Ju’s Sicilian Gives Her Edge Before Last 3 World Championship Games

Ju's Sicilian Gives Her Edge Before Last 3 World Championship Games


Women’s World Champion Ju Wenjun played the Sicilian Defense for the first time in the 2023 FIDE Women’s World Championship and went on to make a comfortable draw with the black pieces, despite GM Lei Tingjie playing on until move 59. 

The score is 4.5-4.5, with Ju now having the advantage of playing White in two of the remaining three games, including in game 10, which starts on Wednesday, July 19, at 3:00 a.m. ET / 09:00 CEST. 

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The players had a rest day to recover from Ju leveling the scores by winning game eight, with Lei saying she appreciated being able to take “a long rest.” She added: “Today was just a brand new game, and I just tried my best to focus on playing chess.”

Game 9: Lei Tingjie ½-½ Ju Wenjun

If Ju has struggled to outprepare Lei, she’s at least managed to make herself a moving target. Photo: Stev Bonhage/FIDE.

For a fifth game in a row, Lei opened 1.e4, while for a third game in a row, Ju came up with a new first move, this time the Sicilian Defense with 1…c5.

That was a move many were anticipating after Ju fell behind in the match, but perhaps a surprise now that she’d leveled the scores.

It seems all but impossible to surprise Lei in this match, however, and, in a line of the Four Knights that had brought GM Ray Robson victory with the white pieces over GMs Wang Hao and Boris Gelfand on the way to winning the recent Prague Masters, Lei made the first new move. 10.a3 was pointed out by a Super-GM who had a day earlier complained about a lack of coverage of the match.

Sure enough, Ju sank into a 17-minute think before coming up with what turned out to be a strong choice, 10…Rc8! It had the virtue of being an interesting option that did no harm to Black’s position, while also not being one of the computer’s top suggestions.

That meant it was Lei’s turn to start thinking for herself, as she did for the next 15 minutes, before 11.c4 allowed Ju to play the stylish 11…Ne3! 

The point of the move is that although the e3-knight can be taken, as it was with 12.Bxe3, Black in return captures the white knight on e4 with 12…Bxe4.

The key question was whether White would be in time to generate threats against Black’s cramped position before Ju could free herself, and that question was ultimately answered in the negative when Ju made a move GM Ben Finegold has warned us never to play, 16…f6! 

The point is that even when it seems justified, the move can fatally weaken your own king, but in this case there was no refutation in sight. Instead, the e5-pawn, a thorn in Black’s side, was about to disappear from the board, one way or another. 

Lei remains an intense presence. Photo: Stev Bonhage/FIDE.

An early day looked like a possibility, but both Chinese stars have shown fantastic fighting spirit in the match, and game nine was no exception. The quiet position still contained venom, as we saw after Lei’s 21.Rb1.

The straightforward 21…Bf6 is perfectly sufficient for Black, but there were other options in the air. Polgar noted 21…Rc6? was an obvious move, and it would be a strong one if not for a shocking queen sacrifice that she quickly spotted!

That possibility, and the fact that there was nothing better, justified White’s 21st move, but Ju was not only careful to avoid that, but she unleashed another tactical trick in the position with 21…Be5!

The point was 22.Qxe5 Rf5! and Black wins the bishop on c5 as well as putting heavy pressure on the c4-pawn. The fact that Lei spent a couple of minutes before capturing the bishop on e5, absolutely an only move not to lose, suggested to Polgar that the challenger had overlooked the idea entirely: 

“I think Lei simply blundered this—she’s in a shock! She, who is tactical, who is so good, how could she blunder that?”

As blunders go, however, this one spoiled nothing, and Lei soon had her mojo back as she sacrificed a pawn in exchange for heavy pressure on Black’s clumped pieces. 

The position after 29…Kh8.

There was no way for either side to make progress.

When Ju finally gave back the pawn to free her pieces we got an endgame where White had a nominal advantage, but only a serious blunder by Black could have lost the game. Ju commented: “I was not that worried about my position, because I thought, ok, there are not many pieces left and it should be fine for Black”.

The world champion was precision personified, as the game finally ended in a 59-move draw. 

 GM Rafael Leitao has annotated the game below.

That left the scores tied at 4.5-4.5, with just three classical games left to go before a potential playoff. 

Fed Name Rtg 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 Score
Ju Wenjun 2564 ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 ½ ½ 1 ½

Lei Tingjie 2554 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ 0 ½


Ju has both the advantage of two Whites in the remaining games, and all the experience of being in this position before, but Lei retained her positive outlook.

She commented about her first experience of a long match:

“We already played, how many rounds, nine? We still have three left, so for me I think this match is interesting. I think it will be interesting for the next three games.”

“May you live in interesting times!” is often claimed to be a Chinese curse. Photo: Stev Bonhage/FIDE.

Let’s hope that’s an understatement, with the action resuming on Wednesday, when Ju will have the white pieces. 

The 2023 FIDE Women’s World Championship (FWWC) is the most important women’s over-the-board event of the year. The defending women’s world champion, GM Ju Wenjun, faces the challenger, GM Lei Tingjie, to see who will be crowned world champion. The championship started on July 5 and boasts a €500,000 prize fund.

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