Grandmaster D Harika's title aspirations suffered a major blow as she lost to Antoaneta Stefanova of Bulgaria in the first game of the semi-final at World Women's chess championship in Khanty, Mansiysk, Russia.
Despite displaying top form so far, Harika could not get things moving well in the first game and went down rather easily.
The next game is a must-win for the Indian GM as that's the only way to proceed to the tie-breaker with some respite.
There was a difference in approach as the Indian tried to make things happen, while the Stefanova waited patiently for something to come her way, which eventually did.
Harika had slight initiative at the cost of a pawn. Normal play in the middle game would have yielded a decent result but in her bid to push for more, Harika went haywire with a piece sacrifice. The Bulgarian had to correctly calculate a few lines thereafter and she did not falter.
Harika's attempts for further counter-play were met with cold-water treatment. Stefanova won in 39 moves.
The Indian now faces a tall task. While the Bulgarian has seen this kind of pressure earlier, as she won the world championship in 2004, for Harika this is her maiden appearance in the semi-finals.
If Harika wins the return game, it will not only help her remain in the event, but will also boost her confidence as she had already made a comeback to beat Zhao Xue of China in the previous round.
The other semi-final between Anna Ushenina of Ukraine and Ju Wenjun of China ended in a draw and it gave the latter a slight upper hand in the return game.
Anna tried to make a foray in the King's Indian defense game against Wenjun but could not get any real advantage.
The peace was signed in just 28 moves.
The final will have four games.