It’s one perhaps for all those devoted trivia mavens out there, but can you name for me the first chess-player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated (SI) magazine? Most readers would likely have immediately gone for the temperamental American chess genius Bobby Fischer and felt they had the right answer; some perhaps might even have opted for another world champion in Garry Kasparov. But it wasn’t Fischer and it wasn’t Kasparov – and incredible as it might seem in a male-dominated game, it wasn’t even a man!
The answer is Lisa Lane, the two-time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion, who appeared on the front cover of August 7, 1961, edition of SI – the first of only two players to have adorned the front cover of the world’s premier sports magazine, and she did so a decade or so before her friend Bobby Fischer achieved this feat in 1972, en route to becoming World Champion. That original feature on Lane (by Robert Cantwell, entitled “Queen of Knights and Pawns”), was revisited recently with another article that appeared late last year in SI, on how equality still eludes women in chess even more than five decades after her groundbreaking appearance.
In the December 17, 2018 article by SI staff writer Emma Baccellieri – “More Than Five Decades After Lisa Lane’s Success, Equality Still Eludes Women in Chess” – there’s a telling quote from GM Susan Polgar, who believes women’s chess is more interesting to watch. “The women take more risks,” says Polgar. “They play more dynamically. And they make more mistakes, I’m the first to admit that. But from the fan’s perspective, I think they play more interesting games and they’re more enjoyable.”
And that seems to be the case with the ongoing 1st Cairns Cup at the Saint Louis Chess Club, the first all-female super-tournament. At the first rest day, top seed and former world champion, Alexandra Kosteniuk, is the front-runner with the sole lead on 4½/5, a half point behind Irina Krush and Valentina Gunina, in what’s turning into an exciting three-horse race for the title going down the home stretch.
But while Kosteniuk has a slender lead at the end of the fifth round, it turned out in this week of weeks to be Valentina’s day, as the Russian showed no love for her opponent in what many believe will be the best game of the tournament, as she blew away Maria Sebag with a series of spectacular sacrifices that led to checkmate.
1. A. Kosteniuk (Russia) 4½/5; 2-3. I. Krush (USA), V. Gunina (Russia) 4; 4-5. D. Harika (India), Z. Abdumalik (Kazhakstan) 2½; 6-7. A. Zatonskih (USA), N. Dzagnidze (Georgia) 2; 8. E. Paehtz (Germany) 1½; 9-10. M. Sebag (France), B. Khotenashvili (Georgia) 1.
Photo: Lisa Lane, the first chess-player to appear on the cover of SI
GM Valentina Gunina – GM Marie Sebag
1st Cairns Cup, (5)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Nb3 An innocent little move in the Najdorf, attributed to Poland’s Mateusz Bartel – but it far from innocent as it looks, as several games seen with this line have been packed with plenty of venom. 6…e6 The “Najdorf” move is 6…e5 – but here, as White hasn’t yet committed to Be2 (a la Karpov in his pomp) or even Be3, so has the freedom to play something different. But in adopting a Scheveningen set-up, Sebag sets herself up for walking into a pseudo-Keres Attack, one of White’s most potent weapons against the Scheveningen. 7.g4! Of course, otherwise 6.Nb3 is harmless. 7…b5 In the grand scheme of things, 7…b5 looks to be too early. Better, and more akin to the Keres Attack, is playing 7…Nc6 or even 7…h6. 8.g5 Nfd7 9.Bg2 Bb7 10.f4 Nc6 There may well be a case for delaying the development of the knight in preference for the bishop, by trying 10…Be7 which at least keeps Black’s options open, depending on how White continues. 11.h4 Well, if this isn’t a signal of intent by pushing Harry the h-pawn early doors, then I don’t know what is – and with it, Gunina has decided she’s going ‘all-in’ with the all-out attack. 11…Nb6 12.Qg4 Either very brave or very foolhardy. I think I would have instead opted for the more Keres Attack method with 12.Qe2 and following up with Be3 (or Bd2) and castling queenside. 12…b4 13.Ne2 Nc4 Either Gunina is gambling, or she’s sensed that her opponent is already feeling very uncomfortable with the position. 14.0-0?! a5 Nothing wrong with this per se, but the obvious continuation was surely 14…Qb6+!? 15.Kh1 Be7 and Black has the better and more solid position. 15.c3 e5 There’s always a dilemma knowing that the attack is looming, and how to react to it – but here, I think Black should have kept the e5 square vacant, as one of those knights swinging into e5 would both be defending and counter-attacking. 16.fxe5 dxe5 17.Qf3 The open lines soon become Sebag’s downfall. She’s not losing just now, far from it, as she has a good position – but suddenly she finds herself in a critical position and needing to play with extreme care. 17…Qc7 18.cxb4 Nxb4 19.Nc3 a4 20.Nb5!? Gunina has gambled everything on reaching this position and the coming pyrotechnics, and it all pays off big-time as Sebag makes a fatal error. 20…Qd7?? A great pity, as Sebag goes down in flames now after this silly move that only allows a vital extra attacking piece to join in the fun – her only chance of survival was to play in the spirit of the position with 20…Qb6+! 21.Kh2 Qxb5 22.Qxf7+ Kd8 23.g6 h6 24.Bxh6! axb3! and mutual mayhem on the board with any three results possible. Thankfully, the playing engines show us that Black is not without resources here, and how it will likely all pan out with 25.Bxg7 Bxg7 26.Qxg7 Rxh4+ 27.Kg3 Rf4! 28.Rh1! Qd7! 29.Rh8+ (The alternatives all backfire, such as 29.Rad1 Rg4+ 30.Kh3 Bd5!! 31.Qxd7+ Kxd7 32.Kxg4 Ne3+ 33.Kh5 bxa2 34.exd5 Nxg2 35.Kg5 Ne3 winning, as d5 soon falls and the Black a2-pawn proves to be the more powerful.) 29…Kc7 30.Qxd7+ Kxd7 31.Rxa8 Rf6! 32.Rg8 The only way to try to win now. 32…bxa2 33.Bh3+ Kc7 34.Bf5 Nd6 35.g7 Rxf5! 36.exf5 Nxf5+ 37.Kh3 Kb6! and although Black stands slightly better here, with careful play, the resulting position will likely end in a draw due to both passed pawns. 21.Bh3 Qxb5 22.Qxf7+ The extra piece in the attack with Bh3 makes all the difference now for Gunina. 22…Kd8 23.g6! Making a hole for Bg5+ and a crushing attack. 23…h6 If Sebag thought this would stop Gunina’s bishop coming into the fray with tempo, she’s in for a shock. But there’s no defence now anyway, as 23…Be7 24.Bg5 Bxg5 25.hxg5 and Black will not survive the onslaught with Rad1+ and Qxg7 coming. 24.Bxh6! [see diagram] “No, no, I insist on getting my bishop out with tempo!” 24…gxh6 25.Rad1+ By now, Sebag will have been kicking herself for allowing Gunina to get in Bh3 for free, as ultimately this is what decides the game, as the Black king can’t run to a safe haven on the queenside. 25…Nd5 26.g7 Bxg7 27.Qxg7 axb3 28.Rf7 Qc5+ 29.Kh2 Ke8 30.Rf8+! 1-0 The Bh3 comes back to haunt Sebag, who resigns, as both …Rxf8 and …Qxf8 falls to Qd7 mate.