Women’s Candidates R12: Tan escapes with a draw to keep the lead

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
4/19/2024 – Three out of four games ended drawn in round 12 of the Women’s Candidates Tournament, as Vaishali R scored her third win in a row in her encounter with black against Anna Muzychuk. The games that featured Tan Zhongyi and Lei Tingjie could have easily ended with decisive results — Tan escaped with a draw from a losing position against Nurgyul Salimova, while Lei failed to make the most of clear winning chances against Kateryna Lagno. Thus, Tan kept her half-point lead over Lei. | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

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The women’s crown stays in China

By now it is clear that the next Women’s Championship match will again feature two Chinese players, as Tan Zhongyi and Lei Tingjie have been by far the strongest performers at the Women’s Candidates Tournament in Toronto. With two rounds to go, Tan leads her compatriot by a half point, while three players stand a whole 1½ points behind Lei in the standings. The winner of the event will face Ju Wenjun, also from China, in the next match for the crown.

Both Tan and Lei drew their games in Thursday’s twelfth round, but both games could have easily ended differently — Tan was outplayed by Nurgyul Salimova in the opening and early middlegame, but ended up miraculously escaping with a draw, while Lei played boldly and got a clear advantage against Kateryna Lagno, but erred decisively on move 26, allowing her opponent to escape with a half point.

The one decisive game of round 12 saw Vaishali R grabbing a third consecutive win by beating Anna Muzychuk with the black pieces. Meanwhile, Humpy Koneru agreed to a draw by threefold repetition from a position of strength against Aleksandra Goryachkina.

In the final rounds, the Chinese frontrunners will play once with white and once with black:

  • Round 13: Tan (white against Goryachkina), Lei (black against Vaishali)
  • Round 14: Tan (black against Muzychuk), Lei (white against Humpy)

Lei beat Tan in the final of the 2022–23 Women’s Candidates matches — will she manage to surpass her colleague in the standings to set up a rematch against Ju? We will find out by Sunday (or by Monday if playoffs are needed).

Results - Round 12

Anna Muzychuk, Vaishali Rameshbabu

Vaishali R got the better of a luckless Anna Muzychuk | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Game analysis by WIM Svitlana Demhenko

Salimova ½ - ½ Tan

The clear rating underdog in Toronto, Nurgyul Salimova, obtained a clear advantage out of an English Opening against Tan Zhongyi. Tan found herself defending a one-sided, queenless position from the early stages of the middlegame.

White’s pawn chain in the centre and on the kingside (from the e-file to the h-file) looked majestic by move 34.

The black bishop on b3 and especially the knight on h6 make a poor impression, while the bishop on c7 cannot capture on d6 — to release some of the pressure — as it would only increase White’s advantage due to the creation of a dangerous passed pawn.

Thus, Tan had nothing better than 34...f6, giving way to a simplified position in which White’s advantage looked even more clear-cut.

This is how the position looked after Black’s 40th move.

The white knight is on an excellent outpost, the white bishop stands strong on the long diagonal, and the white rook is free to look for paths to infiltrate the opposite camp. In contrast, the black rook, bishop and knight have their mobility greatly restricted.

Salimova had done everything right up to this point, showing great positional play to get a massive strategic advantage. However, she still had to convert her positional edge into a more tangible advantage — never an easy task against an experienced, strong opponent.

Engines continued to show a clear advantage for White in the next stage of the game, until Salimova faltered on move 50.

The black pieces are still greatly restricted, and White can keep her clear domination with natural moves like 50.Nxc4, defending the bishop, or 50.Be4, defending the knight. After either of these moves, Black will struggle to find ways to continue, and White will then be able to create threats and make progress slowly but surely.

Salimova’s 50.Bxf7 was unnecessarily forcing, though, as after 50...Rxf7 51.Rh4+ Kg8 52.Rh6 Rc7 53.Nxe5 Rc5, White’s advantage has evaporated.

The passer on the f-file does not look dangerous, while White cannot create attacking threats with the rook and knight. Moreover, Black will easily gobble up the pawn on b3, getting counterplay on the queenside with her own passers.

Tan had no trouble keeping the balance until a draw was signed on move 68. A miraculous escape by the tournament leader and a huge missed chance by the Bulgarian IM.

Tan Zhongyi, Nurgyul Salimova

Nurgyul Salimova almost took down the long-standing leader | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Lagno ½ - ½ Lei

Lei Tingjie, on her part, played the French Defence against Kateryna Lagno. The contenders entered a sharp line that led to a position with opposite-side castling, and it was Lei who got to create more trouble around her opponent’s king, as she bravely pushed her g-pawn to the fourth rank on move 22.

22...g4 opens up lines on the kingside and forces White to make a tough decision. The best response is 23.f4 — in case of 23...gxh3+, White will find some shelter for her king via 24.Kh1.

After spending 14 of the 28 minutes she had left, Lagno went for 23.hxg4 instead, allowing Lei to quickly trade the dark-squared bishops, as the white minor piece on g3 was a crucial defender of the king — 23...hxg4 24.f4 Bh4 25.Be4 Bxg3 26.fxg3

Engines here give Black an advantage of more than three pawns, as she has the much safer king, and White will struggle to defend the dark squares around her monarch.

However, Lei failed to find the correct idea to make the most of her advantage — i.e. 26...Qb6, threatening to capture on b2 while getting ready to eventually push the c-pawn, opening up the dark-squared diagonal for her queen to infiltrate White’s weakened position.

Instead, she played the more prosaic 26...Nf3, counting on 27.Bxf3 gxf3+ 28.Kxf3 Qh7

Defending this major-piece endgame is much simpler for White, as after 29.Qc2 Qh5+ 30.Ke3, Black is out of checks, and White will get to trade a pair of rooks and coordinate her remaining pieces in defence.

The game was agreed drawn on move 40.

Lei Tingjie

Still smiling — Lei Tingjie | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Standings after round 12

All games

A completely exhausted Ian Nepomniachtchi!

Vaishali and her mother, Nagalakshmi

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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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