Ju Wenjun was born in the year China got its first-ever World champion in chess. Xie Jun’s victory over Maia Chiburdanidze at the 1991 World championship did not merely end the Soviet Union’s — or Georgia’s — domination of women’s chess, it also marked the emergence of China as the undisputed superpower.
Xie has had quite a few successors, Ju being the latest. Zhu Chen, Xu Yuhua, Hou Yifan and Tan Zhongyi enjoyed reigns as the queen of international chess between 2001 and 2018.
Ju has been a serial World championship winner. After clinching her first title in 2018, she has defended it three times. Her latest triumph came just a few weeks ago, beating Lei Tingjie in a match that was staged in both their hometowns: the first six games were played at Shanghai and the last six at Chongqing.
At the end of the first half, which was played in her city, Shanghai, Ju found herself trailing 2.5-3.5. She had lost the fifth game, and all others had been drawn.
Ju, however, equalised by winning the eighth game and it all boiled down to the last game, with the scores tied at 5.5-5.5. The defending champion won it to extend her tenure yet again as the queen of world chess.
The latest victory was special because she hadn’t been playing a lot of classical chess — the format for the title match. “I prepared for more than six months but it took me some time to settle down for the match,” Ju told The Hindu at Kolkata, where she was the biggest female star at the Tata Steel Chess India tournament. “And Tingjie is a very strong player.”
She didn’t pay too much attention to the home-advantage factor. “Yes, there is a lot of support for me in Shanghai, and chess is very popular in Chongqing too,” she says. “And this wasn’t the first time I was playing the World title final in two cities. When I won my first title, in 2018, after beating Tan Zhongyi, two cities hosted it jointly: in fact, it was Shanghai and Chongqing, too.”
She says she doesn’t think of the benefit or pressure of playing at home. “I just focused on my chess,” she says. “While I play, I don’t think about winning or losing. In the title match this time around, I think both of us played some good games.”
Looking back at her first title, she says it was a dream come true. “Ever since I started playing chess as a professional, I wanted to be the World champion,” says Ju. “I had taken an early lead, winning two of the first three games and it was very exciting indeed to become the World champion for the first time. I had trained really hard for it. My coach Ni Hua was a great help. He helped me improve my chess.”
Ju defended her title just six months later, this time in a knockout format, after defeating Kateryna Lagno of Russia in the final. “I wasn’t expecting to win, as anything could happen in a knockout tournament,” she recalls. “I just wanted to play some nice chess.”
She says her third title, won in 2020, was the toughest. Her rival was Aleksandra Goryachkina of Russia. That match too was played in two venues — Shanghai and Vladivostok.
“I think Goryachkina prepared well for the match and she fought really hard,” Ju says. “It was for the first time I was playing someone much younger than me in a title match. I think she is eight years younger. In many games, I was not so good, but luckily I won two games in a row towards the end and then won the tie-breaker as well.”
Ju has also been the World rapid champion. She won it in 2017 and retained it the following year.
When she won her first World rapid title, at Riyadh, Viswanathan Anand was the champion in the open section, at the age of 48. “Yes, it was a remarkable performance by Anand,” she says.
In 2000, Anand had become the first male World champion from Asia. But, Xie had given Asia its first World title nine years earlier.
Ju feels Xie winning the World title for the first time was a turning point for the game in China.
“Many people started playing chess after she won that World title in 1991,” says Ju. “And now it is great we have a male World champion, too, in Ding Liren. We tried to work hard for many years and played many tournaments and eventually got a World champion in the open section.”
She was impressed by Ding’s performance in his thrilling title match against Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi. “He works a lot and has played in several top-level classical and rapid tournaments,” she says. “I think he knew how to play in the 14-game World title match.”
Ju herself knows a thing or two about winning matches and tournaments, as she showed in Kolkata early this week. She won the blitz title at the Tata Steel Chess India with a superb performance.
She had done rather well in the rapid section earlier, but could only finish runner-up to Divya Deshmukh, the 17-year-old who proved a sensation after coming in as a last-minute replacement for R. Vaishali. Ju, though, was the only unbeaten player in the rapid event.
This was her first visit to India. “I felt nice being here in Kolkata,” she said. “It was an excellent tournament and I liked the idea of equal prize-money. This will help women’s chess.”
Koneru Humpy finished runner-up to her in the blitz event. Ju has great respect for the Indian star. “She is a very strong, solid, strategic and positional player. She has won so many tournaments. She has been the India No. 1 for so long.”
Ju also thinks highly of India’s young male talents, such as D. Gukesh, R. Praggnanandhaa, Arjun Erigaisi and Nihal Sarin. “They are all very talented,” she says. “They have a bright future.”