Gibraltar, seized by the British in 1704, is an unlikely tiny outpost of quintessential Britishness at the mouth of the Mediterranean. This strategic, 2.3 square miles of land mass and 1,300ft of limestone is known affectionately by everyone as ‘The Rock’, and its one of the few remaining fragments of what was once colored pink in my old school atlas and claimed as part of the remnants of the dwindling British Empire. But nowadays the Rock is making its mark on another map, namely the chess map.
On Thursday the Crown dependancy concluded its sixteenth annual chess festival, sponsored by Tradewise Insurance, whose global headquarters are located on that rocky promontory. The festival is now firmly established as one of the world’s best-attended open tournaments, and much-loved by top grandmasters and lowly club players alike. The only disappointment is that – only due to the off-seasonal availability of the Caleta Hotel – it clashes halfway through the Tata Steel Chess Tournament in Wijk aan Zee.
It is also a tournament that’s become the fiefdom of Hikaru Nakamura, who this year was back again to defend his hat-trick of successive title wins. And for a brief moment, it looked as if the US #3 was romping to a fourth straight victory by getting off to a perfect start of 5/5 – but it was a very strong field in the Gibraltar Masters, and Nakamura didn’t have it all his own way this year.
A few draws later, and the formidable chasing pack had caught up with Nakamura. And in the big final round clash, the defending champion caught a little bit of luck when top seed Levon Aronian (see game below) couldn’t find ‘the (winning) rook of Gibraltar’ that might well have seen the amiable Armenian taking outright first place. Instead, with a strong field and a close race at the top, it all ended in one all-mighty logjam and a 7-way tie for first place on 7.5/10.
But the rules stipulate a single winner and the four players with the best performance going on to contest a speed playoff for the title and $35,000 (£25,000) first prize – and what a fighting quartette it was, with Maxim Vachier-Lagrave, Richard Rapport, Aronian and Nakamura all duking it out. In the first knockout playoff, Aronian beat Rapport, while MVL beat Nakamura in a close contest; and the final between the two top seeds almost went the distance of the Armageddon decider, before Aronian beat MVL to clinch the title.
1. Levon Aronian* (Armenia), 7½/10 (*on tiebreak); 2-7. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Richard Rapport (Hungary), Mickey Adams (England), Le Quang Liem (Vietnam), Nikita Vitiugov (Russia) also 7½.
Photo: Levon Aronian receives his winner’s cheque for £25,000 and trophy from Tradewise Chairman James Humphreys | © Sophie Triay (Gibraltar Chess Festival)
GM Levon Aronian – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Tradewise Gibraltar Masters, (10)
1.d4 d6 We all know that Nakamura is a maven of the King’s Indian Defence – but with so much at stake in this final round clash, this is a crafty move to sidestep a lot of Aronian’s preparation, while at the same time keeping his options open to get back into the KID. 2.e4 So why not the orthodox 2.c4 here? There are many reasons for this; the most obvious being that 2…e5 has a somewhat drawish reputation, and also Nakamura could play 2…g6 with a Modern Defence set-up, bidding his time for a possible switch into a KID. Rather than that, Aronian opts to play 2.e4 and a King’s pawn Pirc/Modern. 2…g6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 The Classical Two Knights was the long-time favourite of former world champion Anatoly Karpov, who used this as his main weapon against the Pirc, scoring many impressive positional squeeze-like wins through his career. 4…Bg7 5.Be3 Nc6 6.d5 Nb8 This is not really a waste of a move, as Black has forced White to make a committal move with his d-pawn, and this allows him to strike back with …c6 to liquidate the centre. 7.Qd2 c6 8.Be2 0-0 9.0-0 cxd5 10.exd5 b6 Nakamura is looking to play …Bb7 to keep Aronian tied down to defending his d-pawn, rather than giving him a free hand to attacking his king. 11.Bh6 Bb7 12.Bxg7 Kxg7 13.Nd4 a6 14.a4 White has emerged from the opening with more space and a comfortable advantage – but Aronian will have to force things to open the game up. 14…Nbd7 15.f4! The big threat is pushing on with f5 to open attacking lines towards Black’s king – and faced with this danger, Nakamura has to react quickly to generate his own counterplay. 15…b5 16.axb5 axb5 17.Bxb5 Nxd5 18.Nxd5 Bxd5 19.c4 Bb7 20.Rae1 Kg8 Prophylaxis plain and simple. Nakamura senses the danger and decides its best now rather than later to avoid any possible Qd4+. 21.Bxd7 Qxd7 22.f5 Qc7 23.Rf4! It’s the critical moment of White’s attack, and Aronian, being Aronian, opts to finesse his way to victory with the threat being Rh4 and Qh6 – but could he have fared better with the more direct, caveman route with 23.fxg6 hxg6 24.Nf5? Unfortunately, this is not so clear, as Black manages to hang in with 24…e6! 25.Nh6+ (If 25.Qxd6 Qxc4 26.Rf4 Qc2 27.Rf2 Qc4 and Black looks to have enough resources to stave off the direct assault.) 25…Kg7 26.Ng4 Rh8 27.Qf4! Qc5+ 28.Ne3 Rhf8 29.b4! Qe5 30.Qf2 Qg5 White certainly has the better of it with the centralised rooks, the hit on f7, and the passed b-pawn – but Black has ample resources with his active queen and bishop. 23…Qb6 24.Rh4 h5 [see diagram] 25.Rxh5? It’s tough in the heat of battle having to find a sure-fire winning line, and you can’t see the critical move that the all-seeing, omnipresent engine sees. But if you go for the jugular, you have to have a back-up plan just in case, and here Aronian bails-out with a forcing sacrifice that guarantees a repetition. But what he missed was that 25.Rf4! was very strong, forcing Black down the rabbit hole of 25…d5 and then 26.fxg6 fxg6 27.Rxf8+ Rxf8 28.Re6! Qc5 29.Qd3 dxc4 30.Qxg6+ Kh8 31.Qh6+ Kg8 32.Qe3! I’m presuming that Aronian simply overlooked this very strong retreating move (retreating winning moves in chess notoriously being the most difficult to spot) that covers everything and threatens to force home the win with Rg6+ – leaving the only defence being 32…Qd5 33.Qg3+ Kh7 34.Rxe7+ Rf7 35.Rxf7+ Qxf7 36.Qe5 and the dust has settled with White emerging with an extra pawn in the ending, and also possible future targets on h5 and c4. There’s lots of play still left in the position, but I dare say Aronian would have liked the opportunity to further squeeze Nakamura here rather than his bail-out with 25.Rxh5 that allowed a multi-player tie for first place and long-series of nerve-jangling speed playoff games! 25…gxh5 26.Qg5+ Kh7 27.Qxh5+ Kg8 28.Qg4+ Kh7 29.Qh4+ Kg8 30.Qg4+ Kh7 ½-½