Interview with former world champion Alexander Khalifman, who was one of the seconds of Anna Ushenina during the Women’s World Championship Match.
Anastasiya Karlovich: It remains a mystery for many people still what happened to Anna Ushenina in the Women’s World Championship Match. Please tell us about it. What were the reasons of her defeat?
Alexander Khalifman: We realized that Yifan is a favorite of the match. At the same time, we did not consider the situation so much hopeless. It was clear Anya is weaker in some points. Another thing it was not easy to direct the fight into the right way. It was obvious that Anna gives way in speed and accuracy when calculating the variations.
We still believed Anna was able to keep the balance. Well, what to say, just everything started to fall apart, from the very first game, and it continued later on. It is difficult to estimate what happened. Whether Anya was not psychologically ready for the level of pressure, or something else, but there was one obvious problem she could not solve till the end – her time management.
One should not spend so much time! She should have done something with that during the match. Actually we should have tried to work on it before the match. I feel it was my fault as well. It became crucial when Yifan. having so many pluses already, could also add such an advantage as Anna’s time troubles in each game.
And then the third game was played. It was absolutely a terrible day! It is unclear what happened on that day. And yet, the real critical moment in the match was in the fifth game. It was the most important, the most decisive and actually the final one.
If Anna would have taken that unfortunate pawn on h4, I think she would have won this game. We could see that Hou Yifan felt uncomfortable at this point and the time was equal – a rare case during the match. The score could have been 2-3 and Anna could have taken the psychological initiative. The match could have started from the beginning. Of course it’s silly to say that Anna would have been the favorite.
Before the fourth game the dynamics of estimation in the games was in favor of Yifan. For the first time the evaluation could be changed in favour of Anna in the fourth game as Anna feels better than Yifan in such type of positions. In the fifth game it could have been developed. Another strategically complicated endgame happened and it was not enough to calculate variations only. It’s important to understand where to place the pieces. There was this moment of fight we were looking for. And at this very moment Anna decided to capture the pawn with comfort, but it did not work this way. Should Anya win the fifth game, we could have had an absolutely different, long and interesting match with almost equal chances. She lost her real chance and she was morally broken after that.
At this point, we really needed a day off. It was obvious that after that game she was under pressure, in a heavy state. The victory was so close, but instead she had to deal with minus two score. One can say that at this moment she lost faith in herself. And then it was a very strange sixth game, a very strange day, not that catastrophic as the third one, but still … It all started in the opening. She didn’t play what we prepared; she mixed one variation with another one.
And here one could only hope for the situation when Hou would lose concentration being so close to a success, but it did not happen. I can only say that Yifan deserved the victory. It was obvious she is well prepared, she is aware of the balance of power in the match, she realizes what to do, what to avoid.
However, I believe, despite the catastrophic final score, the pressure and the struggle lasted for a long time. I think that we could and we should have put more serious resistance.
A.K.: Don’t you think Anna had an additional psychological pressure due to the fact that such strong players were helping her, so big effort has been done?
Alexander Khalifman: I don’t think so. We didn’t have any slightest doubt that Hou Yifan was getting help from very skilled team as well, even we could not see those people here. These preparations of her and Perenyi Attack against Najdorf… It was clear she was not preparing with her mom and dad. I think Yifan got help from more people than Anna and they were quite strong. So I don’t think Anya should worry. I am sure she didn’t.
A.K.: Was it your first experience as a second in the Women’s match?
Alexander Khalifman: This could be my second experience. I was helping Alisa Galliamova during the training camp before the match with Xie Jun, which was also played in China. I could not attend the match because of schedule clash at that time. But I’ve some idea on women’s chess.
I can also say China is not an ideal place for such events.
A.K.: What is special in the women’s chess? Does psychological factor play great role?
Someone holds pressure better, others are more emotional. Everybody is different and it’s all very individual. It is not clear yet for me what happened in the third game, for example. What kind of emotional breakdown was it? This game was not following the logics of events. Such a terribly poor play! Most probably it was something not about chess, it could be something emotional and we need to think and deal with it.