I will go to Iran as a chess player and just play chess!

by Niklesh Kumar Jain
1/17/2017 – Ju Wenjun won the tournament in Khanty Mansiysk and with it the overall women's Grand Prix as well. This gives her the right to challenge the World Championship winner in Tehran 2017. ChessBase India's Niklesh Jain got in touch with the women's world number two and asked her questions, not only about her Grand Prix victory, but also about the hijab controversy, Hou Yifan's decision to pull out of the cycle and her personal ambitions in chess.

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Interview with World Championship Challenger Ju Wenjun

Niklesh Jain: Ju Wenjun, Congratulations for this big win! You are now a World Championship Challenger. How does it feel? And what does it mean to you?

Ju Wenjun: Thank you! I feel pretty good. It is a remarkable result. One step closer to my dream and no doubt I will fight to become the World Champion.

NJ: How tough was the Khanty Mansiysk Women’s Grand Prix?

JW: So far the toughest tournament in my career. I was stressed, especially in first six games. I even could not remember the line I had just prepared in the morning before the game. I was back to normal in my last five games. I did what I like doing the best – just play for pleasure.

Tears of joy on winning a really strong tournament

Final standings of Khanty Mansiysk Grand Prix 2016

Rg. Titel Name Land ELO 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Pkt. Perf. Wtg.
1 GM Wenjun Ju
2580   1 1 0 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 7.5 / 11 2589 36.50
2 IM Nino Batsiashvili
2489 0   ½ 1 0 1 ½ 1 1 0 ½ 1 6.5 / 11 2552 33.25
3 IM Sarasadat Khademalsharieh
2435 0 ½   ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 6.0 / 11 2524 31.50
4 GM Alexandra Kosteniuk
2555 1 0 ½   0 ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ 6.0 / 11 2514 31.25
5 GM Valentina Gunina
2525 0 1 0 1   ½ 1 0 0 1 ½ 1 6.0 / 11 2517 30.75
6 GM Dronavalli Harika
2543 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½   ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 6.0 / 11 2515 30.25
7 WGM Olga Girya
2450 ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 ½   ½ 0 1 1 1 6.0 / 11 2523 29.75
8 GM Natalia Zhukova
2448 ½ 0 ½ ½ 1 0 ½   ½ ½ ½ 1 5.5 / 11 2491  
9 GM Bela Khotenashvili
2426 ½ 0 ½ 0 1 ½ 1 ½   ½ 0 ½ 5.0 / 11 2462  
10 IM Lela Javakhishvili
2461 0 1 ½ ½ 0 ½ 0 ½ ½   ½ ½ 4.5 / 11 2427 24.25
11 WGM Natalija Pogonina
2492 ½ ½ 0 0 ½ ½ 0 ½ 1 ½   ½ 4.5 / 11 2425 23.75
12 IM Almira Skripchenko
2455 0 0 ½ ½ 0 0 0 0 ½ ½ ½   2.5 / 10 2292  

NJ: How did you approach this tournament? On one hand getting 90 points was enough to surpass Humpy Koneru in the Grand Prix standings, but on the other there were players like Gunina, Kosteniuk, Harika who could have won the Khanty Mansiysk Grand Prix and taken the top spot.

JW: There were many possibilities. Many players had a chance to win the Grand Prix. I managed to score 7.0/11, that's +3, which was a good result. It was not easy, but the good thing is that I didn't need to fight too hard.

Final standings of the Grand Prix series 2015-16

Rank Player Rating Total
1  Ju Wenjun (China) 2580 413,3
2  Koneru Humpy (India) 2557 335,0
3  Valentina Gunina (Russia) 2525 287,0
4  Alexandra Kosteniuk (Russia) 2555 277,0
5  Dronavalli Harika (India) 2543 272,0
6  Zhao Xue (China) 2508 250,0
7  Nino Batsiashvili (Georgia) 2489 245,0
8  Anna Muzychuk (Ukraine) 2561 223,3
9  Mariya Muzychuk (Ukraine) 2532 220,0
10  Sarasadat Khademalsharieh (Iran) 2435 212,0
11  Nana Dzagnidze (Georgia) 2507 205,0
12  Natalia Pogonina (Russia) 2492 195,0
13  Antoaneta Stefanova (Bulgaria) 2512 173,3
14  Hou Yifan (China) 2635 160,0
15  Olga Girya (Russia) 2450 157,0
16  Natalia Zhukova (Ukraine) 2448 140,0
17  Pia Cramling (Sweden) 2461 125,0
18  Bela Khotenashvili (Georgia) 2426 110,0
19  Almira Skripchenko (France) 2455 110,0
20  Lela Javakhishvili (Georgia) 2461 100,0
21  Elina Danielian (Armenia) 2444 20,0
22  Tan Zhongyi (China) 2492 20,0

NJ: You drew the first round against Zhukova and then won against Javakhishvili. With 1.5/2, you slowed down a bit and made three draws. And then you lost the crucial sixth round against Alexandra Kosteniuk. What was going on in your mind at that point? How did you fight back?

JW: After I lost to Kosteniuk I was back to 50%. If I wanted to win I had to score four points out of the remaining five games. That's a very difficult task to achieve, especially since I hadn't played well in the first six games. After the loss I was quite upset. One of my friends suggested me to watch a comedy movie. I watched it and felt quite relaxed. Next day I prepared as usual and luckily won the game!

Ju Wenjun was quite depressed with her loss against Kosteniuk. Only a funny movie could turn her mood around!

NJ: Yes, you won your next game against Valentina Gunina in style. Did you know that you were following the game Swinkels against Sasikiran?

Ju Wenjun vs Valentina Gunina

Gunina went for the 14...Nxf2 sacrifice, which was calmly refuted by Ju Wenjun

Well, I know Sasikiran played it. I didn't prepare this before the game. When Valentina played this line, I was surprised, but did not fear it. I believe that if White plays well, it is Black who has to fight for a draw.

[Event "KM WGP 2016"] [Site "Khanty-Mansiysk RUS"] [Date "2016.11.26"] [Round "7.6"] [White "Ju, Wenjun"] [Black "Gunina, Valentina"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E00"] [WhiteElo "2580"] [BlackElo "2525"] [Annotator "Sagar Shah"] [PlyCount "81"] [EventDate "2016.11.19"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. g3 Bb4+ 4. Bd2 Be7 5. Bg2 d5 6. Nf3 O-O 7. O-O Nbd7 8. Qc2 c6 9. Rd1 b6 10. Bf4 Ba6 11. cxd5 cxd5 12. Ne5 Nxe5 13. dxe5 Ng4 (13... Nd7 14. e4 Rc8 15. Nc3 d4 16. Rxd4 Qc7 $14 {gives Black a playable position.}) 14. h3 Nxf2 $6 (14... Nh6 15. Bxh6 gxh6 16. Nc3 $14 {is already pretty depressing.} ) 15. Kxf2 Bc5+ 16. Be3 Bxe3+ 17. Kxe3 {The king is out there in the open but Black lacks pieces to attack him.} Rc8 (17... f6 18. Kf2 fxe5+ 19. Kg1 Qg5 20. Kh2 h5 21. h4 Qg4 22. Nc3 Rac8 23. Rf1 b5 24. Bh3 Qd4 25. Bxe6+ Kh8 26. Qg6 { 1-0 (26) Swinkels,R (2494)-Sasikiran,K (2680) Eilat 2012}) 18. Qd2 f6 19. Kf2 fxe5+ 20. Kg1 {The king is back his nest and Black has just two pawns.} Qe7 21. Nc3 Qc5+ 22. e3 Qe7 23. Rac1 $16 {White is clearly better and went onto win the game.} h5 24. h4 Rcd8 25. e4 d4 26. Nb1 Rf6 27. Qg5 Qd6 28. Nd2 Be2 29. Nc4 Qb4 30. Qd2 Qxd2 31. Rxd2 Bxc4 32. Rxc4 g5 33. hxg5 Rg6 34. Bh3 Re8 35. Rc6 Re7 36. Kg2 Kg7 37. Rdc2 Rxg5 38. Rxe6 Rxe6 39. Bxe6 Rg6 40. Rc7+ Kf8 41. Bf5 1-0

NJ: Did it come to you as a surprise that your eighth round opponent Almira Skripchenko did not turn up or were you aware that she was not going to play the round?

JW: I took the bus and went to the playing hall. It was like 20 minutes before the game when I was told that she may not come due to health reasons. It was a pretty gloomy feeling. The win does help my tournament standing, but I felt different from all the other players who were fighting it out. You could say that I was happy and sad at the same time.

It was for the first time that Ju Wenjun experienced the rule of zero tolerance

A walkover is a free point, but the thrill of winning the game doesn't exist

NJ: The game against Nino Batsiashvili in the penultimate round was perhaps the most important game of the tournament for you. Were you already relaxed because you had scored two wins against Gunina and Khademalsharieh, or did you want to fight at all costs for a first place finish?

JW: The game against Batsiashvili was my favourite. After I won this game I became the winner of the Women's Grand Prix, which was a big relief. And as it was 30th of November, I got to see the Rapid Playoffs of the World Championship Match between Carlsen and Karjakin as well!

Overall I wanted to score one point out of two. As I had the black pieces against Nino I wanted to play solidly. But she started to play double-edged chess and that gave me the chance to play for a win!

Nino Batsiashvili vs Ju Wenjun

How should Black continue in this messy and complicated position?

[Event "KM WGP 2016"] [Site "Khanty-Mansiysk RUS"] [Date "2016.11.30"] [Round "10.1"] [White "Batsiashvili, Nino"] [Black "Ju, Wenjun"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "E10"] [WhiteElo "2489"] [BlackElo "2580"] [Annotator "Sagar Shah"] [PlyCount "96"] [EventDate "2016.11.19"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. cxd5 {With the knight on f3, it is already well known that this line is not dangerous for Black.} exd5 5. Nc3 Bb4 { Wenjun transposes to the Ragozin. In fact c6 would have been a move which tries to take advantage of White's move order by threatening to develop the bishop to f5.} (5... c6) 6. Bg5 h6 7. Bh4 O-O 8. e3 Bf5 9. Bd3 (9. Qb3 { would be the most principled move.} Bxc3+ 10. bxc3 Nbd7 11. Be2 {White can hope for some edge here.}) 9... Bxd3 10. Qxd3 c6 11. O-O Nbd7 12. a3 Bd6 13. b4 Qe7 14. Rfe1 Qe6 15. Nd2 Qg4 16. Bg3 Bxg3 17. hxg3 Rfe8 {Overall Black's position looks quite harmonious.} 18. Nf1 (18. b5 c5 $1 $15) 18... h5 19. Rac1 a5 20. b5 c5 21. Na4 (21. dxc5 Nxc5 22. Qb1 {was another possibility.}) 21... c4 22. Qc2 Qe6 (22... Qe4 $1 $11) 23. f3 (23. e4 $5 dxe4 (23... Nxe4 24. f3 $16 ) 24. Qxc4 Qxc4 25. Rxc4 $14) 23... Qd6 24. Ra1 Nh7 25. Nc3 Nb6 26. a4 Qd7 27. Rad1 f5 28. e4 $1 fxe4 29. fxe4 dxe4 30. Nxe4 Qf5 31. Nfd2 Rac8 32. Nf3 Nd5 33. Ne5 $6 (33. Re2 Nb4 34. Qb1 Qd5 $11 (34... Nd3 35. Nd6 $18)) 33... Ng5 $1 34. Rc1 Nxe4 35. Rxe4 (35. Qxe4 Qxe4 36. Rxe4 c3 $17 {Black has a great knight and a passed pawn. Black is just better.}) 35... Nc3 $1 36. Rf4 Qxc2 37. Rxc2 Nd5 $1 {Wenjun doesn't go for the extra pawn. She prefers to maintain control.} ( 37... Nxa4 38. Rxc4 Nc3 $17) 38. Rf3 c3 39. Kf2 Re7 40. b6 $2 {Stopping Rec7 but now the b6 pawn is weak. This was the last move before time control.} Re6 $1 41. Nd7 Rd6 42. Nc5 Rxb6 $19 43. Ke2 Re8+ (43... Rb2 $19) 44. Kd3 Nb4+ 45. Kxc3 Nxc2 46. Kxc2 Rb4 47. Kc3 b6 48. Nd3 Rc8+ {A complex game, but I really liked how Ju Wenjun tried to keep control on the position.} 0-1

The start of the game that gave Ju Wenjun the biggest victory of her chess career!

NJ: After drawing your game with Pogonina, you won the tournament. Not only that, you also become the World Championship challenger. How did you celebrate your victory?

JW: After my victory I went to Shenzhen to play in the Chinese League for team Shanghai. Along with it I also promoted chess in schools with other players. I just came back home and will now think about how to celebrate! Meeting my friends looks like a good idea. I will also go to the gym, because I like working out!

NJ: Who is your coach currently?

JW: I would rather not reveal that! Well, what can I say, a secret makes a woman woman!

NJ: How will you prepare for the World Cup/World Championship 2017 to be held in Iran in 2017? Do you think this victory and the fact that you already have the right to challenge the winner of the World Championship will reduce your motivation to perform your best?

JW: No, it will not reduce my motivation to perform my best. I want to do all that I can and leave no space for regrets. If I get knocked out by some player it will only be because I didn't play well, not because of lack of motivation. I will prepare hard for each game focusing on my opponent's playing style.

NJ: What do you think about the Hijab controversy surrounding the Women’s World Cup 2017?

Ju Wenjun playing with a headscarf during Tehran Grand Prix 2016 (photo by Alina L'Ami)

JW: If a chess player wants to boycott the Women's World Cup in Iran, that is her right to do so. As for me, I will be playing there. If you count Tehran 2017, it will be my fifth time in Iran. I go there as a chess player and just play chess.

NJ: What is your opinion about the current Women’s World Championship cycle? Are you fine with World Championships held every year? Or would you prefer a different format?

JW: The current cycle gives me more opportunity to win the Women World Championship. I am fine with the system.

NJ: What is your take on Hou Yifan’s decision to pull out of the World Championship cycle?

JW: I respect Hou Yifan's decision and wish her all the success in future. She pulling out from the World Championship cycle has left the other players with more chances.

NJ: What is your ultimate aim in chess?

JW: To win Women's World Championship title. I also want my rating to improve. Hopefully one day I will play in an elite chess event.

NJ: Thank you Ju Wenjun for your time and effort in answering these questions. Highly appreciated!


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FIDE Instructor Niklesh Kumar Jain Jain is an international chess player who has participated in tournaments in almost in 20 different countries, winning the international tournament in Sri Lanka in 2010. He also worked for a television network as an anchor and news writer for two years, and reported in Hindi during World Chess Championship 2013 and 2014. Niklesh loves to write about tournaments and do interviews with chess champions. He has ambitions to become a grandmaster, but at the same time loves to train young talent. He strongly believes chess should be the part of every school curriculum, to face the challenges of the 21st century.
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calvinamari calvinamari 1/19/2017 06:01
Gender inequality is made worse -- not better, not legitimized -- when enacting it into law by a theocratic state.
chessdrummer chessdrummer 1/18/2017 02:01

It's very ignorant to say it is bad to hold it in an Islamic country. There are so many variations of Islamic countries. As for the hijab, when you go to foreign countries you are expected to follow the law, regardless of what they are. In certain countries you cannot jaywalk, spit, litter, drink water on public transportation, show public affection, etc. That is a fact. It is not against the law to wear hijab in the U.S. which is why you don't have to remove it. Silly argument you have posed. diegoami poses an equally silly argument about a fedora.

In certain parts of Europe, you cannot wear the hijab or recently the burkini. So it varies, but when you travel you abide by the law of the national culture. The issue is that a couple of American players don't like the law. They won't play. That is their right. Rest assured, if you are in a country that requires you to follow a particular law (whatever it is), you abide by it for your own safety... or simply don't go. Pakidze is correct in not participating (due to her beliefs) and Iran is correct in trying to uphold their national culture.
amalwa amalwa 1/17/2017 10:14
@diegoami Still, if an Iranian player came to a non-muslim country to participate in a chess tournament we would not force her to take of her veil. That's why this is disgusting that they have the world championship in an islamic country.
ff2017 ff2017 1/17/2017 06:50
I'll be honest, Hou Yifan (my favorite chess player) in women's chess is like watching a Usain Bolt on Steroids running an UNTIMED race. There is a certain lack of excitement at the range of possibilities. I much prefer the current field in Women's chess, where there is a real fight to be first among equals rather than the constant domination by a single player.

Hou should be doing what she is doing now, fighting upwards with more difficult opponents rather than wasting her energies beating weaker players 3-5 precious tournaments a year. However this would likely be a greater hit to her pocketbook.
diegoami diegoami 1/17/2017 06:28
What if a world championship tourmanent required male participants to wear a fedora ? I mean, just for the lols.

Or just check this proposed FIDE dress code, http://www.chessdom.com/fide-dress-code-policy-proposal-of-ms-beatriz-marinello/ , well actually women should not wear " clothes that expose areas of the body usually covered in the location where the event is taking place...". In Iran, that means hair, I guess.
calvinamari calvinamari 1/17/2017 05:25
Yes, Hou Yifan's decision to pull out of the World Championship cycle has, superficially, "left the other players with more chances." But her departure, and the legitimate boycott by other strong players who refuse to be subject to theocratic bullying, has in fact negated any chance that the winner of this event can credibly be called the strongest female player.
Gaedel1 Gaedel1 1/17/2017 08:19
I wonder what comedy movie she watched? Congratulations Ju Wenjun!!!
Aighearach Aighearach 1/17/2017 04:36
It is every chess player's dream to challenge somebody other than the Champion and be rewarded with the title, congratulations for achieving it after all your hard work!
I think it is funny she admits that not having the Champion at the Championship increases chances for the rest.