Hou Yifan is certainly having an interesting 2017, isn’t she? In February, she was causing controversy in Gibraltar; in April she caused a storm of a different kind at the Grenke Classic in Baden-Baden, defeating Fabiano Caruana and holding Magnus Carlsen to a draw in a game many felt she could have won; just weeks ago, she was finishing on a mere 2.5/9 in Geneva.
And just in the last couple of days, she has taken sole victory in Biel.
The tournament ran from July 23rd until August 2nd in Biel, Switzerland. It was a nine-round single round robin, contested between: David Navara (2737), Pentala Harikrishna (2737), Etienne Bacrot (2715), Ruslan Ponamariov (2699), Peter Leko (2678), Alexander Morozevich (2675), Yifan Hou (2666), Rafael Vaganian (2562), Nico Georgiadis (2496) and Noel Studer (2493).
Yifan opened strongly, with a win over Alexander Morozevich, and found herself in a good position after round-four, despite a run of three draws. The Chinese Grandmaster was within a half point of France’s Etienne Bacrot, who held the lead at this stage on 3/4. However, right there with Yifan in the chase, were Georgiadis, Ponomariov and Harikrishna. She was still to face two of them, so changes were likely, but who would they favour?
Well, though Hou would beat David Navara in round five, this would be balanced by her loss to Pentala Harikrishna in her next game. At the end of round six, Bacrot remained in the lead with 4.5-points and Hou was now a full point off of his pace.
I think the music from Rocky could be deemed appropriate for what came next. Yifan rolled her sleeves up for round seven, and took a point from Etienne Bacrot. This catapulted her into joint lead along with Bacrot, Harikrishna and Georgiadis. Energised from this, she would outplay Rafael Vaganian with the Black pieces in round-eight.
So much can change in so little time in chess, we see it all the time over the board, and also very often in the standings tables. After round-eight, Yifan would share the lead with Harikrishna on 5.5-points.
Unfortunately for Harikrishna, the round saw him blundering badly against Bacrot. In the Giuoco Piano, his 21.Bc5 would ultimately lose. Not only does this move condemn his Nf5, but it also hands his opponent the d2-square.
There followed: 21…Bxf5 upon which Black was already technically winning. Did Harikrishna intend to recapture with the Queen and then realise that it would lose to …Rd5, forking Queen and Bishop? Surely not. As it was, after 22.Nxf5(?! White could not afford to recapture actually, Qb4 was probably the best he could do, horribly losing) there came the blow 22…Qh2+!
The threat here is, after the forced 23.Kf1, 23…Rd2!! And this is how the game went, after which White was in all kinds of trouble. The threats towards his King (…Qh1 mate, for example) would prove terminal and he was resigning not too long after. A disappointing end to the tournament for Harikrishna.
This meant that Yifan Hou could decide the title in her favour by winning her game against Nico Georgiadis. And win it she would. I think that it is fair to say that Hou was seen as the favourite in this game, certainly on paper. Having white along with being the calibre of player that she is, Georgiadis was going to have to play very well.
Hou’s choice of opening was perhaps indicative of her tactics towards this game. She opted for 1.e4 and then the re-capture of 4.Qxd4 rather than 4.Nxd4 in the Sicilian Defence. I found this decision to take a much lesser-played line very interesting, personally. It appeared to me that she wanted the game to be an over-the-board affair and not a debate about theory.
To be fair, however, this could well have backfired on her. Georgiadis seemed to be taking everything in his stride and might have been the more satisfied with the opening. White was probably never worse, but could have been and probably should have been at certain stages. Black certainly had his chances to punish some rather questionable play.
A critical error by Black was allowing his Queenside pawns to be busted. This gave him doubled bits on the c-file and these proved to be a big weakness. It was dwarfed in size, though, by his 22…Qb4(?!).
At first glance this looks bad and it is. The e-pawn had to be defended with …Bf6. To be honest, the obvious question to ask, here, is ‘why hang it?’ If there is not a good reason then it shouldn’t be done.
After whopping the pawn off with 23.Nfxe5, Hou took control and the point was soon hers. And so was outright victory in the tournament — a very nice result.
- Hou — 6.5
- Bacrot — 6.0
- Harikrishna — 5.5
- Ponomariov, Leko, Georgiadis, Morozevich — 5.0
- Navara — 4
- Vaganian — 2
- Studer — 1