Reports Mar 29, 2023 | 11:27 PMby Colin McGourty

Tan Zhongyi wins thriller as Women’s Candidates begins

Tan Zhongyi sacrificed two pawns and looked in grave danger in Game 1 of the FIDE Women’s Candidates Final in Chongqing, China, but Lei Tingjie blundered with seconds on her clock and fell to defeat. That was a huge step towards Tan Zhongyi forcing a World Championship rematch against Ju Wenjun, but Lei Tingjie still has five games in which to hit back.

The Tan Zhongyi-Lei Tingjie Women's Candidates Final begins | photo: FIDE

The 2023 Women’s World Championship is an all-Chinese affair, with Tan Zhongyi and Lei Tingjie competing over six classical games for the right to challenge Ju Wenjun to a World Championship match in July.

An explosive start...

The choice as a venue of Chongqing, a city which by some estimates has a population of over 30 million, exceeded only by Tokyo and Jakarta, was easy, since both 31-year-old Tan Zhongyi and 26-year-old Lei Tingjie were born there.

Tan Zhongyi became Women’s World Champion in 2017 when she won the knockout World Championship, but a year later she lost the title to Ju Wenjun in a match that went down to the wire.

Tan Zhongyi hit back after a tough start and took the match against Ju Wenjun to the 10th and final game

She reached the Women’s Candidates by finishing 3rd in the 2021 FIDE Women’s World Cup, then knocked out Russian Grandmasters Kateryna Lagno and Aleksandra Goryachkina to reach the final.

Her opponent is Lei Tingjie, of whom Tan Zhongyi said at the opening press conference.

Compared to playing hundreds of games with Ju Wenjun, Lei Tingjie and I were teammates in Chongqing, so we have had fewer games with each other, and were a kind of ‘most familiar strangers’.

Tan Zhongyi at the opening press conference | photo: Liu Yi, FIDE

Lei Tingjie reached the Women’s Candidates by winning the 2021 FIDE Women’s Grand Swiss with a round to spare, while in the Candidates she knocked out both the Muzychuk sisters, first Mariya, then Anna. She said at the opening press conference:

This tournament is a little bit closer to my dream. For every player, the World Championship is the ultimate goal!

Lei Tingjie is dreaming of the World Championship title | photo: Liu Yi, FIDE

On paper Lie Tingjie went into the match as the favourite, rated 2545 and world no. 6 compared to Tan Zhongyi’s 2526 and no. 8, but neither player has been prolific recently, and Tan has experience playing for the World Championship title.

The game immediately left the beaten path when Tan Zhongyi replied to 1.c4 e5 with 2.d3!?, and by move 5 we had a completely new position on the board.

Soon Tan Zhongyi had correctly sacrificed a pawn, but her 15.d4!? looked badly timed, with Lei Tingjie quickly playing 15…Bf5 and leaving Tan Zhongyi low on time and with hard choices to make.

16.Rc1?! was flagged by the computer as the first real misstep of the game (16.Rb3!), and soon things became extremely sharp.

Here Lei Tingjie targeted the white d-pawn with 24…Qa6, when 25.Nf4! Qxd6 26.Nxg6! Kxg6 27.Qc2+ generated counterplay for Tan Zhongyi. 27…f5 was forced.

The clocks were now absolutely critical, and after 28.Rd1 Qe7 29.Bh3! Ne5! 30.Rd5 everything hung in the balance.

30…c4! now and Black is on top, though the position would have remained very double-edged.

Instead, with just two seconds to spare, Lei Tingjie went for 30…Qe6?

That all but forced the powerful move 31.Qxc5!, hitting both the knight on e5 and the rook on f8. There was no defence, but after 31…Nd7 Tan Zhongyi didn’t find the most forceful continuation.

32.Qd4!, threatening Rd6 as well as to capture on f5, would have been devastating. Instead after 32.Rxd7?! Qxd7 33.Qxf8 Qd1+ 34.Bf1 b3 White was a piece up but faced practical difficulties. Either 35.g4! or 35.e4! were necessary, but 35.Qe8+?! suddenly left White with nothing better than to force a draw by perpetual check.

The position wasn’t equal for long, however, since after 35…Kh7 36.Qb5 Lei Tingjie missed her last chance to hold a draw.

36…Qb1!, supporting the b3-pawn and also protecting f5, would again have forced White to take a draw by perpetual check.

Instead 36…f4? was the final mistake, with 37.e3! fxe3 met by 38.Qd3+!, exchanging off queens to leave a position where White is simply a piece up, with the passed b-pawn easily stopped.

That rollercoaster game was Lei Tingjie’s first classical loss in over three years, since the 2020 Gibraltar Masters, with neither player having lost a game in the Candidates before the final. It made Tan Zhongyi the clear favourite, but there are five games, and possible playoffs, to go, so that absolutely nothing is decided yet.

The games start at 15:00 in China, which is 3am ET, 09:00 CEST and 12:30pm IST. Watch all the FIDE Women’s Candidates games on chess24.

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