When the Women World Chess Championship 2017 begun in Tehran 12 days ago everyone was excited about Harika Dronavalli's chances of becoming the first ever women's world champion from India.
However, when the first round took place, doubts started to creep in in the minds of the fans. How is Harika unable to defeat a player rated 450 points below her in the classical time control games, was their question. Harika pushed away those questions and stuck to her simple strategy – don't try too hard in classical battles and finish off your opponents in the rapids. After all, shorter time control games are her forte. Sticking to this approach, she eliminated Shamima Akhtar Liza in round one, Dinara Saduakassova in the round two and Sopiko Guramishvili in the third.
Georgia has a rich tradition of world class women chess players. In the past they have created two world champions – Nona Gaprindashvili and Maia Chiburanidze. Coming from that same school is the current Georgian number one Nana Dzagnidze. Nana has cemented her place as one of the best chess players in the world. It wasn't going to be an easy match for Harika.
India number three Tania Sachdev summed up the two opponents and their chances very nicely, "Clash of the titans! One has led India in team championships for many years and the other has spearheaded the Georgian team. Two of the world's top female players are facing each other in Iran. Harika is a naturally solid player with a strong positional understanding. She doesn't take risks but waits for her opponent to go wrong. A pragmatic approach. Nana has a contrasting style, she is not one to shy away from taking risks and her natural inclination is towards aggressive positions. Harika is extremely confident in her rapid and blitz ability. She has no hesitations about going into tie-breaks. Until now, all her matches have been decided in tie-breaks. If this match goes into tie-breaks, there would be no clear favourite. Nana, like Harika, is a very strong rapids player. For this match if I had to bet on one of them, for purely chess reasons alone, it would be very difficult to do. I do believe their playing strength is level. Therefore, cheering for Harika."
With six draws in the last six classical games, nothing much was expected from Harika apart from a solid show with the white pieces. However, she was in top notch form in the first game, as she demolished Dzagnidze's French Defence. She had raced to a 1-0 lead and only needed a draw in the next game. However, in round two, the Indian grandmaster faltered and allowed Dzagnidze to fight back and level the scores. With the scores tied at one each, the match moved to the shorter time control games.
In the first rapid game Harika played a great endgame against Nana's Sicilian Defence to score a full point. India's first Woman grandmaster S Vijayalakshmi said about the game, "Harika! Harika! Harika, all the way! After playing a not-so-good game with black pieces in the previous game, Harika came back pretty strongly in the tie-break. She kept her cool throughout and waited patiently for her opponent Nana to go wrong. And Nana did go wrong with Ra8 in the endgame. Harika lost no time to capitalise it. Needless to say, given the amount of pressure every player goes through at this stage, it was very essential to keep cool and play out your best and Harika did just that." In the second game Harika was a piece up. However, a draw was enough to qualify, and so she split the point and advanced to the semi-finals.
In the semi-finals, the girl from Andhra Pradesh is up against Tan Zhongyi of China. One could say that out of all the four remaining players Tan might be the weakest. However, the Chinese girl defeated the top seeded Ju Wenjun in the quarter-finals, clearly proving that she is not one to be messed with. In the other semi-finals Alexandra Kosteniuk of Russia takes on Anna Muzychuk of Ukraine. Anna is already the World Rapid and Blitz champion. She will be trying to make it a triple crown by winning the title here.
A few words must be said about Padmini Rout. The girl from Odisha performed admirably by knocking out two full-fledged grandmasters - Elina Danielian of Armenia and Zhao Xue of China. In the third round, she was very close to advancing before losing out to Tan. Just 23 years of age, Padmini is currently the brightest hope in Indian chess after Koneru Humpy and Harika and we will hear her name quite often in the years to come!
Sagar Shah is an International Master and the CEO of ChessBase India.
Updated Date: Feb 23, 2017 19:39 PM