Women's World Ch: Ju Wenjun defends her title

by Antonio Pereira
11/23/2018 – The champion kept her title. Ju Wenjun defeated Kateryna Lagno 3:1 in the tiebreaks of the 2018 Women's World Championship final match by winning both 10+10 games after drawing the first two rapid encounters. This was the first time since 2000 that a player defended her title in a knockout tournament. With another championship cycle over — the second one this year — the next one is expected to include a Candidates Tournament. | Photos: Official site

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"My lucky place"

Khanty-Mansiysk is a well-known place for anyone who has followed chess in the last ten years or so. For Ju Wenjun, however, this is more than simply a nice "chess city". During the press conference that followed her victory over Lagno, she called the Russian city her "lucky place", as she had qualified to face Tan Zhongyi in the previous World Championship match after winning the final stage of the 2015-16 Grand Prix precisely in that Siberian location.

The second highest rated woman player in the world achieved a historic feat during the last three weeks, as she became the first player since Xie Jun in 2000 to defend her title in the ever-gruelling knockout format. She played 18 games and finished with 9 wins, 8 draws and a single loss. She arrived as the favourite by rating and ratified her status as the strongest active woman player in the world — given the fact that Hou Yifan has not been playing often lately, after she began her studies in Oxford.  

Ju Wenjun also revealed that she will take some time to rest from chess, as she is quite tired after the long tournament. Her amazing run in Khanty-Mansiysk netted her 7.4 rating points — she has now a 2575 rating, 29 points shy from her highest-ever mark of 2604.

Cold weather does not seem to affect Ju Wenjun negatively

Opposite-coloured bishops

The defending champion began the tiebreaks with the white pieces and, as she would keep doing throughout the day, chose a solid system from the get go. Lagno responded accordingly and, after the queens were exchanged on move 36, the players delved into an opposite-coloured bishops endgame with rooks and seven pawns per side on the board. A long manoeuvring battle followed, but none of the contenders created enough imbalances and the draw was signed on move 68.

A similar story took place during game two. In that encounter, in fact, the players reached an endgame with, again, opposite-coloured bishops by move 35. The absence of rooks and the fact that there were four — and not seven — pawns per side sped up the conclusion: the game was drawn after 51 moves.

Three long weeks of chess are about to finish

The regulations stipulated that the players now had to accelerate the pace to a 10+10 time control. Lagno started with White this time. It looked like the players were following a well-defined script: a quiet game did not take long to reach an endgame. However, just when the commentators from the official site — Alexander Morozevich and Alexandra Kosteniuk — were joking about the fact that they were about to go into yet another opposite-coloured bishops position, a critical decision determined the outcome of the match:

 

Lagno could have calmly captured the knight with 23.Bxb2, reaching the aforementioned drawish endgame, but played 23.Bf1 instead. Kosteniuk and Morozevich quickly agreed that the only explanation was that Kateryna completely missed 23...Nd1. White went on to grab the f2-pawn and, although the position was not completely lost, Lagno could not recover and ended up giving up the point after 49 moves.

Nerves...

Deep focus

Now the Russian contender was in a must-win situation while fighting for her first World Championship title — not a good place to be, especially against such a cold-blooded opponent. 

Ju Wenjun followed a simple strategy with the white pieces: to do nothing and wait for her opponent to falter. Nerves did not seem to play a big role for Ju, who remained still and exchanged as many pieces as she could. Eventually, the players arrived in a position with queens, knights and pawns, and it was hard to imagine for Lagno to find a way to break through. Nevertheless, the manoeuvring battle was abruptly interrupted when Kateryna suffered a mental lapse, probably caused by extreme tiredness:

 

The Russian player hung her queen with 34...Qg6?. Ju Wenjun immediately took the gift and the match was over.

Lagno, who arrived as the third rating favourite, had a phenomenal tournament. She even had the upper hand at the start of the classical phase of the final match, but could not finish off her opponent when she had the chance. The consolation prize — and a big one at that — is that she qualified to the 2019 Women's Candidates Tournament, together with Alexandra Kosteniuk and Mariya Muzychuk.

It was a fine result for Kateryna Lagno

On a final note, Arkady Dvorkovich — who flew in for the tiebreaks — talked about the upcoming cycle in the post-game press conference. He announced that the winner of the Candidates will play Ju Wenjun in a match for the crown. Then, he also explained that the cycle that will follow that match will include, much like in the absolute cycle, a Grand Prix series, a World Cup and will award places in the Candidates based on ratings.

Flowers and gifts for the winners

All games and commentary

 

Select an item from the playlist to replay commentary from prior rounds

Correction: Ju becomes the first player since Xie Jun in 2000 to defend her title in the knockout format. Xie defeated Alisa Galliamova in a match in 1999.

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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.