World Women’s Chess Championship: Koneru Humpy, Harika Dronavalli lead Indian charge in 64-player event

The Siberian city of Khanty Mansiysk is poised to host another historical chess event in its Ugra Chess Academy from 3 to 23 November 2018 – the women's world chess championship. After the match between Tan Zhongyi and Ju Wenjun, held earlier this year, this will be the second world women's championship to be organized in the last six months.

This is mainly due to the delay in finding a bidder for the previous knock out championship which was scheduled to be held at around this time in 2016. Since no country bid to host the championship at the time, it had to be postponed until the February of 2017, which consequently led to the delay in the Tan Zhongyi vs Ju Wenjun match. In either case, 2018 was slated to witness two women’s world championships.

Another important detail of the Khanty Mansiysk knockouts is that this might be the last time that the women's world championship will be held in this knock-out format. Supporting the proposal of the newly elected FIDE President, Arkady Dvorkovich, the FIDE Presidential board has decided that the next World Championship cycle will be identical to the open World Championship, consisting of a Candidates tournament. This knockout event will also serve like the biennial Chess World Cup wherein all semi-finalists (except the world champion) will qualify for the forthcoming Candidates tournament of the 2019-20 cycle.

As for the event at hand, the Khanty Mansiysk KO World championship, the event will feature six knockout rounds, consisting of two classical games played per match per round with the exception of the final match. The final match will be played over four classical games. If scores remain tied after the classical games, the tie will be broken with rapid and, if necessary, blitz games. The final winner receives the title of Women's World Champion.

 World Women’s Chess Championship: Koneru Humpy, Harika Dronavalli lead Indian charge in 64-player event

Koneru Humpy (left) and Harika Dronavalli will be India’s strongest bets for clinching the world title. Image: Alina L’ami

A total of 64 players from 28 countries will be seen fighting for a $450,000 prize purse. The tournament has attracted almost all of the top 20 woman players in the world, the only exceptions being World No 1, Hou Yifan and number 20, Marie Sebag. Some of the top names in the fray include the reigning world champion and top seed, GM Ju Wenjun (2568, China), former world champions, Alexandra Kosteniuk (2543, Russia), Mariya Muzychuk (2545, Ukraine), Tan Zhongyi (2513, China), Antoaneta Stefanova (2490, Bulgaria) and Anna Ushenina (2440, Ukraine) as well as top players like Kateryna Lagno (2556, Russia), Anna Muzychuk (2564, Ukraine), Aleksandra Goryachkina (2534, Russia), Valentina Gunina (2497, Russia). The Indian line-up in Khanty Mansiysk consists of GM Koneru Humpy, GM Harika Dronavalli, IM Padmini Rout and WGM Bhakti Kulkarni.

Humpy, being the highest-rated Indian, is India's strongest contender for the world title. Rated 2548, she is also the second seed of the tournament. If she could bring out her best in Siberia, she will surely be a force to reckon with. However, Humpy hasn't been very active in the circuit of late. Her performance at the World Chess Olympiad, the last tournament she played after a two-year hiatus, could at best be dubbed as mediocre for her standards. It would, therefore, be crucial for Humpy rub off the rust and bring back her original flair if she is to win at these ruthless knock-out matches.

Dronavalli, the next in line in terms of rating among Indians, is another player to watch out for. With a rating of 2500, Dronavalli is ranked 12th on the seeding list. In the previous edition of the KO event in February 2017, Dronavalli had come quite close to winning the world title. She was one of the semi-finalists of the event and had finished her run with a bronze medal. She was also one of the players who chose to go to Iran and play for the world championship title despite the dress code controversy that marred the tournament, proving that she wants to fight for the world title no matter what comes in the way. This time, the event is much stronger; she is seeded 12th. However, she does hold the capability to take on the strongest in the world and beat them in head to head encounters. It will be interesting to see how she fares against the some of the strongest in the world.

Padmini Rout and Bhakti Kulkarni are the other two Indians in the fray. While Rout is no stranger to the KO event, having played it last year, this will be the first experience for Kulkarni who qualified for the event after winning the Asian Chess Championship in 2016. Rated 2338 and 2314, Rout and Kulkarni are ranked 50th and 51st in the starting ranks, respectively. With their seedings, it would be a little far-fetched to expect them to win the event. However, both are very capable players and hold the potential to score some major upsets.

In the inaugural round, Humpy will be playing Hayat Toubal of Algeria, who is rated almost 700 points below the Indian ace. That kind of a difference in playing strength dictates this match to be a cakewalk for the Indian. Dronavalli will also be the rating favourite in her first round match against Georgian International Master, Sopiko Khukhashvili. But Dronavalli's task in the first round will be much more difficult as Khukhashvili could pose serious problems if given a chance. Rout and Kulkarni will have a tough time getting through their first rounds. Rout is pitted against the Kazakhstani sensation, IM Zhansaya Abdumalik while Kulkarni is slated to play the 2015 world championship runner-up, Natalia Pogonina. Both Kulkarni and Rout have a great chance of scoring big upsets. However, this also puts them in the danger of being eliminated in the inaugural round itself.

Aditya Pai is an editor at ChessBase India

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Updated Date: Nov 03, 2018 16:54:11 IST