Russia defeated India by 2.5: 1.5 and 3: 1 and triumphed in both finals of the Women’s World Team Championship, which ended in Sitges, Spain. If the semi-rapid event can be seen as a historical continuity, this win is the second for Russia in the championship after its previous win in 2017.
For the first time at this event, India wins a medal, a silver – an appreciative reward for the good run of the team in the tournament up to the final. India had only lost one game in the entire tournament up to the finals, again against Russia in Round A in the fourth round of the league phase.
Early difficulties on boards with black checkers cost India dearly in both rounds as they put pressure on the players on other boards and the team could not recover. GM Kateryna Lagno put in an outstanding performance for Russia who won their games in both rounds and showed the reliability that is badly needed in a team event. GM Dronavalli Harika with black stones defeated GM Aleksandra Goryachkina on the top board in the first round, which was the only bright spot for India in the final.
The games of the FIDE World Women’s Team Championship can be found here. Live commentary for all rounds will be broadcast on Chess.com/tv.
Live coverage of round one. Check out all of the live coverage at youtube.com/chess.
Russia went into the final as the favorite, with three grandmasters in their ranks and superior Elo placements on all boards. However, as in most sports, the sum of the individual strengths of the players on a team does not always equal the sum and India may be optimistic as its players had demonstrated fighting spirit and ingenuity by the time they reached the finals.
Round 1: Russia beats India 2.5-1.5
Just as the games moved into the early middle game, the first round of the finals looked even for both teams. On the third board, Russia had an advantage through Lagno, who seemed to have developed a good initiative from a fashionable variant of the Caro Kann Defense right from the opening against IM Bhakti Kulkarni. On the fourth board, WGM Mary Ann Gomes seemed to have developed a good positional advantage over IM Alina Kashlinskaya from a slow reti opening.
The other two games looked even. On the top board, Goryachkina was surprised with a pawn sacrifice variant from GM Dronavalli Harika. WGM Vaishali vs. GM Alexandra Kosteniuk seemed to be on par. So there were boards that were both happy and worried for both teams!
When computers did not yet exist to teach chess opening theory, some openings were branded “unsound” by chess experts, largely due to the pawn structures that emerged from early middlemen. The variant of the Caro-Kann defense used by Kulkarni against Lagno – 4 … Nf6 5.Nxf6 exf6 – was condemned as “bad” in the 1980s. But the variation has been polished up in the last few years thanks to deep preparation with chess engines and presented as playable, albeit still viewed with a touch of skepticism. But it was no real surprise that Kulkarni adopted it for this game as many top Indian players have been using it.
Even in team championships, when stronger teams (in terms of Elo or otherwise) want to outsmart the opponent without great risk, there is a tendency to “stay in control” and keep it simple: play solid, agree with both colors and hold on according to the principle “win with white pieces and tie with black pieces.” By the reverse logic, lower-rated opponents tend to play sharper openings – even if they are not entirely solid – in order to provoke “stronger” players to play more tactically and sharply to create opportunities.
Kulkarni actively tried to play with black pieces, but her opening game quickly backfired. In the further course of the game it became clear that Lagno had developed a serious advantage: The black pawn advances on the kingside looked premature:
That game quickly turned out to be difficult for India, and Gomes seemed like the best pick for an equalizer to build on their early middlegame advantage and push for a win over Kashlinskaya:
At this point, Vaishali’s game appeared to be a draw, as the endgame did not appear to pose any particular threat to White. But she messed up with a tactical oversight:
Strangely enough, Vaishali had made a mistake in the league phase in an endgame with towers and a small piece and lost to Kosteniuk.
With Kosteniuk’s game to end first, Russia’s victory seemed inevitable as Lagno had a huge advantage against Kulkarni. But Harika’s fighting spirit brought a laudable victory over Goryachkina.
Harika is the mainstay of this Indian women’s team, she is the only grandmaster and Elo topper. After her stellar performance at the online Olympics a few weeks ago, she was the main anchor of the Indian team in the absence of GM Koneru Humpy. Her game against Goryachkina seemed to be an even fight as Harika used a sharp opening line:
One can only speculate that fatigue was what caused Goryachkina to collapse in the game, as the format forces players to play more than a dozen games in just six days.
Round 2: Russia defeated India 3-1
Since India absolutely had to win the second round to force a tiebreak, things didn’t start out well for them. Blackstone opening decisions appeared to be a recurring problem for the team as IM Polina Shuvalova quickly revealed trouble on board four in Gomes’ Kan variant of the Sicilian defense. As with Kulkarni in the first lap, the difficult position Gomes faced at the beginning of the lap put pressure on her other teammates:
Even before Shuvalova’s victory, Kosteniuk-Vaishali had drawn relatively quickly. On the top board, Harika survived anxious moments throughout the game:
With the gold medal almost in sight for the team, Lagno played consistently in the long and final game of the event, even punishing IM Tania Sachdev for trying too hard for the team’s sake:
All games – finals
The 2021 FIDE World Women’s Team Championship was a 12-team event that featured teams from chess nations around the world. The event ran from September 27th to October 2nd and was broadcast on Chess.com.