When Hou Yifan (cover and top left) won the second game of her Women’s World Championship match against Mariya Muzychuk in Lviv, the many pundits who had predicted a walkover for the Chinese star appeared to have been vindicated.
Hou, 22, entered the match ranked far higher than Muzychuk, and her two previous title matches comfortably.
On the other hand Muzychuk, 23, had never played a head-to-head match of any length – though according to the world body FIDE she was the defending Champion, having won a knock-out tournament (which Hou skipped) a year ago.
Muzychuk did at least enjoy a home ground advantage in Lviv, with a powerful team of seconds including top Grandmasters Eljanov Kryvoruchko as well as her GM sister Ana Muzychuk.
After three games of the 10 game title match Hou held a 2-1 lead and appeared to be cruising, but then Muzychuk began her comeback.
A dramatic fourth game, given below saw Hou, playing White, out-prepared in the opening and forced to find a series of perfect moves just to stay in the game.
The next game Hou had White again but again had to work to survive. At a point in the match where Hou was expected to have pulled clear, Muzychuk remained well in the contest – a situation Hou had never faced before.
It was clear from the body language of the players at the post-game press conferences that the initiative had changed hands. After her second game defeat Muzychuk’s voice had been so soft as to be almost inaudible; now she spoke with confidence.
The city of Lviv, which had hosted the contest in the grand Potocki Palace (below) and had used innovative methods ranging from a flash mob to a giant chocolate knight to promote the match, could be pleased that hometown girl Muzychuk had forced Hou to fight seriously for the title (as opposed to the cakewalks that her previous two world title matches had become).
Unfortunately for the locals, the next two games were the turning point in Muzychuk’s demise; from two excellent positions Muzychuk emerged with only half a point and the match was effectively over.
Muzychuk fought to the finish – pushing too hard in the ninth and final game looking for her elusive first win – but the 6-3 score was a reasonable reflection of the gap between the two players. As Muzychuk observed at the end of the contest, “One must understand that a desire to win is not enough.”
Lviv Women’s World Championship 2016
White: Hou Yifan
Opening: Ruy Lopez