Three of the four semifinalists for the Women’s World Championship tournament are set. Humpy Koneru of India and Hou Yifan and Zhao Xue of China won their quarterfinal matches on Tuesday.
The other quarterfinal match between Dronavalli Harika of India and Ruan Lufei, another Chinese player, will be decided by tie-breaker games on Wednesday.
Koneru will play Hou in one semifinal, regardless of the outcome of the undecided match. That will be a reprise of their 2008 semifinal, which Hou won. It is an unfortunate pairing as Koneru is the highest-ranked player in the field and Hou is the second highest. If the tournament’s seedings had not been skewed to make Alexandra Kosteniuk, the defending champion, the No. 1 seed, then Koneru and Hou might have met in the final, which would have been an ideal match-up. Now the winner of their semifinal match will be a clear favorite as the winner of the other semifinal will be a much lower ranked opponent.
There is still some intrigue, however. If Harika advances, the semifinals will mirror the economic rivalry between the two biggest economic powers of Asia.
No matter who wins, the performance of Indian and Chinese players in the tournament is extraordinary. It wasn’t so long ago that players from Eastern Europe, particularly from the Republic of Georgia, dominated women’s chess. Eastern Europeans are certainly not washed up â€” Russia won the recent Chess Olympiad ahead of China, with Georgia finishing third. But there has clearly been a power shift in the last 20 years. As was pointed out in an earlier blog post on the championship, there have been three Chinese women’s world champions since 1991. And, as a result of the long and successful career of Viswanathan Anand, the current world champion, India, too, has become a world chess power.
In the quarterfinal matches, the last two Europeans in the championship, Kateryna Lahno, a Ukrainian, and Almira Skripchenko, who is originally from Moldova but has long lived in and played for France, were overmatched.
Lahno, a grandmaster, is no slouch â€” she is ranked No. 12 in the world among women. But she was paired against Hou, the talented 16-year-old, who is ranked No. 3. Lahno lost the first game, in which she was White, as Hou slowly constricted her in what has become her signature style.
Skripchenko, an international master ranked No. 35, also had an uphill fight as she played Ju, No. 12, whose rating, the system used to calculate rankings, is at a grandmaster level, though she has not earned the title. Like Lahno, Skripchenko also lost the first game, in which she was White, putting her in a hole that she could not extricate herself from. The game was entertaining as Skripchenko surprised Ju by playing the Evans Gambit and getting a nice initiative. But she blundered when she overlooked a tactic that allowed Ju to win a piece and Skripchenko was unable to save the game after that.