Top Seeds Make Early Exits at Women’s Title Event
Published: November 17, 2012
Hou’s challenger in last year’s title match, Humpy Koneru of India, who is No. 2, also lost, to Natalia Zhukova of Ukraine. Anna Muzychuk of Slovenia, No. 4, fell to Anna Ushenina, another Ukrainian. But the top Ukrainian grandmaster, Kateryna Lahno, No. 7, lost to Lela Javakhishvili of Georgia.
The highest-ranked remaining players are Zhao Xue of China, No. 5, and Nana Dzagnidze of Georgia, No. 6.
The startling series of upsets was in stark contrast to Round 1, when there was only one.
In an effort to bring in more women from countries that are not usually represented at such tournaments, the World Chess Federation allocated spots based on regional competitions. Some of the women who qualified were not close to being among the elite. In the first round, the highest seeds were pitted against the lowest ones, most of whom ended up losing badly.
Hou’s first opponent was S. D. Ranasinghe of Sri Lanka, who is ranked No. 3,174 among active women players. She was no match for the defending champion. Koneru also had little trouble dispatching Denise Frick of South Africa (No. 2,671).
The lack of early tests might have contributed to the poor performances of the top seeds in the second round as their opponents were in better form from their own first-round matches. In Hou’s match against Socko, she won the first game and only had to draw the second to advance. But, as sometimes happens in such situations, she was too cautious.
Since Socko needed to win the second regulation game, she played the Sicilian Defense, which offers Black the best chance for a counterattack against 1 e4.
Hou’s strategy of playing for a draw was evident early when she played 4 Qd4 instead of 4 Nd4, which is the more aggressive move.
Hou’s 7 Qd2 was an odd retreat for her queen; almost any other move would have been better. Her decision to fianchetto her bishop by playing 8 b3 was also peculiar. Clearly, she just wanted to trade dark-squared bishops, but Socko easily sidestepped the maneuver with 10 ... Nf6.
Hou also should not have postponed castling, and she made a bad decision by exchanging her light-squared bishop for Socko’s knight. Still, despite those missteps, she was fine until 21 Rc7. It was essential for her to play 21 f4 to limit the range of Socko’s dark-squared bishop.
Socko played well from then on. One of her nicest moves was 24 ... d4. Hou did not play 25 Bd4 because she would have lost a piece after 25 ... Bd4 26 Qd4 Ba4, when she could not recapture the bishop without being checkmated.
Hou resigned after 33 ... Qd4 because she would have faced checkmate in a few moves.
Though Hou is out of the tournament, she has the consolation of knowing that she can regain the title next year because, as the winner of the recently completed Grand Prix, she is already the designated challenger for a title match. The date and location of that match have not yet been announced.