Levon Aronian is the 2018 Tradewise Gibraltar Masters Champion after a thrilling final day saw him draw with Hikaru Nakamura in the final round before beating Richard Rapport and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in tiebreak matches. Hikaru’s hopes of making it four titles in a row ended when he lost to MVL in the semi-final, while the day’s greatest disappointment was for Daniil Dubov, who came close to winning it all but instead ended with almost nothing. 54-year-old Pia Cramling described herself as “overwhelmed” after taking the £15,000 women’s top prize with an unbeaten 6.5/10.
Replay all the games from the 2018 Tradewise Gibraltar Masters using the selector below – click a result to open the game with computer analysis or hover over a player’s name to see all his or her results:
Open tournaments that attract some of the world’s best players, such as the Qatar Masters, the Isle of Man Open and of course the Gibraltar Masters, have been one of the highlights of chess in recent years, giving us a chance to watch the chess superstars taking on a much wider variety of players. The downside of that, though, is that we can be deprived of watching them take on each other. That was the case for 9 rounds of the 2018 Gibraltar Masters, with the Top 10 stars Levon Aronian, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Hikaru Nakamura not playing each other. In fact, Levon and Maxime hadn’t played a single 2700-rated player.
We needn’t have worried, though, as the final day changed all that! First in the classical chess we had big clashes on the top two boards: Aronian-Nakamura and MVL-Rapport. Maxime had won all five of his games with the white pieces in this year’s event, but he came up against a Caro-Kann novelty on move 5, reacted badly and, although he may briefly have had a chance for more, could be satisfied with a draw.
On Board 1, meanwhile, Hikaru Nakamura played in the standard way top players usually do when they absolutely must win with the black pieces, an extremely bold choice against top seed Levon Aronian. He met 1.d4 with 1…d6 2.e4 g6 but later admitted to playing “a pretty bad game”, with Aronian saying, “you don’t get such promising positions against such good players as Hikaru”. Hikaru himself felt the simple 23.b3! would have left Levon with a winning position, but that his opponent rushed things when he went for play which was still good, but much more complicated. The crunch came on move 24:
There’s still a chance for White to slow-play his advantage with moves such as 25.Rf4!, ready to meet 25…Ra2 with 26.Rf2, but instead Levon went forward with 25.Rxh5?, when there was nothing more than a draw by perpetual check. Had the Armenian decided for some reason to force a draw? No, he explained to Nakamura afterwards that he’d missed that in the line 29.f6 exf6 30.Re3 Ra1+ 31.Kf2 Qxb2+ 32.Ne2 there was no mating attack due to 32…Qb6!
As you can see, though, that wasn’t the only way to stop the mate.
That took all those players to 7.5/10 and - spoiler alert! - they would eventually go on to compete in a playoff, but Levon could easily have missed out since only the top four players in a tie for first would get the chance to play for the title. That was determined by performance ratings, and Levon’s was a fairly modest 2746. He later admitted he was able to stay calm and enjoy lunch with Boris Gelfand since he didn’t realise he was in any peril!
Things went Levon’s way, though, since Wang Hao and David Howell drew (David still performed at 2760, but was half a point back) and Nikita Vitiugov beat his compatriot Mikhail Antipov rather than the other way around. There was still one risk all the top players were running, though, since Daniil Dubov looked to have excellent winning chances with the black pieces against Le Quang Liem, and if he won, then despite losing in Round 1 he would have reached 8/10 and taken the £25,000 all alone. If Dubov had drawn he would have joined the tie for first and, ultimately, won around £10,000, but instead it all went wrong.
Le Quang Liem also wanted a win, his 3rd in a row, to join the tie for first, and he would get it, as Dubov’s 44…Bc7? was a game-losing blunder:
45.d4! was a devastating breakthrough, with one of the points being that 45…exd4 46.e5 fxe5 loses a piece to 47.Bxg5+ now that the black bishop has deserted the d8-h4 diagonal. Dubov tried to stumble on with 46…Rdd8, but it was hopeless and he resigned on move 55. A bitter end for Daniil, but great news for Le Quang Liem!
The players who tied for 1st were therefore Aronian, Nakamura, Rapport, MVL, Vitiugov, Le Quang Liem and Mickey Adams, with the latter's winning move against Nils Grandelius a nice blow to land:
The final standings after the classical games meant we would have one £25,000 winner, six players tied for 2nd place and earning £10,500, and 18 players on 7/10 getting enough to cover their air fare...
Only the first four entered the playoff for first place, so that, in a perfect finale to the tournament, the three Top 10 players
and fan favourite Richard Rapport would compete for the top prize.
Aronian won his semifinal against Rapport 2:0 in the 10+5 rapid games, but that score was flattering. As he pointed out later:
It started off tough for me. I guess that’s something that I have – I adjust really slowly to everything, so time control or the tournament format. I started off slow, and in the first game I was in mild trouble, the second game also, but I pulled through…
In the first game Aronian seemed to be facing a tough defence against White’s bishop pair, but suddenly his knights became active and when one was exchanged it left a passed pawn which, not without a lot of help from Richard, went on to win the game. In the second Levon seemed to be losing control at one point, but objectively he was always fine.
The other match was something of a grudge match, since Nakamura had won the 2016 Gibraltar Masters after beating MVL in a playoff that went to Armageddon. This time round they never got that far, but the 3+2 blitz games they played were suitably apocalyptic!
In the first Nakamura played the Berlin and went on to achieve every Berlin player’s dream by getting the light-squared bishop to c2 to start picking off White's queenside pawns. There was a twist, though, as MVL made sure the pawns came at the price of the bishop! Still, when Black’s own pawns began rolling it was a price well-worth paying:
39…c4! (or even better a move previously) and Nakamura should have gone on to win with Black, though the pawn race on both sides of the board might still have been nerve-wracking. Instead, though, after 39…a2? 40.Kc1+ Kc3 41.Nd5+ White was suddenly the favourite, and although what followed wasn’t entirely smooth Maxime managed to hunt down the black pawns to leave an easily won position.
That meant MVL just needed a draw in the return game, but instead of keeping things tight he got involved in a wild struggle:
22…Nxd5! 23.exd5 Rb3 was a correct piece sac, but it meant that any inaccuracy in the king hunt that followed might see the game swing around. Sure enough, 38…Bd7?? was a natural but fatally flawed move:
39.Rd1! suddenly left Black with too many loose pieces, since after e.g. 39…Qe7 40.Rxd7! the a3-rook falls. Instead MVL confused Nakamura with 39…Qf4, which pinned the knight and had vague threats of perpetual check, but actually didn’t stop 40.Rxd7!, picking up a piece (40…Ra1 41.Qxa1 Qxe3+ can be met simply by 42.g3!). Of course it’s ridiculous to criticise decisions made with seconds remaining, but by such margins are titles won and lost. Maxime went on to hold, though again, not without some more adventures, and was through to the final.
The final was a chance for Maxime to make up for the worst thing that happened to him on a chessboard in 2017 – losing a World Cup semifinal playoff to Levon and therefore missing out on a place in the 2018 Candidates Tournament. As Aronian put it:
I was thinking that Maxime would definitely love to have revenge, so it was my mission not to allow it… and I succeeded, so yeah, it was a great achievement for me!
Things slowed down both figuratively and literally in the first two rapid games of the final, with two relatively quiet draws that were perhaps most noteworthy for Maxime trying 1.b3 with White. Then in the first blitz game Levon was forced to defend a rook ending a pawn down, which he did, with only his clock handling perhaps worrying his fans.
The clock would also be an issue for Aronian in the second blitz game, but the position on the board was so good that in the end it didn’t matter! 25…e5 was a bold counter-jab by Maxime, but it only added fuel to the fire of the white attack:
26.dxe5! could be played as 26…Qxd2 27.exf6 is soon mate, and although MVL was able to prevent mate in the game he couldn’t do anything about his ruined position and eventually resigned on move 50, three pawns down.
Levon Aronian, arguably the player of 2017, had won yet another tournament and the £25,000 first prize.
He admitted it had been close:
It’s more or less like a basketball game where the difference is maybe two or three points, so had you missed some shot you would be a loser and they would be asking your opponents those questions.
That was in his must-watch interview with Tania Sachdev, where he also talked about the Candidates Tournament and competing for the World Championship:
For any player who belongs in some way to the elite it’s kind of a dream to play one day a World Championship match. For me it has been a disappointing road so far, but that’s what chess, and I think any sport, teaches a person, that you have to be resilient, and you have to believe, and you have to try - while you can, you have to try.
Tania asked if it was true that music could make Levon cry:
It is, mostly classical music makes me cry. I’m a sentimental guy, what can I do! Opera, definitely. Yeah, even literature. I’m one of those people who is controlling his emotions, but at times art is hard to bear for me, I get too emotional.
Do you think that’s the reason we see such creative and intuitive chess from you over the board as well?
Oh, I thought you wanted to say, that’s the reason why you play like a chicken sometimes!
As we said, you don’t want to miss it!
Swedish Grandmaster Pia Cramling topped the women’s world rankings at the age of 19, but she’s still going strong 35 years later, inspired by a similar enthusiasm to Levon’s:
I have a happiness for chess. I really love to play. I really love when I’m in my bubble - I forget about everything which is happening around and as long as I have this joy for chess I will keep on and I will be hoping that I will make some other good results.
Pia was speaking to Tania Sachdev after finishing on an unbeaten 6.5/10 and edging out Kateryna Lagno on rating performance to take the £15,000 first prize:
As you can see, after Round 1 Pia faced higher-rated opponents in every game, with the win over talented Italian junior Luca Moroni a big moment. In the final round she was pushing for a win over Varuzhan Akobian, but didn’t need it in the end. That was Pia’s third Gibraltar title, as she also won clear first in 2004 and shared first (just like Aronian!) in 2005.
Of course there were hard-luck stories here as well. Valentina Gunina had starred the day before against Nigel Short:
28.Rb8+! was some nice winning geometry, as after 28…Rxb8 29.Qxb8+ the queen picks up the f4-knight.
In the last round Gunina had 6 points and the better of a tricky ending against India’s Narayanan, but pushed too hard and lost.
Defending Champion Ju Wenjun had a similar tale of woe, as she was also on six points and had winning chances against Lance Henderson de la Fuente before the time control. She also went on to lose, though, perhaps being unlucky to come up against a 14-year-old rising star (with a Spanish mother and American father), who's yet to officially receive the IM title but had already earned a GM norm the day before:
So all that remained was the closing ceremony…
…and the inevitable blitz that followed!