Ju Wenjun of China won the final leg in Khanty-Mansiysk, and with it the overall women’s Grand Prix. In doing so, she earned the right to challenge the winner of the 2017 knockout world championship in a title match.
Recap: At the halfway point of the Women’s Grand Prix, a real western style gunfight had occurred. The type of shoot-out where everyone in the film gets shot down. In round 6, Georgian International Master Nino Batsiashvili had taken a narrow lead. The difference between the leading players and the chasing pack was so small and the actual chess so dramatic- the only thing that was certain was that , well, really anything could happen…
In true cinematic style, the second half of the Khanty Mansisyk was filled with action, blunders, illness, luck and an inspirational comeback.
In a remarkable scenario for an all-play-all tournament, by round six every single player had lost at least one game and by round eight four players were tying for first on 5/8 (a narrow margin of +2).
In the lead, along with the early front runner GM Nino Batsiashvili were GMs Ju Wenjun (China), former world champion Alexandra Kosteniuk (Russia) and 19-year-old IM Sarasadat Khademalsharieh (Iran). Snapping at their heels, half a point behind this quartet were GMs Natalia Zhukova (UKR) and Valentina Gunina (RUS).
The last third of the tournament would be determined by who could keep continuing this frenetic pace.
I am going to spoil the ending for you and reveal the final score board and then let’s check out some of the stories from the podium:
Khanty-Mansiysk Grand Prix | Final Standings
1.Three times a charm…the comeback Queen.
An emotional Ju Wenjun receiving her trophy. | Photo courtesy FIDE.
As mentioned before, the tournament top seed and the overall Grand Prix leader Ju started the tournament off very slowly, by round six she was languishing on 50 percent after a devastating loss to GM Kosteniuk.
After this painful defeat, Ju confessed that she thought that her chances of winning the Grand Prix were “tiny” and turned to her friends back in Shanghai for inspiration. For some players, certain countries can hold lucky magical powers. This was Ju’s third time in the wintry city of Khanty, a place, where she had always left feeling very “satisfied” with her performances.
Khanty repaid her faith with two very special pieces of luck. In round seven, Gunina mixed up her move-order, that ruined what could have been some dangerous opening preparation, and duly lost. Whilst in round eight Ju was the benefactor of a “walk-over” when her opponent Almira Skripchenko (who had been ill the whole event) had been too unwell to play.
Round nine saw a different Ju take the centre stage. She assumed complete control by defeating joint tournament leaders Khademalsharieh and Batsiashvili in round nine and ten respectively. I particularly enjoyed her fine technical win over Nino that made her Grand Prix victory a mathematical certainty.
A last round draw against Natalia Pogonina gave her the bonus of winning the Khanty leg a full point ahead of her rivals to finish the tournament with 7.5/11—a repeat of her winning score in the Tehran leg. How was the grandmaster from China going to spend her prize money? By treating her friends out to dinner—a good way if I may be allowed to say so!
2. The silver GM norm
Nino Batsiashvili on the verge of getting a GM norm. | Photo courtesy FIDE.
The second success story came from early front runner Batiashvli who not only finished in clear second place but also unknowingly scored her second GM norm! (I am starting to notice a pattern with numbers!!) Nino’s resilient play was rewarded with this special nugget:
Round 11: The Bronze rush—the winners (and losers)
“According to the Regulations, all prizes, and Grand Prix Ranking points are shared equally… no tie break will be utilized.”
With such a rule in place and with everyone clamoring to get the highest ranking possible in the Grand Prix, it was natural that the last round would be brutal. In a recent TV interview I was asked about the concept of fairness in chess…
“Do you feel cheated if your opponent uses some cheeky strategy during the game?”
“Well,” came the reply, “in chess, anything goes!”
So what techniques were applied?
1.”Wait it out…”
Harika and Lela giggling about something completely unrelated | Photo courtesy FIDE.
In the game Dronavalli–Skripchenko, things had looked very comfortable for Almira and it both the commentator and myself thought the game would soon fizzle out into a draw. However, big things were at stake for Harika, and Almira had shown a susceptibility to make blunders—so why not push for more?
2.Play the Caro-Kann (!) :
1.e4 c6! Kosteniuk and Gunina clash in round 11. | Photo courtesy FIDE.
Kosteniuk had gone into the last round with a comfortable six points out of ten but had lost her momentum after squandering a huge advantage against Dronavalli in round nine. Gunina on the other hand had been having a tough time self destructing. For a Caro-Kann aficionado the following game is a dream to watch!
3.”Make a fabulous mess”
Sarasadat, shown here defeating Natalia Pogonina in round seven. | Photo courtesy FIDE.
The youngest participant, 19-year-old Sarasadat, had a wonderful tournament beating both Gunina and Pogonina to score a very respectable six points out of 11—a promising sign for the future!
Her last round game against Georgian Bela Khotenashvili proved to be one of the most riveting endgames I have seen in a long time.
4. Keep calm in the face of danger…
Olga Girya in calm mode during round 4. | Photo courtesy FIDE.
After defeating Skripchenko in round nine in a nice counter-attacking game, Olga Girya had held on to her plus one score. In the final game she came under some serious pressure from silver medallist Batsiashvili.
In conclusion what did this mean for the overall Grand Prix standings?
Well in the end, it seemed like things went well for four of the Khanty challengers! Now, all eyes will be turned to the Women’s World Championship, Iran, February 2017 where curiously enough, most of the Grand Prix participants will be competing, including Ju herself.
As a final point, should Ju become World Champion in Iran (which may well be possible) then the challenger status passes down to Humpy Koneru. A slightly confusing state of affairs but… welcome to the cycle!