Reports Jan 25, 2019 | 2:59 PMby Colin McGourty

Gibraltar Masters 1-3: No easy games

David Navara is the only top 10 seed on 3/3 after three rounds of the 2019 Gibraltar Masters, with stars such as Hikaru Nakamura and Yu Yangyi already having been held to two draws. Iran’s Sarasadat Khademalsharieh stands out among the five players on a perfect score after defeating 2600 grandmasters in Rounds 2 and 3, while untitled Kolade Onabogun from Nigeria was the GM-slayer of the first two rounds. Tania Sachdev conducted a fascinating long interview with Levon Aronian, while Emil Sutovsky announced that the top events in the World Championship cycle have finally been prised from Agon’s grip.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave takes on untitled Kolade Onabogun, while on board 2 chess24's own Pepe Cuenca faced Levon Aronian | photo: David Llada, official website

Watch the games and check out the pairings from the 2019 Gibraltar Masters using the selector below:

Favourites struggle, but it could have been worse

Big open tournaments such as the Gibraltar Masters stand out for pitting chess royalty, the likes of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Levon Aronian and Hikaru Nakamura, against players they’d never meet in elite invitational tournaments. On the one hand we’ve seen time and time again that the elite are the elite for a reason, and in the final rounds they’re the ones contesting the big prizes, but that doesn’t mean the vast ranks of chess professionals aren’t capable of striking blows and frustrating their higher rated opposition.

4-time Champion Hikaru Nakamura was held to draws in the first two rounds | photo: David Llada, official website 

That's been the case this year in Gibraltar, where after three rounds the leaders are:

Rk.SNoNameFEDRtgPts. TB1 
16GMNavara David27383,03302
294IMKhademalsharieh Sarasadat24683,03246
335GMJumabayev Rinat26043,03210
437GMDeac Bogdan-Daniel26033,03202
538GMPapp Gabor26033,03196

David Navara got off to a perfect start, while Wesley So scored 2.5/3 on his Gibraltar debut  | photo: Niki Riga, official website 

That second column shows the seeding number with which the players began the event, with only David Navara among the favourites. It’s not that the top players have suffered too many disasters, since the likes of So, Aronian, Naiditsch, Vitiugov, Ivanchuk, Adams and MVL are among the 40 players on 2.5/3. On the other hand, Hikaru Nakamura failed to win his first game for the first time since 2007, a draw against 2390-rated FM Vaso Blesic from Serbia, and then also drew the next game against 2405-rated IM Andres Merario from Spain. World no. 12 and 4th seed Yu Yangyi also started with two draws.

David Howell before disaster struck against Sumiya Bilguun | photo: Niki Riga, official website 

There are worse things than draws, though. 19th seed and Gibraltar regular David Howell was struggling to grind out a win against 21-year-old Mongolian IM Sumiya Bilguun until 59.Ke3? spelled disaster (59.Kd3 and the game proceeds normally):


59…Rxc3+! was a bolt from the blue, with the point that after 60.bxc3 b2! the pawn can’t be stopped. They played on to move 81, but there was no salvation for White.

Is 13-year-old Zuo Yifan another hugely underrated player from China who's going to shoot up the rating lists? | photo: David Llada, official website   

There’s no Hou Yifan in Gibraltar this year, but 13-year-old 2298-rated Chinese CM Zuo Yifan is having an impressive start. He was under pressure from the talented young Spanish GM Jaime Santos (2581) until the latter played 41.gxf4?


41…Qxg2+! provoked resignation, with a knight fork on f4 to follow. Zuo Yifan went on to build on that start with draws against women’s world no. 5 Humpy Koneru and 2528-rated IM Evgeny Zanan from Israel.

Mickey Adams was the first player to stop Gukesh | photo: Niki Riga, official website 

The kid everyone’s talking about is 12-year-old Gukesh from India, who recently became the 2nd youngest grandmaster in history. He started with a win, then picked up a draw against the formidable Pavel Eljanov (in fact he seems to have been significantly better, even in the last position), before finally falling to English no. 1 Mickey Adams, who shared some tips on beating kids - “I thought it’s probably my only chance to beat him…”:

Among the current leaders 94th seed Sarasadat Khademalsharieh stands out, as the Iranian star has continued her fabulous recent form (she won a cool $69,000 in the St. Petersburg World Rapid and Blitz!) by beating two grandmasters in the first three rounds. 

Khademalsharieh-Donchenko saw a big upset win | photo: John Saunders, official website 

First she beat French GM Jules Moussard in a tricky 4-bishops ending that lasted 94 moves, and then she overcame 20-year-old German GM Alexander Donchenko in Round 3. She noted that in hindsight her opponent should have repeated moves for a draw, since his position soon became tough, with the 30.e5! pawn break the start of the end. If anything there were too many attractive looking options:


Simon Williams on the live commentary was trying to get 33.Re4? to work, but it turns out that loses to 33…Qxe4 34.Qxe4 Rxe4 35.Nxe4 and the crucial 35…Bd4+! Sarasadat instead calmly played the crushing 33.Qf2!, targeting c5, f6 and f7, and never looked back. The Iranian points out her “secret” has been to do almost no work on chess after recently getting married!

Romania’s Irina Bulmaga had a chance to join Sarasadat in the lead, but she misplayed a winning position against GM Gabor Papp and lost. Another near miss was Aleksandra Goryachkina getting at one point a +4.66 advantage against Vassily Ivanchuk after a piece sacrifice gone wrong. The game ended in a draw, and a memorable appearance by the great Ukrainian:

Of course there were plenty more near misses. Maxim Matlakov has been held to three draws by much lower rated opposition, but that third draw should really have been a loss! It seems that having made his last move with just five seconds on the clock the 2700-rated Russian star wisely decided to accompany his move with a draw offer. Sweden’s FM Erik Hedman gave in to the temptation to accept, though if he’d made a couple more moves he’d surely have found a win after the time control:

No-one is immune, with top seed Maxime Vachier-Lagrave having got into real trouble against 18-year-old Indian GM Abhimanyu Puranik in Round 2:

In the next round Maxime went on to stop the star of the first two rounds – untitled 2189-rated Kolade Onabogun from Nigeria, who was also playing in the 5-round morning Challengers (he scored 3/5 there). Onabogun ground down Austrian GM Valentin Dragnev in an ending in Round 1 and was then winning by move 12 (!) against Dutch GM Sipke Ernst in Round 2:


Ernst’s 12…Nxe5? was a blunder and after 13.Nxe4! Onabogun made almost no mistake in converting his advantage. He was understandably a happy man after also giving MVL a run for his money in Round 3:

FIDE news

One of the highlights of the Gibraltar Masters is the excellent video coverage, and one of the many interviews this year featured new FIDE Director General Emil Sutovsky. He trumpeted the fact that Agon (or World Chess, as it rebranded itself), will now no longer be responsible for the Candidates Tournament or the World Championship match. He commented, “we are untying our hands” and promised significantly increased prize funds:

That has to be good news given Agon’s history of offering the minimum prize funds while antagonising the whole chess world. They sued chess24 over showing chess moves in cases they lost in the Russian Supreme Court and a US Federal Court in New York, and we can hope they'll no longer be in a position to bully the chess world. We can still only hope, however, since they will be in control of the new FIDE Grand Prix knockouts in 2019 and 2021, and an article on the FIDE website suggests we’re far from seeing an end to their influence.      

Levon Aronian: “I’m there to fight but also to appreciate beauty”

If the developments in chess politics remain somewhat ambiguous let’s end this report with something that is pure joy – a 24-minute Tania Sachdev interview with Levon Aronian:

Levon talks about how much he wants to win the World Championship, and about his Candidates Tournament failures. What about Magnus?

I personally believe I can play well against Magnus, but it requires a lot of attention, because he’s one of those players who’s always there. He’s waiting for a mistake. He knows that the people are not going to play continuously well, because that’s what his strength is - his average move is much stronger than anybody else’s average move.

Levon later explained how Magnus was following in the footsteps of Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov:

He copied Bobby and Karpov’s approach: to play chess without really thinking about the objective assessment of the position. That’s very important! Just to play good moves, without really thinking that I’m better, I’m worse or I want something. Playing chess without wanting is very important.

Levon Aronian, still dreaming of the World Championship title | photo: David Llada, official website 

On his own style:

I can say I’m very romantic, although nowadays for most of the people it’s a sign of being vulnerable, but I don’t feel vulnerable. I’m there to fight, but also to appreciate beauty.

What three characteristics from three players would make a perfect chess player?

Fabiano’s diligence, Magnus’ attention to detail and precision… and my swagger!

Defending Champion Levon Aronian has started with 2.5/3 and you can follow his adventures each day with live commentary from 15:00 CET live here on chess24!

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