If a Queen Falls and No One Sees It

Photo Cathy Rogers

From the 1950s until the 1970s, World Championship matches attracted little worldwide interest because the contest always involved two players representing the Soviet Union. (Of course that changed with the arrival of Bobby Fischer.) Women’s World Championships were even more invisible, at first because it was an all-USSR affair and then, from 1988 onwards, because the best female player in the world, Judit Polgar, was not a candidate. The ubiquity of internet access has changed the equation, enabling major events around the world to be followed live by chess fans – although only if they know the event is on. The ongoing Women’s World Championship in Shanghai between Tan Zhongyi and challenger Ju Wenjun – yes it’s on right now! - has suffered a quadruple whammy. Not only were players from the same country fighting for the title, with the world’s best female player Hou Yifan declining to compete any longer in the Women’s World Championship cycle, and the match is being played in a time zone which almost rules out a US audience, but also the world body FIDE - ostensibly the controlling body of the event – ignored the match until it began.

Opening Ceremony, Photo Cathy Rogers

FIDE is suffering from massive internal upheaval, but that hardly excused not bothering to advertise the match or provide a web site until late in the day. The Chinese hosts certainly noticed FIDE’s neglect and it was also noted that neither of the two people claiming to have the powers of the FIDE President attended the opening ceremony. So, inevitably, while Chinese media and officials turned out in force for Tuesday’s opening, the occasion - and the start of a 10 game, 200,000 Euro title match - passed almost without notice outside China. The two competitors are reigning Champion Tan Zhongyi and challenger Ju Wenjun, both born in 1991 and rivals since the age of 11. Long-time Chinese national team trainer Yu Shaoteng explained, "The players are more than friends, almost like sisters. They are the same age and have played together, both in junior events and in teams, for years." Tan unexpectedly became Women’s World Champion at the knock-out tournament in Tehran in 2017, beating top seeded Ju in a semi-final upset and second seed Anna Muzychuk in the final. However Tan admitted at her final competition before the title match, the Chinese League matches, that, although she had been preparing hard for a year, she was having trouble even becoming nervous about the contest against her friend. The friendship between the two did not stop Tan Zhongyi and Ju Wenjun's respective home cities, Chongqing and Shanghai, bidding against each other for the match; an expensive compromise involving the first half being played in Shanghai and the second in Chongqing only being decided six weeks before the match was scheduled to begin. Both cities secured independent sponsors; the Shanghai half is known as the China Mobile Women’s World Championship Match on all posters. Ju is ranked clearly higher than Tan – world number two versus number 10 – and is favorite to take the title from Tan. Tan also has history against her,  since only Hou Yifan has ever won the women’s world title via the more random KO system and then followed with a match win. Nonetheless, Tan showed in Tehran that she can be brilliant under extreme pressure. “The charm of competitive sport lies in its unpredictability," proffered Ju at the opening press conference when the Shanghai media were suggesting that the local player should win. Of course either way, as the Chinese Chess Association head Ye Jiangchuan was keen to point out at the opening, China wins. He also pointed out that 1991, the birth year of the players, was auspicious because it was the year that Xie Jun gave China their first world title. Nonetheless, China’s strength in female chess, developed in the four decades since China joined the World Chess Federation, is no small achievement. As match supervisor Boris Kutin said shortly before Ye spoke, “The fact that we play a World Championship match between two Chinese women in China nowadays needs no special comment, though it’s an historic moment.” At the opening Ju looked extremely nervous, Tan rather more relaxed. Both were unwilling to divulge information about their seconds, though it soon emerged that both had 2700+ assistance: Ni Hua, Shanghai’s best player, for Ju and Bu Xiangzhi, whose wife hails from Chongqing, for Tan. The Shanghai half of the tournament is taking place at the lavish Intercontinental Hotel, just one skyscraper in a city that has so many tall buildings and so much neon that it feels like Manhattan on steroids.

Shanghai skyline, Photo Cathy Rogers

As usual in Chinese international tournaments – and the CCA has begun hosting around 40 a year, many promoting China’s Belt and Road ambitions – the organisation could barely be faulted. (The contrast with Agon events is stark: Agon talks a big game and almost always disappoints while the CCA’s major events fly under the radar but usually offer perfect playing conditions.) High security means that visitors to the Intercontinental have not seen much of the play live. After 10 minutes all but the players and the two arbiters, Anastasia Sorokina and Zhu Jiaqi, are locked out of a large zone around the playing hall and must watch the games via live video of the game in the commentary room. Players are banned from bringing phones, watches or pens to the game and, in a new twist on the hated Zero Forfeit rule, must arrive at least 10 minutes before game (!) to be scanned for metal or else be forfeited. (That rule turned out to be less than strictly enforced when Tan arrived only nine minutes early for game two and was allowed to play.) After the game, anyone can come to the press conference, which until now has seen in-depth analysis of the game by the players, coaxed to reveal much more detail than usual by press officer and WGM Gu Xiaobing. The two games have been very hard-fought. Tan, then Ju, had pressure in the first game with Tan eventually hanging on for a draw. The second game was always slightly better for Ju, though time trouble offered Tan chances to save the game, which she missed.

[pgn] [Event "Shanghai Women's World Ch."] [Site "?"] [Date "2018.05.03"] [White "Ju Wenjun"] [Black "Tan Zhongyi"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "D20"] [WhiteElo "2571"] [BlackElo "2522"] [PlyCount "126"] [EventDate "2018.05.??"] [EventType "match"] [EventRounds "10"] [EventCountry "CHN"] 1. d4 d5 2. c4 dxc4 3. e4 c5 $5 {An old line which enjoyed a brief heyday in the 1980s and was a serious surprise for Ju.} 4. d5 e6 5. Bxc4 Nf6 6. Nc3 exd5 7. exd5 {More ambitious but also more risky than} (7. Nxd5 Nxd5 8. Bxd5 Be7 {.} ) 7... a6 8. a4 Bd6 9. Nf3 O-O 10. O-O Bg4 11. h3 Bh5 12. Bg5 Re8 {Black has fully equalised and here Ju fell well behind on the clock, unable to find a good plan. In the end she decided to start a tactical sequence which at least did not leave her clearly worse.} 13. Bd3 $5 Nbd7 {The first new move.} (13... Bg6) 14. Ne4 $1 {[#]} Ne5 $5 {"With a time advantage I wanted to play sharply, " said Tan, though Ju considered} (14... Be5 {would give Black a small but safe advantage.}) 15. g4 Nxd3 16. Bxf6 gxf6 17. Qxd3 Bg6 18. Rae1 Qe7 19. Nfd2 Bf4 20. Qf3 {The most natural move; in time trouble Ju was hardly likely to risk prefacing this move with} (20. d6 Qe6 (20... Qe5 21. d7 Red8 22. Nc4 Qe6 23. Qf3 $1 {is also fine for White.}) 21. d7 Red8 22. Qf3 {when White can take on c5 and b7. Even then, with the d7 pawn falling a draw is odds-on.}) 20... Qe5 21. Re2 f5 22. gxf5 Qxf5 23. Rfe1 {[#]} Re5 $6 {Until now Tan has handled the complications well, but now the unexpected} (23... Red8 $1 {would leave White's pieces looking rather awkwardly placed.}) 24. Nc4 $1 Bh2+ 25. Kg2 Qxf3+ 26. Kxf3 Bxe4+ 27. Rxe4 Rxe4 28. Rxe4 Rd8 29. Ne3 b5 {[#]} 30. axb5 {Here the players stopped analysing the game in the post-mortem, believing that with best play the position should inevitably end in a draw. However Ju had a chance to put serious pressure on Black here through} (30. Re7 $1 bxa4 31. Ra7 $1 {when 31...Rd6 is impossible and White will finish a pawn ahead with some winning chances.}) 30... axb5 31. Re7 Kf8 32. Ra7 Be5 33. b3 c4 34. bxc4 bxc4 35. Ke4 Re8 36. Kf3 c3 37. Ra6 Rc8 38. Ke4 Bh2 39. Rc6 Rxc6 {Well judged. White's king is one tempo short of invading successfully.} 40. dxc6 Ke7 41. Nd5+ Kd6 42. Nxc3 Kxc6 43. Kf5 {[#]} Bg1 $1 44. Ne4 (44. f4 Bd4 45. Ne4 h6 46. Nf6 Kd6 47. Ng4 Bg7 {is a straightforward draw.}) 44... h6 45. Ke5 Kd7 46. Kf4 $5 {Tricky, hoping Black will not notice that her bishop is about to be trapped.} Bh2+ 47. Kf5 Ke7 48. Nf6 Bg1 49. f3 Kf8 50. Nh5 Bb6 51. Kg4 Ba5 52. Ng3 Kg7 53. Kf5 Bc7 54. Nh5+ Kf8 55. f4 Ba5 56. Ke5 Bc7+ 57. Ke4 Ba5 58. Ng3 Kg7 59. Kf5 Bd2 60. Ne4 Be3 61. h4 {[#]} h5 $1 {Tired of waiting around, Tan finds a forcing sequence which leaves White no hope of victory.} 62. Nd6 f6 $1 63. Ne4 Kf7 $1 {Here Ju, not interested in seeing} (63... Kf7 64. Nxf6 Bxf4 65. Nxh5 Bd2 {, looked up at Tan and the two shook hands on a draw.}) 1/2-1/2[/pgn]

GM Ju Wenjun, Photo Cathy Rogers

[pgn] [Event "Shanghai Women's World Ch."] [Site "?"] [Date "2018.05.04"] [White "Tan Zhongyi"] [Black "Ju Wenjun"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A21"] [WhiteElo "2522"] [BlackElo "2571"] [PlyCount "110"] [EventDate "2018.05.??"] [EventType "match"] [EventRounds "10"] [EventCountry "CHN"] 1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Bb4 {[#] Ju's last two moves were a total shock for Tan, who admitted that she was now entirely on her own.} 3. d3 (3. Nd5 {is the critical continuation.}) 3... Bxc3+ $5 4. bxc3 d6 5. g3 f5 {Black's set-up is well know with colours reversed in a Rossolimo Sicilian, but here White can use the extra tempo to distract Black from the traditional kingside attack via ...0-0, ...Qe8-h5 and ...f4.} 6. Bg2 Nf6 7. Rb1 c6 {The natural} (7... Nc6 {almost obliges Black to sacrifice a pawn after} 8. Qa4 {, which is not to everybody's taste.}) 8. Nf3 Qc7 9. O-O O-O 10. Bg5 Nbd7 11. Nd2 h6 12. Bxf6 Nxf6 13. e4 { Played after long thought; Tan was not happy with her position and, as in game one, tries to introduce complications.} Be6 {"I didn't really look at} (13... f4 {," said Ju, "because I didn't want to take any risks."}) 14. Bh3 Qd7 15. exf5 Bxf5 16. Bxf5 Qxf5 17. Ne4 Qd7 (17... Nxe4 18. dxe4 Qxe4 19. Qxd6 { would be dead equal.}) 18. Qb3 Nxe4 19. dxe4 Rf7 {[#]} 20. Rfd1 $6 {The start of a faulty sequence that leaves White struggling. "When playing 20.Rfd1 I saw the position after 23.c5 and thought White was fine, so I didn't stop to think over my next few moves," said Tan. "Only after she played 23...Kh7 did I realise that I had ruined my position."} Qg4 $1 21. Rxd6 $6 (21. Qc2 {was safe enough.}) 21... Qe2 $1 22. Rf1 $2 {Only now is Black in serious trouble. After} (22. Rb2 Qe1+ 23. Kg2 Qxe4+ 24. Kg1 {, it is not clear how Black can improve her position, though White's doubled c pawns give Ju all the chances.}) 22... Raf8 23. c5 Kh7 24. Qd1 Qxa2 25. Qb1 Qc4 26. Rd2 {[#]} a5 $1 (26... Qxc5 27. Qb4 {would offer reasonable drawing chances for White.}) 27. Qb6 Qxc3 28. Rb2 h5 {Ju, who was 15 minutes ahead of a time-pressed Tan, used most of her extra time on this move, which hopes to induce an automatic 29.h4, which would leave the g3 pawn in trouble in many lines.} 29. Ra2 a4 30. Qb2 Qxc5 31. Rxa4 g6 $6 { A weakening move which makes Black's task unexpectedly difficult. After the consistent} (31... h4 {White is unlikely to survive the time scramble.}) 32. Qd2 Kg7 33. Ra5 Qd4 {Ju's plan, but} (33... b5 {before ...Qd4 was harder to meet.}) 34. Qxd4 exd4 35. f4 Rd8 36. Kf2 b6 $6 37. Ra6 c5 38. Rxb6 Ra7 { [#] The position Ju had envisaged when sacrificing her b pawn on move 36.} 39. f5 $2 {"I felt that I had drawing chances after Ju made some mistakes but in time trouble I couldn’t find the correct way," admitted Tan, who saw} (39. Rc6 Ra2+ 40. Kf3 Rc2 {but missed that then} 41. Ra1 $1 {allows White's passive rook to also enter the attack after which Black has no time to push her pawns.} ) 39... gxf5 40. exf5 d3 $1 41. Rc6 {Too late! "I thought I was lost at move 40," said Tan, "but felt that I would have had real drawing chances had there been no second time control." (The players received an extra half hour at move 40.)} Ra2+ 42. Kf3 d2 43. Rc7+ Kf6 44. Rc6+ Ke7 45. Rd1 Rc2 $1 46. h3 {Simply too slow.} c4 47. g4 hxg4+ 48. hxg4 Rc1 49. Ke2 c3 50. Rc7+ Kf6 51. Rc6+ Kg5 { [#] Now the audience was expecting Tan to resign, but she comes up with one last trick...} 52. Kf3 $1 Rg8 $1 (52... Rxd1 $2 {would allow perpetual check after} 53. Rg6+ Kh4 54. Rh6+ Kg5 55. Rg6+ {.}) 53. Ke2 Rh8 54. Rd6 Rxd1 55. Kxd1 Rh1+ (55... Rh1+ 56. Ke2 Re1+ 57. Kf3 {does not even renew the trick because} d1=Q+ {is check! Remarkably, at the press conference after this game, Ju looked morose and whispered some of her replies, as if beating her friend has brought her no pleasure at all. In contrast, Tan was her normal ebullient self, smiling and even laughing at some moments.}) 0-1[/pgn]
Watching the match. Games start at 3am AEST so most US viewers will choose to catch up on the moves when they wake, either via The Week in Chess or with some computer analysis via Chess24 or ChessBomb. (The latter site is the one displayed in the venue, despite the advertisements  for lonely hearts looking for older men, or, more controversially, offering access to the fastest VPN in China.) There is Mandarin language commentary, by WGM Zhang Xiaowen and veteran IM Lin Ta, which can be followed here . Had FIDE been at all interested, they might have provided English language commentary, even if not on site. However in some ways it may have been better to be saved the opinions of the pair that commentated at the last match in Lviv, when viewers learned that “Girls don’t play moves like that,” and other characteristics of those limited by playing chess while female. Chess.com is also publishing regular reports from the Championship. Look for breakdowns of key moments from the match here on US Chess from Vanessa West.