April will be a clarifying month for the chess world, as we learn who will succeed Norway’s Magnus Carlsen after a 10-year reign as world champion and a challenger emerges to take on women’s world champion GM Ju Wenjun of China in a title match in July.
Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi and Chinese star GM Ding Liren will square off on Monday, April 10, in Astana, Kazakhstan, for Game 1 of their scheduled $2 million, 14-game match for the crown after Carlsen declined to defend his title. The oddsmakers and pundits appear divided on who is the favorite, with Nepo having at least a slight edge in match experience having challenged — and lost — to Carlsen in a 2021 title match in Dubai.
And Chinese GM Lei Tingjie will take on Ju for the women’s world championship on the strength of a decisive 3½-1½ win over compatriot GM Tan Zhongyi in their scheduled six-game candidates match in Chongqing. It was a hard-fought affair, with Lei bouncing back from a tough Round 1 loss to win three of the next four games, including the Game 5 clincher Monday.
Tan served up a surprise on the second move of the match in Game 1, playing 2. d3 for the first time in an English and quickly offering up a positional pawn sacrifice. White turns up the tension with 17. d5 Nb8 18. c5!?, freeing her d-pawn to advance and getting good scope for her pieces after 18. dxc5 19. Nxe5 (Rxc5?! Na6 20. Rc1 e4 21. Nd4 Qxd5 is fine for Black) f6 20. Nc4 Nd7, but at the high price of gifting Lei two dangerous connected passers on the queenside.
The White d-pawn soon falls and Tan now faces a two-pawn deficit, but her aggression is rewarded when Black can’t handle the complications in time pressure: 30. Rd5 Qe6? (c4! looks very close to winning outright in lines such as 31. Rb5 h5! 32. f4 Ng4 33. Bxg4 hxg4 34. Qxc4 Qe3+ 35. Kg2 Re8 36. Rxb7 Qxe2+ 37. Qxe2 Rxe2+ 38. Kf1 Re4) 31. Qxc5 (a Swiss Army knife of a move that threatens the knight on e5, the rook on f8 and 32. Rd6, pinning the queen) Nd7 (b6 32. Qxf8 Qxd5 33. Qxf5 mate; or 31…Rc8 32. Rxe5 Rxc5 33. Rxe6+ Kf7 34 Rb6 and wins) 32. Rxd7 Qxd7 33. Qxf8, and White has won a piece for a pawn.
But the players can’t wrap this double-edged struggle without one more double reversal: 34. Bf1 b3 (see diagram) 35. Qe8+?? (allowing Black a saving resource; winning still was 35. e4! fxe4 36. Qe8+ Kf6 37. Qa4 g5 38. Qb4) Kh7 36. Qb5, and it’s tricky but Black can save the day now with 36…Qb1!; e.g. 37. e3 b2 38. Qd3 Qc1 39. Qxf5+ Kg8 40. Qe6+ Kh8 41. Kg2 b1=Q 42. Bc4 Qg1+ 43. Kh3 Qbf1+! 44. Bxf1 Qxf1+ 45. Kg4 Qxf2, drawing.
Instead, White pulls out the point and draws first blood after 36…f4? 37. e3! (a hard move to find in a pressure-packed position, but it stops the dangerous Black pawn) fxe3 38. Qd3+, and Black resigned as 38…Qxd3 39. Bxd3+ Kg8 40. fxe3 is an elementary endgame win.
Lei struck back with wins in Game 2 and Game 4 to take a stranglehold on the match. Game 4, unlike Game 1, follows in well-trodden theoretical lines in an Open Catalan, with Tan’s 18…f5?! a new move in a popular variation — and not a good one. White gets some annoying queenside pressure and Black must scramble to gin up some kingside counterplay.
Tan hangs tough and by 27. Rf1 Rcf8 has clawed her way back to equality. Still adjusting to her diminished prospects, Lei nearly boots the game with 28. b3? (Qd2 Qh5 29. Bg2 fxe4 30. Qxe4 keeps the balance), when Black misses a great chance with 28…fxe4! 29. fxe4 Rxf1+ 30. Bxf1 Nxd5!, with both 31. exd5? e4 32. Rd2 Qe3+ 33. Kg2 34. Kh3 Qf5+ 35. g4 Qf3+ 36. Kh4 Rf4 37. Bh3 Bf6 mate and 31. Rxd5? Qe3+ 32. Kg2 Qf3+ 33. Kh3 g5! 34. Qd3 g4+ 35. Kh4 Qf6+ 36. Kxg4 Qe6+ 37. Kh5 Bf6 winning for Black. Best for White here appears to be 31. Bg2 Ne3 32. Qc3 Nxg2 33. Kxg2 Qg4 34. Qe1, and hope for a draw.
But on 28…Nc8?! 29. Nb7, the crisis has passed and both players can fight on. The game hangs in the balance until Black embarks on an ill-advised pawn hunt.
Thus: 34. Kh1 Rf7 35. Be6 Rf1+?! (not wrong in itself, but the first move down a wrong path; Black’s king safety will be mortally compromised as her major pieces go scouting for material) 36. Kg2 Ra1? 37. Qf2 Rxa3 38. Rf3, and already White has a mate threat with 39. Rf8+ Bxf8 40. Qxf8. After 38…Qb8 39. Bd7 (Nd7 may be even stronger: 39…Qe8 40. Nxe5! Nxe4 [Bxe5 41. Rf8+] 41. Qb2 b4 42. Qc2 Bxe5 43. Qxe4 Bg7 44. Rf7 Ra2+ 45. Kh3 Qd8 46. d6 cxd6 47. Ra7 Qf6 48. Rf7 Qd8 49. Qb7 Qg8 50. Re7 Qf8 51. Bf7 and 52. Re8 is on tap) h6 40. Ne6 Qb6 Qb2 Qa5 42. Rf2 Nxe4? (Qb4 43. Nxg6 Rxb3 44. Qxe5 Qxe4+ 45. Qxe4 Nxe4 was the only real way to fight on) 43. Qc2! Qe1 (Nxf2? 44. Qxg6 Bf8 45. Nxf8 Rxb3 46. Qh7 mate) 44. Re2 Qc3 45. Qxe4 Rxb3 46. Qxg6, winning a piece for two pawns.
It’s over on 54. Nd4 Kg7 (Rf3 55. Bf5+ Kg7 56. Ne6 is mate) 55. Nxb3 Kxf8 56. Nxd2 e3 57. Nf3 Ke7 (b4 58. Kf4 e2 59. Ke3 b3 60. Kxe2 b2 61. Nd2 stops the last pawn) 58. Bc6, and Tan resigned a hopeless endgame.
(Click on the image above for a larger view of the chessboard.)
Tan-Lei, FIDE Women’s World Championship Candidates Match, Game 1, Chongqing, China, March 2023
1. c4 e5 2. d3 Bb4+ 3. Nd2 c5 4. Nf3 Nc6 5. g3 d6 6. Bg2 Nge7 7. O-O Bxd2 8. Bxd2 h6 9. a3 a5 10. b4 axb4 11. axb4 Rxa1 12. Qxa1 Nxb4 13. Bxb4 cxb4 14. Rb1 Nc6 15. d4 Bf5 16. Rc1 O-O 17. d5 Nb8 18. c5 dxc5 19. Nxe5 f6 20. Nc4 Nd7 21. Ne3 Bg6 22. d6 Kh7 23. Nd5 Qa8 24. Qb2 Qa6 25. Nf4 Qxd6 26. Nxg6 Kxg6 27. Qc2+ f5 28. Rd1 Qe7 29. Bh3 Ne5 30. Rd5 Qe6 31. Qxc5 Nd7 32. Rxd7 Qxd7 33. Qxf8 Qd1+ 34. Bf1 b3 35. Qe8+ Kh7 36. Qb5 f4 37. e3 fxe3 38. Qd3+ Black resigns.
Lei-Tan, FIDE Women’s World Championship Candidates Match, Game 4, Chongqing, China, March 2023
1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. g3 Be7 5. Bg2 O-O 6. O-O dxc4 7. Qa4 a6 8. Qxc4 b5 9. Qc2 Bb7 10. Bd2 Be4 11. Qc1 Nc6 12. Be3 Rc8 13. Rd1 Nd5 14. Nbd2 Nxe3 15. fxe3 Bxf3 16. exf3 Nb4 17. a3 Nd5 18. Nb3 f5 19. Rd3 Kh8 20. Qc6 Nb6 21. Na5 e5 22. Rc1 Bf6 23. Bh3 g6 24. d5 Bg7 25. e4 Qg5 26. Qc2 Rf7 27. Rf1 Rcf8 28. b3 Nc8 29. Nb7 fxe4 30. fxe4 Rxf1+ 31. Bxf1 Qf6 32. Bh3 Qb6+ 33. Nc5 Nd6 34. Kh1 Rf7 35. Be6 Rf1+ 36. Kg2 Ra1 37. Qf2 Rxa3 38. Rf3 Qb8 39. Bd7 h6 40. Ne6 Qb6 41. Qb2 Qa5 42. Rf2 Nxe4 43. Qc2 Qe1 44. Re2 Qc3 45. Qxe4 Rxb3 46. Qxg6 Qf3+ 47. Kh3 Qf1+ 48. Rg2 Qf6 49. Qxf6 Bxf6 50. Rf2 Bg5 51. Kg4 e4 52. Rf8+ Kh7 53. h4 Bd2 54. Nd4 Kg7 55. Nxb3 Kxf8 56. Nxd2 e3 57. Nf3 Ke7 58. Bc6 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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