Women’s Candidates R1: Tan grabs crucial victory

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/5/2024 – Tan Zhongyi became the early leader after beating Lei Tingjie in round 1 of the Women’s Candidates Tournament. Playing black, Tan showed proficient technique to convert her extra pawn into a full point in a rook and bishop endgame. The three remaining games ended drawn. | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

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Beating the latest challenger

Tan Zhongyi’s first-round victory might turn out to be deciding at the end of the Women’s Candidates in Toronto. The former women’s world champion defeated one of the favourites to win the event, Lei Tingjie, with the black pieces. Lei, the fourth highest-rated woman player in the world, is also the player who defeated Tan in the final of the latest edition of the Women’s Candidates, thus gaining the right to challenge Ju Wenjun in the 2023 match for the world title — Lei was defeated by Ju after losing the twelfth and last game in that match.

The Chinese players faced each other in the first round, much like the other two pairs of compatriots in the Women’s Candidates: Indians Vaishali R and Humpy Koneru, and Russians (representing FIDE) Aleksandra Goryachkina and Kateryna Lagno.

Vaishali had the white pieces against Humpy, and the game ended in a 41-move draw. The evaluation of the position was rather balanced throughout the game, though Vaishali’s handling of the clock was questionable to say the least — by move 20, the 22-year-old already had less than 3 minutes on her clock (players receive 30-second increments per move).

Vaishali Rameshbabu

Vaishali Rameshbabu | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Goryachkina and Lagno, on their part, were the first ones to agree to a draw in the women’s section. Their game was not without excitement, though, as Goryachkina, playing white, tried to make the most of her initiative on the kingside. Lagno’s positionally sound play, however, allowed her to get a position which engines considered to be slightly favourable for Black. Nonetheless, the experienced Lagno decided to repeat the position and draw the game on move 36, when she had around 10 minutes on her clock.

The remaining game of the day saw Anna Muzychuk from Ukraine playing white against Nurgyul Salimova from Bulgaria. Salimova, the youngest and lowest-rated participant in the event, played the Petroff and managed to hold her experienced opponent to a 40-move draw.

Round 1 results

Aleksandra Goryachkina

Aleksandra Goryachkina | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Lei 0 - 1 Tan

The one decisive game of the round started as an innocent-looking Exchange Variation in the Queen’s Gambit Declined. Lei’s decision to swap queens on move 24, however, gave Black a lasting edge in the ensuing technical position.

Fearing a potential ...Bxh3 or ...Bg4, White here played 24.Qf4, when 24.Rac1 or 24.Rae1 were stronger, cool-headed alternatives. After 24...Qxf4 25.exf4 Rf6, Black is already in the driver’s seat, as she can target White’s weaknesses with little risk — i.e. playing for two results.

Tan soon grabbed a pawn, and a pure rook and bishop endgame was reached. Lei made a critical mistake on move 40.

Here White must choose between defending the h-pawn with 40.Kg3, as seen in the game, or capturing the central white passer with 40.Bxd5. With only a minute on her clock, Lei opted for the king move that greatly increased Black’s advantage.

Converting the position into a win was no trivial task, however, especially against a player as resourceful as Lei. In fact, Lei gave up an exchange to create complications, but Tan was merciless in the final phase of the game, as she found a couple of nice tactical ideas before prompting her opponent’s resignation.

White’s g-pawn looks scary, but Tan correctly calculated that 46...h3 is winning for Black. There followed 47.g6 Kf2 and now 48.g7 does not work due to 48...hxg2 49.Bxg2 Rg1 (diagram), and Black would wins thanks to the skewer along the g-file.

Lei did not enter this line, but the alternative she opted for was also losing. Resignation came five moves later.

In round 2, Tan is set to face Vaishali with the white pieces, while Lei will play her first game with black, against Salimova.

Lei Tingjie

The final moves of the one deciding game of the day in Toronto (in either section) | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

All games

Fabiano Caruana and Vaishali at the press conference

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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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