For the fifth time, the championship took the form of a 64-player knock-out tournament.
Players were seeded by their Elo ratings (July 2008 list), except that defending champion Xu Yuhua was the no. 1 seed.
The world's no. 1 female player (and 22nd overall), Judit Polgár, has never competed for the Women's World Championship and did not play this time either. World no. 3 and ex-champion, Xie Jun, had played little chess in recent years (four rated games since 2005) and also did not appear. Also 2006 World Championship's runner-up Alisa Galliamova didn't participate. Other absentees from the top 20 were Kateryna Lahno (ranked 12th), ex-champion Zhu Chen (15th) and Elina Danielian (16 th).
Some players refused to go to Nalchik. In their letters to FIDE, Canadian Natalia Khoudgarian and American Irina Krush both cited the general safety in the region of North Caucasus.
More players protested after the start of the 2008 South Ossetia war. On 12 August 2008, six Georgian players published an open letter asking to move the Championship to a safer place, which was endorsed by several other players (Monika Soćko, Irina Krush, Iweta Rajlich, Ketino Kachiani-Gersinska, Tea Bosboom-Lanchava, Claudia Amura, and Marie Sebag). On 15 August, the Chess Federation of Georgia published an open letter stating that the Georgian players will not participate in the Championship unless it is moved to another country. Argentinian Claudia Amura, whose opponent in the first round is Georgian Lela Javakhishvili, also published a letter to FIDE asking for the Championship to be moved.
The FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov published two letters in reply, on 13 August and 19 August. In his letters, he confirmed that the Championship would be held in Nalchik, appealed to everyone not to mix politics and sport, and stated that the organizers provided all the necessary security. This was seconded by Boris Kutin, president of the European Chess Union, and Arsen Kanokov, president of Kabardino-Balkaria and the chairman of the organizing committee. On 21 August, Ilyumzhinov published a letter to Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili asking him to let Georgian players participate.
A total of 11 players did not arrive at the Championship. Besides the six Georgian players (Maia Chiburdanidze, Lela Javakhishvili, Maia Lomineishvili, Nino Khurtsidze, Sopiko Khukhashvili, and Sopio Gvetadze), these were Marie Sebag (France), Irina Krush (United States), Ekaterina Korbut (Russia), Tea Bosboom-Lanchava (Netherlands), and Karen Zapata (Peru).
The Championship was conducted as a single-elimination tournament with 64 players and six rounds. In each encounter, players played two games at normal time controls (90 minutes for the first 40 moves followed by 30 minutes for the rest of the game, with an increment of 30 seconds per move from move one). If the score after two games was level, the tie-break was played. In the tie-break, two rapid games were played (25 minutes for the game, with addition of 10 seconds after each move). If the score was level after the rapid games, two blitz games were played (5 minutes for the game, with addition of 10 seconds after each move). If the score was level after the blitz, the decisive armageddon game was played. The time control was 6 minutes for White and 5 minutes for Black, with no addition. If the game was drawn, Black is declared the winner. The colours in the armageddon games were chosen by the player who won the drawing of lots.
In the final, four regular games were played instead of two, and the first (rapid) phase of tie-break would also have consisted of four games.
The final tiebreak game in the first round match between Monika Soćko and Sabina-Francesca Foisor ended in controversy. It was an armageddon blitz game in which Soćko (as White) had 6 minutes compared to 5 minutes Foisor (as Black), but White must win the game to advance to the next round whereas Black only needed to draw (or win). With time running out, a position was reached in which each player had only a king and a knight, a material combination which is a draw under normal circumstances. Just after this, Foisor's time ran out and the arbiter Zsuzsanna Veroci ruled it a draw, meaning that Foisor would advance. Soćko immediately protested, showing a position where checkmate is possible (but cannot be forced) and reminding the arbiters of the FIDE rules of chess which state that if one player runs out of time and the opponent has the possibility of checkmate, that player loses. Soćko filed an appeal, and the Appeals Committee agreed that she was correct on the rules. The game was ruled a win for Soćko and she advanced to the next round.
|Alexandra Kosteniuk (Russia)||1||½||½||½||2½|
|Hou Yifan (China)||0||½||½||½||1½|
|1st Round||2nd Round||3rd Round||Quarterfinals||Semifinals||Finals|
|16||Le Thanh Tu||½|
|52||Sarai Sanchez Castillo||½|
|51||Nguyen Thi Thanh An||1|
|51||Nguyen Thi Thanh An||w/o|
|15||Hoang Thanh Trang||1½|
|50||Maritza Arribas Robaina||½|
|15||Hoang Thanh Trang||1½|
|15||Hoang Thanh Trang||½|
|63||Yorsa Alaa El Din||0|