Levon Aronian's brilliant victory at the prestigious Tata Steel tournament in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, would normally be the topic of our conversation. But it was a young Chinese girl, Hou Yifan, 17, who stole the limelight. The women's world champion shared first place at the powerful Tradewise Chess Festival in Gibraltar, one of the world's strongest open tournaments.
Hou was in the lead going into the last round, but was caught at the last moment by Nigel Short. They both scored 8 points in 10 games and the English grandmaster grabbed the title in a blitz playoff. But Hou faced much tougher opponents. Against six grandmasters rated above 2700 points - a barrier reserved for the best 40 players in the world - she scored four wins and two draws, including a historic win against Judit Polgar, the all-time best woman.
Aronian won Wijk aan Zee with a 9-4 score, a full point ahead of his rivals Magnus Carlsen and Teimour Radjabov, and added 14 points to his rating. He now trails the top-rated Carlsen only by 11 points. The next FIDE list will show the top four as Carlsen 2835 points, Aronian 2824 points, Vladimir Kramnik 2801 points, and the world champion Vishy Anand 2799 points.
Carlsen seemed to be heavy-handed towards the end in Wijk aan Zee. His play was not smooth and his games personified hard long labor: he wanted to win, but his mind was tired. On the other hand, Aronian mixed up playfulness, lightness, elegance - his play looked fresh and cheerful. A good example is the final combination against the Dutch grandmaster Anish Giri, who came to Wijk aan Zee with an impressive victory in the traditional Italian tournament in Reggio Emilia.
Giri,Anish - Aronian,Levon
74th Tata Steel tournament, Wijk aan Zee 2012
41...Ne1! (A beautiful knight leap, threatening 41...Nd3+, and deflecting the white rook into the pin. A tactical delight!)
42.Rxe1 Qf4+! (The queen sacrifice flows naturally from the last move.) 43.Kd1 (On 43.Nxf4 Rxe1 mates.) 43...Qe4 (Threatening 44.a5 Qd3+ 45.Kc1 Qb1 mate. After 44.Qxe8+ 44...Bxe8 the game could finish with a smothered mate: 45.Nxc3 Qd3+ 46.Rd2 Bh5+ 47.Ne2 Qb1 mate.) White resigned.
Aronian was in the news recently: he will play a friendly six-game classical chess match against Kramnik in April in Russia. He also announced that he is not going to play in the world championship qualification, the Candidates, if it is held in Azerbaijan. As Armenian, Aronian believes he would have a psychological disadvantage.
A historic clash
When Hou Yifan won the women's world title in 2010 at the age of 16, she became the youngest world champion in history, male or female. As a twelve-year-old she dreamt of replacing Judit Polgar at the top one day. In Gibraltar, they faced each other for the first time.
Hou, Yifan - Polgar,Judit
Tradewise Gibraltar Festival 2012
The temptation to play actively led Polgar to a faulty decision: 20...d4? (A tactical challenge that plays into Hou's hand. Polgar should have waited, but it is not her style.)
21.e5+! Nxe5 22.Ne4+ Ke7 23.Nxg5 h6? (An unfortunate move, dropping a pawn. But even after the better 23...f6 24.Ne4 Rd8 25.b3 white's pawn structure is healthy and her pieces are more actively placed. Black's pawn on d4 could be a target, the bishop on c8 is dormant.)
24.Nxe6! Bxe6 (After 24...Kxe6 25.f4 f6 26.b3 threatening a2-a3, black is in trouble: 26...Rd8 [Or 26...c5 27.fxe5 fxe5 28.Rde2 and white should win.] 27.c3 Rb5 28.cxd4 Rbd5 29.Bg4+ Kf7 30.Bxc8 Rxc8 31.dxe5 fxe5 32.Rxe5 winning.) 25.Rxe5 (Hou is a pawn up and other black pawns are still scattered.)
25...Rd8 26.f4 Rb5 27.Rde2 Kf6 28.Bf3 c5 29.a4 Rb4 30.Rxc5 Rxa4 31.b3 Rb4 32.Be4 Bg4 33.Re1 Rd6 34.Bd3 Bd7 35.Ree5 Be6 36.Kd2 Rbb6 37.Ra5 Rbc6 38.Ra4 Rb6 39.Re4 Bf5 40.Rexd4 (The time control is over and Hou brings the two pawn advantage home.) 40...Re6 41.Bc4 Rec6 42.Ra5 Bc8 43.Bd3 Be6 44.Rd8 Bc8 45.Rad5 Be6 46.Rh5 Kg7 47.f5 (The finishing combination is pretty 47...Bc8
48.f6+! Kxf6 49.Rxc8 Rxc8 50.Rxh6+ and wins. Judit didn't want to see any of it.) Black resigned.
Two amazing king's hunts
Throughout the tournament, Hou played like a pirate with no fear, attacking when the odds were against her, stealing chess pieces and points from opponents rated far above her. She survived opening clashes and finessed the endgames. She gambled against the Vietnamese ace, Le Quang Liem, sacrificing pawns and it paid off. It was the second game where she took advantage of the move h7-h6.
Hou Yifan - Le Quang Liem
Tradewise Gibraltar Festival 2012
White threatens to win immediately with 34.Qh5 and the mating attack comes through.
33...h6 34.Rxh6! (A shocking rook sacrifice, leaving the black king vulnerable.) 34...gxh6 35.Qe6+ Kg7 36.Qd7+ Kg6 37.Ne6!? (Playing for a win without risk. Hou could have secured a draw by perpetual check: 37.Qe6+ Kxg5 38.h4+ Kh5 39.Rxf5+ Rxf5 40.Qxf5+ Kxh4 41.Qf4+ Kh5 42.Qf5+; or 37...Rf6 38.Qg8+ Kh5 39.Ne4 fxe4 40.Qd5+ Kg6 41.Qg8+; or 37...Kg7 38.Qd7+ Kg6 39.Qe6+.) 37...Bc5? (Being under pressure, Le finally slips, missing the only defense: 37...Rf7! 38.Nf4+ Kg7 39.Nh5+ Kg8 40.Qe8+ Rf8 41.Qg6+ Kh8 42.Qxh6+ Kg8 43.Qg6+ and Hou has to take a draw since no winning continuation is in sight.) 38.Qg7+! Kh5 39.Nxf8 (The black king is in a mating net and cannot escape.) 39...Bxf8 40.Qf7+ (40.Rxf5+ Kh4 41.Qf6+ Kg4 42.Qg6+ Kh4 43.Rh5 mate was faster. Black gets mated anyway: 40.Qf7+ Kh4 41.Qf6+ Kg4 42.Qg6+ Kh4 43.g3+ Kh3 44.Qh5+ Rh4 45.Qxh4 mate.) Black resigned.
The king's hunt resembled the last round grandmaster game between Emanuel Berg of Sweden and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France. Both black kings were hunted down to the square h5. Berg's game is also important for the theory of the Delayed Poison Pawn variation in the Najdorf Sicilian.
Berg,Emanuel - Vachier-Lagrave,Maxime
Tradewise Gibraltar Festival 2012
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 h6 8.Bh4 Qb6 9.Qd3 (In the old times, white tried to counter the Delayed Poison Pawn variation with 9.a3 to meet 9...Nc6 [9...Qxb2? loses the queen to 10.Na4.] with 10.Bf2.) 9...Qxb2 10.Rb1 Qa3 11.f5 (This move was picked up only last year, but the results were not great for white. The traditional 11.e5 was first played more then 50 years ago and the computers now suggest: 11...dxe5 12.fxe5 g5 with equal chances.)
11...Be7 12.fxe6 (Creating a possible entry for the queen on the square g6. White has to be careful. For example 12.Be2 runs into 12...Nxe4!) 12...fxe6 (A novelty, although 12...Bxe6 with the idea 13.Nxe6 fxe6 14.Rxb7 Nbd7 might be safer.) 13.Be2 (The wild 13.e5 dxe5 14.Qg6+ Kf8 leads nowhere.)
13...0-0 14.0-0 Kh8 (Black is preventing the Nc3-d5 trick at some point. For example, after 14...Nc6 15.Nxc6 bxc6 16.Nd5 Qxd3 17.Nxe7+ Kf7 18.cxd3 Kxe7 19.e5 dxe5 20.Bf3 Bd7 21.Bg3 the bishop pair gives white ample compensation for the pawn.)
15.Kh1 (The king dance continues. White doesn't want to allow a possible check on the diagonal g1-a7 at some point.) 15...Nbd7 (A provoking move, but after 15...Nc6 16.Nxc6 bxc6 17.e5 dxe5 18.Qg6 the white pieces come too close to the black king, for example 18...Qxc3? 19.Rf3 Qd4 20.Rg3 Rg8 21.Bxf6 Bxf6 22.Bd3 and white wins; better is 18...Bd7 19.Bxf6 Rxf6 20.Rxf6 Bxf6 21.Bd3 e4 22.Qxe4 [22.Nxe4 Be8] 22...Kg8 23.Qh7+ Kf7 24.Qg6+, followed by 24.Ne4, white has a compensation for the pawn, but not more.) 16.Nxe6! Ne5
17.Nxf8! (A promising queen sacrifice.) 17...Nxd3 18.Ng6+ Kh7 (After 18...Kg8 19.Nxe7+ Kf7 20.Ncd5 Ne5 21.Nxc8 Rxc8 22.Rxb7+ Kf8 23.Nxf6 gxf6 24.Bxf6 wins.) 19.Bxd3 Kxg6? (The wrong reaction. After 19...Bd8 20.e5 dxe5 21.Nxe5+ Kg8 22.Bc4+ Kh7 23.Bd3+ it's hard to see white has more than a draw.) 20.e5+ Kh5? (Walking into the fire. But 20...Kf7 21.exf6 Bxf6 22.Nd5 gives white a powerful attack.)
21.exf6 Bxf6 (The alternative line 21...Qxc3 22.fxe7 Bd7 23.Be1 Qe5 24.Rxb7 Qxe7 loses after 25.g4+ Kxg4 26.Rg1+ Kf4 27.Rb4+ Ke5 28.Re4+.) 22.Bxf6 gxf6 23.Rb3 (White already had a choice. He could have also played 23.Nd5 f5 24.Nb6 Rb8 25.Nxc8 Rxc8 26.Rxf5+ Kh4 27.Rbf1 and mate soon.) 23...Qa5 24.Rxf6 Bd7 25.Ne4 Bg4 (After 25...Qe1+ 26.Rf1 Qa5 27.Rxb7 wins, for example 27...Bc6 28.Be2+ Kg6 29.Rf6 mate.) 26.h3 Rg8 27.hxg4+ Rxg4 28.Be2 Qe1+ 29.Kh2 (After 29...Qxe2 30.Rh3+ Rh4 31.Rxh4+ Kxh4 32.Rf4+ Kh5 33.Ng3+ wins.) Black resigned.
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Image by Zeljka Malobabic © Tradewise Insurance Ltd.