Reports Feb 27, 2017 | 8:31 AMby Colin McGourty

Tehran WWCh, Semifinals: An epic battle

Anna Muzychuk and Tan Zhongyi will play a 4-game match starting Monday to decide the new Women’s World Champion after an incredible three days of semifinal action. Alexandra Kosteniuk collapsed and lost in two games against Anna Muzychuk after letting a winning position slip in the first. Harika Dronavalli put up stunning resistance in the other semifinal but it was Tan Zhongyi’s nerves that held best in the end as she came through in Armageddon for the second time in Tehran.

In under a week 27-year-old Anna Muzychuk (she has a birthday on 28 February!) or 25-year-old Tan Zhongyi will be the new Women's World Champion | photos: David Llada, official website

It’s hard to imagine two more different semifinals!

You can replay all the games with computer analysis using the selector below:

Let’s take the matches one at a time.

Anna Muzychuk 2:0 Alexandra Kosteniuk

Matches don’t get much tougher than this. 2nd seed Muzychuk was facing 3rd seed Kosteniuk, with both players unbeaten so far in Tehran. If there was an edge it was for Anna, who had finished all her matches in the classical games while Alexandra twice needed tiebreaks, but on the other hand, Alexandra had the experience of winning the World Championship in just such a knockout in 2008.

Alexandra Kosteniuk paces the hall with her husband Pavel Tregubov | photos: David Llada, official website

Sometimes in such situations it’s safety first, but on this occasion Alexandra Kosteniuk was on the verge of winning with the white pieces after only 14 moves. She could have sacrificed a piece on e6, but despite missing that opportunity twice she built up a big edge on the board and the clock…

Although Anna did make the time control, her position was almost collapsing and Alexandra took a third chance to sacrifice on e6. Things began to slip, however, on move 43:

The computer solution here is the mystifyingly brilliant quiet move 43.Kg1!, since it sees that White is winning after 43…fxe6 44.Qe5!. But why put the king on g1? You need to dig deeper in the position and it turns out Black can save herself in some lines by sacrificing the rook on h3 with check… if the king remains on h1.

Rxh3+ would save Black here... if the king was still on h1!

That was very tough to calculate – and then trust your calculations – in such a match situation, though, and Alexandra instead played the human 43.Nd4, when it was suddenly merely a situation in which White was trying to convert a tricky extra pawn. It seemed at least that only White could win, though, until disaster struck on move 56 when Alexandra spent three and a half minutes on the losing 56.Ne5?

Anna needed only 9 seconds to turn the tables with 56…Ng5! The h3-pawn can’t be saved, since 57.Kh2 loses on the spot to 57…Rxe5 with a knight fork on f3 to follow. Instead, in the space of a few moves, Alexandra had gone from a position a pawn up to a position a pawn down. She proved unable to adjust to the new circumstances and failed to put up any resistance, blundering on move 62 and resigning two moves later.

The stare of a champion | photos: David Llada, official website

That meant Alexandra now faced the tough task of winning on demand with the black pieces. She chose the Sicilian Defence, but the fierce battle we’d all anticipated completely failed to materialise. Just as Carlsen did in the final game of the New York match, Muzychuk chose a Maroczy bind structure (with pawns on e4 and c4) and it seems Alexandra mixed something up. On move 7 she had to either accept an exchange of queens or a seriously worse position. She chose the latter, but what followed was one of the easiest wins you’ll ever witness in a game of this significance. Alexandra realised it was over as she all but blitzed out her moves:

That means Anna Muzychuk had reached the Women’s World Championship final without needing tiebreaks, scoring a superb eight wins and two draws. She’s up 32 live rating points to 2590, with Ju Wenjun’s world no. 2 spot just over five points away. Of course Anna’s thoughts will be far from rating points when she plays the final match!

Which brings us to…

Tan Zhongyi 5:4 Harika Dronavalli

There’s every reason to question whether knockout tournaments should determine the World Championship title, but you can’t deny that at times they produce unparalleled chess spectacles. This match was perhaps the most exciting we’ve seen since Svidler-Karjakin in the 2015 World Cup final, with both players pulling off some unbelievable escapes. 

Tan Zhongyi and Harika Dronavalli treated us to a fantastic struggle | photos: David Llada, official website

There’s really no way to tell the story without going through it game by game:

Game 1: A crushing win for Tan Zhongyi

Final moves don’t get much more convincing than this:

Tan Zhongyi played 45.Rxh6! and Black resigned. After 45…Qxh6 46.Qxh6+ gxh6 there’s 46.Bf6+!, picking up not just the rook on g7 but on c7 as well.

Game 2: An epic win for Harika

This game was the first evidence we were going to get a great semifinal. Needing to win to stay in the event, Harika kept her fans on tenterhooks as she built up a winning position but kept missing clear chances including, at one point, mate-in-5. 

Tan Zhongyi refused to surrender and eventually it came down to an ending capable of sowing terror in any chess player: knight and bishop vs. a bare king. It’s not a mate you’re likely to have to execute more than once or twice in a career, but the stigma of failing to do so can be great – Anna Ushenina infamously failed against Olga Girya in a Women’s Grand Prix event when she was the Women’s World Champion.   

In Tehran we’ve already got to see it twice, with another former Women’s World Champion, Antoaneta Stefanova, showing how it’s done against Nino Khurtsidze in Round 3. From the moment the position arose until her opponent resigned took 27 moves, well within the 50-move window before her opponent could claim a draw.

Peter Svidler was keeping an eye on the game during his Banter Blitz session and confessed he would be embarrassed not simply to resign. We got to see exactly why players generally don’t, though, as Harika first delayed giving up her last pawn as long as she possibly could and then, from move 118 onwards, looked very unsure how to go about giving mate. As Peter explained, it’s a technique you need to know and are unlikely to work out for yourself at the board. In the first 15 or so moves when no progress was made it began to look as though it was going to be a horrible exit from the event for Harika, but then the computer began to start counting down to mate and eventually Harika made it with about 6 moves to spare. She could breathe easily…

That was only the warm-up, though, since now we had tiebreaks!

Game 3: Winning on move 11

It was Harika’s turn to get an easy win with the white pieces, as Tan Zhongyi’s 11…h6? turned out to be losing on the spot:

12.Qh4! was a killer. 12…hxg5 Nxg5! is game over, but the problem is so is everything else! After 12…Re8 13.Bxh6 Black would love to be losing only this pawn, but there’s also a ferocious attack to deal with. After 13…d5 14.e5! Nd7 15.Ng5 Bxh6 16.Qxh6 Nf8 17.Rf4! Tan Zhongyi already had to resign as she was powerless to stop mate.

Tan Zhongyi somehow managed to keep cool again and again | photos: David Llada, official website

Game 4: Something out of nothing

Tan Zhongyi now had to win on demand with White, but she didn’t go for a desperate attack. In fact, she allowed the following knight ending:

All Harika needed to do to reach the final of the Women’s World Championship was hold this position as Black, but a dozen moves later Tan Zhongyi was winning, with Harika resigning on move 73.

That meant the tiebreak went to 10-minute games.

Game 5: Pinning and winning

Tan Zhongyi here showed it wasn’t only in technical endings that she could create something out of nothing. After a complicated middlegame it looked as though a draw would soon follow, but the Chinese player manoeuvred until Harika’s knight was pinned… twice!

It was a nightmare to deal with when playing on a 10-second increment, and Harika eventually allowed the knight to come via f4 to d3 and win the e5-knight.

Once again, Harika needed to win on demand with the white pieces.

Game 6: The great escape

So far so exciting, but this game simply staggered belief. A little tactical trick enabled Tan Zhongyi to swap off the white queen for a rook, bishop and pawn:

Usually the question would simply be whether White can hold a fortress or Black will win, but here, of course, it was Harika with White who had to play for a win. Evgeniy Miroshnichenko, commentating, pointed out Tan Zhongyi should simply play 32…h4 here and little could go wrong for Black. Instead she played 32…Qe3 33.Rd3 Qc5 and began to drift, with Harika managing to implement one clever pawn push after another. By move 79 the Indian star had pulled off an incredible coup and Tan Zhongyi had no choice but to resign:

Harika's secret weapon - she explained in an earlier interview that her grandmother didn't know the rules of chess but had gradually learned to count the number of pieces! | photos: David Llada, official website

That meant a sequence of six wins for White in a row:

Curiously, Tan Zhongyi’s Armageddon match with Anna Ushenina featured six wins for Black in a row! She’d been here before.

Game 7: The sequence ends

There was no seventh win for White, and in fact Tan Zhongyi found herself a pawn down. The 5-minute time control, however, proved too fast for Harika to convert her advantage, with Tan Zhongyi taking refuge in a drawn opposite-coloured bishop ending.

Game 8: Calm before the storm

For the first time in the match there was nothing to report, with the players accepting their Armageddon fate.

Tension... | photos: David Llada, official website

Game 9: So near and yet so far

Harika Dronavalli had the white pieces and five minutes to her opponent’s four, but she knew that a draw would mean Tan Zhongyi reached the Women’s World Championship final. There was high-level support!

The game that followed was a pure battle of nerves, where Black was on top until Tan Zhongyi inexplicably dropped her e5-pawn and then gifted her opponent free tempi to exploit it. Harika was winning, but when all the pieces other than queens and pawns were exchanged the chances of a draw skyrocketed.

That’s not to say there wasn’t room for real regret, though. Tan Zhongyi twice put her queen on h3, allowing a simple winning plan for her opponent:

All Harika needed to spot was that she’s winning easily if she can get her queen to h4 and trap the black queen. It’s child’s play to do that with a couple of checks – e.g. 69.Qe6+ Kg7 70.Qe7+ Kh6 71.Qh4+ Qxh4 72.gxh4 and Black is powerless to stop both the h and f-pawns.

Harika played 69.f6 here, though, and her last pure chess chance had gone. It was Armageddon, though, so it was still possible to hope to flag her opponent. At move 60 Harika had been over a minute up on the clock, but then the fact both players started to receive an increment made winning on time much tougher. Ironically, it was Tan Zhongyi who ultimately pointed to her opponent’s clock to claim victory, on move 99, and a heroic battle was over.

Fortunately for Tan Zhongyi the tournament had its first and only official rest day on Sunday before the start of the 4-game classical match on Monday.

We now know that we’re going to have a first-time Women’s World Champion in the next week. Anna Muzychuk, as already mentioned, has needed only classical games, winning eight and drawing two. She’s the top-seeded player remaining (it’s no.2 vs. no. 9) and heavily outrates Tan Zhongyi. If she manages to win it will mean a Ukrainian has won the last three women’s knockouts and of course it’ll mean both of the Muzychuk sisters will have been Women’s World Champion!

Anna hugs her younger sister, Mariya, after the latter made it through to the final of the World Championship | photo: Anastasia Karlovich

Tan Zhongyi, meanwhile, can keep the title in Chinese hands for the next couple of years, since the Champion is set to play a World Championship match against Chinese no. 2 Ju Wenjun early next year. Tan Zhongyi’s route to the final has been vastly longer, featuring no less than 28 games. Despite the accumulated fatigue that no doubt means, you suspect the longer the match goes on the better her chances will be. It can’t be an accident she’s twice come through matches that went to Armageddon here and also won an earlier Chinese knockout tournament that went to Armageddon.

Tan Zhongyi may need to get used to being the focus of media attention! | photos: David Llada, official website

This is one final you won’t want to miss! The four classical games start on Monday, and you can again watch all the action here on chess24 from 12:30 CET. You can also follow the games in our mobile apps:


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