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.

GM Ju Wenjun, Photo Cathy Rogers

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. 

Comments

  1. Perhaps GM Roger’s wasn’t interested in chess when Tal won the championship, but let me assure you that we very much followed and enjoyed his games.

    • His point is that matches in pre-Fischer era attracted “little worldwide interest”, which is true, even though chess fans of course were interested.

      I don’t know how anyone, even hardcore chess fans, can be much interested in this match here though. Tan won her title at the tainted knockout event in Tehran, where many of the best women refused to play. The convoluted system is somewhat of a joke anyway (Hou Yifan said as much). The best women players show little interest in the women’s championship anymore, so why should we?

      Maybe they need a new star player, and a good rival for her….someday, Annie Wang!?

  2. I was fourteen when Tal won the Candidates in 1959 and fifteen when he won the first match against Botvinnik in 1960. On behalf of all Canadian chess fans who were fourteen and fifteen at that time, and who followed the game through Al Horowitz’s Chess Review, I can affirm that it was already the Age of Fischer. We thought Tal was the greatest chess genius ever, no question about that, and that he would beat old man Botvinnik with ease–yet we were sure he would be just holding the title in trust until Fischer fully matured and ascended to it.

  3. Thank you, Ian, for the masterly commentaries and annotations. It makes me that I was there enjoying the struggles and ambience.

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