Zhansaya Abdumalik triumphs as field comes together for women’s chess title chase

A couple of players left the playing hall happy at the conclusion for the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix earlier this month, the last qualifying tournament for the candidates cycle to challenge women’s world champ GM Ju Wenjun of China.

With a fourth-place finish in the over-the-board event held in Gibraltar, Russian Kateryna Lagno scored just high enough to join India’s GM Humpy Koneru in snagging the last two qualifying slots from the Grand Prix cycle of tournaments.

Rising Kazakh star Zhansaya Abdumalik appears to have fallen just short of qualifying, but she did everything else right, winning the event outright with an undefeated 81/2-21/2 score while racking up enough rating points to formally qualify as her country’s first female grandmaster.

Abdumalik, just 21, survived a string of harrowing tests in Gibraltar, with luck and pluck playing an equal role in her success. One of her best games came against accomplished Georgian GM Nana Dzagnidze in a short, sharp Queen’s Pawn Game in which both players had their chances.

Through 13. Nxc4 Qd7, it’s a fairly standard positional battle, centered on whether the isolated white d-pawn is a weakness or a strength.

But things grow considerably sharper after 14. Rfd1 Rfc8!? 15. Nfe5 Qd8!? (also possible was the double-edged 15…Qd5 16. Qxb7 Nxd4 17. Qxe7 Nxe2+ 18. Kh1 Qe4 19. Bxh6 Bg6 20. f3 Qf5) 16. Qxb7 Nxd4 17. Kf1 Be4 18. Qa6 Bc5 19. Be3 Nd5, and the mass of minor pieces in the wide open center give both players a dizzying array of choices on how to proceed.

Dzagnidze goes for the attack with 20. Bh5! Nxe3+ 21. Nxe3 Qg5 (g6 22. Bf3 Bxf3 23. Nxf3 Rab8 24. Rc4 looks good for White) 22. Bxf7+ Kh7 (see diagram), but misses 23. N3g4! — a move only a computer would love or recommend — which gives Black real problems in lines like 23…Rc7 24. h4! Qxh4 25. Rxd4 Qh1+ 26. Ke2 Qxc1 27. Rxe4 Qxb2+ 28. Kf3 Qc3+ 29. Ne3 Bb6 30. Qb5, and the White king is perfectly safe on f3, while Dzagnidze’s pieces are all stacked up for a kingside onslaught.

Things swing decisively in Black’s favor, helped by a little neat chess geometry: 23. Rxd4?! Qxe5 24. Rxe4 Qxe4 25. Bxe6 (White has managed to get a knight and two pawns for the rook, but her king is fatally exposed) Rf8! 25. Rxc5 Qxe3 27. Rc2 (Rf5 Qc1+ 28. Ke2 Qc2+ 29. Ke3 Rxf5 and wins) Rae8 28. Re2 Rxe6!, and White resigned facing 29. Qxe6 Rxf2+! 30. Rxf2 (Kg1 Rxe2+ 31. Qxe3 Rxe3) Qxe6, winning.

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We have the final results from the Cherry Blossom Classic we wrote about here last week, with Ukrainian GM Illia Nyzhnyk, U.S. GM John Burke and Greek IM Nikolas Theodorou sharing top honors with matching 7-2 scores in the 58-player Open section in the tournament held at the Washington Dulles Airport Marriott.

Theodorou played some of the most enterprising chess at the start of the tournament, racking 5½ points in the first six rounds, allowing him to coast home with three draws in the final rounds and still claim a share of first place.

One of his best games came against New Jersey GM Brandon Jacobson in Round 5, tying up his opponent with a neat positional zugzwang out of an unconventional King’s Indian set-up. Theodorou as Black takes a long time to set up his kingside to his liking, but when White fails to mount a vigorous attack, Black’s queenside counterplay soon proves decisive.

After 13. Nf3 Kg7 14. g3 (the right idea, opening kingside lines to the Black king) hxg3 15. fxg3 Nc5 16. Bf1?! (too passive; better was 16. Be2) c6! 17. Rh2?! (b4! Ncd7 18. dxc6 bxc6 19. Rh2 was a more energetic path) cxd5 18. exd5 Qb6! (threatening the queen-winning 19…Nb3+), it is Black who is calling the shots, hacking away at the White pawn center and preparing queenside operations.

Jacobson can only stave off the Black attack by posting his minor pieces in purely defensive positions, and soon just runs out of squares to make moves: 26. Nd1 Qa6! (hitting c4 and a2) 27. Qxd3 Qxa2 28. Nc2 Re8! (White queen and minor pieces are doing nothing while Black’s pieces run wild) 29. Qd4+? (tougher was 29. Bf3 Rc8 30. Nde3 b5 31. Bd1, though even here Black has the better game) Kg8 30. Nc3 Qb3 31. Bd1 Re1, and White’s two knights and bishops are paralyzed.

Black’s lethal bind becomes blazingly obvious after 32. Qd3 b6 33. g4 a5!, and White resigned, not waiting around to play out lines like 34. Kb1 a4 35. Kc1 Rg2 36. Kb1 (g5 Kf8 37. c5 bxc5 38. Kb1 c4 39. Qd4 Qxc2+ 40. Ka2 41. Qxb2 mate) a3 37. Nxa3 Qxb2 mate.

Dzagnidze-Abdumalik, FIDE Women’s Grand Prix, Gibraltar, May 2021

1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Bf4 c5 4. e3 Nc6 5. Nbd2 cxd4 6. exd4 Bf5 7. c3 e6 8. Qb3 Qc8 9. Be2 Be7 10. O-O O-O 11. Rac1 h6 12. c4 dxc4 13. Nxc4 Qd7 14. Rfd1 Rfc8 15. Nfe5 Qd8 16. Qxb7 Nxd4 17. Kf1 Be4 18. Qa6 Bc5 19. Be3 Nd5 20. Bh5 Nxe3+ 21. Nxe3 Qg5 22. Bxf7+ Kh7 23. Rxd4 Qxe5 24. Rxe4 Qxe4 25. Bxe6 Rf8 26. Rxc5 Qxe3 27. Rc2 Rae8 28. Re2 Rxe6 White resigns.

Jacobson-Theodorou, 8th Cherry Blossom Classic, Dulles, Va., May 2021

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. h3 Nbd7 6. Be3 e5 7. d5 h5 8. Bd3 Bh6 9. Bxh6 Rxh6 10. Qd2 Rh8 11. O-O-O h4 12. Qe3 Kf8 13. Nf3 Kg7 14. g3 hxg3 15. fxg3 Nc5 16. Bf1 c6 17. Rh2 cxd5 18. exd5 Qb6 19. Qe1 e4 20. Nd4 Bg4 21. Rdd2 Bxh3 22. Bxh3 Nd3+ 23. Rxd3 exd3 24. Qe3 Ng4 25. Bxg4 Rxh2 26. Nd1 Qa6 27. Qxd3 Qxa2 28. Nc2 Re8 29. Qd4+ Kg8 30. Nc3 Qb3 31. Bd1 Re1 32. Qd3 b6 33. g4 a5 White resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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