Spotlight on Women’s World Chess Championship

MARCH 3 — The Women’s World Chess Championship is taking place in Lviv, Ukraine right now.

It is being played between the current World Champion and hometown hero Mariya Muzychuk who by virtue of winning the knock-out version of the championship last year is defending the title of her Chinese predecessor Hou Yifan who is not only the top ranked woman player in the world and the youngest ever to win it at 16 years of age, but qualified for this match by virtue of winning the Women’s Grand Prix.

Confused yet?

Yifan had declined to defend her title last year when it was organised at the last minute,  among other things citing that she had already committed and signed a contract to play in the Hawaii Open.

It must have been a relief to FIDE (World Chess Federation) that Yifan, who is leaps and bounds ahead of all the other women players, agreed to play this time as the championship is in crisis although a case could be made that some women would be happier with their chances without the only recently turned adult phenomenon playing.

While no one has a problem with China and its growing contribution to chess, there is also no doubt that as long as Russia runs world chess, one of their own is preferred and it is hard to tell apart the many in Russian and Ukraine chess.

FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s very public and illegal machinations to ensure the match be held in Ukraine says it all and it was very telling to read the younger Muzychuk sister (her older sister Anna was earlier higher rated) saying that there was hardly any top level chess in Ukraine let alone Lviv and hoped it would change with the match.

Unlike the World Chess Championship, this women’s version is organised in two different formats on alternate years—match and knock-out—and unsurprisingly quite a few have managed to surprise and win the title of Woman World Champion in the knock-out version only to lose it in the match played the following year and not ever reach the pinnacle again.

Furthermore, this match was supposed to take place last year but had no takers then (naturally as who would want to organise not knowing who the two contenders were?) and now we have a situation where there has to be the knock-out version this year so that the championship is back to being held yearly. 

Dates have long been given by FIDE and it is October 10-31, 2016 and since February 19, a Call of Interest has been prominently posted on the FIDE website. 

Going into the match, Yifan has to be the big favourite, boasting a 2-0 score in personal encounters, but Mariya has improved by leaps and bounds since becoming champion. It has done wonders for an already very calm and confident talent who at 23 is just a year older than Yifan. 

Mariya has also been receiving unprecedented support from Ukraine and Russia including help from the very best trainers in the world today.

I have followed women’s chess since I had the privilege of seeing first-hand the top women players at the World Mind Sports Games held in Beijing almost a decade ago and since then, I have been involved in coaching many girl talents both locally and in the region.

I initially struggled to follow the games of top women players, maybe getting 30 per cent of the moves right. Of course this may have been because I started without computers or was not strong enough, but there is ultimately no running away from the fact that women players calculate a lot more in positions rather than trust their intuition.

And once I understood that, my guesses went up to 70 per cent over the course of three days with a mix of blitz and rapid chess thrown in.

For sure there are also big differences in how women and men approach chess and everyone I know, top grandmasters and trainers included, who have worked with women all say the same things. The bottomline is that they have a different work ethic.

At the same time, it must be said that women’s chess is a strange beast. While the players are serious about their chess (especially those aspiring to the top)  — and there are certainly women who are real grandmasters if we want to call 2500+ players today such—there is a great deal of sexism in the game.

Chess is still very much a men’s game and while the women in chess are quick to protest, even demand their rights, the reality is too many enjoy being admired and put on a pedestal for their physical attributes! 

I have said before that the top women really like playing among themselves but other than the Grand Prix series, their own events are very few and far between. But however one would like to pretend otherwise, it is not chess for women being promoted but the events are largely sold as the spectacle of the fairer sex playing chess!

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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