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Acrobats & Pandas: Alisa's World Team Photo Tour Print E-mail
By FM Alisa Melekhina   
May 10, 2015
After five rounds of the Women's World Team Championships, the team finally got some much-needed rest. We had all played 11 arduous rounds of the U.S. Women's Championships preceding the team event, and had tiring transcontinental journeys to reach Chengdu, China. Coach Shulman and Captain Melik likewise juggled preparing four players each day.

As with most demanding tournaments where one round a day is played, the routine is fixed: preparation between meals, the five-hour game, analysis, repeat next day. The one positive of facebook and gmail being blocked in China is that there was less to distract us from the chess.

The free day didn't provide us with too much time to relax, however. The organizers arranged for more cultural activities consuming the entire day.

In the morning all players were treated to a visit to the famous Chengdu Panda Sanctuary. The city did live up to its motto as the "home of the giant panda."



The group listening to our tour guide, Photo: A. Karlovich


FM Alisa Melekhina and GM Alexandra Kosteniuk



The perfect environment for pandas and selfies.

The sanctuary also houses the smaller "red panda." Although actually part of the raccoon family, they were the original "panda."


After a post-lunch nap (or post-lunch drafting of chess articles), we were taken to the popular Kuan Zhai Alley to try out how spicy Chengdu's food actually is. The spiciness was confirmed, to the detriment of some our taste buds. More importantly, the free day gave us a chance to interact with some of the other teams. For most of the event, the teams travelled in packs.

Dining with Team Ukraine

The Alley is lined with souvenir shops.


Too soon, it was time to begin preparing for the next day. We were paired with Georgia, who would eventually win the entire tournament.

I made a quick draw in a Benko that happened to go my way against IM Nino Batsiashvili. Despite drawing this game with white, she ended up winning the bronze medal for board 4. In the final position, if either of us press we risk ending up worse. If she tried to avoid the perpetual by protecting the c3 knight and the a2 pawn indirectly with Ndb1, I can break through with c4. If I don't go for the repetition, then after a4 white has already consolidated.


Nemcova held solid with black as usual with her fifth consecutive draw. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough, and we lost the round losing on the other two boards.

We rebounded the next day with a draw against team Armenia. The result doesn't tell the whole story, as we were the ones pushing in the match. For example, I was able to win a clean pawn against WGM Maria Kursova after she made a series of inaccurate exchanges in time trouble. Similar to my draw against IM Inna Gaponenko from Ukraine in round 3, I tried to cash in on the pawn too quickly and released the tension. My teammates who were following the game on the live broadcast, were chanting for 58...Rf1? This would have allowed a bridge with Rf6. Alas, she found the proper drawing mismatch to save the round.


We had our work cut out for us in the final two rounds. We were paired with China and Russia, both in fierce competition for medals. I may have had chances for an individual medal earlier in the tournament, but drawing even higher opposition severely hurt my chances.

Since each team has a reserve, players do not consistently play on the same board. Therefore, the medals are calculated based on the percentage of points, not the total points scored, so long as a player participates in a minimum of 60% of the matches (or 50% for the reserve). Thus, someone who scored 5/6 will rank higher than someone who scored 5.5/9. To show how severe the system is, Nemcova had a performance rating of 2416 but because she drew 7/8 games she finished 8th for individual board 2 standings behind those with a lower performance rating.

I was still playing for WGM and IM norms. We had to make an interesting decision between whether I should play the next round as black against China and keep my IM norm chances alive, or maximize my chances for a WGM norm by sitting out and playing the final round with White against Russia. I most likely would have played WGM Olga Girya, who was having an amazing tournament and finished with a gold medal for board 5 with a 2695 performance rating. I was confident with my blacks this tournament. I had also beaten two of China's players with black at the 2009 World Team Championships where I won the gold medal. Back then, China had the privilege of sending two teams to the event as the host country.

One of the players I beat then was my opponent this tournament, WGM Ding Yixin. Unfortunately, history did not repeat itself as I got a quick and sudden losing position in my first opening slip-up of the tournament. The rest of the team did not fare well; Sabina was our only non-loss that round. I thought her game would have been a draw earlier, but it was one of the last to finish.
Photo of Sabina from round 5, Credit: Liu Yupeng

The game is a perfect example of how determined the Chinese team is. After Sabina played 31. g4 instead of g3, creating dark-squared weaknesses, her opponent immediately saw the chance to pounce where others may have lazily acquiesced to a draw. It didn't matter that the bishops were opposite-colored or that a rook ending was on the horizon. The ability to keep playing as if you're winning, whether the position is a dead draw or even a loss, is an admirable quality that I noticed in our USA-China match in July of 2013.


The round 8 loss killed my norm chances. It was not the note I wanted to finish my month of chess with, but I had a good run and was finally ready for a break. I sat out the final round. Finally catching up on the sleep I missed at the start of the tournament due to travel issues, I woke up at noon the following day. It was the most relaxed I had been all month! I checked out the live games and was pleasantly surprised to find all boards pressing against Russia. Their coaches were anxiously pacing.

In particular, Tatev opened with a Blumenfeld Gambit against GM Valentina Gunina and had a 40-minute time advantage by around move 15. However, White untangled before Black could utilize the extra pawn. In the end, the Russian team proved their strength and we again lost 3.5 - 0.5.


Russia clinched the silver medal with China coming in third thanks to the formidability of their tail boards.
The event winners, team Georgia, were put on the spot by being asked to sing their national anthem while on-stage. Credit: Liu Yupeng

Ukraine may have finished outside the medals, but the reigning Women's World Champion, Maria Muzychuk brought home the bronze for board 2. Credit: Liu Yupeng

Photo of Chinese acrobat performer

Captain Melik joked that we were equally fair to both China and Russia by losing with the same amount of points. On a serious note, he said that he was overall proud with the team's play and camaraderie. There were certainly missed chances along the way, but we also made the other teams (and their captains) sweat to earn their points. Indeed, although we started out ranked ninth and likewise finished in the bottom half, our final result doesn't tell the whole story. It doesn't tell of the quality of our preparation or the fighting chess each and every round by all players. Overall, I'm proud of my play in the event, and even more proud to be part of such a supportive team.




Photos by Alisa Melekhina unless otherwise noted.

FM Alisa Melekhina is a contributor to Chess Life and Chess Life Online, among a variety of chess publications. She took time off from her legal practice in NYC at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP to compete in the Women's U.S. and World Team Championships in April.