She hasn’t exactly been dethroned, but Hungarian GM Judit Polgar’s reign as the ratings queen of women’s chess has finally come to an end after an astonishing 26 years of supremacy.
Young Chinese women’s world champion GM Hou Yifan, like Polgar a onetime prodigy who can hold her own with the best male grandmasters, officially surpassed Polgar in the March FIDE world ratings to become the highest-rated female player in the world. Hou, 21, now sports a rating of 2686 (59th in the world), while the 38-year-old Polgar, who announced her retirement from top-level competition in August, is at 2675.
Hou would readily acknowledge that she has a ways to go to match the remarkable career of the woman she just surpassed. The youngest and greatest of three chess-playing sisters, Judit Polgar is universally acknowledged as the greatest female player in history, reaching as high as eighth in the world rankings in mid-2005 with many tournament triumphs and one-on-one wins against the greatest players of her era.
She shattered stereotypes as she was breaking records, declining to play in all-women events and boasting an attractive, aggressive style of play that produced dozens of brilliancies. One of her best efforts was in a 2003 Budapest tournament against fellow Hungarian GM Ferenc Berkes, a five-time national champion who at the time of the game was the world’s reigning under-18 champion. Here Polgar schools her young compatriot in the art of the sacrifice from the White side of a French Alekhine-Chatard Attack line.
White willingly gives up a bishop for a knight early in the game to remove Black’s best defensive piece, castling queenside in preparation for an all-out kingside rush. Black moves to blunt White’s plan but runs into a stunning surprise after 11. Neg5 h6 12. Bh7+ Kh8 13. Be4!? (this looks at first like a misjudgment, but Polgar has no intention of entering the inferior line Black may have been banking on) hxg5 (see diagram; now 14. Bxa8? g4 15. Ne5?? Bg5 16. f4 gxf3 wins White’s queen) 14. g4!! — an amazing idea that jettisons a whole piece to ensure the h-file can come open.
Black tries to cover up with 14…Rb8 15. h4 g6 (gxh4 16. g5! Kg8 17. Qf4 f5 18. Qxh4 fxe4 19. Qh7+ Kf7 20. Qh5+ g6 [Kg8 21. g6, and the only way to stop mate is 21…Bg5+ 22. Nxg5 Qxg5+] 21. Qh7+ Ke8 22. Qxg6+ Rf7 23. Rh7 and White is winning) 16. hxg5 Kg7 17. Qf4, and now Berkes’ only hope of playing on rested in 17…Bd6 (Rh8 18. Rxh8 Qxh8 19. Ne5 Nxe5 20. Qxe5+ Kg8 21. Qxc7 Bxg5+ 22. Kb1 and White is much better), although Polgar could have kept the edge in lines such as 18. Ne5 Be7 19. Nxf7! Bxg5 (Rxf7 20. Rh7+!) 20. Qxg5 Qf6 21. d5 Rxf7 22. Qh6+ Kg8 23. dxe6 Qf4+ 24. Rd2 Qxh6 25. Rxh6.
Instead, the game’s 17…Bb7 allows Polgar to show off her world-class combinational skills: 18. Rh7+!! Kxh7 19. Qh2+ (the rook sacrifice gets the queen to the h-file with a crucial gain of tempo) Kg8 20. Rh1 Bxg5+ 21. Nxg5 Qxg5+ 22. f4, and Black must give up his queen to prevent mate on the move.
After 22…Qxf4+ 23. Qxf4 Bxe4 24. Qxe4, a dispirited Black gave up in the face of the rampaging White queen in lines such as 24…Rbc8 25. g5 Kg7 26. Rh4 Rh8 27. Rxh8 Rxh8 28. Qc6 Nf8 29. Qxc7.
Hou Yifan can claim the bragging rights in the one head-to-head game between the two female greats. The 2012 Tradewise Gibraltar tournament — annually one of the strongest Swiss events in the world — was one of the young Chinese star’s best results, a tie for first with British GM Nigel Short that included wins over such established stars as Spanish GM Alexei Shirov and Vietnamese GM Le Qiang Liem. But the marquee game was Hou’s Round 7 pairing with Polgar.
In a Taimanov Sicilian, Hou as White establishes an early strong point on d6, and though Black eventually manages to break the bind with 16. Na4 d5, White’s pressure on the central files and her more secure king give her a clear initiative.
An uncharacteristically impatient move from Polgar allows White to substantially increase her advantage: 20. Nc3 d4?! (a5, preparing to get the blocked bishop out via a6, was a much better alternative) 21. e5+! (a very nice finesse; on 21. Ne2?! c5 [or 21…e5] Black has nothing to fear) Nxe5 22. Ne4+ Ke7 (bad is 22…Kf5? [Kg7 23. a3 Ra4 24. Nc5 Rc4 25. Rxe5] 23. Nd6+ Kf6 24. Rxe5! Kxe5 25. Nxf7+ Kf6 26. Nxh8 Kg7 27. Nf7, winning material) 23. Nxg5, and Black’s position has suddenly gotten very loose.
White wins a decisive pawn after 23…h6? (proof that this wasn’t Polgar’s day; tougher was 23…f6! 24. f4 fxg5 25. Rxe5 gxf4 26. gxf4 d3 27. Rxd3 Rxf4 28. Bf3, though White retains a sizable edge) 24. Nxe6! Bxe6 (Kxe6 25. f4 f6 26. fxe5 fxe5 27. b3, and the Black d-pawn will soon fall) 25. Rxe5 Rd8 26. f4, and with a material advantage and the much better position, the win is now a matter of (high-level) technique.
A second pawn falls right at time control on 39. Re4 Bf5 40. Rexd4, and White zeroes in for the kill against Black’s uncoordinated forces. The clocks stop after 44. Rd8! (White continually takes squares away from her cramped opponent) Bc8 45. Rad5 Be6 (one threat was 46. Rh8 Ke7 47. Re5+ Kd7 48. Bf5+ and wins) 46. Rh5 Kg7 47. f5!, and Polgar can see that Black is lost after 47…Bc8 48. f6+ Rxf6 (Kxf6 49. Rxc8! Rxc8 50. Rxh6+ Ke7 51. Rxb6) 49. Rxc8, collecting a piece. A very impressive mix of positional and tactical play from the Chinese champion.
The lineup of teams to face the Amateur Team East-winning Virginia Assassins has been set. The NorCal House of Chess (West) scored a repeat to qualify for the Final Four this spring and will be joined by Thad’s No Fear (South) and Pinoy of Chicago Revamped (North). … Russian GM Evgeny Najer is the 2015 European individual championship, besting a strong field with a fine 8½-2½ result.
There was a rare bit of good news on the chess column front. Thanks in part to reader support, the London Evening Standard nixed a plan to terminate Leonard Barden’s column, which has been running in the paper and now online for an astonishing 58 years.
Polgar-Berkes, Hungarian Hotels Super Tournament, Budapest, April 2003
1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 dxe4 5. Nxe4 Be7 6. Bxf6 Bxf6 7. Nf3 O-O 8. Qd2 Nd7 9. O-O-O Be7 10. Bd3 b6 11. Neg5 h6 12. Bh7+ Kh8 13. Be4 hxg5 14. g4 Rb8 15. h4 g6 16. hxg5+ Kg7 17. Qf4 Bb7 18. Rh7+ Kxh7 19. Qh2+ Kg8 20. Rh1 Bxg5+ 21. Nxg5 Qxg5+ 22. f4 Qxf4+ 23. Qxf4 Bxe4 24. Qxe4 Black resigns.
Hou-Polgar, Tradewise Gibraltar, January 2012
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nc6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Be2 Nge7 7. Bf4 Ng6 8. Nxc6 bxc6 9. Bd6 Bxd6 10. Qxd6 Qe7 11. O-O-O Qxd6 12. Rxd6 Ke7 13. Rhd1 Nf4 14. Bf3 Rb8 15. R6d2 g5 16. Na4 d5 17. g3 Ng6 18. Re1 Kf6 19. Bh5 Rb4 20. Nc3 d4 21. e5+ Nxe5 22. Ne4+ Ke7 23. Nxg5 h6 24. Nxe6 Bxe6 25. Rxe5 Rd8 26. f4 Rb5 27. Rde2 Kf6 28. Bf3 c5 29. a4 Rb4 30. Rxc5 Rxa4 31. b3 Rb4 32. Be4 Bg4 33. Re1 Rd6 34. Bd3 Bd7 35. Ree5 Be6 36. Kd2 Rbb6 37. Ra5 Rbc6 38. Ra4 Rb6 39. Re4 Bf5 40. Rexd4 Re6 41. Bc4 Rec6 42. Ra5 Bc8 43. Bd3 Be6 44. Rd8 Bc8 45. Rad5 Be6 46. Rh5 Kg7 47. f5 Black resigns.
David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at email@example.com.