- The Washington Times - Monday, November 19, 2012

Already claiming the king of chess, India won’t be able to crown a queen.

World champion Viswanathan Anand rules the men’s game, but compatriot GM Humpy Koneru lost her chance to compete for the women’s world title when she crashed and burned in the second round of the 64-player FIDE Women’s World Cup knockout tournament now wrapping up in the Russian city of Khanty-Mansiysk. The winner of the event wins the right to challenge reigning women’s titleholder GM Hou Yifan of China in a head-to-head match next year.

Although it’s the dominant format in pro tennis and in match-play golf events, the two-game knockout system used in this event has its detractors, as a single misstep can prove fatal and where too many matches come down to rapid and even blitz playoffs. Koneru, Hou and No. 3 seed Anna Muzychuk of Slovenia all were eliminated by lower players in the round of 16. Eliminated a round later was WIM Irina Krush, the last American in the field.

Still, the knockout system does give lower-ranked players a chance to shine, and Ukraine’s Natalia Zhukova took full advantage of her opportunities to defeat Koneru in both of the games played at classical time controls last week. In Game 1, she played aggressively from the Black side of a QGD Tarrasch, giving up her queen at a strategic moment to put her higher-rated rival in a crushing bind.

Black’s 9. Bg5 c4!? grabs space on the queenside, but takes the pressure off Koneru’s center. The c-pawn looks innocuous now, but will play a critical role in the maneuvering to come. White allows the pawn to advance all the way to c2, but just when she appears to have it corralled, Black finds a way to upset the position to her advantage.

Thus: 22. Qe2?! (more straightforward was 22. Rcxc2 Qxc2 23. Rxc2 right away, as White has the edge after 23. … Rxc2 24. Qh6 Rxa2 25. Qxf6 Rc8 26. Qg5+ Kf8 27. Bxd5) Bf5 23. Rd4?! (and now White still had equality on 23. e4 dxe4 24. Rdxc2 Qd3 25. Rxc8 Qxe2 26. Rxd8+ Kg7 27. Ra1 Qb2 28. Rdd1) Qb2 24. Qd2 Qxa2 25. e4 Bg6 26. f4 Qxb3 (White will regret relinquishing her queenside so cheaply) 27. exd5 Qb2 28. Rb4 Qxc1+! 29. Qxc1 Rb8!, and the White queen finds herself pinned by the pawn to the edge of the board.

Koneru’s other pieces can’t come to the rescue in time after 30. Be4 (Rb2 Rxb2 31. Qxb2 Rc8 32. Qc1 Rb8 leaves White in the same bind, while 30. Rxb8 Rxb8 31. d6 Rb1 32. d7 Rxc1+ 33. Kf2 Rd1 is a move too slow) Rxb4 31. Bxc2 Rc4, and Black emerges with a decisive material superiority. On 36. Qf4 R8xd5 37. Qxf6+ Kg8, the Black king is safe from the White queen, the White king is trapped on the back rank, and the Black rooks will escort the a-pawn down the board; Koneru resigned.

Rooks are the most somnolent of pieces.

With their lumbering, straight-ahead gait, it is no wonder they were depicted as elephants in classical Indian and Persian chess sets. Unlike the versatile queen, the slashing bishops and the nimble knights, the rooks tend to take their time getting into the game, and even then need the ground cleared before them before they can start to do any real damage. In many sharp games producing early checkmates, the rooks often play no role at all.

All of which is to say that Italian GM Daniel Vocaturo’s amusing miniature win over Russian Ivan Popov at the recent Chigorin Memorial Rapid Tournament in St. Petersburg could be the corner piece’s ideal game: Without having to stir from its original square, Vocaturo’s king’s rook is the hero of a clever combination that checkmates the White king.

There’s a lot packed in just 20 moves of this French Exchange Defense, as after 10. Nfxd5 Bd6 11. 0-0 Kf8?!, it’s not clear what compensation Black can claim for his gambit. But White’s 14. Be3 Re8 15. Qd2 sets the stage for a stunning reversal of fortune in which Black’s slumbering rook on h8 rouses himself just in time to deliver the coup de main.

Play continues 15. … Nxd4 16. Bxg6 Rxe3 (the only try; losing without a fight is 16. … Bc5 17. Be4 Qb6 18. Bf2) 17. Qxe3 Bc5 (see diagram; 17. … hxg6 18. Rxd1 Bc5 19. Kh1 defends all for White), and now Popov essentially could have clinched things with 18. Qh3! (pinning the Black h-pawn and threatening a very nasty check on c8) Nf5+ 19. Kh1 fxg6 20. Ne4 Qd4 21. Nxc5 Qxc5 22. Rad1, with a big edge.

Instead, White outsmarts himself on 18. Ne4?? Ne2+ 19. Kh1 Bxe3 20. Nxf6 (banking perhaps on 20. … hxg6 21. Ne4 — defending the g3 square — Bxf4 22. h3 Ng3+ 23. Nxg3 Bxg3 24. Rf3, with a much better endgame) Ng3+!!, forcing instant submission owing to 21. hxg3 hxg6+ 22. Nh5, and the rook delivers mate with 22. … Rxh5.

FIDE Women’s World Cup, Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, November 2012

Koneru-Zhukova

1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c5 4. cxd5 exd5 5. Nf3 Nc6 6. g3 Nf6 7. Bg2 Be7 8. O-O O-O 9. Bg5 c4 10. Ne5 Be6 11. Nxc6 bxc6 12. b3 Rc8 13. Na4 Qa5 14. e3 Rfd8 15. Bxf6 gxf6 16. Qh5 c5 17. dxc5 Bxc5 18. Nxc5 Qxc5 19. Rfd1 c3 20. Rac1 c2 21. Rd2 Qc3 22. Qe2 Bf5 23. Rd4 Qb2 24. Qd2 Qxa2 25. e4 Bg6 26. f4 Qxb3 27. exd5 Qb2 28. Rb4 Qxc1+ 29. Qxc1 Rb8 30. Be4 Rxb4 31. Bxc2 Rc4 32. f5 Bxf5 33. Qf1 Rxc2 34. Qxf5 Rd2 35. Qg4+ Kh8 36. Qf4 R8xd5 37. Qxf6+ Kg8 White resigns.

Chigorin Memorial Rapid Tournament, St. Petersburg, October 2012

Popov-Vocaturo

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. exd5 exd5 5. Bd3 Nc6 6. a3 Be7 7. Nge2 Bg4 8. f3 Bh5 9. Nf4 Bg6 10. Nfxd5 Bd6 11. O-O Kf8 12. f4 Nf6 13. Nxf6 Qxf6 14. Be3 Re8 15. Qd2 Nxd4 16. Bxg6 Rxe3 17. Qxe3 Bc5 18. Ne4 Ne2+ 19. Kh1 Bxe3 20. Nxf6 Ng3+ White resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at dsands@washingtontimes.com.