Whether by accident or design, the closing ceremony of the 1st Cairns Cup, the nine-round invitational, with a generous $150,000 prize fund, explicitly organized by the Saint Louis Chess Club to showcase the talents of some of the world’s best female stars and inspire more girls to take up the game, fittingly falls on the birthday of World Chess Hall of Famer Vera Menchik, the world’s first women’s chess champion, who was a trailblazer for her sex in chess.
Menchik was born in Moscow to a Czech father and a British mother on February 16 in 1906. She settled in England and was a prolific chess talent, the first of her sex ever to compete in top tournaments against men – and ‘victims’ in Albert Becker’s so-called ‘Vera Menchik Club’ included, amongst others, Max Euwe (twice) and Sammy Reshevsky. Her greatest successes, undoubtedly, came ninety years ago at Ramsgate in 1929, where, along with her illustrious teammates Akiba Rubinstein and Jose Raul Capablanca, the trio were the top-scorers in the Scheveningen team competition.
She was also the only women’s world champion in her lifetime. Menchik won the inaugural title in 1927 and successfully defended her title six times, the last coming in mid-September 1939 in Buenos Aires (a side event to the Chess Olympiad), in the aftermath of Nazi Germany invading Poland and war breaking out across Europe. Tragically, she also became a casualty of the war that cut short her career. In June 1944, she was killed – along with her sister and mother – during a V2 rocket bombing raid at the family’s South London home.
Throughout her seven world championship tournaments, Menchik had an incredible overall score of 78 wins, four draws and only one loss. And at the 1st Cairns Cup, another Russian, Valentina Gunina, with a fourth successive win, is on a Menchik-like tear as she storms into the sole lead going into the home stretch of the final two rounds. And in today’s game, one of Gunina’s ‘victims’, Germany’s Elisabeth Paehtz, after holding out from all the early pressure, succumbed in what proved to be a fatal error in a drawing rook and pawn ending.
1. V. Gunina (Russia) 6/7; 2. A. Kosteniuk (Russia) 5½; 3. I. Krush (USA) 4½; 4. D. Harika (India) 4; 5. N. Dzagnidze (Georgia) 3½; 6. Z. Abdumalik (Kazhakstan) 3; 7. B. Khotenashvili (Georgia) 2½; 8-10. M. Sebag (France), E. Paehtz (Germany), A. Zatonskih (USA) 2.
Photo: Valentina Gunina, after her fourth successive win, storms into the sole lead in the 1st Cairns Cup | © Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club
GM Valentina Gunina – IM Elisabeth Paehtz
1st Cairns Cup, (6)
1.d4 e6 2.c4 Bb4+ The rare bird of the Keres Defence, named after the legendary Estonian grandmaster and leading player of his day, Paul Keres, who popularised this line. It is not often seen in top tournaments, but the idea is a timely transposition to either a Nimzo-Indian, Bogo-Indian, or – with the …Nf6 not yet committed – perhaps even a Dutch Defence. 3.Bd2 This is the best way to play against the Keres Defence. 3…a5 4.Nf3 d6 5.g3 Nc6 6.Bg2 e5 7.0-0 exd4 8.Bg5! The White strategy is to make Black’s development as awkward as possible, as 8…Nf6 leaves White with a nice position after 9.Nxd4 with the idea of xc6 twice and then Qd4 crippling Black’s pawn structure on both wings of the board. Hence Paehtz’s reply. 8…f6 9.Bc1 Now the idea is b3, Bb2 followed by Na3-b5 and recouping the d-pawn. 9…Bc5 10.b3 Nge7 11.Bb2 Nf5 12.Na3 0-0 13.Nb5 Re8 14.Nfxd4 Nfxd4 15.Nxd4 Nxd4 16.Bxd4 Bxd4 17.Qxd4 Qe7 Capturing on e2 was a tough call. If 17…Rxe2 18.Rae1! Rxe1 (Retreating is even more awkward: 18…Re8 19.Qd5+ Kh8 20.Qh5! g6 21.Qd5 and it is difficult for Black to unravel, giving White more than enough compensation for the pawn.) 19.Rxe1 c6 20.Be4 and while Black may have the extra pawn, White has a pleasant and easier-to-play position, with the better-developed pieces and potential threats towards the Black king. So rather than that, Paehtz opts instead to return the pawn and get on with the job of developing her pieces. 18.e3 Qe5 19.Qd2 Ra7 A somewhat ugly move to have to make, but Paehtz wants to try to get her bishop developed without having to make the concession of c6, making the d6 pawn a target. That said, better might have been the immediate 19…c6!? 20.Qd4 (White can’t easily hit the d6-pawn. If 20.Rad1 Bg4! 21.f3 Be6 and Black stands better with e3 now weak and …d5 coming.) 20…a4! and Black stands no worse. 20.Rfe1 Be6 21.Rac1 Qc5 22.Bd5! Forcing Paehtz to play a move that she’s spent the last few moves trying to avoid. 22…c6 23.Bxe6+ Rxe6 The position isn’t all that bad for Paehtz, as d6 is well-protected, and the …Ra7 will quickly come into the game again. 24.Red1 Ra8 25.Qc3 Qe5 If the queens come off, then Black should easily be able to hold this position – and for White, the only way to try to get an advantage, is to keep the queens on the board to maintain the pressure on the two pawn weaknesses on d6 and a5. 26.Qc2 Qc5 27.Rd4 Rd8 28.Rcd1 Rd7 29.Rh4 The tricky 29.a3 followed by Qc3 and b4 might be the best way to try to make progress – but Gunina will later return to this theme. 29…g6 30.Rhd4 Kg7 31.Qc3 Rde7 32.h4 h5 33.Qd2 Rd7 34.Qb2 Rde7 35.Qc2 Rd7 36.Kh1 f5 Now was the time for Paehtz to make her move on the queenside with 36…b5! 37.Qc3 Kh7 38.Kg2 Kg8 39.a3! Kh7 The pawn is taboo. If 39…Qxa3? 40.c5! and either d6 falls or Black loses the queen. 40.R4d3 Qa7 Now Black can capture on a3! After 40…Qxa3 41.Ra1 Qb4 42.Rxa5 Qxc3 43.Rxc3 Re5! and Black is doing well here. 41.Qd4 Keeping the queens on and playing to expand on the queenside with 41.b4! keeps the pressure on the Black position. But for whatever reason, Gunina trades queens, and the game should really have fizzled out to a draw in the double rook ending – but the game now takes a strange, yet instructive, twist. 41…Qxd4 42.Rxd4 b6 43.Kf3 Kg7 44.b4 axb4 45.axb4 c5 46.bxc5 Perhaps 46.Rd5 and Ra1 would have kept the pressure on Black’s queenside – but I doubt without a serious mistake, White could ever win here. 46…bxc5 47.Rd5 Re4! With this move, Paehtz has reached full equality for the first time. And with it, I just thought the players would be shaking hands and a draw. 48.Rxc5 dxc5 49.Rxd7+ Kf6 50.Rd6+ Kf7 51.Ke2 Rxc4 Even in this position, if you were to remove Black’s c-pawn, the 4 v 3 R+P ending with the pawns on the same wing is a well-known book draw – so with the extra pawn, you would think Paehtz would easily be holding this, wouldn’t you? Yet somehow she has a hallucination and contrives to lose the game. 52.Rd2 Ke6 53.Ra2 Rc1 54.Kd2 Rf1 55.Kd3 Rc1 Simpler was 55…Kd5 having the king take an active, central position – that would have given Black the better side of the draw. 56.Ra6+ Kf7 Again, making the king more active was better, as grabbing the pawn with 56…Kd5 57.Rxg6 is dangerous, as after 57…c4+ the passed pawn suddenly becomes a nuisance, for example 58.Kd2 Rf1 59.Ke2 Ra1 60.Rg8 Ra2+ 61.Kf3 (Allowing the Black king to come into the danger zone is probably also drawing – but the sort of draw where White could easily go wrong! After 61.Ke1 Ke4! 62.Re8+ Kd3 63.Rd8+ Kc3 64.Rd5 Ra1+ 65.Ke2 Kb4 the threat of pushing the c-pawn protected by the king forces the draw after 66.Rxf5 c3 67.Rf7 c2 68.Rb7+ Kc3 69.Rc7+ Kb2 70.Rb7+ Kc3 71.Rc7+ etc. 57.e4 fxe4+ 58.Kxe4 The ending has just got a little bit more advantageous for Gunina, as her king is more active, and Paehtz has to be careful now about losing her c-pawn. But the reality is that the game should just be drawing, right? 58…Re1+ 59.Kf4 Re2 60.f3 Rd2 The only thing Paehtz is succeeding in doing here, is pushing Gunina’s king further up the board where she want it to be! But Paehtz is putting her faith on the passed c-pawn saving the day for her. 61.Kg5! c4 The only try now. If 61…Rf2 62.Rf6+! Ke7 63.Rxg6! (The only way to play to win. If 63.Kxg6? c4 64.Rf4 c3 65.Rc4 Rxf3 66.Kxh5 Rxg3 and an easy R+P drawing endgame, where both passed pawns cancel each other out.) 63…Rxf3 64.Kxh5 c4 (If 64…Rf5+ 65.Kg4! Rd5 66.h5 and the h-pawn is off to the races.) 65.Kg4 Rf2 66.Rc6 and White stands a good chance of winning with the passed kingside pawns pushing up the board protected by the king. 62.Rf6+ Ke7 63.Rxg6 Rd5+?? The endgame is all about subtle nuances, and it only takes one slip in a rook and pawn ending for the position to turn from hopefully drawn to fatal. The only realistic way to try to save the game was by first playing 63…Kd7! denying the White rook easy access to get behind the c-pawn. And after 64.Rg7+ Kd6 65.Ra7 only now 65…Rd5+! 66.Kg6 Rc5 and not only is the rook best-placed behind the passed pawn to push it up the board but from c5, it also defends h5 giving the king the needed time to track back to stop the kingside pawns. 67.Ra1 c3 68.Rc1 c2 69.g4 hxg4 70.fxg4 Ke7! 71.h5 Kf8 and the king will stop the pawns to secure the draw. 64.Kf4! [see diagram] The difference here is that Paehtz has inadvertently pushed Gunina’s king out of the path of the White rook coming to g5, not only winning the h-pawn but also with just enough time to spare to come back to stop the c-pawn. 64…Rc5 65.Rg5 Rc8 66.Rxh5 c3 67.Re5+ Kf6 68.Re1 Just in time, the rook stops the c-pawn – and now the Russian troika of passed kingside pawns easily win the game. 68…c2 69.Rc1 Rc4+ 70.Ke3 Rc3+ 71.Ke4 Kg6 72.g4 Kh6 73.f4 Rc4+ 74.Ke5 Rc3 75.f5 Rc4 76.g5+ Kh5 77.f6 Kg6 78.h5+ Kxg5 79.f7 Rc5+ 80.Kd6 Rf5 81.Ke6 Rf2 82.Rxc2! The final trick. 82…Rxc2 83.f8Q Re2+ 84.Kd5 Rd2+ 85.Ke4 Re2+ 86.Kd3 Re6 87.Qg8+ Kf5 88.Qc8 1-0