In recent days I've heard all kinds of opinions about the Women's World Championship. Initially people were concerned about the absence of Hou Yifan and the level of some of the games in the first round, but that's now been transformed into praise for the technique of Pia Cramling and the fighting spririt of players such as Natalia Pogonina. This report on the classical games in the World Championship semifinals will be a tribute to four players who are demonstrating their best in the most important moments of their chess careers.
At 51 Sweden's Pia Cramling is deservedly becoming a fan favourite. Quietly, game by game, she's demonstrating her vast understanding of chess in almost every move, casting real doubt on any claims that there's an "expiry date" for elite players. In a format that's both tense and demanding she's continuing to shine, even admitting that in the quarterfinals she "forgot to play solidly" in a loss to Anna Muzychuk.
Pia achieved a precise technical win in the first game against Natalia Pogonina:
1. ♘f3! "None of your Benko Gambits, Natalia!" Pia heads for simple positions where her superior understanding may give her an edge.
1... d5 2. d4 ♘f6 3. c4 e6 4. ♘c3 ♗e7 5. ♗g5 h6 6. ♗h4 O-O 7. e3 ♘e4 The Lasker Defence, which Pogonina has used on a few occasions before. In hindsight it's easy to say, but I don't think this was the correct choice, since it allowed Pia to get just the kind of position she wanted. It's going to be interesting to see if Natalia repeats this opening in the playoff.
11. a3 ♘xc3 12. ♕xc3 dxc4 13. ♗xc4 b6 14. O-O ♗b7 15. ♖fd1 ♖fd8 16. ♗e2 ♖ac8 17. b4 c5 18. dxc5 bxc5 19. b5 ♗d5 20. a4 ♘f6 21. ♘e5 ♘e4 22. ♕c2 ♕c7 23. ♘d3 ♕b6 24. ♘f4 ♗b7 25. ♖xd8+ ♖xd8 26. ♘d3 ♖c8 27. ♘e5 ♕c7 28. ♕b2 ♘f6 29. f3 ♘d7 30. ♘xd7 ♕xd7 31. ♖d1 ♕c7 32. ♕c3 ♗d5 33. e4 ♗a8 34. ♕d2 c4 35. ♕d7 ♕c5+ 36. ♕d4 ♕c7 37. ♕c3 a6 38. ♖b1 axb5 39. axb5 ♕c5+ 40. ♔f1 ♕h5 41. h3 ♗b7 42. ♖b4 ♖d8 43. ♖b1 ♖c8 44. ♕d4 c3 45. ♖c1 c2 46. ♗c4 ♕g5 47. ♖xc2 ♖d8 48. ♕a1 ♕c5 49. ♕c1 ♕d4 50. ♗e2 ♔h7 51. ♖c4 ♕e5 52. ♖c5 ♕h2 53. ♔f2 ♖d7 54. e5 ♖d8 55. ♖c7 ♗a8 56. ♕c2+ ♔g8 1-0 Gunina,V (2522) -Pogonina,N (2480) Kazan 2014
14... exd4 had been seen in a game at the very highest level: 15. ♘xd4 ♘f6 16. b4 ♗d7 17. ♖fd1 ♖fe8 18. ♕c5 g6 19. a4 ♕xc5 20. bxc5 Carlsen - Aronian, St. Louis 2014. Carlsen pressed all the way until move 84, but in the end a draw was agreed.
16... ♕xc5 The black queen has no "good" squares to go to, so Natalia agrees to the ending.
18... ♖fd8 19. ♗c4 This exchange, which might seem "unnatural" since it exchanges a "good" bishop for a "bad" one, enables Pia to gain space on the queenside in order to manoeuvre her pieces more calmly.
19... ♗xc4 20. ♘xc4 a6⁈ There isn't so much to complain about with this move, but did Black really want to weaken her position so soon? It would have been more normal to play Nd5 first, also covering the b6-square. These small details are the kind of thing that Pia has been exploiting against her opponents for many years.
23... ♖d6 24. ♖e5 ♖e8 25. ♖ec5 ♖ed8 26. a4 ♖e6 27. h3 There's no rush. Before taking action on the queenside Pia looks to gain space on the kingside. It's important to play on all parts of the board in order to complicate the defence of a player who finds herself somewhat worse.
29. ♘xd5 ♖xd5 30. ♖xd5 cxd5 31. ♖c5 ♖d6 White has various small advantages: a better rook, a better king and a better pawn structure. Those small advantages won't always guarantee a win, but you know you'll gradually be able to pressurise your opponent until he or she is on the ropes. In such positions it's difficult to give an objective evaluation such as "and White is winning" since the resources of the defending side are numerous and difficult to refute, but in practice that doesn't matter! If you can reach such a position then just go for it. Your opponent will be in a situation where it's only possible to draw by constantly finding and choosing between different defensive options.
32. a5! Fixing a new weakness - in this case the b7-pawn - is the first step to capturing it in future.
32... ♔d7 33. b5 axb5 34. ♖xb5 ♔c6 35. ♖c5+ ♔d7 36. ♔g2 g5 A compromising move. Black aims to prevent the white king entering via f4, but in turn creates more weaknesses on the kingside. The option of waiting with a move like 36. Ke6 would probably have been safer.
38... exf3 39. ♔xf3 ♔d7 40. ♔g3 ♔d8 In the upcoming moves Pia drops a heavy hint that she's going to enter on the queenside. It might be the case that she wasn't actually planning that, but the manoeuvre is good in itself. By creating new problems and possible variations you consume your opponent's time and energy... When your opponents stop a threat they may relax and think the job is done, which is also a psychological factor that runs in White's favour here.
49... ♔d7 She decides to leave things as they are. In this case a commentator could utter a commonplace like: "it's usually better to swap off pawns when defending an ending", but even if that "usually" is true, don't be fooled! Nobody thinks like that. The key is to see how White can make progress. In this case it seems to be by brining the king to h5 and then playing Rb5-b6... But it's not so easy.
49... gxh4+ 50. ♔xh4 ♔d7 51. ♔h5 ♔d8 52. ♖b5 ♔c7 It's not possible to lose time with the white rook in order to dislodge the black king, since the black rook will go to e6, so you have to act immediately. 53. ♖b6 ♖xb6 54. axb6+ ♔xb6 55. ♔xh6 I can understand that Pogonina was afraid of the prospect of an ending like this, but in fact Black is in time to equalise. 55... ♔c6 56. ♔g7 b5 57. ♔xf7 b4 58. g5 b3 59. g6 b2 60. g7 b1Q 61. g8Q And the ending after 61... ♕f5+ 62. ♔e7 ♔b5 followed by Kc4 is a draw. How easy it is to see with an engine and no pressure!
50. h5 Fixing a third black weakness.
66. ♔e5 , in order to take on h6 with the rook and follow up with Rh7, would have been easier.
67... ♖g1? Natalia fails to find the best defence.
67... ♖d4! let's the g-pawn advance while hitting the d-pawn. 68. ♔xh6 g4 It's by no means easy to find a forced win for White. 69. ♔g5 g3 70. ♖b3 ♖d5+ 71. ♔g4 g2 72. ♖g3 This is the line the engine shows as winning, but even a great endgame player like Pia might have struggled to find it!
Mounting a comeback in a mini-match is no easy matter, but when you manage to do that three times in a row, against GMs such as Marie Sebag, Zhao Xue and Pia Cramling, it's nothing short of heroic! Natalia Pogonina managed to win the second game against Pia. Although she didn't objectively achieve anything out of the opening it was the type of position in which she's at least no worse than her rival. With precise play she managed to exploit the weaknesses in Pia's castled king position and level the score.
It's worth noting that in both previous encounters Natalia managed to win the first playoff game after mounting her comeback. Will that happen this time? It's very hard to say. Both players have their strengths and weaknesses, and as in the match between Pia and Anna Muzychuk it will be small details that decide matters. The only certainty is that it's going to be exciting!
It seems obvious: in order to win a match you need to win a game. Actually, though, it's not entirely true! You could draw all your games and then, in Armageddon, draw again with Black to qualify. What I want to point out, though, is that although you need to try and win it's equally important to be able to maintain your composure in difficult moments and put up the greatest resistance possible to your opponent's plans. Both Harika Dronavalli and Mariya Muzychuk have demonstrated, in the same match, that they're very difficult opponents to beat.
In the first game, Mariya reached a good ending right out of the opening, created a passed pawn and it seemed as though her active pieces would enable her to crush her opponent. That didn't happen. Harika instead managed constantly to pose problems with her rook and knight in a game that's worth replaying. The counterplay was sufficient for the Indian player to achieve a draw.
In the second game roles were reversed and it was Muzychuk who had to defend a rook ending a pawn down for 40 moves, with Harika unable to convert.
Both players have impressed in the playoffs during this World Championship. Mariya managed to eliminate Humpy Koneru, while Harika defeated Alexandra Kosteniuk. Who will make it through this time? Don't miss the action that will be live here on chess24 from 14:00 CET!
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