Reports Jan 14, 2015 | 4:28 PMby chess24 staff

The Al Ain Classic: a retrospective

It’s that time of year again – Wijk-aan-Zee is well and truly upon us! While Europe shivers watching the chess event that will dominate January, though, this might be an opportune moment to take a look back at a tournament in warmer climes that concluded just a few days before the end of 2014. Chess enthusiast Diana Mihajlova reports on the Al Ain Classic in the United Arab Emirates, an event that was surprisingly won by Georgia's GM Gaoiz Nigalidze ahead of a host of higher-rated opponents.

by Diana Mihajlova

The Al Ain Classic in the United Arab Emirates unfolded from 18 – 27 December in a small city on the border with Oman. In geographical terms, Al Ain is the biggest oasis on the eastern side of the Arabian Desert. 

Today it’s an elegant city where urban planning doesn't allow new buildings to be more than four floors high. There are no skyscrapers on the horizon, just villa-like homes and an abundance of palm trees, greenery, flowers and parks – all of which have earned it the moniker ‘garden city’. 120 km away from the bustling wonder of Dubai, this is where the real UAE can be experienced.

The official tournament hotel – Hili Rayhaan by Rotana

The 5-star Hili Rayhaan by Rotana Hotel provided superb playing and living conditions for 151 players from 27 chess federations; 43 of them were grandmasters, including 17 rated above 2600: Ukrainians Yuriy Kryvoruchko, Kuzubov Yuriy, Alexander Areshchenko, Mikhailo Oleksienko, Evgenij Miroshnichenko and Vladimir Onischuk, Armenians Tigran L. Petrosian and Arman Pashikian, Indians  Abhijeet Gupta and Vidit Santosh Gujrathi, Rauf Mamedov (AZE), Sergei Zhigalko (BLR), Ivan Sokolov (NED),  Samuel Shankland (USA), Constantin Lupulescu (ROU), Mikheil Mchedlishvili (GEO) and Viorel Iordachescu (MDA).

A bit of history

The Al Ain Classic started as a side event of the 2012 World Cities Chess Team Championship. On that occasion it introduced a unique format: players eliminated from the knock-out team competition could join, carrying over their points total to the individual Swiss. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who was eliminated by Romain Edouard in the main event, was the winner of the first Al Ain Classic.

The following year the Al Ain Classic ran simultaneously with the World Youth Championship, which was held at the impressive Al Ain football stadium. Indian grandmaster Abhijeet Gupta emerged triumphant. 

Dr Saif Alnuaimi, Head of the Organising Committee, Tarek Al Taher, Tournament Director and Chief Arbiter Ashot Vardapetyan (ARM) who also oversaw the 2013 Carlsen-Anand World Championship match in Chennai

Always overshadowed by a bigger chess event, the Al Ain Classic might have died out if its Tournament Director, Tarek Al Taher, hadn’t persevered in convincing the authorities to give it a go as a separate chess competition in its own right, run as an individual international open tournament. That’s exactly what happened with its recently concluded third edition.  

It’s a ‘young’ tournament compared to the UAE’s well-established Dubai Open and Abu Dhabi Festival, but if the prizes on offer are any indication it’s already taking over. With a $50,000 prize fund and a top prize of $11,000 it’s already edged ahead of them both and, according to Dr Saif Alnuaimi, Head of the Organising Committee, the prize fund is set to increase next year.

Representatives of the Royal Family and Al Ain Chess and Culture Club officials performed the 1st move, thus officially opening the 3rd Al Ain Classic. The game was between top seed GM Kryvoruchko Yuriy (UKR) and the promising young Emirati player FM Mayed Alrashedi.

The following video offers a slideshow of the players in the playing hall and around the Hili Ratana Hotel:

The Opening Ceremony

A traditional Emirati ‘hair and stick dance’

A traditional UAE dance, the ‘Ayyalah,’ was performed during a fantastic Opening Ceremony. Known as the ‘stick dance’ or ‘cane dance’ it’s performed by groups of men positioned in straight lines with their arms linked together. They sing and make short rhythmical movements holding long sticks with a hook at the end, resembling a cane, called an ‘assaya’. Swords and old-fashioned rifles are also used to symbolically re-enact battles. At one point during the performance long-haired teenage girls suddenly climbed onto the stage and started dancing by swinging their long hair from side to side while swaying their bodies to the strong beat of the music. It was a heady mixture of dance, music and tradition. Hair is traditionally held to be a symbol of women’s beauty and one that men fight to protect. 

Your author Diana Mihajlova and UAE chess promoter Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa Shakhboot Al Nahyan

The key person behind the success of the Al Ain Classic, as well as chess in general in this part of the world, is Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa Shakhboot Al Nahyan. Charming, friendly, professional and truly dedicated to chess, he’s President of the Al Ain Chess and Culture Club as well as the Asian Chess Federation, which is an official branch of FIDE.

Under his leadership Al Ain has already hosted many prestigious local and international chess events and many more are planned for the future.  

Sheikh Sultan visited the tournament on a couple of occasions and attended the prize-giving ceremony to hand out prizes to the winners.

An unexpected champion

Every now and then an obscure player emerges from the lower ranks to lift a cup, leaving a pack of much higher-rated grandmasters in his wake. That was the case with Georgian GM Gaoiz Nigalidze (2536) who emerged as the surprise winner of the Al Ain Classic. He started as only 28th seed but by Round 6 was already the sole leader with 5.5/6 and a performance rating of 2889. Among his victims were 2600+ rated GMs Alexander Areshchenko, Abhijeet Gupta and Yuriy Kuzubov.

The Al Ain 2014 winner: Gaoiz Nigalidze

His crucial victory over top seed Yuriy Kuzubov saw fortune favour the brave after a bold sacrifice in a standard position of the Najdorf Sicilian:

These two players had previously met at the European Individual Championship in 2014, where Nigalidze got the better of Kuzubov with the white pieces. The 2014 Ukrainian champion must have been itching for revenge.

1. e4 Kuzubov usually opens with 1. d4 but today decides to play 1. e4.

1... c5 2. ♘f3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. ♘xd4 ♘f6 5. ♘c3 a6 6. ♗e2 e5 7. ♘b3 ♗e7 8. O-O O-O 9. ♗e3 ♗e6 10. a4 ♘bd7 11. a5 ♖c8 12. ♕d2 ♕c7 13. ♖fd1 This opening position is very popular in the Najdorf and had already been reached 300 times by the likes of Anand, Gelfand, Svidler and Mamedyarov. Nobody managed to come up with the following bold sacrifice played by Gaoiz Nigalidze, however.

13... ♘xe4 Objectively, this isn't so strong, but White has to defend with extreme care if he wants to retain an advantage. Not an easy task when you've been surprised in a position you'd previously studied well.

14. ♘xe4 ♕xc2 15. ♕xc2 ♖xc2 Black has two pawns for the piece and both the b2-pawn and the knight on b3 are hanging.

16. ♘c1 d5 17. ♘g5 ♗xg5 18. ♗xg5 ♖xb2 Now Black has three pawns, but the extra pawn on the queenside doesn't really count since the a5-pawn paralyses both the a6 and b7-pawns. White should be better here.

19. ♗e7 ♖c8 20. ♗d3 It was better to tuck in the bishop on f1.

20. ♗f1!+/=

20... ♘c5 21. ♗xc5 ♖xc5 22. ♗b1

22. ♗xa6 was a nice little tactical shot. 22... e4 (22... bxa6 23. ♘d3+− ) 23. ♗f1+/=

22... ♖cb5 Over the next few moves Gaoiz tries to play around in the position and provoke mistakes from Kuzubov. The difficult part for White is that his minor pieces have neither any real weaknesses to attack nor any real outposts.

23. ♘d3 ♖e2 24. ♔f1 ♖e4 25. ♘e1 ♖eb4 26. f3 g5 27. ♗d3 ♖c5 28. ♗e2 e4 29. ♖d2 f5 The avalanche of pawns begins to descend on White. The position is already much easier to play as Black, and he might well have the advantage.

30. ♖c2 ♖xc2 31. ♘xc2 ♖b2 32. ♘d4 ♔f7 33. ♔e1 ♔f6 34. ♔d1 ♔e5 35. ♔c1 ♖b4 36. ♘xe6 ♔xe6 37. ♔c2

37. fxe4 fxe4 38. ♖b1 , offering an exchange of rooks, is a logical idea. 38... ♖xb1+ 39. ♔xb1 This endgame is objectively a draw, although Black's task is much easier: White has to find the exact configuration for his pieces. For a player of Kuzubov's standard, however, that wouldn't have been difficult. 39... ♔d6 40. ♔c2 ♔c5 41. ♔d2 d4 42. ♗g4 h6 43. ♗f5 e3+ 44. ♔d3 b6 45. axb6 ♔xb6 46. ♔c2 ♔c5 47. ♗d3 a5 48. ♔b3 g4 49. ♔a4 ♔b6 50. h3 gxh3 51. gxh3 h5 52. h4 ♔c6 53. ♔xa5 ♔d5 54. ♔b4 ♔e5 55. ♔c4 ♔f4 56. ♗e2 ♔g3 57. ♗xh5 ♔xh4 58. ♔xd4 ♔xh5 59. ♔xe3= Not a forced line, but you get an idea of how play could have proceeded.

37... d4 38. g4 d3+ 39. ♗xd3 exd3+ This rook endgame is now extremely difficult for White to defend. He's a pawn down and the black rook is very active. Nigalidze plays the rest of the game to perfection.

40. ♔c3 ♖f4 41. ♖b1 ♖xf3 42. ♖xb7 ♖h3 43. ♖b6+ ♔e5 44. gxf5 ♔xf5 45. ♖xa6 ♖xh2 46. ♔xd3 h5 47. ♖a8 h4 48. ♔e3 ♔g4 49. a6 ♖a2 50. a7 h3 51. ♖d8 ♖xa7 52. ♔f2 ♖a2+ 53. ♔g1 ♔g3 54. ♖d3+ ♔h4 55. ♖d4+ g4 56. ♖b4 ♖e2 57. ♖a4 ♔g3 58. ♖a3+ ♔f4 59. ♖a4+ ♔f3 60. ♖a3+ ♖e3 61. ♖a1 g3 62. ♖f1+ ♔g4 63. ♖b1 h2+ 64. ♔g2 ♖e2+ 65. ♔h1 ♔h3 This game teaches us that even if your opening idea is not 100% sound, if you believe in it and try to follow up in the most accurate manner it's still possible to beat the strongest of opposition.


Four players actually finished tied on 7/9: Gaioz Nigalidze (GEO), Tigran L Petrosian (ARM), Vladimir Onischuk (UKR) and Sergei Zhigalko (BLR), but Nigalidze had the better tiebreaks to grab the whole $11,000 first prize.

GM Dmitry Komarov, who became famous as the unmistakable voice of the 2014 World Rapid and Blitz Championships in Dubai, commented on some of the games, including this 21-move miniature from young American Sam Shankland:

The top 12 were as follows, with Sam Shankland and Yuriy Kuzubov in the group of 15 players on 6/9 (full standings here):

Rk.SNo NameFEDRtgPts. TB1  TB2  TB3  TB4 rtg+/-
128GMNigalidze GaiozGEO25367.051.540.752617629.6
26GMPetrosian Tigran L.ARM26517.050.039.002572512.4
316GMOnischuk VladimirUKR26147.049.037.252557515.1
43GMZhigalko SergeiBLR26727.046.535.75255758.6
51GMKryvoruchko YuriyUKR26886.552.036.50259045.4
64GMAreshchenko AlexanderUKR26616.545.533.00251350.3
710GMGupta AbhijeetIND26326.544.533.5024546-2.2
812GMVidit Santosh GujrathiIND26256.544.531.50252144.8
913GMOleksienko MikhailoUKR26216.544.531.00255849.1
1021GMParligras Mircea-EmilianROU25806.542.532.00244452.3
1122GMTer-Sahakyan SamvelARM25806.542.531.0024136-0.4
1215GMPashikian ArmanARM26176.540.031.7524325-2.9

Armenia's Tigran Petrosian inflicted the only defeat on the winner in the penultimate round to finish in second place

India's Eesha Karavade received a huge cup and medal for finishing as the top woman on 5.5/9

The second and third best women were WGM Atousa Pourkashiyan from Iran and IM Lilit Galojan from Armenia

Salem A.R. Saleh holding up the cup he gained for winning the Al Ain Rapid

While the Emirates fascinate us with their state-of-the-art chess clubs – the best example is the Sharjah Chess Club, the biggest in the world and an architectural masterpiece - Emirati players are relatively new on the international chess circuit. So far their only active grandmaster and star is Salem A.R. Saleh. At the rapid tournament which took place the day before the start of the Open, Saleh beat a strong field of international grandmasters and took first place. He didn’t play in the main event, but probably with good reason. An important tournament was looming for him, demanding all his energy and preparation: the Tata Steel Challengers in Wijk-aan-Zee.  

Some curiosities: a few years back, I reported on a unique prize awarded at the Paris Open Championship: for the most elegantly dressed player. Here, in Al Ain, we had another deviation from run-of-the-mill awards: two players received a prize for ‘best score sheet’. That’s a logical demonstration of national characteristics – France insists on elegance and neat appearance, while the Arabs insist on neat handwriting, inspired by their appreciation of calligraphy. Considering how illegible some score sheets can be (one branch of psychology holds that illegible handwriting suggests mental disturbance) it’s a decent attempt to encourage a ‘clean’ presentation of moves.  

Feted for their handwriting: Indians IM Vijayalakshmi Subbaraman and WFM Rucha Pujari 

Mehrdad Pahlevanzadeh provides a summary, interviews with the players and some of the press coverage of the tournament:

The beautiful face of my new friend from the Al Ain Camel Market

The Al Ain Classic has all the ingredients to become one of the world’s more prestigious tournaments. Perhaps foreign players refrain from taking the plunge and traveling to this faraway land due to the preconceived idea that it must be too expensive. However, it compares favourably to many international chess destinations such as Gibraltar, with a couple of low-cost airlines also now flying to Dubai airports. It not only offers a chess adventure in the company of a high number of titled players, but also an unforgettable experience of the fascinating historical, geographical and cultural heritage of the remarkable United Arab Emirates.

Diana Mihajlova

Diana has abandoned a successful academic career as a Romance philology lecturer to dedicate herself to her love for painting, writing, travelling, animals and – chess! All that while being inseparable from her companion the magic rabbit Suze. Her website,, includes a page on her chess articles and on her chess paintings and etchings.

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