And The Winner Is... Women's World Champion Tan Zhongyi

And The Winner Is... Women's World Champion Tan Zhongyi

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Hou Yifan lost her world title, but China did not. Beating favorite Anna Muzychuk in the final's playoff (and top seed Ju Wenjun earlier in the tournament), Tan Zhongyi of China became the new Women's World Champion. IM Jovanka Houska reports.

Left-right Trainer Lu Shaoteng, Tan Zhonyi and Cindy Li of the Chinese Chess Association. | Photo David Llada.

It was one of the competitors in the women's world championship who likened the brutal knockout format to a "Game." The rules are both simple and ruthless—there is no need for artistry, elegance and gamesmanship—all that matters is the final result. To win, win and win.

Indeed, this championship had been a tortuously long journey: 21 days of chess, 217 games and thousands of moves played all to determine that one thing; who was to going to be the 16th Women’s World Champion?

The world champion's trophy. | Photo David Llada.

Of the original 63 participants that faced off all the way back at the beginning of February, only two players were left in this cut-throat race: Grandmaster Anna Muzychuk from Ukraine and Woman Grandmaster Tan Zhongyi from China.

As the fourth woman to pass the 2600 rating barrier and the current world blitz and world rapid champion, Muzychuk had the chance to win the "triple," and also repeat here sister Mariya's feat of winning the knockout.

Far less known was her opponent: Tan was the 9th seed, and little known outside of China. 

On paper, things looked very favorable for Muzychuk; not only did she out-rate her opponent by 56 points but the two combatants had had very different experiences in the tournament. Muzychuk had scored an extremely impressive 9 points out of 10 games, surviving two potentially fraught moments (against Kashlinskaya and Kosteniuk) to cruise into the final. 

Let's remind ourselves of her journey:

  Latreche Kashlinskaya Pham Stefanova Kosteniuk
Anna Muzychuk 2-0 1.5-0.5 2-0 1.5-0.5 2-0

Things hadn’t been as smooth on Tan's side. She had scored 16 points from a staggering 28 games, eliminated the top seed GM Ju Wenjun, survived three playoffs and two chair-gripping Armageddon matches. It was clear that Tan had been through some hair-raising stuff!

  Foisor Ushenina Padmini Ju Harika
Tan Zhongyi 1.5-0.5 4.5-4.5 3.5-2.5 1.5-0.5 5-4

Stylistically the two players were relatively well balanced, both unafraid of complications and aggressive positions. Equally the two had demonstrated good opening preparation, great attacking skills and especially in Tan’s case – the ability to fight with the back against the wall.

After all the hypothesising about who would win, who would be the most fatigued, were two rest days in a row beneficial or harmful et cetera, it would be a big relief to finally let the chess pieces do the talking.

The Classical Match: "If you can capture the element of surprise, you’re way ahead of the game."

Unlike the previous rounds; the title would be decided by a four-game classical match. If a tiebreak match were needed, it would follow the same tiebreak format: two rapid games of 25+10 followed by two games of 10+10, two blitz games 3+2 and finally the dreaded Armageddon game.

Game 1: Hold the Fort!
By the first move, one thing had become very clear: Tan had taken the above quote to heart and was prepared to do anything to catch her opponent on the wrong foot… She had also probably spent the free day learning the French Defense, and opening that had never appeared on the board in any of her white or back games!

Game 2: Strike 1 against the Semi-Slav

After the surprise of game 1, Muzychuk came to the board with the obvious knowledge that her opponent was trying to take the game out of any preparation as quickly as possible. So, what is a person to do? Apart from consoling yourself with the reassuring line “Jack of all trades!?”

Well, sensibly Muzychuk, on her birthday, chose to steer the game into old familiar territory where she could trust her instincts but things didn't work exactly to plan when she tricked herself!

Ukrainians Evgeny Miroshnichenko, Anna Muzychuk, and Nastja Karlovich
celebrating Muychuk's 27th birthday. | Photo David Llada.

Game 3: Strike 2 vs French
In her semi-final match against Indian GM Harika Dronavalli, Tan Zhongyi had really struggled to meet 1.e4 in a satisfactory manner, sticking with the French, this time Tan decided to try her hand at the Classical French with disastrous consequences.

Muzychuk contemplating the Greek Gift. | Photo David Llada.

Game 4:
With the scores tied at 1.5-1.5 both players made it clear that they preferred their chances in the play off. As soon as move 30 was made, the scoresheets were signed in, what was a very technical game.

Scores at the end of the match: 2-2

The Tiebreaks

At cannot be stated enough: tiebreaks are distressing affairs, in particular when they are determined by the clock rather than the quality of play over the chess board. Game one in the tiebreak was a jumpy affair, where a visibly tense Muzychuk simply couldn’t control her emotions. She let Tan pull off an a miraculous save from a completely lost position.

FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov making the opening move. 1.e4! | Photo David Llada.

Game two was all about the absolutely calm composure of Tan, who played extremely purposefully. She confessed at the press conference that she had not felt any nerves as she had treated each match as its own tournament.

It certainly helped when Muzychuk uncharacteristically imploded in the most wretched of ways, meaning that the title was decided in one of the most horrific blunders.

16th Women's World Champion Tan Zhongyi | Photo David Llada.

In the end Tan proved to be an incredibly worthy winner, defeating first, second and fourth seeds, surviving some rounds through sheer grit and determination! When asked about whether she had done any special preparation for the event, Tan simply answered that her preparation had been celebrating the Chinese New Year!

She gratefully acknowledged the help she had received from her coach GM Yu Shaoteng, who incidentally also coached Hou Yifan to victory in 2010. 

If you think Tan can now rest on her laurels and enjoy her world title and new grandmaster status, you can think again! In a somewhat ridiculous state of affairs, Tan will be defending her title in just over six months (late 2017) to her compatriot Ju Wenjun. Whatever happens it will certainly not be an easy match.

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