Women's World Ch: Tension

by Antonio Pereira
11/14/2018 – The four semi-finalists of the 2018 Women's World Championship — all of which qualified to an upcoming Candidates tournament — have been decided. Ju Wenjun and Kateryna Lagno got their tickets in the classical portion, Alexandra Kosteniuk defeated Anna Muzychuk in a tense 25+30 rapid phase, and Mariya Muzychuk (pictured) eliminated Zhansaya Abudmalik in the second 5+3 blitz game, after the players traded blows all throughout the match. | Photos: Official site

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A decisive draw

When the pairings of the Women's World Championship quarter-finals were determined, we should have been aware of the fact that it was very likely for the match between Mariya Muzychuk and Zhansaya Abdumalik to go down to the wire. After all, everything pointed in that direction...Mariya had showed her resilience by coming back from a surprising loss against Ekaterina Atalik in round two, while Zhansaya had done exactly the same in round three against Jolanta Zawadzka. We should add that they were not afraid, all throughout, to go into complicated struggles — particularly Abdumalik, who apparently never shies away from pushing for a win if the position merits it, with both colours!

The youngster from Kazakhstan hit first, with Black, after Muzychuk missed a nice geometrical manoeuvre of her opponent's queen:


Mariya blundered with 29.Rd3? — she missed that after the forced sequence 29...Rfxc5+ 30.Bxc5 Qe1+ 31.Kc2 Black can gain the bishop with 31...Qf2+. Abdumalik converted her material advantage and put her rival in a must-win situation, a circumstance which would become common sight in the match.

The long fight was just beginning

The former World Champion from Ukraine bounced back with an impressive positional victory in the next encounter. She had the pair of bishops and an extra pawn for the exchange, and showed her experience by accurately navigating the technical phase of the game. The score board showed two black wins — and they were on to the tiebreaks.

Mariya got the "advantage" of playing Black first and, from a position of strength, outplayed her 18-year-old opponent in a queenless middlegame. Just like in the previous game, she used the tandem of a rook and a dark-squared bishop to grab the win.  

It was Zhansaya's turn to prove her resilience, and she did! A position that was balanced until past move 50 slowly turned in Black's favour, until her opponent finally gave up on move 90. The tension kept rising and the "quick rapid" 10+10 games were about to begin.

Just two tables in the quarter-finals tiebreaks

Here is when the real drama began. Muzychuk had the white pieces and obtained a positional advantage out of the opening — Abdumalik had played the Sicilian. The positional plus soon turned into an extra pawn, and it was time for Muzychuk to tediously look for a win in a rook and knight endgame. Zhansaya was relentless in the defence and eventually exchanged down into a rook against rook-and-knight endgame:


Notice that they had already played 85 moves. Mariya, naturally, was not going to stop pressing, and she managed to push Black's king into a corner — about forty-five moves later she had built the mating net required to win this technical endgame:


There is no way to avoid mate, but we have reached move 135...Zhansaya could have claimed the draw by the 50-move rule, but resigned instead! After missing the half-point in a theoretically drawn endgame, Abdumalik needed to come back again — and, yes, you guessed it, she did!

Amazing focus for an 18-year-old

After the 135-move marathon, it was suitable to finish the next game quickly. Zhansaya liquidated her opponent with a flourish:


White has an overwhelming position. With so many pinned pieces, it is no surprise that a move like 31.Re7! works. Muzychuk resigned immediately. And it was time to play 5+3 blitz!

After six straight wins for Black and two for White, Mariya had the privilege of moving first in the next encounter. She used the initiative wisely, turned it into a piece advantage and won the game in 65 moves.

In the final return game (no matter the result, they would not have another return match, as Armageddon would follow if Zhansaya won), Abdumalik tried to make the most of a position with opposite-side castling. A cold-blooded Muzychuk responded to fire with fire and finished the match with a perpetual check from an advantageous position:


The queen gave checks from g4 and h4, and the first draw of the match gave Muzychuk the overall win. It was surely painful for Zhansaya, but at only 18 — and already number 20 in the world — she will have many more chances to fight for world titles.

Mariya showed great nerves and pulled through in the end

Kosteniuk moves forward

At 28 and 34, Anna Muzychuk and Alexandra Kosteniuk are already "veterans" in the women's chess world — they have been a constant fixture in international events and championship cycles for over fifteen years. They were paired against each other in the quarter-finals and quickly took the match to the rapid section — two 26 and 31-moves draws were signed on Monday and Tuesday.

Kosteniuk started playing with the white pieces and gained a piece for a pawn in the first 25+30 game. However, Black had her pieces lined up against f2. Anna knew it was time to take the weak pawn, but she did it with the wrong rook:


The computer evaluates 40...Rfxf2 with a cold 0.00, but in order to come to the same conclusion Muzychuk would have had to find complex continuations that led to perpetual checks. Instead, she played 40...Rcxf2?, giving White a chance to give up her queen for two rooks with 41.Qxf8+ Rxf8 42.Rxf8+. The pair of rooks plus the knight gave Kosteniuk a comfortable advantage against Black's lone queen. The Russian eventually won the game in 65 moves.

This match could have also gone to quicker time controls had Anna Muzychuk converted her piece advantage in the following game. It was not easy, though, as Kosteniuk defended tenaciously and found counterplay at every turn. After 84 moves, the draw was signed and the former World Champion from Russia was through to the next round.

The match is over...

...it was emotional for Alexandra

No drama

Ju Wenjun has not been the star of most reports on the tournament, but that is because she has moved through the event in a cat-like way, dispatching opponents without making any noise, all in classical games...

The rating favourite and current World Champion took down the young Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova in the quarter-finals after winning a rook and knight endgame with an extra pawn in 81 moves with the black pieces. The Chinese is still undefeated and it is not impossible to imagine her pulling off the amazing feat of winning a six-round knockout tournament without losing a single game!

Ju Wenjun had things under control and went to check on her young compatriot

Also in the classical portion, but with a more categorical result (2:0), Kateryna Lagno halted Lei Tingjie's undefeated run in Khanty-Mansiysk. It was a very suiting result for the Russian, who came from the nerve-wracking experience of winning a match in Armageddon. So far, she has actually played one more game (17) than her opponent in the semi-finals, Mariya Muzychuk (16).

The semi-finals begin on Thursday, as the players are only given a rest day (for everybody, not only those who did not go to tiebreaks) before the final match.

Kateryna Lagno

Quarter-finals results

 Ju Wenjun (CHN) 1½-½  Tokhirjonova Gulrukhbegim (UZB)
 Muzychuk Mariya (UKR) 4½-3½  Abdumalik Zhansaya (KAZ)
 Lagno Kateryna (RUS) 2-0  Lei Tingjie (CHN)
 Kosteniuk Alexandra (RUS) 2½-1½  Muzychuk Anna (UKR)

All games


Correction: Zhansaya Abdumalik is from Kazakhstan not Uzbekistan


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.


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