Reports Nov 26, 2018 | 10:09 AMby Colin McGourty

Ju Wenjun retains her World Championship title

China’s Ju Wenjun has won the Women’s World Championship title for the second time in six months after defeating Kateryna Lagno in tiebreaks in the final match in Khanty-Mansiysk. After first gaining the title by beating Tan Zhongyi in a match in May the odds were that she would be one of the shortest-lived champions in chess history, but instead she battled through the 64-player, 20-day knockout to retain her crown. In a wonderful year for the women’s no. 2 she also won double gold with China at the Olympiad.

For the 2nd time in a year Ju Wenjun has won the Women's Chess World Championship! | photo: official website 

Ju Wenjun remains the 17th Women’s World Champion after going through an ordeal that no champion in the near future is going to face. She had to enter the big knockout without any privileges, while in future the women’s cycle will change to mirror the overall World Championship, with the title-holder playing a match against a Candidates Tournament winner.

Ju Wenjun’s progress to the final had been serene, with no losses and no need for tiebreaks in any of her first five matches, but the final turned into a real battle:

Replay all the games from the event using the selector below:

The 4-game classical match started badly for the Chinese player against Russia’s Kateryna Lagno. An extremely complicated and double-edged fight in the first game seemed to be going Ju Wenjun’s way until one careless move squandered much of her advantage in mutual time trouble. She then instantly offered a draw in a position where she could have fought on for a win at little risk. 

Kateryna Lagno after taking the lead in the match | photo: official website 

Then in Game 2 Kateryna ground a win out of almost nothing:

Kateryna said that after e.g. 20…Rd5 it should just be equal and the players would go home, but she felt her opponent underestimated the danger, and that after 20…Rxd1 21.Rxd1 Rb8 22.g4! it was already difficult for Black to defend in a practical game. Kateryna went on to win in 59 moves.

Wenjun was therefore in the new position of needing to press for a win, and she came extremely close in Game 3. The last win missed was on move 48, but perhaps the most dramatic was on move 21:

21.Ne6!? is playable here, but it’s much more powerful to play 21.fxg4! first, when 21…hxg4 22.Ne6! is crushing with the f-file open and Bxg4 threatened.

64 players had started in Khanty-Mansiysk, but only two went the distance | photo: official website 

Instead after 21.Rb4 the game ended in a 68-move draw, meaning Ju Wenjun would now have to win with Black or she would lose her title. The opening was the Rossolimo Sicilian that’s so familiar to us now from the Carlsen-Caruana match, though they played a rare line last seen in Boleslavsky-Taimanov in the 1955 USSR Championship! Mark Taimanov won with Black, and Ju Wenjun eventually followed in his footsteps, though with some misses along the way:

19…c4! would have been a cute winning move, with that one pawn jab leaving both white knights en prise. It seems 20.Nxg6 Bxd5! 21.Nh4 might save the day, but after 21…Bf6! the knight is lost due to the pin down the g-file.

Ju Wenjun played the second best move 19…Bh8, but although her objective advantage had soon gone, she still had the double-edged position she needed in her match situation, and eventually Kateryna cracked:

The cold-blooded 28.Qh5! still holds, computers tell us, but after 28.Kh1? Bc8!, re-routing the bishop to smoke out the king on h1, it was game-over: 29.Qh5 Bb7+! 30.Kg1 Rxg3+! 31.hxg3 Rxg3+ 32.Kf2 Rg2+ White resigns. It’s mate-in-2, and that meant the match was going to tiebreaks.

After saving the match with a mating attack Ju Wenjun drew the white pieces to start the tiebreaks | photo: official website 

After four thrillers the first two 25+10 tiebreak games were surprisingly quiet affairs, and the same could be said about the first 10+10 game, which seemed to be drifting towards an inevitable draw:

To draw here it would be sufficient to play, for instance, 23.Bxb2 and no-one is winning that opposite-coloured bishops ending, but after the careless 23.Bf1?! Nd1! White was losing the f2-pawn. Even then the game should objectively have been drawn, but Ju Wenjun went on to grind out a win and take the lead in the match for the first time.

You could sense the enormous tension with the title on the line | photo: official website 

It was now Kateryna who needed to win with Black, and she adopted a Hedgehog style setup. Wenjun was always better, though, and the game ended abruptly in a position where there were no real chances for Black to win:

Still, there was no need to blunder the queen after a 17-second think, as Kateryna did with 34…Qg6?? The instant reply 35.Nxg6 meant Ju Wenjun had retained her title and won the $60,000 first prize (Kateryna took $30,000). You can watch that moment on the live commentary, which as others have noted was disappointingly somewhat biased towards the Russian player:

Ju Wenjun was of course delighted, and added in a short interview afterwards, “It’s a very good thing that the Women’s World Championship is going to be like the men’s”.

That was explained by new FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich in the press conference after the final game:

We already knew there would be an 8-player Candidates Tournament next year between the semi-finalists here (Kateryna Lagno, Alexandra Kosteniuk, Mariya Muzychuk), and players selected by rating, to determine who would play a match against Ju Wenjun. Let's hope that tempts Women's no. 1 Hou Yifan back into the cycle. 

Arkady added the extra details that in the next cycle the knockout will return as a World Cup, which will be combined with a Grand Prix series and players selected by rating i.e. exactly how the overall World Championship cycle has operated in recent years.

Both players were showered with gifts afterwards | photo: official website 

Finally, then, Ju Wenjun can relax and enjoy some time without having to defend her title. 

Or at least she can relax after playing in the final four rounds of the Chinese League - that begins on Tuesday!  

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