Women’s World Chess Championship: Half way done

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(Photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE)

Ju Wenjun stared at her position, a bishop-down endgame, for several seconds before extending her hand in resignation. Normally at this level of chess she would have resigned several moves earlier, but Ju seemed reluctant to concede the game in a match where wins have been exceedingly hard to come by.

So far the 2023 FIDE Women’s World Championship has been a gritty struggle with good defense stymying good offense, the only exception a brilliant victory in game five by the challenger Lei Tingjie. With the other games all drawn, that gives Lei a narrow lead of a single point heading into the midway point of the 12-game match.

The Players

Ju Wenjun is the reigning Women’s World Champion. She claimed the title in 2018 by defeating her compatriot Tan Zhongyi. She had little time to rest on her laurels, as she had to defend her title in a 64–player knockout tournament still in 2018. Remarkably, Ju cut through the field to remain the World Champion. In 2020 she successfully defended her title again against Russian grandmaster Aleksandra Goryachkina.

For the challenger Lei Tingjie, this is her first World Championship match, but she’s not without accolades. She won the 2021 Women’s Grand Swiss ahead of many of the top players, as well as the Chinese Women’s Masters Tournament in 2017. And of course she won the Candidates Tournament to gain the right to challenge Ju for the World Championship.

In some ways, the players are similar. Both hail from China, of course, and their ratings are separated by only ten points (2564 for Ju vs. 2554 for Lei). If there is one factor separating the two, it is perhaps World Championship experience; at 26, six years her opponent’s junior, Lei hasn’t yet competed on the absolute highest stage, while Ju has already defended her title successfully multiple times.

While they are very close in terms of rating, they are strikingly different in terms of their board presence. Lei wears her heart on her sleeve, smiling or grimacing depending on how she feels about her position, and even looking up at the ceiling a la Beth Harmon. In contrast, Ju maintains a reserved, businesslike demeanor regardless of what’s happening on the board.

The Match

The 12-game match is being held in China, the first six games in Shanghai and the latter six in Chongqing. The two cities are the birthplaces of Ju and Lei respectively. The first player to 6.5 points is the winner. In the event that the score is tied after the 12 classical games, the title will be decided by rapid and then blitz games. The prize fund for the match is €500,000, with €300,000 going to the winner and €200,000 to the runner-up.

The two combatants appear to be on good terms, as they struggled to maintain straight faces for an intense photo op before dissolving in laughter. This is perhaps a sign of the camaraderie of the Chinese players, which Hou Yifan has cited as a reason for China’s dominance in women’s chess. If Lei wins she will be the fourth consecutive Chinese woman to sit the throne (Hou held the title before Tan Zhongyi).

Still, there can only be one World Champion, and both women have invested a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get to this stage. Once the clock starts, there are no friends on the chessboard!

As is often the case in a World Championship, the match began with a feeling out period. The first two games resulted in two fairly quiet draws as both players got their bearings.

In game 3, Ju had the first big chance of the match, when with the Black pieces she capitalized on an opening inaccuracy by Lei to win a pawn. Nonetheless, Lei kept her cool, and Ju struggled to find a way to press her advantage. She decided to return the pawn and the game fizzled out to a draw.

In game 4, Lei chose a combative opening with the Black pieces, but it was again Ju who was pressing for the win. She found one way after another to extend the game and keep up the pressure, but Lei was up to the task defensively and held on for a hard fought draw.

Finally, Lei drew first blood in game 5 with a masterful positional performance. She switched from the Ruy Lopez, which she had used in her first two White games, to the Italian Game. The two openings are structurally similar, but the Italian is somewhat less forcing; players sometimes choose it when they want to defer the struggle from the opening to the middlegame.

Lei gained the upper hand when Ju went for an ill-advised pawn advance that created weaknesses in her own camp. She was hoping to make up for it with active piece play, but the long-term weaknesses would come back to haunt her. Lei built up her advantage with a series of deft maneuvers. Ju landed in a miserable endgame where she had no active plan, but just had to wait and defend as Lei probed her position. As is often the case in such a situation, the defender eventually cracked. Lei chose just the right moment to pounce with a pawn break. She transposed into a winning endgame and claimed the full point. Overall, it was a virtuoso performance where Lei never put a foot wrong.

There is one school of thought that says when you lose a game you should first make a draw in the next game to regain your equilibrium before pressing to regain the point. Perhaps thinking along these lines, Ju went for a very safe choice in game 6, going for a position with a symmetrical pawn structure where her only potential advantage was the bishop pair. This did not appear to bother Lei, who quickly and confidently activated her pieces, soon forcing the trade of one of the bishops and cruising to a draw.

Following game six, the second half of the match will move to Lei’s birthplace of Chongqing. The change of scene is unlikely to make a big impact though as both players are well familiar with both cities. The bigger issue for Ju is figuring out a way to overcome her one point deficit. So far, she has not been able to make much of a dent in Lei’s opening preparation. Both players have been very consistent with their choice of first move with White: Ju has opened every game with 1. d4, while Lei has started all her games with 1. e4. We’ll see if either player has any opening surprises in store for the second half.

If playing in her first World Championship Match occasioned any nerves, Lei has not shown any sign of it. She’s hardly made a mistake in the first six games. She may begin to feel some jitters, though, as the possibility of becoming World Champion gets closer to becoming a reality.

For her part, the defending champion Ju will have to reach into her bag of tricks to find a way to even the match. She may need to get more risky and enterprising with her opening choices, because so far she has not been able to pose many problems against a poised and well-prepared challenger.

For as well as she’s played, Lei is still only up one point. As the match enters its second half, a single game – even a single move – could change everything.

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