No one could have foreseen what Chinese women’s World Champion would do on the last day of the prestigious Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival last Thursday. Known famously as Queen of Chess for her exalted status in the Board Game, the 22-year old Hou Yifan was playing against India’s Lalith Babu in 10th and final round at Gibraltar on February 2. Lalith Babu knew about Yifan’s tactical prowess and he braced himself against the world’s best women’s player. But the Indian was one among the shocked chess community, when Yifan threw the game away by resigning after just 5 baffling moves. The chess drama was the sole topic of discussion on the last day of the event, won by USA’s Hikaru Nakamura while China’s world no.2 Ju Wejun took the women’s crown. Later, Yifan told media that she was upset by match pairings in having been drawn to play against 7 women in 10 rounds. She found that unbelievable and weird.
Hou Yifan is the most accomplished chess player among women and her FIDE ratings of 2651 are 68 points above the next best player Ju Wejun also of China. But her Round-10 loss at 2017 Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival against India’s Lalith Babu was so decisive that it needed explanation. Yifan was insistent that she had been a victim of wild pairing in the tournament, though the organizers begged to defer. In a statement issued subsequent to the tournament, the organizers explained that Yifan’s assumption was baseless and the pairings had been decided by a duly computerized process without any human intervention. However Yifan, who is rated 103 overall among men & women, feels that being drawn in major tournaments with only the women players robs her of the true chess skills. She told the ChessBase Magazine that playing with men could make her stronger and more efficient, besides precluding the option of playing in women’s tournament only. On her action in the last match, Yifan said she tried to air her concern to the tournament’s Chief Arbiter but nothing happened. Therefore, she made her protest very public in the last game. Yifan hoped her action could produce 100% fair situation in future events.
As it transpired, Yifan’s action drew uninhibited attention around the world besides being branded as the biggest crisis in the 15-year history of Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival. Tournament director, Stuart Conquest and Festival organizer Brian Callaghan were both shocked beyond words. They, however, insisted that the matchup pairings had come out of machines and allegations of any intentional unfairness as claimed by Yifan were grossly unfair. They felt sorry for Yifan, who had been immensely popular at Gibraltar until her last act.
Hou Yifan recently decided to also pull out of 2017 Women’s World Chess Championship being held in Tehran to grab a chance of playing at Gibraltar’s mixed event. Yifan is the reigning World Champion and her preference for mixed events tells us about her desire to move up in the overall world rankings. There is another side to Yifan’s withdrawal from the World Championships. Like her, several top players also pulled out because the tournament came under a cloud after Iran’s strict dress code that required women to wear the hijab at all times. The hijab is a headscarf, mandatory for women in the Islamic nation but overseas participants find it restricting their freedom. Besides Yifan, 2015 Women’s World Champion Mariya Muzychuk, current US Champion Nazi Paikidze, 7-time US women’s champion Irina Kush and women’s world no.4 Koneru Humpy of India are also boycotting the Teheran event, which gets underway on February 10, 2017.
The Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival was won by USA’s Hikaru Nakamura. The gifted American defeated Frenchman Romain Edouard with Black pieces in Round-10 and Spain’s David Anton Guijarro in the final play-off. David Anton had been the surprise leader at Gibraltar and his 10th game against England’s Mickey Adams ended with a 32-move draw in a Queen’s Gambit Declined. The result brought several players in line with a chance for the championship but Nakamura and China’s Yu Yangyi made the most of this opportunity and won their spots in the playoffs. The World No.6 Nakamura played against Yu Yangyi and David Anton to win the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival for the third year in a row. Nakamura also won at Gibraltar in 2008 that made him as the most crowned man with the fourth victory. As per the rules, Nakamura needed to play two rapid games and a blitz against Yu. The American outlasted the Chinese and ended the event by beating Anton in their rematch. Among women, China’s world no.2 Ju Wejun was the champion despite losing the Round-10 game against her male compatriot Yu Yangyi.