Surrounded by glittering madrassahs, mosques and minarets, and under the watchful eyes of chief arbiter Husan Turdialiev (International arbiter from Uzbekistan) and Berik Balgabaev (Advisor to the FIDE President), the games began punctually at 3pm local time in the magnificent Farovon Hotel venue.
Amongst other authorities, the Governor of the Xorazm Region, Farkhod Ermanov, and the President of the Uzbekistan Chess Federation, Alisher Sadullaev, made the ceremonial first moves. The winner will face-off with Lei Tingjie in 2023 for the right to challenge for the Women’s World Chess title.
Tan Zhongyi (GM 2514) vs Kateryna Lagno (GM 2563)
Barring rapid and blitz, Tan Zhongyi has so far trailed Lagno by 5,5 – 3,5 since their first classical game in 2016. Most recently, they faced each other in the Astana Women’s Gran Prix in September, a critical game for Lagno who went on to win the event.
Also considering that Lagno out-rates Tan Zhongyi by the slightest of margins, she might be considered the favourite in this match-up. However, a four-game match is over very quickly: whoever draws first blood might easily cruise on to the win. Therefore, caution will usually prevail.
Playing with White, Zhongyi went for the Exchange Variation of the Queen’s Gambit, a line that she has had experience with both colours. Well prepared, Lagno chose a relatively new idea - 9…Ne8 -, which the World Champion Magnus Carlsen has used very recently.
According to the expert commentators of the event - GM Arturs Neiksans and WGM Keti Tsatsalashvili – the move 18.axb4, allowing the exchange of white’s d3-bishop might have been slightly inaccurate. However, Tan Zhongyi played solidly for the rest of the game, preventing Lagno from increasing her small advantage. A draw was finally agreed in a completely equal position on move 40.
In conversation with event Press Officer Anna Kantane, Lagno understood that she might have missed a chance. “I think I had a slight edge, after she gave me the light-squared bishop, but then I was unable to find the right way to proceed” were Lagno’s feelings right after the game. “After that the game is equal, so the draw is OK, but I have the feeling that I was better after the opening”.
Aleksandra Goryachkina (GM 2584), Alexandra Kosteniuk (GM 2521)
A very close match-up, despite Goyrachkina’s higher FIDE rating. In seventeen classical games, Kosteniuk is overall in the lead 6-3 with 8 draws. More importantly, Kosteniuk prevailed in the 2021 World Cup final, in which she defeated Goryachkina by 1.5-0.5, in one of her most important successes.
However, Goryachkina did win the previous 2019 Candidates Tournament, and fought for the World Championship against the current champion Ju Wenjun.
In today’s game, Kosteniuk opened with 1.e4 and Goryachkina defended with the Berlin variation in the Ruy Lopez. Instead of going for the famous ending, Kosteniuk played a fashionable line, introducing a novel idea in the opening – 9.Kh1 and 10.Ng1, relocating the knight to g3. Unfazed, Goryachkina also manoeuvred with her own minor pieces, achieving equality going into the middlegame.
Notwithstanding, after a couple of inaccurate moves Kosteniuk fell into a passive position, and her opponent began to pile up the pressure. With only ten minutes each for the 40-move time control, Goryachkina missed a key move: 34…Qh5 (instead of 34…f5) threatening 35…Qe2, followed by 35…b4 would have led to an important advantage, according to the engines.
Kosteniuk was definitely not satisfied with her performance today. “At some point I did something very wrong and I was very worried about my position, but I was lucky in time-trouble, being able to exchange everything”, a relieved Kosteniuk explained after the game.
The second game is scheduled for Wednesday November 30th at 3pm. The games can be followed live with expert grand master commentary on https://www.youtube.com/@FIDE_chess
Under the new knock-out format, players in each of the two brackets or "pools" will play a four-game match (plus tie-breaks, if needed) in order to advance to the next stage, with the final match being played over the distance of six games. The prize fund for this pool is €70,000, while another €110,000 will be at stake in the Women's Candidates Final, raising the total to a record-breaking amount of €250,000.
Text: IM Michael Rahal
Photo: Timur Sattarov and Xushnud Baltaev