Opening Exploration: Navigating the Najdorf

To follow up on last Tuesday’s video, I put together an analysis on the Be3 Najdorf, with improvements for Black. For those of you that missed the video, make sure to check out White’s refutation of my set-up:

For those of you who saw it, here are some of the highlights:

DarwinEvolution–leika (G/15 Internet Chess Club)

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6 5. Nc3 Nf6 6. Be3 e5 7. Nb3 Be7 8. f3

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This will be the tabiya position for today’s post. In the game, I veered off with 8… Nbd7, but today I will suggest the main line, 8… Be6.

8…Nbd7 9. Qd2 Qc7 10. g4 h6 11. O-O-O b5 12. Kb1 Bb7 13. a3 Rd8 14. Qf2!

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And now Black is paralyzed! No longer able to play …Nb6 to push …d7-d5, I no longer have an active plan, and must wait for White to take action.

I could have tried to insert …Nb6 earlier, with the idea of reaching c4, but even in those lines, my light squared bishop is slightly misplaced. Why did I go for this set-up? Let’s take a field trip back to the third video I ever posted to chess^summit, back in October 2014:

In that game, the set-up was justified in that game because White not only wasted several tempi but also with a bishop on e2, the Qf2 idea was never possible. That game was actually one of the last times I employed the Najdorf, so I never really worried about going beyond the analysis I had at that time.

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So that brings us back to the tabiya position. As I mentioned before, Black’s bishop is slightly misplaced on b7, so here 8…Be6 is the much more logical step going forward. Note how I can still play for …d7-d5 if the opportunity presents itself, but I also get more space on the queenside, while eying the b3 knight for a potential trade. With the bishop on b7, White can play a2-a3 to stop the b-pawn push without worrying about opening the c-file.

Our first game is from the 2013 Tal Memorial, featuring Boris Gelfand with Black against Fabiano Caruana.

One thing you should note about this opening is that unlike my other analysis posts, the calculation must be much more concrete. The Najdorf is not for the faint-hearted, and will punish the tactically weak!

Caruana–Gelfand (Tal Memorial, 2013)

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. f3 e5 7. Nb3 Be6 8. Be3 Be7 9. Qd2 O-O

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Thanks to modern computer analysis, castling is the most popular option for Black. While the play is sharp, Black’s king is actually safe with best play.

10. O-O-O Nbd7 11. g4 b5 12. g5 b4!

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The key to handling a race position is to not be afraid to be persistent! Black doesn’t have time to waste and immediately attacks White’s knight, leaving his own under attack.

13. Ne2 Ne8 14. f4 a5 15. f5 a4!

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Same idea again! While White’s attack is scary, Black has also gained a lot of momentum. It’s important to not reward White for simply going first.

16. fxe6 axb3 17. cxb3 fxe6

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What just happened? Black opened the a-, c-, and f-files for his rooks while simultaneously liquidating White’s pawn storm. Black’s queenside pawns were also traded down, but offer Gelfand a lot of tactical opportunities.

18. Bh3 Rxa2 19. Bxe6+ Kh8

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White also gained from the earlier trading. For White to make progress, he must take advantage of Black’s lack of a light squared bishop.

20. Ng3 Nc7 21. Bc4 Qa8

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The computer assesses this position as equal, but one of the great things about the Najdorf is that the positions are very rich, as each side take turns attacking the other.

22. Rhf1 Rxf1 23. Rxf1 Ra1+ 24. Kc2 Rxf1 25. Bxf1 d5!

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Black justifies giving up the bishop pair by making the thematic …d6-d5 push, eliminating his main structural weakness.

26. h4 d4 27. Bg1 Ne6 28. Qe2?

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Who would have thought that this would be the critical mistake? A seemingly innocuous choice from Caruana but this move gives Black a key tempo. By not maintaining pressure on the b4 pawn, Black gets time to put a knight on c5, as well as threaten …d4-d3.

28…Ndc5 29. Qc4 Nf4!!

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Black’s knight’s are both active while Caruana’s bishops have yet to join the fray. What’s wrong with 30. Qxb4? Gelfand must have seen 30…Bf8! protecting the bishop while threatening a discovery. Black is winning in that line after 31. Qc4 Qa2 -+ as Black can’t easily stop the c5 knight from coming into d3.

30. Qf7 Qf8 31. Qc4 g6 32. Bf2 Ne2!!

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Another punishing blow from Gelfand! If White takes the knight, he must be prepared for the black queen to enter the 2nd rank by taking the bishop on f2. Caruana chose the only move to try and hold the fort.

33. Nh1 d3+ 34. Kd1 Qf3

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Now busting through the kingside, Gelfand has managed to win on both sides of the board. At this point, it’s just technical.

35. Bxc5 Qxf1+ 36. Kd2 Nf4!

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A quiet move – Black plans to put the queen on e2 and follow through with checkmate, so White doesn’t have time to grab the bishop.

37. Ng3 Qg2+ 38. Kc1

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38. Bxe7 would have lost on account of 38… Qe8#

38…Qxg3 39. Kb1 Ne2 40. Qf7 Qe1+ 41. Ka2 Nc3+ 0-1

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Caruana resigned. There’s simply no way for White to make use of his active pieces, as a sample line would go 42. bxc3 Qd2+ 43. Kb1 Qc2+ 44. Ka1 Qxc3+ 45. Ka2 Qxc5, and the d-pawn will promote with no three-fold chances for White.

What does this game tell us about the Be3 lines of the Najdorf? Well, it’s extremely tactical, and Black can’t play submissively if he has any aspirations of winning. Another aspect I will mention is that to play the Najdorf takes a lot of preparation – for each side; working with computers, reading manuscripts, analysis far deeper than the post I have provided you with today.

I stopped playing the Najdorf shortly after breaking 1900, because I found that it simply put too much emphasis on opening knowledge when playing 2000+ rated opponents, and the Bg5 lines alone gave me enough of a headache to stop. If you’re looking for a fun, easy opening to learn, this definitely isn’t it.

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How to Not Win a State Championship!

For those of you who may know me well, one tournament that has always been just out of my reach is the Virginia Scholastic State Championships. Since the third grade, I’ve always been competitive in my section, with five top ten finishes to show for it. Though my scholastic days have been over for a long time, I’m still chasing at least one state championship title.

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After some rough years in middle school, I managed to claim two 8th place finishes in both my 10th and 11th-grade years. My senior year wouldn’t prove so easy, and thus the curse of not winning states continued.

This past weekend, I had my first real opportunity to become a state champion, as I was seated at board 1 going into the final round of the G/75 Pennsylvania State Chess Championships against defending champion Mark Eidemiller. I had scored 2.5/3, with two somewhat quiet wins, and a draw against a 2200 rated opponent. I shared my first round win last Tuesday:

My opponent had won each of his three games in a convincing manner, so I had to win to get the championship honors. Let’s see how it went:

Steincamp–Eidemiller (G/75 Pennsylvania State Championships, 2016)

1.c4 e6 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 d5 4.Nf3 Be7 5.O-O O-O 6.b3 b6

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An interesting choice by my opponent, I thought he would opt for the much more active and popular 6…c5. While my opponent’s choice to change the move order added its own wrinkle to the game, I think he would choose a different line if we were to replay this game.

7.Bb2 Bb7 8.d4 c5

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I’m guessing the point of Black’s move order switch. In an effort to deviate from main line Catalan positions, Eidemiller happily takes the hanging pawns structure.

9.cxd5 exd5 10.dxc5 bxc5 11.Nc3

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One of the problems of playing with the hanging pawns is that now I have a lot of dynamic potential. This knight can reroute to a4 to put pressure on c5, opening up the half-open file for my rook to go to c1. Black is still somewhat undeveloped, and should he choose to move his c- or d-pawns forward, he will create weak squares for my pieces to land.

11…Re8 12.e3 Na6 13.Rc1 Nc7 14.Na4

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In this position, I already have a slight advantage, as Black hasn’t solved the problems with his pawn structure. Meanwhile, his knight on c7 is somewhat misplaced.

14…Ne4 15.Nd2 Ne6 16.Nxe4 dxe4 17.Qc2!

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The move my opponent must have missed! Even if Black can hold onto his pawns, he will stay chained to his weaknesses on c5 and e4 while my pieces spring to life. Already, I was very optimistic about my chances of winning.

17…Bf6 18.Bxf6 Qxf6 19.Nxc5

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As Dorfman would say – a static advantage handled correctly will always become a material advantage. Now up a pawn, I just need to limit Black’s play and this game is mine, right?

19…Rac8 20.Nxe4!

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Two pawns are better than one, right? Here Black can’t touch my queen since I have the intermezzo capture on f6 with a check and I will end up an exchange.

20…Qe5 21.Qb1!

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The queen is surprisingly well placed here! If Black isn’t careful and plays 21… f5?! 22. Nf6+ is strong since I can take the bishop on b7 while my queen points at the weak f5 pawn. So far I’m playing really well, absolutely crushing my 2300+ rated opponent.

21…Ba6 22.Rxc8 Rxc8 23.Rd1 f5 24.Nd6 Rd8 25.Rd5

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This is the only move that justifies my choice to play Ne4-d6 earlier. Now the f5 pawn is won with proper calculation!

25…Qc3 26.Nxf5 Bd3

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The critical position of the game. This is Black’s last chance to bring this game back to life, as the endgame is no longer tenable. However, the game having gone so smoothly for me, I was shocked to see that I had missed this line in my calculation and blundered. Here is my first regret – not relaxing and playing 27. Rxd8+ Nxd8 28. Qd1! and the pin on the bishop saves my knight on f5. Instead, I made a much less pragmatic decision.

27.Qxd3??

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This move actually works tactically, but because I didn’t see the idea when I took here, I give it the two question marks. I was actually so nervous/excited/scared, that I took the bishop, thinking I was just winning a piece! Unfortunately, chess isn’t so easy.

27…Qxd3 28.Rxd3 Rxd3

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My last chance to win the game, can you find it? White to move.

29.Be4

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This move certainly wasn’t it, but if I had only pushed the bishop one square further and played 29.Bd5! I would have won the game. 29… Rxd5 loses on account to Ne7+, and 29… Kf7 enters a lost ending after 30. Nd4.

Unfortunately, with this misstep, the computer evaluation dropped from +5.3 to +0.3, which was more than enough for my opponent to hold the draw. So what did we learn from this game?

The game isn’t over till the players shake hands.

I would be State Champion if I had taken 26…Bd3 more seriously and calculated out the whole line or just found the trade on d8. I’m perfectly capable of calculating both lines, but in that precise moment I was too excited to think straight, which leads me to my next point.

Don’t play quickly.

I had a couple regrets this game, and ultimately, there is no going back. Even if I was excited, a trip to the water fountain or a walk around the tournament hall could alone have saved the game and been the difference.

Relax.

There was no need for me to get excited because I hadn’t done anything yet! Even though the opening went well in my favor, that alone didn’t win the game. I just had to be patient.

I’m sure I’ll break the curse one day in the near future, but I am at least happy I finally made it to the top board heading into the final round of the tournament – already the farthest I’ve made it thus far.

Pushing for the Initiative

This past weekend proved to be a back-and-forwards kind of performance, as I came really close to winning my first state championship, only to lose it at the final moments of my last round. I wanted to share that game in more depth, but with midterms this week, I’ve decided to analyze them later this week.

Meanwhile, check out this quick video on my first round win! Even though I was up a pawn, converting the advantage wasn’t so easy. Check it out to see how I did it!

Zurich Chess Challenge 2016: Opening Thoughts, Predictions

It’s been about two weeks since my last rated game, so to make up for the void, I’ve been watching a lot more Grandmaster games live to mix up my preparation. Last Tuesday, I posted Hou Yifan’s dominating win over Cristobal Henriquez Villagra, where she used a massive space advantage to crush a hedgehog gone wrong.

With the Zurich Chess Challenge starting today, I thought I’d break down some of the major headlines going into the tournament for players unsure of what to look for.

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This year’s edition of the Zurich Chess Challenge offers top level entertainment from Vladimir Kramnik, Hikaru Nakamura, Vishy Anand, Alexei Shirov, Levon Aronian, and Anish Giri.

Who Strikes First?

With the Candidates tournament in March, expect Nakamura, Anand, Aronian, and Giri to keep their new ideas close to their chests. What does this mean? Kramnik and Shirov will likely be the providers of any new opening plot twists, and perhaps take more liberties with their choices from the start. Kramnik isn’t known to rely on aggressive opening innovations (rather more positional, solid play), but Shirov, author of Fire on Board, may entertain us with a splurge of aggressive opening selections. If Shirov pulls off an upset, don’t be surprised.

What does age mean?

This is the big question, especially for former World Champion Vishy Anand. Last year, he played in a tie-breaker match for this very tournament. This year? It might be a miracle he makes it that far with his recent form. While most of the chess world has been busy criticizing Magnus, Anand’s been slipping since last summer’s Sinquefield Cup, with a disastrous performance in both London and Gibraltar. The tumble has seen India’s number one fall out of the top ten, and nearly eclipsed by Pentala Harikrishna.

For Anand, doing well in Zurich means changing the trend before going into the Candidates tournament. If Vishy can’t leave the Chess Challenge with at least a 50% score, don’t expect him to last long in the Candidates either – it’s a long road back to getting to the top.

Solid is strong, but can it win?

This one’s for Giri. The fourth best player in the world is going to have to win games in order to come out on top in Zurich. Anish left Tata Steel with a 7/13 score (2 wins, 1 loss, 10 draws), but with lucky breaks against Hou Yifan and Fabiano Caruana, it could have been worse. This tournament features two opponents Giri has never beaten – Kramnik and Aronian.

Anish is one of the most consistent players in this field right now, so even if he fails to emerge victorious, he will still be in good shape for the Candidates.

Does Aronian’s style trump that of Nakamura?

Realistically, the Aronian v. Nakamura match could decide the winner of the tournament. Levon’s 2015 got off to a rocky start, but he’s been playing at his best form since his Sinquefield Cup win. Nakamura, the “2015 player of the year”, will seek to improve from his 1st place finish at Gibraltar. Aronian has nine wins over Nakamura in classical play, compared to Hikaru’s two.

I expect this game to also be a critical moment in the Candidates tournament in Moscow as well, so depending on how this game plays out, it could be a great indicator as to who will do better in March.

How strong is the world #2, really?

His rise to second best has been a quiet one, as he hasn’t had too many recent games at the top level events. That being said, Vladimir Kramnik has always been among the world’s elite, and his latest appearances in Qatar and the European Club Cup should show that. At 4o, a lot of chess fans write off the Russian, but I think this is a promising opportunity for Kramnik to show he isn’t done.

How does it finish?

This is a fairly balanced field, and any exceptional performances will definitely form big impressions for the rest of 2016. That being said, here’s how I see Zurich finishing out:

1. Levon Aronian

2. Hikaru Nakamura

T3. Vladimir Kramnik

T3. Anish Giri

5. Alexei Shirov

6. Viswanathan Anand

Have different thoughts? Feel free to share!

Positional Domination: Hou Yifan Breaks the Ice!

It feels like a long countdown until this weekend’s G/75 Pennsylvania State Chess Championships and Pittsburgh Chess League matches, so I’ve been killing time doing opening research and watching ongoing Grandmaster games.

With Gibraltar over, there aren’t exactly many high profile games to watch, but there is the Bicontinental Match-up (South America and Antartica) between Women’s World Championship Candidate Hou Yifan and Cristobal Henriquez Villagra, an up-and-coming player from Chile.

The first round ended in a draw, where Hou Yifan was unable to convert a small advantage. For today’s post, we will be looking at the second game, one which Hou Yifan won in just 25 moves!

Hou Yifan is a player easy to overlook, but after today’s post, I think you’ll see just strong she really is. Let’s take a look:

Hou Yifan – Henriquez Villagra (Match Bicontinental de Ajedrez, 2016)

1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nc3 e6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 a6

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The starting position for today’s discussion. Villagra, who eliminated Gelfand from last year’s World Cup, will set-up a hedgehog defense with the Black pieces.

6.g3 Qc7 7.Bg2

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For those of you unfamiliar with the English, you should know that there is a lot of overlap with ideas from the Maroczy bind. One of the advantages of choosing the English move order is that the light squared bishop isn’t necessarily bad as it would be on e2 in a Maroczy Bind. Here against the Hedgehog structures, having this bishop is extremely useful, as it limits Black’s ability to queenside fianchetto, and is able to control the d5 square.

7…Be7 8.O-O O-O 9.e4

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Here White achieves the famous bind structure with pawns on e4 and c4. Hou Yifan hopes to claim her space in the center of the board while Villagra will wait for potential weaknesses to come.

9…d6 10.Be3 Nbd7

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A critical decision, and perhaps the beginning of Villagra’s trouble. The thematic square for the knight is c6, where it may be able to trade for the d4 knight, giving Black space and flexibility. Remember, when you are cramped, it’s advantageous to trade pieces!

11.Rc1 Ne5

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An active looking move, but in reality, Black’s hand was somewhat forced here. Black would love to get his c8 bishop to b7, but 11…b6 would lose on the spot to 12. e5! winning the rook on a8 by discovery. Should Black try to avoid this line by playing the well-known Hedgehog idea, 11… Ra7, 12. Ndb5! is better for White after 12… axb5 13. Nxb5 Qa5 14. Nxa7 and Black will not receive two minor pieces for the rook since the knight is protected from the bishop on e3.

12.b3 Bd7

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Black realizes that getting the bishop to b7 will simply take too much time, and chooses to route it to d7. Villagra can get this bishop to c6 and on the long diagonal, but as you may notice, Black is somewhat cramped.

13.h3

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Taking away the g4 square from each of Black’s knights before pushing f2-f4. While Hou Yifan has easy moves, improving her structure, it is already not so clear how Villagra is going to reroute his pieces to organize an attack. The Chilean’s next move is really telling as to Black’s struggles in this position.

13…Qa5

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Rather than improving the position, Black must spend a tempo to evade a tactic – that’s right!
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So if Black makes the most positionally improving move, White can force Black into a well known Hedgehog dilemma with 14. f4 Nc6 15. Nxc6 Bxc6 16. Nd5!
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I actually made this observation before checking with an engine, and the computers seem to see the moves merit. Black’s problems on the b6 square make recapturing the knight compulsory, after which, Black must not only give up the bishop pair but have a strategically ruined endgame.
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Black’s isolated pawn on d6 blocks in his dark squared bishop, and White’s pure control of space is enough for White to push for a win. Seeing this (or other similar lines), VIllagra chose 13… Qa5.

14.Qd2 Rfc8 15.f4 Nc6 16.Qf2 Bd8 17.Rfd1

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Black’s moved the c6 knight three times, the queen twice, and the d8 bishop twice. Meanwhile, White has optimized all of her pieces, acquiring a major space advantage. Only a pair of pawns have been traded, and because of it, Black is cramped and has little oxygen.

17…Ne8?

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Here Black really needed to trade on d4, but was afraid of 17… Nxd4 18. Bxd4 following with e4-e5, opening up the position. The Chilean wanted to be able to keep the position somewhat closed with d6-d5, but Black is beyond the point of having choices.

18.Nf3! Nb8

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Black’s backwards play these last few moves have been strictly tied to playing …d6-d5. This move puts some pressure on the c-file, but Black’s lack of development makes the threat anything but lethal. One principle to know here is that if you are better developed than your opponent, it’s in your best interest to open up the position. Here the former Women’s World Champion pushes through with a central break.

19.e5 d5

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And Black finally gets his break! But it’s this same move that actually ends the game for Black.

20.Nd2 Qb4 21.a3 Qxa3

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Dragging the queen offsides while solidifying the queenside. Without the queen on a5, Black will even fewer ways to defend the collapsing center.

22.cxd5 exd5 23.Ra1!

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And now Black’s queen must retreat all the way to f8 to avoid the wrath of the c3 knight. With the exception of the light-squared bishop, Black has placed all of his pieces on the back rank.

23…Qf8 24.Nxd5 Be6 25.Nc4 1-0

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Black threw in the towel here, as there’s no easy way to defend against f4-f5 and Nb6 threats. Complete positional domination from the Chinese Grandmaster as she dispatched her opponent while making it look easy! There are two games left in the match, and it’ll be one of the last opportunities to watch Hou Yifan before the Women’s World Championship in March when she takes on the reigning champion, Mariya Muzychuk.