MARCH 10 ― The Women's World Chess Championship being held in Lviv, Ukraine has now passed the halfway mark with big favourite Hou Yifan in the lead thanks to her win in Round Two when she had the advantage of White pieces for the first time.
So far, the No 1 ranked Chinese has been relatively untroubled and seemingly almost in a hurry to reclaim the title she opted not to defend the last time around.
The blame for that debacle lies squarely with FIDE (World Chess Federation) and there has even been some irritation shown by the always polite and accommodating Hou regarding the situation she has found herself in.
While conditions have reportedly been excellent, both players are said to be unhappy that the games are being played in a small room without spectators ― where is the spectacle of a World Championship? ― and there has also been some controversy because the games are being broadcast with a 30-minute delay, the excuse being it is a necessary anti-cheating measure.
I do understand that there were serious concerns raised before the start by the Chinese delegation as to fair play but this is natural when taking on an opponent ― defending champion Mariya Muzychuk ― on her own home turf and whom everyone is fully aware was getting unprecedented technical help from many of the top Ukraine (and Russian) trainers and players.
But the “live” transmission delay was decided beforehand by the organisers and I simply cannot understand the logic because surely any possible stealth electronic communications from an accomplice working with computers analysing the moves to just two players could certainly have been secured against beforehand?
Yes, all the more it confirms that FIDE, if not as clueless as I believe, is a bungling beginner when faced by the challenges of cheating in chess today.
In Game One, Muzychuk was surprised by Hou replying with 1... e5 instead of her usual Sicilian Defence and a mundane Italian Game transpired and given the expected nerves at the start of the match, especially one that is as short as just 10 games, both players seemed satisfied with the draw at the post-game press conference.
Hou was surprised in turn by Muzychuk's adoption of the Open Spanish in Game Two but Hou was able to show off her great tactical ability when some tentative play by Muzychuk in the middlegame after getting an equal position allowed a devastating attack. (See what is considered the best commentary of the win here.)
Game Three saw Muzychuk switching to 1 d4 and demonstrating the extent of her opening preparation for the match, but Hou was able to react well and quickly neutralised the middlegame and endgame pressure sought for with the choice of the Catalan Opening.
Then came Game Four with Hou well prepared for Muzychuk's Open Sicilian but the short battle with immense complications was all done at home and in the end it was clear the Ukraine team had done a slightly better job to ensure an easy draw with perpetual check.
It is clear that while Hou is in Ukraine to take back her title, there is not the same self belief with Muzychuk as she knows she is not in the same class. But it is a short match played at home and it only takes one piece of great opening preparation or a mistake to turn things around.
The HDBank Cup in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam has also started with the top seed Wang Hao, the 26-year-old former China No 1, making a serious comeback after finishing college. He has been impressive with several recent tournament victories.
Wang's games in the tournament so far show a man in excellent form, and while he has competition from 14 other grandmasters, none should seriously trouble him if he plays as he can, and with the surprise no show of national hero Le Quang Liem, it is again left to their dependable No. 2 Nguyen Ngoc Trong Son to head the local challenge.
From the region, several Filipinos are also playing; three who are hoping to make GM norms, while Singapore has sent a large group of mostly young players together with their head coach and no doubt this is part of their preparation for the coming World Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan in September.
Malaysia? Just one retiree ― Lim Kian Hwa ― who globe trots the world playing chess. Even Maynmar has four players participating. But of course the coming Malaysian Championships from March 16-20 in Kota Kinabalu takes precedence for all our players hoping to be at the Olympiad too.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.