MARCH 12 — Last October in my column talked about the Women's World Chess Championship 2014 being postponed by the World Chess Federation (FIDE) with weeks to go despite assurances to the contrary.
I subsequently noted that FIDE had actually announced in its official calendar two Women's World Championships in 2015; the first had yet to announce dates or venue and the other had dates but no venue!
Now the situation has become clearer... in more ways than one.
With the successful hosting of the Carlsen-Anand World Championship Match in Sochi, Russia last November and with FIDE running out of options from its usual patrons (read oil-rich Arab states and ex-Soviet countries), it was no surprise that Russia President Vladimir Putin was once again asked to help out.
So in the last few weeks there has been a surge of activity regarding the Women's World Championship which will be also be held in Sochi from March 16 to April 7, 2015 but no mention has been made of the fact that the defending champion Hou Yifan will not be playing.
It's very interesting that this was already known as early as late January/early February at the Gibraltar Masters where Yifan advised she would not be playing. The announcement hardly provoked a reaction.
Yifan made a few pertinent points in her usual polite manner, amongst them the fact that the championship was postponed without firm dates and she had already signed a contract to play in Hawaii. She also felt it was strange that the women's championship had a different format and frequency from the men's championship.
Anyway, she had already qualified to defend her title against the new winner a few months later!
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My takeaway from all this?
1. The women's championship is a poor cousin of the men's or should I say open championship and maybe one should be questioning its relevance today (as I have of separate women's titles and their right to play with men). There is no issue if chess competitions are separate for men and women but the claim of the games is that men and women can play together on equal terms.
2. It is ridiculous to have two world championships played in the same year and arguably even every year is too much. When there are alternating formats then we are approaching the absurd. Of course I was told that the real reason was to spread some money amongst the women players; the knock out event to be played in Sochi has 64 players.
3. Yifan is not only now having a rating of 2686, not only now overtaking that of the recently retired Judith Polgar (who with one exception only played with men) but she is over 100 points higher that her nearest rival — Koneru Humpy of India. She is also ranked 59th amongst the men. So while it is nice to be Women's World Champion, the prodigy who is now 21 years old is looking beyond that.
4. A world champion does not defend her title and it is without controversy? Seems that even China is not demanding that their superstar plays. And FIDE is clearly not making any special effort to have Yifan play and in not doing or failing to do so, whatever the reasons might be, the fact is the championship has even less legitimacy now.
Let's now move on to take a look at who the 64 challengers are as one of them will be the next Women's World Champion and then face Yifan in October... somewhere (perhaps Sochi?).
If I remember correctly, amongst these are three former world champions, 15th seeded Ukraine's Anna Ushenina who surprisingly won the knock out version in 2012 but was subsequently well beaten by Yifan in their match in 2013, 5th seeded Russian Alexandra Kosteniuk who in fact won the title after beating a very young 14-year-old Yifan in 2008, and 9th seeded Bulgaria's Antoaneta Stefanova who also got the title in 2004 by winning a knock out version.
The main contenders are however expected to come from a group that includes 1st seeded Koneru Humpy, China's 2nd seeded Ju Wenju and 7th seeded Zhao Zue, Ukraine's 3rd seeded Anna Muzychuk and Russia's 6th seeded Valentina Gunina.
With a knock out format, surprises are of course to be expected and there are many which are slightly short in experience but who will be looking to seize their opportunity.
These include some young emerging talents, yet many locals and most in the rest of the Asia Pacific region will be rooting for Indonesia's 39th seeded Irine Kharismar Sukandar who is as ruthlessly ambitious as they come and known for being as tough as nails.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.