Positional Domination: Hou Yifan Breaks the Ice!
It feels like a long countdown until this weekend’s G/75 Pennsylvania State Chess Championships and Pittsburgh Chess League matches, so I’ve been killing time doing opening research and watching ongoing Grandmaster games.
With Gibraltar over, there aren’t exactly many high profile games to watch, but there is the Bicontinental Match-up (South America and Antartica) between Women’s World Championship Candidate Hou Yifan and Cristobal Henriquez Villagra, an up-and-coming player from Chile.
The first round ended in a draw, where Hou Yifan was unable to convert a small advantage. For today’s post, we will be looking at the second game, one which Hou Yifan won in just 25 moves!
Hou Yifan is a player easy to overlook, but after today’s post, I think you’ll see just strong she really is. Let’s take a look:
Hou Yifan – Henriquez Villagra (Match Bicontinental de Ajedrez, 2016)
1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nc3 e6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 a6
The starting position for today’s discussion. Villagra, who eliminated Gelfand from last year’s World Cup, will set-up a hedgehog defense with the Black pieces.
6.g3 Qc7 7.Bg2
For those of you unfamiliar with the English, you should know that there is a lot of overlap with ideas from the Maroczy bind. One of the advantages of choosing the English move order is that the light squared bishop isn’t necessarily bad as it would be on e2 in a Maroczy Bind. Here against the Hedgehog structures, having this bishop is extremely useful, as it limits Black’s ability to queenside fianchetto, and is able to control the d5 square.
7…Be7 8.O-O O-O 9.e4
Here White achieves the famous bind structure with pawns on e4 and c4. Hou Yifan hopes to claim her space in the center of the board while Villagra will wait for potential weaknesses to come.
9…d6 10.Be3 Nbd7
A critical decision, and perhaps the beginning of Villagra’s trouble. The thematic square for the knight is c6, where it may be able to trade for the d4 knight, giving Black space and flexibility. Remember, when you are cramped, it’s advantageous to trade pieces!
An active looking move, but in reality, Black’s hand was somewhat forced here. Black would love to get his c8 bishop to b7, but 11…b6 would lose on the spot to 12. e5! winning the rook on a8 by discovery. Should Black try to avoid this line by playing the well-known Hedgehog idea, 11… Ra7, 12. Ndb5! is better for White after 12… axb5 13. Nxb5 Qa5 14. Nxa7 and Black will not receive two minor pieces for the rook since the knight is protected from the bishop on e3.
Black realizes that getting the bishop to b7 will simply take too much time, and chooses to route it to d7. Villagra can get this bishop to c6 and on the long diagonal, but as you may notice, Black is somewhat cramped.
Taking away the g4 square from each of Black’s knights before pushing f2-f4. While Hou Yifan has easy moves, improving her structure, it is already not so clear how Villagra is going to reroute his pieces to organize an attack. The Chilean’s next move is really telling as to Black’s struggles in this position.
Rather than improving the position, Black must spend a tempo to evade a tactic – that’s right!
So if Black makes the most positionally improving move, White can force Black into a well known Hedgehog dilemma with 14. f4 Nc6 15. Nxc6 Bxc6 16. Nd5!
I actually made this observation before checking with an engine, and the computers seem to see the moves merit. Black’s problems on the b6 square make recapturing the knight compulsory, after which, Black must not only give up the bishop pair but have a strategically ruined endgame.
Black’s isolated pawn on d6 blocks in his dark squared bishop, and White’s pure control of space is enough for White to push for a win. Seeing this (or other similar lines), VIllagra chose 13… Qa5.
14.Qd2 Rfc8 15.f4 Nc6 16.Qf2 Bd8 17.Rfd1
Black’s moved the c6 knight three times, the queen twice, and the d8 bishop twice. Meanwhile, White has optimized all of her pieces, acquiring a major space advantage. Only a pair of pawns have been traded, and because of it, Black is cramped and has little oxygen.
Here Black really needed to trade on d4, but was afraid of 17… Nxd4 18. Bxd4 following with e4-e5, opening up the position. The Chilean wanted to be able to keep the position somewhat closed with d6-d5, but Black is beyond the point of having choices.
Black’s backwards play these last few moves have been strictly tied to playing …d6-d5. This move puts some pressure on the c-file, but Black’s lack of development makes the threat anything but lethal. One principle to know here is that if you are better developed than your opponent, it’s in your best interest to open up the position. Here the former Women’s World Champion pushes through with a central break.
And Black finally gets his break! But it’s this same move that actually ends the game for Black.
20.Nd2 Qb4 21.a3 Qxa3
Dragging the queen offsides while solidifying the queenside. Without the queen on a5, Black will even fewer ways to defend the collapsing center.
22.cxd5 exd5 23.Ra1!
And now Black’s queen must retreat all the way to f8 to avoid the wrath of the c3 knight. With the exception of the light-squared bishop, Black has placed all of his pieces on the back rank.
23…Qf8 24.Nxd5 Be6 25.Nc4 1-0
Black threw in the towel here, as there’s no easy way to defend against f4-f5 and Nb6 threats. Complete positional domination from the Chinese Grandmaster as she dispatched her opponent while making it look easy! There are two games left in the match, and it’ll be one of the last opportunities to watch Hou Yifan before the Women’s World Championship in March when she takes on the reigning champion, Mariya Muzychuk.