|Women’s World Team Halfway Report: U.S. Women Off to a Solid Start|
|By FM Alisa Melekhina|
|April 24, 2015|
The recently concluded U.S. Championships can be considered
a warm-up for the intense World Team events. Almost all participants in both
the men's and women's teams competed in St. Louis. The U.S. team for the
Women's World Team Championships is composed of (in board order) WGMs Tatev
Abrahamyan, Katerina Nemcova, Sabina Foisor, WIM Viktorija Ni, and myself. The
captain and coach are the same as for the 2014 Olympiad: GMs Melik Khachiyan
and Yury Shulman, respectively.
Although the Olympiad generally receives more attention, the World Team events are easily stronger. The event is a round-robin of the ten strongest teams coming from each region, leading to the participation of powerhouses from Europe and Asia such as Georgia, Armenia, India, and China. The average Fide rating of these teams is in the 2450-2500 range. The boards are stacked with Grandmasters - and that's not Women's Grandmasters. Notably, Alexandra Kosteniuk and Humpy Koneru are representing Russia and India. Given the round-robin format, we are constantly faced with strong opposition.
The US team is also at a disadvantage because we are missing our top boards. GM Irina Krush declined her spot after deciding that it was best not to play in too many consecutive events. Like Tatev Abrahamyan, she played in the Women's World Championships in Sochi, Russia immediately preceding the U.S. Championships in St. Louis. IM Anna Zatonskih declined her spot to the U.S. Championships as well.
Captain Melik Khachiyan is nevertheless optimistic about the team's chances. "My goal is for us to finish in the top half. The tournament is a good experience for our players. We are fighting in every match - it's not like we're getting outplayed. In fact, we are getting good positions on all boards."
Melik adds that the team's strong camaraderie off the board helps in a team event. The quirks of a team event include having the opportunity for one player to rest while the reserve fills in, and being able to ask the Captain during the match whether it is alright to offer or accept a draw. The standings are determined by match points: 2 for a win, 1 for a draw, and 0 for a loss.
Captain Melik keeping a close eye on our future opponents
The US team dines together and takes walks afterwards. Our discussions usually end with a debate over whether the tournament should properly be dubbed "Women's World Team" or "World Women's Team" Championships as officially printed on tournament signs.
Most importantly, the team is supportive whenever a member loses. There is no blame. We also have a more relaxed approach, since our careers whether in or outside of chess, are not directly affected by the outcome of the event.
The event is an interesting opportunity to pit an approach of individualism against collectivism. The players on the U.S. all have their own personal coaches, used in conjunction with the team coaches. We each play our own openings, and although we engage in post-mortem analysis, do not typically share ideas. We arrived to Chengdu on our own schedules. We didn't have any collective training sessions before the event; the U.S. Championships was the closest warm-up we had. We arrive at the boards on our own.
We are also using the opportunity to experience China. Compared to the obscure cities playing host to most international tournaments, Chengdu is quite a fair venue. It is the fifth most populous city in China, and has a major international airport. It is most well-known for "spicy food" and as being the "home of the giant panda." (Stay tuned for Part II featuring pictures from our visit to the Chengdu panda sanctuary on the rest day.)
The organizers, which along with the Chinese Chess Association include the Chengdu Municipal Government and the Board and Card Games Administration within China's General Administration of Sport, have went out of their way to ensure top-notch conditions.
Volunteers from local schools help the players navigate their way from the airport, check-in to the hotel, and serve as translators and guides during excursions.
Those of us who have previously played in international events in Ningbo China, such as the Women's World Team in 2009 and the USA-China match in 2013, are familiar with the incredible hospitality. Players here are given single rooms in the luxurious, 5-star Wangjiang Hotel Chengdu. Food is abundant in the form of buffets for breakfast, lunch, and dinner featuring local cuisine with some western flare. The opening ceremony was a banquet of a multi-course dinner, which I thankfully just barely made after an airline booking error left me stranded in the Beijing airport until 3 am on the morning of the opening.
Caption: Chess power couple Coach GM Yury Shulman and player Viktorija Ni have introduced the team's Chinese dessert of choice: kumquats!
It is not uncommon to bump into players from other teams in the lobby or in the dining hall. Teams usually travel together although everyone is friendly from seeing the same faces at top events. With only ten teams present accompanied by their coaches, there are minimal distractions other than the chess.
We approached the tournament focused and ready to fight. Indeed, although the U.S. team came in ranked ninth out of tenth, ahead of only Egypt, we had a solid start. We beat Egypt in the first round 3-1, and were paired with tournament favorite Poland in round 2. They had devastated top contender Ukraine with a convincing 3.5 - 0.5 win in the first round. By this point, I seemed to have recovered from a sub-par result at the U.S. Women's and scored a victory against WGM Kulon Klaudia with the aid of a mating net:
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 g6 4.0-0 Bg7 5.Re1 e5 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.d3 Qe7 8.h3 Nf6 9.Nbd2 0-0 10.Nc4 Nd7 11.a3 Nb6 12.Qe2
12.Na5 an alternative way of meeting Black's overzealous knight maneuvre. White keeps the knight in the game. Offering the trade on c4 allows White to dominate the d-file.
12...Nxc4 13.dxc4 Re8 14.Bd2 f5
not the best plan, but it is difficult to remain patient in a position where nothing can really be improved. This opening demands a waiting game from both sides.
15.Bc3 f4 16.Red1
Always the dilemma of which rook to move! This choice was not as difficult as I foresaw the need to maneuvre the knight via e1 to d3.
16...g5 17.Ne1 Be6 18.b3 a6 19.a4
Black's only chance for a real breakthrough lies with b5.
19...b6 20.Nd3 Bf7 21.g4 fxg3 22.fxg3 h5 23.Ne1 g4
On first glance it may seem as if Black is pushing, but in fact Black made the mistake of exposing her own King. Now white has a clear advantage.
24.hxg4 Qg5 25.Ng2 hxg4 26.Bd2 Qh5 27.Nh4
Knights on the rim are not so dim when aiming for f5.
27...Be6 28.Kg2 Rad8 29.Rh1 Bh6 30.Be3!
Now Black cannot stop the h-file from being uncovered. 30.Nf5? Rxd2 31.Qxd2 Qxh1+ 32.Rxh1 Bxd2
30...Bxe3 31.Qxe3 Qf7 32.Raf1
Cutting off the King from another file with a bonus tempo.
32...Qd7 33.Qg5+ Qg7 34.Ng6
Black may have been so focused on preventing Nf5, that she overlooked how powerful the knight can be on g6.
Who needs a rook when you have mate?
35...Rdd8 36.Rh8+ Qxh8 37.Ne7+
This helped us draw the match. In round 3 we drew again against Kazakhstan, who had upset other tournament favorite India 2.5 - 1.5 in round 1. The young team is led by 14-year-old prodigy WGM Zhansaya Abdumalik (Fide 2411), who is being groomed in her home-country to become the next contender for the World Championship title. Tatev came through for the U.S. by unleashing a fatal attack after her opponent "panicked in a better position."
Our next two rounds against Ukraine and India slowed us down. The two wounded teams gave it their all to be back in the running for first. Although we lost both matches with two draws and two losses, we certainly had our chances. More so against India in round 5; at some point we had a promising advantage on all four boards. However, after time scrambles the advantages fizzled out and our opponents took over the initiative.
Captain Melik posits that the other teams have more experience converting advantages against stronger opposition, which helps them in the critical moments. Coach Shulman is proud of the way the team is playing. His goal is to "help each player improve her individual weaknesses, whether better time management or coping with tough losses, for this and future events."
Katerina Nemcova, coming off of a stellar performance in the U.S. Women's Championship, is the anchor of the U.S. team with a solid 4/4 draws on board 2.
We certainly have touch match-ups in the second half of the tournament: Georgia, Armenia, China, and Russia. Live games are being broadcast on the official tournament site, http://chengdu2015.fide.com/ They begin at 3 pm in Chengdu, which is a 12-hour difference from US EST. Show your support by following the end of the live games in the morning.
The site also features photo galleries by on-site photographers Liu Yupeng and Anastasiya Karlovich; some of the photos were used in this report.
FM Alisa Melekhina is a contributor to Chess Life and Chess Life Online, among a variety of chess publications. She is currently taking time off from her legal practice in NYC to compete in the Women's U.S. and World Team Championships in April.
The World Team Championship is also underway in Tsaghkadzor, Armenia from April 18-29. Find out more about it in IM Donaldson's Captain report and the official website.