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SANDS: Clutch at crunch time, Hou Yifan retains chess title
Young Chinese GM Hou Yifan has held on to her women's world championship crown, decisively defeating Indian challenger Humpy Koneru by a 5 1/2-2 1/2 score in their scheduled 10-game match in Tirana, Albania.
Hou, who first won the title at age 16 in 2010, did not overpower her older and higher-rated challenger but proved consistently stronger in the critical moments of play. Koneru saw several promising early positions spoiled by time trouble and the champion's unflappable defense.
The match dynamic played out most clearly in the critical Game 6. Koneru, already trailing by a point, obtains a slight early edge in this QGD Ragozin — the same defensive line that gave Hou her first victory in Game 3. With 14. Bxc3 Qe7 15. 0-0!? Qxe3+ 16. Kh1 Qb6, White even launches a promising pawn sacrifice to obtain a wide-open position in which her two bishops exert strong pressure.
But even as Hou prudently returns the extra pawn to shore up her defensive position, White appears to shuttle her bishops back and forth to no clear purpose, using up large amounts of time on the clock in the process. By 25. Bc4 (even here, the more forceful 25. Bxf6 Rxb3 26. Rxc7 gxf6 27. Rxd7 Rxb2 28. Rf7 Ra2 29. Rxf6 Rxa3 would have handed White a small but clear edge) Rae8 26. Bd4 R3e7 27. Ba2 Re2 28. Bf7 (Rxc7 Bc6 29. Rg1 was also playable) R8e7 29. Bc4 R2e4 30. Bc5 Re8 31. Bf7 R8e5, Black has at least equalized and is putting strong pressure on the f-pawn.
Short of time and thrown on the defensive for the first time in the game, White can't handle Black's well-played counterattack: 35. Bc4 Rd2 36. Bc3? (losing, but White is at best fighting for a draw even on the superior 36. Bxf6 Rxf6 37. b4 Rff2 38. Bf1 Ra2 39. Rd1 h6) Ne4! (good enough, but the fans might have preferred 36. ... Ng4!!, which wins prettily after 37. h3 Rf3!! 38. Rge1 [gxf3 Rh2 mate; or 38. hxg4 Rh3 mate] Rxh3+ 39. Kg1 Rxg2+ and mate next) 37. Rge1 (Bxd2 Nf2 mate; 37. h3 Nxc3 38. Rxc3 Rff2 39. Re3 Rxb2 40. Rd1 Bxg2+ 41. Kg1 Rf8 with an easy endgame win) Ng3+! 38. hxg3 (Kg2 Rxg2 mate) Rh5+.
Since 39. Kg1 Rxg2+ 40. Kf1 Rh1 is a forced mate, Koneru resigned.
In the other big international event of the month, Norwegian superstar Magnus Carlsen claimed another fine trophy by catching Armenia's GM Levon Aronian in the ninth and final round of the Tal Memorial in Moscow. Carlsen defeated American No. 1 Hikaru Nakamura, who brought up the rear in the event at 3-6, in the final round, while Aronian was held to a draw by Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi, with Carlsen enjoying the better tie-breaks.
There were some nice games in Moscow but too many draws, as might be expected in a field where the lowest player was rated well north of 2700. Indian world champion Viswanathan Anand drew all nine of his games, while Israeli GM Boris Gelfand, who will play for Anand's title in May in Moscow, drew seven and lost two.
We noted last week the victory of the New York Knights over the Chicago Blaze to capture the 2011 U.S. Chess League championship, its second title in three years. Wins by New York's NM Matthew Herman and GM Giorgi Kacheishvili offset a win by Chicago fourth board NM Gopal Menon to give the Knights the 2 1/2-1 1/2 match win.
GM Josh Friedel was not available for the Blaze for the final match, and his absence clearly was felt. Friedel supplied a critical point in the semifinal match against the Los Angeles Vibe to help propel the Chicago team into the finals, uncorking one of the slickest combinations of the year against strong IM Zhanibek Amanov. Amanov's play in this English is a little too subtle, with moves such as 14. Ba1 and 17. Nb1?! (simpler was 17. Ne4 e5 18. Nxf6+ Bxf6 19. Re1 and Black has only a slight edge because of the blocked-in White bishop) almost inviting Black to seize a clear space advantage.
Friedel's 21. Re4 Bb4! prepares to remove a key White defender in the fierce battle for control of the e4-square, a move that pays dividends five moves later with a breakthrough pawn sacrifice: 26. h3 e4! (the move White has desperately been trying to prevent; Black may already be strategically won here) 27. dxe4 Nxe4 28. Rxd4 Ng5!, exposing the weakness of the squares around the White king.
A string of powerful moves concludes the struggle: 31. Kh2 Qh5! 32. Qe2 (see diagram; Black threatened 32. ... Nxf4+, and 32. Qxh3? loses to 32. ... Rd2+) Rd2!! (luring the White queen to a fateful square; 32. ... Nxf4+? 33. Qxh5 Nxh5 34. Be5 yields far less for Black) 33. Qxd2 Ng5+ 34. Kg2 Qh3+, and White resigns facing a host of nasty knight forks after 35. Kf2 (Kg1 Nf3+) Qh2+ 36. Ke3 Qxg3+ 37. Kd4 (Ke2 Qf3 mate) Nf3+ 38. Kc3 Nxd2+ 39. Kxd2 Qxb3 40. Bc1 Qxc4, winning easily.
Koneru-Hou Yifan, Women's World Championship, November 2011
1. d4 e6 2. c4 Nf6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 Bb4 5. Qa4+ Nc6 6. e3 O-O 7. Bd2 dxc4 8. Bxc4 Bd6 9. Qc2 a6 10. a3 e5 11. dxe5 Nxe5 12. Nxe5 Bxe5 13. f4 Bxc3 14. Bxc3 Qe7 15. O-O Qxe3+ 16. Kh1 Qb6 17. f5 Bd7 18. Bb4 Rfe8 19. Rad1 Qc6 20. Qb3 Kh8 21. Rc1 Qb6 22. Bxf7 Re5 23. Bc3 Qxb3 24. Bxb3 Re3 25. Bc4 Rae8 26. Bd4 R3e7 27. Ba2 Re2 28. Bf7 R8e7 29. Bc4 R2e4 30. Bc5 Re8 31. Bf7 R8e5 32. Ba2 Bc6 33. Rg1 Re2 34. Bd4 Rxf5 35. Bc4 Rd2 36. Bc3 Ne4 37. Rge1 Ng3+ 38. hxg3 Rh5+ 0-1.
Amanov-Friedel, U.S. Chess League, November 2011
1. c4 Nf6 2. g3 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Bg2 Be7 5. O-O O-O 6. b3 c5 7. Bb2 Nc6 8. e3 b6 9. Nc3 Ba6 10. Qe2 Rc8 11. d3 Qd7 12. Rfd1 Rfd8 13. Rac1 h6 14. Ba1 d4 15. exd4 Nxd4 16. Nxd4 cxd4 17. Nb1 Re8 18. Bb2 e5 19. Nd2 Bd6 20. Qf1 Bb7 21. Re1 Bb4 22. Rcd1 Bxg2 23. Qxg2 Qf5 24. a3 Bxd2 25. Rxd2 Rcd8 26. h3 e4 27. dxe4 Nxe4 28. Rxd4 Ng5 29. Rxd8 Rxd8 30. f4 Nxh3+ 31. Kh2 Qh5 32. Qe2 Rd2 33. Qxd2 Ng5+ 34. Kg2 Qh3+ 0-1.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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