The Tata Steel Chess India Women's Rapid saw a nerve-wracking final round where title chances alternatively swung in favor of WGM Divya Deshmukh and Women's World Champion GM Ju Wenjun before the former emerged as the winner by a half-a-point margin in a dramatic finish.
Though starting the middlegame with an apparently mild setback, Ju smoothly built a dominating attacking position against GM Anna Ushenina and thus looked like the favorite to win the title. But fortunes turned in favor of Divya when her opponent GM Humpy Koneru over-reached while attempting to win a dynamically-equal position, only to be outfoxed in the final minutes of the game by her younger rival in a spirited fightback. Divya finished on seven points, half a point more than Ju.
IM Polina Shuvalova continued her steady play to have another unbeaten day, and finished clear third on 5.5 points.
The Women's Blitz begins on September 3 at 5:30 a.m. ET / 11:30 CEST / 15:00 IST.
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The final day was expected to be a two-horse race between Divya and Ju—the question was if the former's lead of 1.5 points at the end of the sixth round could hold a possible surge from the world champion on the final day. Divya was scheduled to play Ushenina, Shuvalova, and Humpy, while Ju had GM Nino Batsiashvili, WIM Savitha Shri B, and Ushenina as her opponents for the day.
"I felt (the pressure). I was very nervous before the first game. It affected my quality of play today," confessed Divya after the end of the tournament. The nervousness did not show much in her game against Ushenina in the seventh round, which ended in an uneventful draw.
Meanwhile, Ju began her game in characteristic style: playing fluently in the opening, maintaining pressure in the middlegame, and entering into a slightly better endgame. Once again in this tournament, her impressive conversion in the final stages of the game enabled Ju to score an easy win, handing Batsiashvili her fifth straight loss of the tournament.
After this win, Ju reached five points from seven rounds, while Divya still led the tournament with six points.
It was in the second game of the day that Divya's nerves gave way. It was ironic that in the crucial penultimate round, Divya had to face Shuvalova, with whom she has an intriguing pre-history. Divya and Shuvalova were involved in a controversial game at the FIDE Online Chess Olympiad 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the crucial final match between India and Russia, Divya's time had run out due to an internet connectivity breakdown even though she had a promising position, and the gold medal was shared between Russia and India, a controversial incident at that time.
At a crucial middlegame position, Divya seemed to be losing the thread of the game, prompting commentator Hess to observe, "I am starting to like Polina's position, I like Polina's clock... I am starting to fear for White, (her) king is a bit open, and Polina's every move is natural, and she is (ahead on the clock) by 10 minutes." The whole game could be understood only by gauging White's state of mind when playing the game.
An unfortunate game by Divya, where her play seemed to be completely dominated by her nervous state of mind. She later admitted her difficulty in coming to terms with this loss and mentioned the help of her father, whose encouraging words and presence helped her to settle down.
Meanwhile, Ju won a fluent game against Savitha Shri, where she once again capitalized on her opponent's pawn blunder in the middlegame with a calm conversion in the endgame.
Thus, after the eighth and penultimate round, Ju had caught up with Divya in the lead on six points. In the fight for third place, Shuvalova followed the leaders with five points, followed by Humpy and GM Harika Dronavalli with four points.
As the tense last round began, it was impossible not to notice Ju's comparative pairing advantage over Divya on paper: while Ju was to face Ushenina with the white pieces, Divya's task looked especially tough, as she was playing a resurgent Humpy who was coming into the last round with three wins in a row, against Batsiashvili, Savitha Shri, and Ushenina.
Humpy's eighth-round win was especially commendable, as she sacrificed a piece and unleashed an attack on Ushenina's king, even though she had only about half a minute on her clock.
Read more at Venkatachalam Saravanan's report on chess.com