the Trompowsky against Ju, and after following seven moves of a Carlsen v Wei Yi game from this year they left explored territories and started taking long thinks. Ju was the one using more time while dealing with the complexities of the position, as she spent almost half an hour on 9...d8

Apparently, Dzagnidze felt she had a strong chance to get a better position in the middlegame as she gave up a pawn for an initiative that did not quite bear fruit. By move 36, Black was two pawns to the good and had neutralized all of White's threats:

 

Ju played 36...d8 and after 37.a5 bxa5 38.xd8 xd8 39.a6 it was hard to believe White could stop both the queenside pawn and a potential passer on other flank of the board. Dzagnidze did not give up though and, when it seemed it was only a matter of time before Ju would promote her h-pawn, a miraculous saving move appeared on the board:

 

Ju's previous 67...h3 was a blunder, as it allowed 68.f5+, when Black is forced to give up the exchange with 68...xf5 — 68...♚e8 runs into 69.♘g7+ forking king and rook, while 68...♚f8 runs into 69.♖d8#. The ensuing endgame was drawn. It was a painful missed opportunity for the world champion.

 

Ju Wenjun

Ju Wenjun could have gone into the last two rounds as the sole leader | Photo: Crystal Fuller

The other co-leader, Humpy Koneru, had a difficult day at the office, but hers was a situation of all's well that ends well as she got to save a half point against Irina Krush. Humpy played the Nimzo-Indian Defence and found herself on the worse side of equality when a rook and knight endgame appeared on the board. Once the knights had been swapped, Krush erred by making a critical decision on move 40 instead of waiting to get more time:

 

White went for the committal 40.g5 and lost her edge, when it was perfectly possible to play 40.♖c5, keeping the structure and delaying the decision to find a way to break through with added time on the clock. The position was now balanced and Humpy showed good technique until the draw was signed twelve moves later.

 

Irina Krush, Humpy Koneru

Irina Krush facing Humpy Koneru | Photo: Austin Fuller

Talking about missed chances, Mariya Muzychuk came from failing to convert a clearly better position on Thursday, and once again got a clear edge with Black as early as move 10 against Valentina Gunina. Muzychuk had the bishop pair, a strong centre and a chance to move forward on the kingside, but finding a way to turn this into something tangible is never easy when a resourceful player is sitting on the other side of the board. By move 40, Gunina had in fact equalized, as Black's extra pawn on the d-file seemed rather superfluous:

 

It is hard to find a way to make progress for Black from this position. Twenty moves later, the material balance had been restored and the draw seemed inevitable...but, as Muzychuk pointed out later, Gunina is not one to leave the playing hall happy with a draw. Unfortunately for her, however, to keep fighting for more sometimes simply backfires:

 

With 62.♔g5, White keeps the black monarch at bay and the draw will probably be signed soon, while Gunina's 62.f3 allows 62...e5, gaining ground — there followed 63.g3 b6 64.f3 d4 65.e2 a5 and White can only go 66.b2 giving way to 66...c5. After losing the b-pawn, Gunina played eight more moves before resigning.

 

Mariya Muzychuk

Mariya Muzychuk is now only a half point behind the leaders | Photo: Crystal Fuller


Standings after Round 7

 

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Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.

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