Historically and strategically speaking, there are very few places in the world like the micro-state of Gibraltar. British sovereignty over Gibraltar was formalised with the signing of the treaty of Utrecht in 1713, but Spain has always bristled at the idea of UK ownership of that 2.5 square miles (6.2sq km) of solid limestone rock at the southernmost tip of Iberia. So it’s a tiny place with a huge and often disputed history, depending on whether you are listening to London or Madrid.
Affectionately known as “The Rock”, Gibraltar formally became a Crown colony in 1830, but its constitutional status has been rejigged over the centuries as the British empire receded. In 1983, as with all the former Crown colonies, it became a dependent overseas territory only to be rebadged again as a British overseas territory in 2002 – and now in a post-Brexit world, a very uncertain future lies ahead with Spain again looking to lay a claim.
This also could impact one of the world’s strongest opens, the marquee event of the Gibraltar International Chess Festival, 18-30 January, which traditionally overlaps with the Tata Steel Chess Festival – and if you don’t get an invite to wintery Wijk, then there’s always the distinctly warmer climes of the Rock to look forward to. With a first prize of £30,000 (roughly $39,000), the Gibraltar Masters attracted seven players rated above 2700, including two players from the world’s top-10: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.
The field also includes two participants for the upcoming Candidates’ Tournament to decide Magnus Carlsen’s next title challenger, who both qualified via the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss: Wang Hao and Kirill Alekseenko. Other big name stars included former world title combatants Veselin Topalov, Vassily Ivanchuk and Mickey Adams. But the tournament is also a showcase for emerging new talents looking to make their mark or a breakthrough – and amidst this sea of varying talents, experience and wannabes, the top-rated star players don’t always have it all their own way, and a shock result is a distinct possibility in any given round of the Gibraltar Masters.
In the end, this year David Paravyan, the relatively unknown 21-year-old Russian star proved to be the surprise package by going on to win the 2020 Gibraltar Masters title. He scored an unbeaten 7.5/10 for a seven-way tie for first place – and in a four-way playoff, Paravyan beat Andrey Esipenko and then Wang Hao to snatch the biggest win of his career, as he pocketed the £30,000 top prize and prestigious title.
Another young gun making his mark proved to be 14-year-old Indian Rameshbabu “Pragg” Praggnanandhaa. After suffering a surprise first round loss to his fellow Indian WIM PV Nandhidhaa, he shrugged the early unexpected loss off by storming back into contention with a five-game winning streak, the standout being his takedown in the “Battle of the Ages” against Veselin Topalov, the Bulgarian former world champion and elite star.
Indeed, such was Pragg’s rally that he finished just a half-point adrift of that multi-grandmaster logjam for first place with a final tally of 7/10 (for an even bigger titled-logjam of shared 8-23), with it taking a world title candidate in China’s Wang Hao being the only other player to beat the rising young star of the Indian chess scene in Round 7.
1-7. GM A. Esipenko (Russia), GM Wang Hao (China), GM Daniil Yuffa (Russia), GM D. Paravyan* (Russia), GM M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), GM D. Navara (Czech Rep.), GM Y. Yilmaz (Turkey) 7.5/10.
Photo: Rocking it like champions are the Gibraltar Masters and Women’s victors, David Paravyan and Tan Zhongy, flanked by FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich and Gibraltar minister Steven Linares | © Niki Riga / Gibraltar International Chess Festival
GM Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa – GM Veselin Topalov
Gibraltar Masters, (6)
French Defence, Classical Steinitz
1.e4 e6 Topalov shy’s away from his normal swashbuckling Sicilian or the Petroff’s Defence, and instead opts for the French Defence, something he is not a big practitioner of – so perhaps done in an effort to surprise and confuse his young digital age computer opponent. But it all spectacularly backfires on the Bulgarian, and how! 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Topalov avoids the big mainline of the Winawer with 3…Bb4, and he now gets into the Classical Steinitz variation where White gets an easy space advantage that Black looks to undermine. 4…Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Be7 7.Be3 b6 This is a pet-line of both Hikaru Nakamura and Alexander Morozevich. 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.Be2 0-0 10.0-0 cxd4 Releasing the tension early in the center is not the best – Nakamura and Morozovitch much prefer 10…Bb7. 11.Nxd4 Nxd4 12.Bxd4 Nb8 Topalov is angling to trade the light-squared bishops with …Ba6, and then, in a roundabout knight tour of Ng8-f6-d7-b8xa6-b4, looks to bring his knight to the more useful square of c6 – but this slower plan is not the sort of chess you would normally associate with Topalov, who begins to take on the look of a fish out of water. 13.Bf2 A strategic retreat – White is looking to support his e-pawn with Bg3 after the attacking trust of f5. 13…Ba6 14.Bxa6 Nxa6 15.f5 exf5? Wrong! Topalov was probably worried that 15…Qd7 would quickly run into 16.Rad1 Nc7 17.f6! gxf6 18.Qh6 with the threat of Ne4 and Rd3-g3 and a ferocious attack. However, Black needs to stay calm and keep his wits about him, as there is a solution to avoid White from playing f6, and it was to be found with 15…Nc7! 16.Rad1 (The attack with 16.f6? doesn’t work now, as Black simply plays 16…gxf6 17.Qh6 fxe5 winning.) 16…exf5 with an equal game. 16.Nxd5 Nb4 17.c4! Danger now looms large for Topalov. Black can’t dislodge the dominant d5 knight without seeing it being replaced by the even more dangerous advanced central pawns – and with the d-pawn being a big running passer at that! 17…Rc8 18.a3 Nc6 19.Rfe1 It’s that time-old quandary in chess of deciding which rook goes on which central square, as arguably a little better was 19.Rae1 with the rooks looking to crash home the kingside attack. In truth, though, either works well for Pragg here, and his concentration of the central impact quickly pays dividends. 19…Bc5?! Topalov senses the danger and rightly looks to trade pieces for some instant relief – but this is the wrong way to go about it, as it only gifts White an extra move to gain more space with b4 to continue the attack. Instead, a better and more resilient way to trade the bishops was to be found with 19…Bh4!? 20.Qf4 (It’s no use playing 20.g3?! as this gifts Black a much-needed resource he didn’t have in the game, as now 20…Bg5! 21.Qd3 (The reason g3 is bad, is that now 21.Be3 Nxe5! and Black has turned the tables with the deadly threat of the f3 knight fork.) 21…Re8 22.h4 Nxe5! 23.Qxf5 g6! forcing 24.Qxe5 Rxe5 25.Rxe5 Bh6 26.Ne7+ Kf8 27.Nxc8 Qxc8 28.Rd1 Bg7 29.Re2 (29.Red5? Qxc4! with equality.) 29…Bf6 and, with a little due care, Black will survive. Another try is 20.e6 fxe6 21.Rxe6 but there’s another resource with 21…Qg5! 22.Qxg5 (Alternatively, 22.Be3 runs into 22…Qh5!? 23.Rf1 Qf7 24.Rd6 Na5 and Black looks to have enough resources to stay competitive, unlike in the game.) 22…Bxg5 23.h4 Kf7! hard to miss, but this important zwischenzug offers Black near equality. 24.Re2 Be7 25.Nxe7 It’s either this or seeing Black play …Bc5 and if White trades the bishops, the coming …Nd4 outpost is equally good for Black. 25…Nxe7 26.Rc1 Ng6 and Black is over the worst of it now.) 20…Bxf2+ 21.Qxf2 Re8 22.Qg3 Re6! 23.Rad1 Qf8 and, despite being a little cramped, Black should be holding OK. 20.b4 Bxf2+ 21.Qxf2 Qd7 The coming Nf6+ will leave Black for dead – and if he tries to avoid it with 21…Kh8 then 22.Qxf5 Ne7 23.Nxe7 Qxe7 and White has the powerful 24.Rad1 Rxc4 25.Rd7 Qe8 26.Rxa7 with a big advantage. 22.Qh4! The young Indian wants to cut straight to the chase of a mating attack! 22…Qd8? A final, fatal mistake – the last hope to save the game was with 22…Kh8! where now 23.Rad1 Qe6 24.Nf4 Qe7 25.Qxe7 Nxe7 26.Rd7 Rxc4! and Black should be able to hold the coming double rook ending with no difficulties. 23.Nf6+! [see diagram] “¡Ay, caramba!”, as the perennial teenage terror Bart Simpson would say. 23…gxf6 24.Rad1! Ruthless. White can’t be too hasty rushing in for the kill, as 24.exf6? backfires to 24…Qd4+ winning. But now, with the text, Pragg has a straightforward crushing attack. 24…Nxe5 The only way to stop the immediate mating attack from crashing through. If 24…Qc7 25.exf6 Kh8 26.Rd3 Rg8 27.Rh3 and there’s no way to defend h7. 25.Rxd8 Rfxd8 26.Qxf6 The rest is relatively simple, but not without a small degree of genius. 26…Ng6 27.h4! The threat is pushing “Harry” all the way to h6 to mate. 27…h5 28.Rf1 f4 29.g4!! After meeting Harry, Pragg now introduces his more illustrious opponent to his twin brother “Garry”, with an audacious mating attack with the g-pawn set to deliver the killer blow. 29…Rd3 Topalov is praying for a sudden earthquake now. If 29…fxg3 30.Qxf7+ and if 29…hxg4 30.h5 is all winning on the spot. 30.gxh5 Rg3+ 31.Kf2 Nxh4 32.Qxh4 Rxc4 33.Re1 1-0 Topalov resigns, as 33…Rc2+ 34.Kf1 Rf3+ 35.Kg1 Rg3+ 36.Kh1 Rc6 37.Rf1! and the f-pawn falls, and with it the game.