Hou Yifan Big Favorite To Win Back Women's World Championship

Hou Yifan Big Favorite To Win Back Women's World Championship

| 17 | Chess Event Coverage

Much like the Viswanathan Anand-Magnus Carlsen 2013 championship match, the 2016 Women’s World Championship features a world champion competing on home soil against a challenger whom everyone expects to win.

Photos courtesy of FIDE.

From March 1-18 in the extravagant Potocki Palace in Lviv, Ukraine, Women’s World Champion Mariya Muzychuk will look to defend her crown against the highest-rated female player, GM Hou Yifan.

The Ukrainian Muzychuk, who obtained the title by winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup, enters the match at her peak FIDE rating of 2563 thanks to a solid showing at the 2016 Tradewise Gibraltar festival. Unfortunately for her, this Elo is dwarfed by Hou Yifan’s monstrous 2667 figure.

Amazingly, the two women have met over the board just three times in their young careers. Yifan, 22, holds a 2.5-0.5 edge over Muzychuk, 23. The Chinese superstar has had Black in all three games, including their most recent encounter, a swift decisive game from the Monte Carlo Grand Prix event less than five months ago:

Hou Yifan.

Although this game was not Muzychuk’s finest, she has a reputation for being a tenacious defender. In the recently-concluded Gibraltar festival, Muzychuk pulled off a miraculous draw against super-GM Richard Rapport and held steady against former 2700+ players David Howell and Gata Kamsky. However, the best example of her mental fortitude comes from the 2015 version of this event, when she survived a pawn-down position against GM Maxim Matlakov -- and eventually won!

While this game puts Muzychuk’s resourcefulness on full display, she is not always on the defensive. In fact, at the European Women’s Team Championship in November, Muzychuk bulldozed the opposition en route to a 7 out of 8 performance. My favorite game of hers from that event is her victory over GM Nana Dzagnidze, who simply got outplayed by Muzychuk.

Mariya Muzychuk.

While Muzychuk has shown steady progress over these last few months -- no matter how you look at it, it is impressive to make a 50-point leap in just five months -- she has only infrequently matched wits with the world’s elite players. Hou Yifan, on the other hand, played against a 2753 average in Tata Steel. Her 5 out of 13 score is not truly indicative of how she played, since she missed a number of chances to improve her score after a tremendous 3.5/6 start. Here’s her impressive win over David Navara:

It is clear that Hou Yifan has a masterful understanding of the game. Against Navara, she applied pressure, forced a few weaknesses, and then jumped at the opportunity to sacrifice material to exploit her opponent’s weak king. Her bishop on e5 was worth at least a rook, and she allowed the Czech GM precisely zero counterplay.

Unfortunately, some of Hou Yifan’s shortcomings were also on full display in Wijk aan Zee. Her endgame play was suspect, as she threw away a half-point against World Champion Magnus Carlsen and failed to convert a winning edge against Anish Giri.

Regardless of these occasional lapses, Hou Yifan enters this match as the heavy favorite. In a 10-game match, anything is possible, but there is little doubt that she is the far stronger player. While Mariya Muzychuk has only just surpassed 2560, Hou Yifan's rating has not fallen below 2660 since August of 2014.

What does favor Muzychuk, though, is the location of the event. The challenger must get used to the different climate, food, and culture in Lviv. Muzychuk, seemingly backed by all the leading Ukrainian players, will have a strong system of support.

Furthermore, in the recent Ukrainian Men's Final, none of Muzychuk's games were published (she went 4/11 against an average opponent of 2615, drawing eight games and losing three). Although that result does not inspire much confidence -- Muzychuk is able to draw many higher-rated grandmasters, but she rarely defeats players of Hou Yifan's caliber -- the fact that her opponent cannot see her games is undoubtedly helpful. She may have tested new opening lines, and Hou Yifan has no clue what those lines are. 

Ultimately, chess fans should expect to see the women's world champion title switch hands. It is hard to imagine a player with a +2 score against Anish Giri achieving a minus score against a player she out rates by more than 100 rating points.

As Ukraine hopes for Muzychuk music, it will be the Chinese player dancing her way to the crown.

For the next 18 days, we will be Lvivin’ The Vida Loca. 

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