Hollywood couldn’t even come up with a script like this to decide the outcome of the 1st Cairns Cup, the all-female super-tournament equivalent of the Sinquefield Cup, organized by the ever-inventive Saint Louis Chess Club to encourage more girls to play chess: the pre-tournament drawing of lots for the pairings, dictated that the two top-seeded Russians, Alexandra Kosteniuk and Valentina Gunina, would meet in the final round – and that added an extra twist to the eventual outcome of the competition, as both were the runaway leaders!
Fan-favourite Gunina held a half point advantage going into the final round and only needed to avoid losing to take all the marbles of the tile and the $40,000 first prize. But the pressure, tension and mounting fatigue on display for both players made for a thrilling rollercoaster of a game that, due to the vagaries of the mutual time scramble, could have gone in any direction at one stage. But in the end, when the dust had settled, the ever-resourceful Gunina held her nerve to find an easy route to safeguard the draw to take the title.
And with it, the Russian grandmaster captured the biggest win of her career to-date, adding to her impressive haul of three European Championship title, three Russian Women’s Championship titles, and her 2016 London Chess Classic Super Rapidplay Open victory, and now Cairns Cup title. “I was so nervous,” the ever-smiling Gunina admitted at the end. “My brain just stopped. As yesterday, I was so exhausted. My brain just said: ‘OK darling, you wanted to play this game, but I don’t want to play’ and just stopped! These last two games were a mess. I played so solid before and now I’m just too exhausted.”
Gunina, with a spectacular +5 performance, took the title and $40,000 first prize with her unbeaten score of 7/9, half a point ahead of Kosteniuk, on 6½ points, who took home the runners-up prize of $30,000. In third place was top American Irina Krush, on 5½ points, who took home $20,000.
1. V. Gunina (Russia) 7/9; 2. A. Kosteniuk (Russia) 6½; 3. I Krush (USA) 5½; 4. N. Dzagnidze (Georgia) 5; 5-6. D. Harika (India), Z. Abdumalik (Kazakhstan) 4½; 7. A. Zatonskih (USA) 3½; 8-9. B. Khotenashvili (Georgia), M. Sebag (France) 3; 10. E. Paehtz (Germany) 2½
Photo: A smiling Valentina Gunina, with much to smile about winning the inaugural Cairns Cup title! | © Crystal Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club
GM Alexandra Kosteniuk – GM Valentina Gunina
1st Cairns Cup, (9)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 A bit of a strategic surprise, as Gunina usually prefers to play the Caro-Kann Defence. But with this being the last round crucial showdown with everything on the line, Gunina opts instead to avoid walking into a well-prepared line by Kosteniuk. 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3 Bc5 5.Bxc6 dxc6 6.Nbd2 Nd7 7.Nc4 Qe7 The solid set-up – however, the e5 pawn is not really under attack, as after multiple exchanges on e5, …Qd4 wins on the spot. 8.a3 a5 9.b3 0-0 10.Bb2 f6 Black has a super-solid position now, with White’s Bb2 and two knights biting on granite on e5 – an ideal scenario when you are trying to kill complications for an opponent – needing to win – looking for a wild and complex game. 11.0-0 Nb6 12.Ne3 a4 13.b4 Bxe3 14.fxe3 Bg4 15.Qe1 c5 16.Nh4?! Perhaps a psychological ploy by Kosteniuk, sensing now was the time to throw down the gauntlet in an all-out effort to complicate the game; the only hope she has of being able to win to take the title. 16…cxb4 17.axb4 Nc8 18.b5 Nd6 19.Ba3 Qd7 20.h3 Be6 21.c4 b6 22.Bb4 c5! 23.bxc6 Forced, otherwise Kosteniuk’s bishop will risk being locked out of the game – but by opening the position up, it comes with the risk of making Gunina’s passed a-pawn a major headache to have to deal with. 23…Qxc6 24.Ba3 Rfd8 25.Qg3 Kh8 26.Qf3 Kg8 27.Rad1 Nf7 28.Qg3 Kh8! Gunina simply shuffles her king out of the danger of the threat of Ba3-e7xf6. And with it, now Kosteniuk has to worry about the prospect of Gunina pushing her passed a-pawn up the board. 29.Rf2?! That said 29.Be7 was still Kosteniuk’s best chance – but with a cool head, Black retains the initiative after 29…Re8 30.Rxf6!? Qd7! (Black just has to keep a clear head, as 30…Rxe7?? 31.Nf5! turns the tables with White winning.) 31.Rxe6 Qxe6 32.Nf5 Qg6 and as the dust settles, White will be forced now to trade queens, and Black’s material advantage, coupled with the powerful passed a-pawn, will eventually convert for the win. 29…Ra7 30.Rfd2 Rad7 31.Nf3 Forced, otherwise …Bxc4 crashes through for the win – but removing the knight from the fray stymies White’s chances of a counter-attack. 31…b5! It’s a winning move that should have seen Gunina ending the tournament on a high with yet another win to add to her tally, but she fails to find the crucial follow-up that would have left Kosteniuk fighting for her very survival – but a little time pressure and nerves plays its hand to keep Kosteniuk in the game. 32.cxb5 Qxb5? There’s just no answer to the all-powerful queen move 32…Qc3! 33.Bb2 Qb3 pilling on the pressure on the d3- and e3-pawns, and also threatening to simply push the a-pawn up the board to a2. 33.d4 Bb3 34.Rc1 Qb7 35.Qg4 Nh6 36.Qh4 Bf7 37.Rb2! Full credit to Kosteniuk for making the most of what she can for her pieces during the time scramble, as, remarkably, she’s turned the tables on her compatriot. 37…Qa7 38.Rc6 Ng8 Not an easy position to navigate in a mutual time scramble, but Black could so easily have fallen down the rabbit hole of 38…Bg6? 39.Rxf6! exd4 40.Ne5 gxf6 41.Qxf6+ Kg8 42.Rb6 and with hits on d7 and g6, White is winning. 39.Bc5?! The mutual time scramble strikes again! Admittedly, it does look good, but ultimately it just paves the way for the a-pawn to become a big game-saver. Stronger was 39.Rbb6! and suddenly Black is totally pegged back and fighting for survival. 39…Qa8 40.Rbb6 a3! And why not, as now the a-pawn isn’t blocked? 41.Ra6 a2! With time on her hands now, Gunina finds once more what should have been the title-winning move – but we still have some twists to come in a game played in a good fighting spirit by both players. 42.Qe1 Rb7 43.Nd2 Qb8 44.Rcb6 exd4 There was simply no answer to 44…Rc8! stopping d5 cutting off the protection of the strong a2-pawn, and now, after 45.Qa1 Nh6 White is helpless and can only watch on as Black threatens …f5 bringing his knight into the game. 45.exd4 Rxb6 46.Rxb6 Qf4 47.Ra6 The a-pawn has to be stopped – but stopping the a-pawn comes with further trades, and with it, no hopes whatsoever of Kosteniuk trying to contrive an unexpected win. 47…f5 48.d5 fxe4 49.Rxa2 Bxd5 50.Ra7 Ra8 51.Rxa8 Bxa8 52.Nc4 Credit where credit is due. Kosteniuk is material behind, but she simply isn’t going to make life easy for Gunina by offering the draw – but Gunina soon finds an ingenious way to completely kill the game. 52…Nf6 53.Bd4 e3 54.Qxe3 Qxe3+ 55.Nxe3 Ne8 56.g4 Kg8 57.Kf2 Kf7 58.Kg3 Nf6 59.Nc4 Bd5 60.Ne5+ Ke6 61.Kf4 h6 62.Nf3 Kf7 63.Bb2 g5+ 64.Ke3 Nxg4+! [see diagram] And with this timely piece sacrifice, Gunina liquidates the position down to a technical draw. 65.hxg4 Bxf3 66.Kxf3 Kg6 ½-½ The handshake comes, as there’s no way to prevent Black playing h5 and trading the last remaining White pawn on the board. But credit to both Russian leaders by leading by example for producing such an entertaining and gripping last round draw.