When Players Become Pawns

Accusations of off-board skulduggery can be a powerful tool of psychological warfare

Chess
Ukraine's Mariya Muzychuk: Her world title match against Yifan Hou was marred by petty accusations by both countries' delegations (Vitaliy Hrabar CC BY-SA 4.0)

World chess championship matches have unfortunately become notorious for the outrageous suspicions that each player has developed about the other’s conduct. This is typically manifested by accusations (never substantiated) of cheating. To be fair to the actual combatants, these claims tend to be made by their delegations, and in some cases represent institutionalised paranoia.

For example, in the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match, the Soviet delegation proposed that their American counterparts were employing unspecified electronic devices to befuddle Boris Spassky’s brainwaves. At their request, the players’ chairs were taken apart. The only unexpected contents turned out to be two dead flies.

Then in 1978, when the USSR’s Anatoly Karpov played the Russian defector Viktor Korchnoi, the latter’s delegation demanded the yoghurt that Karpov was delivered during the games be of the same colour, to avoid the possibility of information being contained by variations in the flavours sent to him by the Soviet team chef.

Most unpleasant of all, in the 2006 world title match between Russia’s Vladimir Kramnik and the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov, the latter’s manager, Silvio Danailov, accused Kramnik of using a computer in his frequent trips to the lavatory during the games. This became known as “Toilet-gate”. There was not the slightest substance to the charge and to this day Kramnik refuses to shake hands with Topalov when they play each other.

Until now, however, the women’s world championship had been mercifully free of such psychological warfare. But in a remarkably frank interview in the latest issue of the Dutch publication New In Chess, China’s Yifan Hou revealed just how much her recent world title match against Ukraine’s Mariya Muzychuk had been disfigured by off-the-board tactics.

From the start, the Chinese delegation had been concerned about illicit advantages that the 23-year-old world champion Muzychuk — a year Hou’s senior — might be offered as a result of the event being staged in her home city of Lviv. So the Chinese team insisted that all radio signals to the auditorium be cut, and the transmission of the moves to those outside be delayed by half an hour. It was not until the day before the match started that the Ukrainian organisers conceded on this point, when it became clear that the Chinese would otherwise walk out.

But as Hou made plain in her interview, the home team took petty revenge for this imputation of dishonesty: “During the first half of the match, every day I would receive some complaint that was directly aimed at me personally, which really made me unhappy and it was disturbing. Minor issues, you cannot imagine. For example, after game two, they said I could not wear my jeans and sports shoes to the games. They said it was written into the contract. But there was nothing there. Not a single word.”

Hou also revealed how her opponent wrote to the arbiter that the Chinese grandmaster should not be allowed to continue to bring to the board the glass bottle with oil that she used as a kind of insect repellent. In fact Hou never needed to open the bottle, so was understandably furious when Muzychuk insisted she was being disturbed by the smell the oil gave off.

Anyway, none of these minor acts of provocation prevented Hou from winning the match comfortably, by three wins to nil, with six draws. So she regained the world title she first won at the remarkable age of 16, and had relinquished only when she declined to defend it in 2015.

After the events in Lviv, Hou indicated that she was no longer prepared to take part in the women’s world championship; and given that she is so much stronger than any other active female player, it makes sense, as she said in her interview, to concentrate on the much tougher elite events in which all her opponents will be men: “This was just a match I wanted to finish. There are many stronger tournaments and bigger challenges in the future where I can try to be a better player.”

I can only add that I know both Yifan and Mariya. They are decent and scrupulous women. I very much doubt that, on their own, they would ever get involved in vexatious behaviour designed to undermine the psychological wellbeing of an opponent.

The problem is that world championship matches are freighted not just with significance for the individuals concerned, but also national pride. When the latter is involved, especially with countries where sport has been thoroughly politicised, the players themselves can become the pawns in a much bigger game — and one which is anything but sporting.    

Now (with relief) back to the board. The best game from this tense encounter was the second. Here it is, based on notes from Yifan Hou herself.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Nxe4 (Muzychuk shows her aggressive intent by playing this, the Open Defence against Hou’s favourite Spanish Opening) 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6 9.Be3 Be7 10.c3 0-0 11.Nbd2 Qd7 12.Bc2 Nxd2 13.Qxd2 Bg4 14.Bf4!? (A novelty from Hou, allowing Black to shatter her K-side pawn structure, but giving White the better minor pieces in an open game) Bxf3 15.gxf3 Rad8 16.Rfd1! (A profound idea. It looks more natural to play the Queen’s Rook to d1, but Hou wants this piece to enter the game via the a-file) Qe6 17.Qe3 Rd7? (Dubious, according to Hou, who recommends 17…Na5) 18.Bg3 g6 19.a4 Nd8? (Hou criticises this, too, calling 19…b4 essential) 20.axb5 axb5 21.f4 f6 22.exf6 Qxf6 23.Qe2! (Hou begins her assault on Black’s weak White squares) c6 24.Qg4 Rb7 25.f5 Bd6 26.Ra6 (Now we see why Hou wanted to keep this Rook on the a-file) Rg7 27.fxg6 Bc5? (The losing error: Hou says Black could defend after 27…Bxg3 28.Qxg3 Qe6!) 28.Kg2 hxg6 29.Rxd5! (The triumph of Hou’s light-square strategy. Of course Black can’t capture this, as then her Queen is lost) Bxf2 30.Bb3 Ne6 31. Rd6 (A quite devastating accumulation of pins) Bc5 32.Qxe6+ and Muzychuk resigned.