As the first woman to retain her title in a knockout tournament, Ju Wenjun of China won the 2018 World Championship by beating Kateryna Lagno of Russia in the final.
It must be said that there is a sad poignancy to every knockout final. In the beginning of November, 64 participants had descended in Khanty-Mansiysk in a sudden flurry of excitement and trepidation. Three weeks later, just two weary athletes remained playing until the tournament’s curtain call. It sure is lonely at the top.
Playing out that final to a virtual audience were top-seed and reigning Women’s World Champion GM Ju Wenjun (China) and third-seed Russian grandmaster Kateryna Lagno.
The last battle: Lagno vs Ju. | Image: Instagram ChessOlympiad 2020
From the outset it was difficult to call the action between top-seed Ju and third-seed Lagno. With just a nominal 12-point rating difference, combined with the two players having never played a classical game among themselves, this match-up was always destined to be close.
The only difference between the pair was in their contrasting paths to the top. It had been very smooth journey for Ju. Like the nimble hare, she raced through 10 games and five matches without a hair out of place. For Lagno, the road had been exhausting and long, playing a backbreaking 21 games in total. Although, one could claim that World Champion Ju had glory odds, in the shape of a marginally-higher rating and better form. But as we all know in a knockout anything can happen at any time.
Dropping the puck, GM Kateryna Lagno visits an ice hockey match on the free day. | Photo: Ugra Chess
Game 1: Controlling the chaos
Often the first games in matches are not showy affairs, they are simply two players circling each other probing for weaknesses. Ju had been earning her bread and butter by successfully following the theory of simplicity — playing chess in a very uncomplicated and risk-free manner. It was clear from the first game that Lagno was out to rock the proverbial boat.
Ju Wenjun managed to weather the storm. | Photo: Ugra Chess
Game 2: The tale of two bishops
The tension magnified in the second game when Lagno defeated Ju, in what was to be the first of many rook and opposite-colored bishop endings. In a piece of (accidental?) dark humor, Lagno even managed to employ an opening move that Ju had herself devised!
Kateryna Lagno played a flawless ending in round two. | Photo: Ugra Chess
Game 3: The eyes watch but cannot take—so near and yet so far
Game three was probably the most fascinating game of the classical match, with Ju missing several beautiful ways to level the score. Try to spot them!
Rule number one: When you play with white you wear white! Ju Wenjun coming close to victory. | Photo: Ugra Chess
Game 4: Down but not out: the big comeback
Leading with one point and having the white pieces, the match was going very well for Lagno. Indeed at the start of game four the worry could be seen clearly in Ju’s face.
Will she be the shortest reigning world champion? Ju Wenjun doesn’t know. | Photo: Ugra Chess
However nothing is cooler or more attractive than a big comeback story and with a last game victory, once again the reigning champion was back in the ring.
Her pose says it all — disaster is about to befall Kateryna Lagno in round four. | Photo: Ugra Chess
Tiebreaks: Thinking, fast and slow.
When asked about how she estimated her chances in the rapid and blitz tiebreaks, Ju answered: “Clearly Lagno is good at rapid, but I am not bad there as well. But who can tell about tomorrow? No one can predict.”
Psychologically one could argue that Ju had an advantage on account of her victory in the fourth game but it would be foolish to discount the role of experience. Lagno had been in this exact position three times and had on each occasion emerged victorious. Not only that, Lagno had been Mind Sport rapid champion in 2016.
As the commentators Alexander Morozevich and Alexandra Kosteniuk indicated, the key to success would be in alternating between fast and slow thinking. To borrow a quote from the aforementioned book: “The world makes much less sense than you think, the coherence comes mostly from the way your mind thinks.”
With a hand shake the tie-breaks begin! | Photo: Ugra Chess
Rapid game 1: Rock beats scissors
Game one was a very solid affair with both sides taking little risk. Ju, with the white pieces, was always pressing but Lagno firmly held her ground. The closest Ju came to victory was in the following moment:
In complete concentration, Ju Wenjun. | Photo: Ugra Chess
Things were equally solid in the second game. Lagno had just one single moment to apply uncomfortable pressure.
Giving it her all Kateryna Lagno. | Photo: Ugra Chess
Blitz: In the midst of movement and chaos keep stillness inside of you
The players are not the only ones feeling the heat! New FIDE president Arkady Dvorkovich (at the forefront) follows the action. | Photo: Ugra Chess
Not quite rapid and not quite blitz, it looked like Lagno was planning to nurture the long time advantage of the bishop pair until this oversight.
Playing black in a must-win scenario was always going to be a thankless task for Lagno against Ju’s effective safety-first policy. Indeed it was the calm manner of Ju’s play that simply proved impossible to crack.
The last chance saloon for Lagno. | Photo: Ugra Chess
The smile that says she won it all. Trainer Yu Shaoteng can be seen in the background clapping with admiration. | Photo: Ugra Chess
After the game, Ju commented that Khanty-Mansiysk had been a lucky place for her. Not only had she won the Grand Prix series in Khanty-Mansiysk but she had now defended her crown there too.
The secret to her world championship success? Enjoying the games of chess! When asked how she would spend her prize money and what her future plans were, she replied that she would treat her friends to dinner and then take a pause from chess.
And for anyone thinking that Ju can rest and enjoy her title, FIDE has already announced they will be holding a Candidates’ tournament in the early half of 2019 to determine her next challenger. The three semi-finalists Alexandra Kosteniuk, Mariya Muzychuk and Kateryna Lagno have all qualified. There will not be a wild card; the remaining five will qualify by rating based on average Elo from the January-December 2018 rating lists.
Women’s World Champion once again! Ju Wenjun and trainer Yu Shaoteng with the stunning championship trophy. | Photo: Ugra Chess
At least this time, she will not have to defend her title within six months
Games via TWIC.
That is why we need neutral commentators – the non-stop slacking of Ju Wenjun for her play in the tiebreaks by the official commentators is extremely startling and disrespectful. #WWCC2018
— Kevin Goh ( @IM_Kevin_Goh) November 23, 2018
Indeed, it was amazing that Morozevich could not be bothered to find out who the Chinese captain GM Yu Shaoteng was, even though he admitted to seeing him every day (and Kosteniuk thought he might be an IM). But calling Ju’s play “anti-chess” was simply disgraceful. #WWCC2018
— Ian Rogers ( @GMIanRogers) November 23, 2018
Indeed, Yu Shaoteng made GM 14 years ago and led the Chinese team to the gold medals just a few months ago. To label him as “some IM” is embarrassing to say the least.
— Kevin Goh ( @IM_Kevin_Goh) November 23, 2018
- Women’s World Chess Championship: Ju Wenjun, Lagno In The Final
- Women’s World Chess Championship: Ju Wenjun, Lagno, Kosteniuk, Muzychuk Through
- Women’s World Chess Championship: Tokhirjonova, Abdumalik Shine; Lagno Wins In Armageddon
- Women’s World Chess Championship: Koneru, Goryachkina, Tan, Zhao Out
- Women’s World Chess Championship: Girya, Paehtz, Kashlinskaya, Zhukova Out