Xu Yuhua retains title

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

THERE was a striking similarity to the fairy tale finish for both Anand and Xu Yuhua. Both the players suffered surprise defeats in the preliminary rounds, yet came back like all champions do.

P. V. SIVAKUMAR

Yuhua outplayed the highest-rated player, Stefanova Antoaneta of Bulgaria, 1.5-0.5 in the final to retain her title she had won in China. Thus the end-result was a photo copy of the last edition with only the losers being different this time around.

This, despite the women's section witnessing a remarkable success rate from the Indian girls, hitherto unknown in world chess. World junior champion, Koneru Humpy, took the most authentic route to the knock-out phase with four straight wins and a draw. She looked in awesome form in her maiden appearance in the World Cup tournament. The message was loud and clear that she had finally arrived in the big league. A stunning feat which could well put an end to the sadistic pleasure the critics derive by repeatedly pointing that she always skipped the women's Nationals in India to avoid defeat. So impressive was Humpy that at a media conference after her third straight win, Anand, who was just leaving the place, quipped: "Perhaps, you should coach me.'' No mean compliment from an acknowledged champion.

In fact, the 'Young Brigade' of Indian women's chess comprising Koneru Humpy, who surprised fancied Nana Josliani of Georgia, Subbaraman Meenakshi, who shocked reigning world champion Zhu Chen of China and Swathi Ghate, who put it across Nino Khurtsidze of Georgia, gave the host a perfect start. The best part on this front was that two Indians - Meenakshi and Humpy - made it to the knock-out phase which in itself is a record of sorts for an event of this magnitude.

Fifteen-year-old Humpy, sponsored by Bank of Baroda, was clearly the most impressive of all the Indians in the women's section. She took in her stride Stepovaia Dianchenko of Russia, World No. 2 Alexandra Kostenuik of Russia, outwitted Bhagyashree Thipsay and drew here final round game. The Vijayawada girl began the knock-out phase in style with a brilliant 38-move win over Li Ruofan of China in the first round of the quarter-finals. Opting for the Queen Pawn Opening to which Ruofan replied with Queen's Gambit Declined Variation, Humpy took the opponent off guard with a startling 22nd move - Bf3. This saw the Indian girl take complete control of the 'c' file and attack on the queenside. Even as Ruofan sacrificed her white bishop, Humpy introduced a novelty - Nxc7 - to gain a positional advantage. In a bishop-knight ending, the youngest GM from India wrapped up the issue. Ruofan surprised the local girl in the second round game which saw the scores level at 1-1 and the match went into the tie-breaker. There were serious doubts about Humpy's ability to come on top in this format. But the dynamic little champion was equal to the task with a splendid display of positional mastery in the first tie-break game in English Opening. To her delight, Ruofan faltered with Qg6 which gave the Indian a lasting advantage which she didn't let go by easily. Then in the second round, Humpy, with black, showed a rare resilience from a seemingly hopeless position after an early blunder, Qa2. But fortune favoured her when Ruofan paid back the compliment with two dubious moves - d6 and Rd7. Humpy grabbed the opportunity with both hands to enter the semi-finals.

The mood she was in, Humpy was expected to have a smooth sailing. But she couldn't breach the 'Great Wall' Xu Yuhua of China. She started off confidently with a 44-move draw in the first round. But in the second, her gamble of opting King's Indian Attack for the first time proved costly. She faltered early in the game and worse, she played a dubious 21st move - Bd3 to Bg5 that opened up the gates for the wily Chinese Grandmaster to take complete control and win the game. "I think Humpy should have played Nf1-h2 instead of Bg5,'' was her father-cum-coach Koneru Ashok's reaction to the loss. "I played badly and there are no excuses,'' confessed Humpy, but her performance here is something she would remember for a long time to come.

Meenakshi was another star performer for India. However, her challenge ended in the quarter-finals against defending champion, Xu Yuhua. To Yuhua's King Pawn Opening, the Chennai girl replied with Philodor Defence. Once Yuhua got her well-placed knight on f5, things started looking difficult for Meenakshi. Though Meenakshi tried to gain counter-play by attacking the queenside, she faltered playing b4 on the 15th move which was not clearly equal to the situation. Yuhua got into a superior position with her Rd6 which saw Meenakshi lose a pawn and subsequently the match too.

The women's final was an anti-climax of sorts. For, Stefanova Antoaneta, who shocked the 26-year-old Yuhua in the first round of the preliminary phase, fizzled out in the crucial final. This was all the more surprising considering the fact that 23-year-old Stefanova had gained a reputation of forcing wins with black while the general trend is to settle for draws by most of the Grandmasters of either sex.

After being forced to settle for a draw with white, Stefanova was on the defensive against the defending champion in the second round of the final. In a Ruy Lopez Variation, Stefanova faltered very early with her h6 and g5 moves which are normally avoided at this level of play. And to her chagrin, Yuhua came up with telling replies - Ne4 and Ng3-Ng5 on the 21st and 28th moves, which weakened black's position considerably and soon the Bulgarian had no other option but to resign to see her experienced rival retain the title in style with a 1.5-0.5 verdict. It was a sad end to a brilliant campaign from Stefanova who, ironically, doesn't have a regular coach.

Apparently, the women's section had greater charm and depth in terms of competition. Also in the fray were former world champion for 18 years, Maya Chiburdanidze, reigning world champion Zhu Chen of China, the Beijing World Cup semi-finalist Pia Cramling, but none of them made their presence felt in a big way and didn't even qualify for the knock-out phase.

The surprise quarter-finalists were Wang Pin of China, Li Ruofan of China and Svetlana Matveeva of Russia. However, in the semi-finals, Stefanova ended Matveeva's dream run with a 2-0 drubbing.

For India, Subbaraman Vijayalakshmi, Bhagyashree Thipsay, Aarthie Ramaswamy, Dronavalli Harika and Swati Ghate - who started off in style with a win over Nino Khurtsidze in a Sicilian Paulsen Variation - all failed to make much headway and quite predictably too. To her credit, the Andhra girl, Harika, the youngest competitor here, at the age of 12, recorded a shocking 53-move win over Maya Chiburdanidze in a third round game in King's Indian Defence. The best part of it was she came straight to the board without any preparations for she had nothing to lose!

It was a fitting climax as two Asians - Anand and Yuhua - retained their titles in the World Cup. The Andhra Pradesh Government which hosted the event spent about Rs. 3 crores for the event.

The results: Final: Xu Yuhua Xu (China) bt Antoaneta Stefanova (Bul) 1.5-0.5.

Semi-finals: Stefanova bt Svetlana Matveeva (Rus) 2-0; Yuhua bt Koneru Humpy (Ind) 1.5-0.5.