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On Chess: Hou Yifan sits on top the women's chess world

Hou Yifan from the Women's Grand Prix
FIDE Women's Grand Prix

The first leg of the Women’s Grand Prix recently ended in Monaco, with Hou Yifan of China coming out on top over the current international champion Mariya Muzychuk of Ukraine. Humpy Koneru of India was third.

Before looking at that specific tournament, it may be useful to examine how chess chooses its champions.

The Grand Prix first began in 2008, giving the winner a spot in the Candidates Tournament. The winner of the Candidates Tournament then challenges the current World Champion for the title. Other ways to qualify for the Candidates Tournament are by rating, finishing in the top two in the World Cup and one wildcard reserved for the tournament organizer. The Grand Prix essentially added another series of strong tournaments for top players in the chess circuit which is a nice addition both for players and chess fans.

The tournaments mentioned above are, by and large, male events. They are open to women, but few have the ranking to be admitted.

The Women's Grand Prixkicked off in 2009; but unfortunately it did not fit in the Women's World Championship cycle as nicely as the overall Grand Prix. Since 2000, the Women's World Champion was determined in a knockout style tournament, similar to the World Cup (which recently ended in Baku). Starting in 2010, FIDE announced that in even years, the World Championship title would go to the winner of said knockout tournament. In odd years, it will be a match between the reigning World Champion and the winner of the Women's Grand Prix. Our current women's World Champion, the victor of this year's knockout event in Sochi, is GM Mariya Muzychuk.

Grand Prix & Women's World Champion

Even though I have played in two of these knockout World Championship tournaments, it was not until writing this article that I really understood the Women's World Championship cycle and where the Grand Prix fits in. Why do we need a new Women's World Champion every single year, with two completely different types of tournaments? Why couldn’t the Women's World Championship cycle mirror the overall one with its logical construct.

With all the criticism aside, the Women's Grand Prix offers the top women in the world an opportunity to compete against each other and earn a decent living by doing so. In Europe, women-only events and women's prizes in major opens are common. Some of the top women play exclusively in these events and have faced each other dozens of times. FIDE had recently announced the Women's Grand Prix 2015-16, which will give the winner the right to challenge the Women's World Champion in 2017. The series consists of four tournaments and 16 participants. Each tournament is a 12-player round robin.

Two of the nominees based on FIDE regulations are former Women's World Champions Alexandra Kosteniuk and Antoaneta Stefanova. Each host country may also invite a wildcard. The 12 qualified players play in only three stops of the Grand Prix and the winner is determined via cumulative points.

In Monte Carlo

The first leg of the Grand Prix series was held in the famous casino in Monte Carlo from Oct. 2-16 with a total prize fund of 60,000 euros. Playing in a famous and beautiful location is definitely a refreshing change from the usual questionable locales where some of these high-profile tournaments are held. Personally, I think good conditions and scenic locations inspire some amazing fighting chess.

The participants in Monte Carlo were:

Hou, Yifan, GM, China    2671

Koneru, Humpy, GM, India   2578

Dzagnidze, Nana, GM, Georgia  2573

Muzychuk, Anna, GM, Ukraine  2549

Kosteniuk, Alexandra, GM, Russia   2530

Muzychuk, Mariya, GM, Ukraine  2528

Cramling, Pia, GM, Sweden  2513

Stefanova, Antoaneta, GM, Bulgaria   2500

Zhukova, Natalia, GM, Ukraine  2482

Pogonina, Natalija, WGM, Russia   2445

Skripchenko, Almira, IM, France   2441

Khademalsharieh, Sarasadat, IM, Iran     2397

The tournament started with a big surprise: The current highest rated woman in the world and several time world champion lost to her closest rival Humpy Koneru  in round two. However, a professional such as Hou Yifan knows that an early loss in a long tournament is not the end of the world. She clearly proved this by winning the event. This came as no surprise as Hou Yifan has been dominating the world of women's chess and is quite close to crossing the 2700 mark.

Hou has won every single Grand Prix with Koneru always finishing at a striking distance in second place. Surely the early win against the Chinese player has given Koneru some hope of finally breaking the pattern, but once again Hou proved why she's the undisputed top ranked female in the world.

The fresh face of the tournament was the Iranian Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, who started the tournament well with three draws but unfortunately lost the rest of her games. No doubt, this was a great experience for the youngster who has been improving rapidly and has gained about 100 rating points over the year.

The most surprising performance was by Anna Muzychuk, Mariya's sister. For a long time Anna was the stronger sister and one of the few female players in the world to have crossed 2600. Unfortunately, the past year has not been kind to her as she has lost about 50 rating points and hasn't had any strong performances. Even so, finishing second to last and losing another 15 rating points was an unexpected and a disappointing result for such a strong player.

One of the most notable performances of the tournament was PiaCramling's 4th place finish. As the oldest participant in the event, Cramling still remains one of the most active players in the world - far more active than some of the younger players in the Grand Prix! She had an incredible run in Sochi, making it all the way to quarterfinals but ultimately losing to Natalija Pogonina. In the game of chess, where the younger players are almost always favored, Cramling's continually excellent performances have been quite inspiring and motivating.

You can meet Hou Yifan Nov. 12-15 at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis in the St. Louis Showdown.

The most intriguing and highly anticipated game of the tournament was the one between Mariya Muzychuk and Hou Yifan. The two are set to play a match for the Women's World Champion's title in March 2016, and Muzychuk losing with the white pieces is not a positive sign for her chances. Chess fans are hoping that the match won't be as one sided as 2013, when the Chinese player won four games and the title after mere seven rounds without having to finish the 10 game match. Hou Yifan is the clear favorite both by rating and experience, but Muzychuk has been improving rapidly and hopefully will be in good form and prepared enough to make it a close match.

The second leg of the Grand Prix is set for February 2016 in Kish, Iran. Being scheduled so close to the World Championship, it is likely that Mariya Muzychuk and Hou Yifan have already chosen to opt out, which will make Humpy Koneru the clear favorite.

You can meet Hou Yifan Nov. 12-15 at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis in the St. Louis Showdown. For more information, visit www.uschesschamps.com.
For more about the recently concluded Women's Grand Prix, including results, games and standings can be found at monaco2015.fide.com/; for the Grand Prix series go to www.fide.com/component/content/article/1-fide-news/8981-fide-womens-grand-prix-2015-2016.html

Tatev Abrahamyan started playing chess at 8 after her father took her to the 1996 Chess Olympiad in Yerevan, Armenia. There she met Grandmaster Judit Polgar, arguably the greatest female player of all time and the only woman in the tournament. Currently the third highest rated female in the U.S., she has represented the United States in four Olympiads and two World Team Championships since 2008.