The FIDE Women’s World Chess Championship is currently underway in Lviv, Ukraine. Defending Champion, Mariya Muzychuk, of the Ukraine, is taking on the challenge of Hou Yifan of China. The match is being contested over 10 games between March 2-18.
After four games, the score is 2½-1½ in favour of the challenger. This is a bit of a round-up of how that has come to be, as the players enjoy their second rest day of six.
Game 1 saw the World Champion playing White. Muzychuk chose the Giuoco Piano, and the game was a very tentative affair during which neither looked threatened or threatening. To be honest it was a settler I think, allowing the players to take in the atmosphere and deal with any nerves. Whether this was a wise way for Muzychuk to use one of her white games, rather than to come out more aggressively and try to put some authority on the match straight away, will be open for debate.
Hou Yifan did not use her white game in the same way. In game 2, she provoked her opponent with the Ruy Lopez, and Mariya Muzychuk accepted the challenge with the open variation. Possibly in answer to my own question, the Chinese challenger looked more comfortable and confident than her Ukranian opponent. Hou’s decision to let her opponent open up her King’s position, doubling her f-pawns, was rather bold, but in doing so Muzychuk had surrendered the bishop pair and soon it was clear to see that it was White who had the quality pieces. In the end, however, it was the Champion’s sense of danger (or lack of it) which decided the day.
From the diagram position, (in which White has just played 27.fxg6 as shown), Muzychuk, failing to realise how badly misplaced her pieces are, erred badly with 27…Bc5? Correct was 27…Bxg3, which would have maintained the balance and exchanged off the vulnerable d6-bishop. After 28.Kg2 Black felt that she had time to deal with the white pawn on g6, with 28…hxg6. This allowed White to strike hard, 29.Rxd5! and the errors in the Black piece placement become immediately apparent. White was winning. From here, the Black position deteriorated rapidly, and White soon had the point – and a rest day during which to enjoy it.
When play resumed after the first rest day, the pressure was very much on the Champion. Could she respond in game-3 to having lost the previous game? Truthfully, not really. The game was a Catalan, so not the boldest or most confident of choices in my opinion. It briefly followed the very quick draw of Wen-Yu, China 2014, until Muzychuk varied with 18.a5. It worked out alright, actually, as Hou slightly misjudged the situation and allowed her opponent too much play along the a-file. She gave her a-pawn up too lightly, feeling that there was counterplay along the b-file.
White obtained a comfortable position, and was the slightly more active of the two. However, to me, she did not seem to try to use it. The players shuffled and things fizzled very rapidly until a draw was agreed in 36. That is two rather unambitious white games and a loss with black, then – things are not looking very promising for Mariya Muzychuk at this stage.
After game 4 there would be another rest day, and the players decided to have an unofficial one also. Like game 2, it was an Open Ruy, but excitement was short lived as they repeated for a draw in 21.
Game 5 will be played on Tuesday, March 8th and will be the halfway stage. I am hoping that Mariya Muzychuk will use her White game as the start of a campaign to regain her point and towards retaining her title. It would be nice to see her play more positively and with the confidence that she deserves to have, being a player of her capabilities. At the moment she seems a little shy and intimidated, and her current approach is not going to push her opponent or see her returned as World Champion.
Games 1-4 . . .