Hikaru Nakamura beat Romain Edouard to make the playoff and then overcame Yu Yangyi and David Anton to win the Gibraltar Masters title for an incredible third year in succession. Even a defeat couldn’t stop Ju Wenjun claiming the women’s top prize, while Hou Yifan provided the other story of the day. The Women’s World Champion appeared after 25 minutes, opened 1.g4 and resigned in five moves in a dramatic but barely comprehensible protest over the number of games she’d played against female opposition.
The last round of the Tradewise Gibraltar Masters started a full four hours earlier than usual, but just as chess fans and players were slowly waking up we were given a jolt by a bizarre piece of chess theatre. Women’s World Champion Hou Yifan turned up 25 minutes late to her game against Lalith Babu and played the move 1.g4. Initially her opponent assumed Hou Yifan wanted to get him out of his home preparation, so he spent over four minutes on 1…d5 – as it would later turn out, that could almost be classed as a blunder, since 1…e5! would probably have led to the shortest possible game of chess: 1.g4 e5 2.f3 Qh4# In any case 2.f3 was played in the game, and now Lalith knew something was up. There followed 2…e5 3.d3 Qh4+ 4.Kd2 h5 5.h3 hxg4 and Hou Yifan resigned.
What on earth was going on? Peter Heine Nielsen speculated that it must be a protest but wondered at what, to which Magnus Carlsen had a suggestion:
There was no denying the media-grabbing effectiveness of the protest, but it left Hou Yifan’s opponent as confused as chess fans around the world:
What finally emerged was that the Women’s World Champion was upset at what everyone else had taken to be merely an amusing coincidence – that she’d been paired against women in seven of her first nine rounds:
In a video that came after long and painful negotiations with the organisers, Hou Yifan offered a partial apology, “that I created such a game”, but still wouldn’t back down on what she described as “unbelievable and weird pairings”, adding that “for the future there should be a 100% fair solution”. Tradewise Gibraltar Masters Founder Brian Callaghan responds in the same video, noting that being the Women’s World Champion brings responsibility and that “she let herself down a little today”. He does offer an olive branch, though, stating, “I will look forward to having her back in Gibraltar again”.
While there was some support for Hou Yifan taking a principled stance…
…this does appear to be a clear case of an unfair accusation levelled at the organisers, since the pairings of the tournament were computer generated and can be replicated to show no manual interference except to avoid a pairing between Israeli and Iranian players. The Qatar Masters organiser had a strong view:
The deliberate loss of a game in any sport can have serious consequences, but in this case, with betting, for instance, almost certainly not involved, the damage is very limited. Lalith Babu joined the 14-player tie for 10th place, which may have had a small impact on other players. As Brian notes, though, the greatest harm was done to Hou Yifan. If she had won the game – and she outrated her male opponent by 64 points and had the white pieces – she would have taken the women’s second prize of £10,000.
Among the responses to the incident the funniest came from Nikita Vitiugov:
In general, the protest was a bolt from the blue, given Hou Yifan has worked so closely with the organisers in the past, won more than Hikaru Nakamura in 2015 when she tied for third place, and this year gave a masterclass, played arguably the game of the event and gave a long interview to Tania Sachdev:
The incident spiced up the final round, but now it’s time to get to the real chess action.
The one way we could have avoided a playoff in the final round is if David Anton had beaten Mickey Adams with the white pieces, but although Anton showed ambition by rejecting what seemed like an earlier offer to repeat moves, he decided to take a draw on move 32. That ended Adams’ chances, but meant any of the other seven players on 7/9 could make the playoff with a win. There were draws in Gelfand-MVL and Matlakov-Cheparinov, but wins in two of the other crucial games.
Romain Edouard showed up 14 minutes late to his game with Hikaru Nakamura, and lived to regret it when the US star’s aggressive opening put White under immediate pressure. The white king never managed to castle and 26…Bb4! simply carried too many threats to parry:
Romain limped on to move 35, but he couldn’t stop Hikaru getting another win on demand in the final round of the Gibraltar Masters.
The other win was even more convincing, with Yu Yangyi powering to victory over Ju Wenjun. Here, for instance, is the position after 31.e6, threatening mate on g7:
Conspiracy theorists might note that it was in the interests of China that Yu Yangyi won this game, since Ju Wenjun had already sealed the £15,000 women’s first prize, but of course with the white pieces and a 155-point rating advantage Yu Yangyi's win was hardly a surprise.
Afterwards Ju Wenjun talked about her success and her hopes for the future – note she not only has a chance to become Women’s World Champion in the knockout tournament starting in Tehran in a week’s time but will also get to play a match against the winner after her triumph in the Women’s Grand Prix:
The remaining game that stood out was Emil Sutovsky’s win over Igor Kovalenko, which gave the ACP President a share of 4th place. He also over-performed in 2016 with a share of 3rd! The standings at the top looked as follows:
As you can see, David Anton topped the field in terms of his performance, with Nakamura later generously admitting, “Anton played the best tournament by far”. Hikaru singled out the Spanish grandmaster’s flawless conversion of a rook ending against none other than Boris Gelfand. In terms of the tiebreaks the benefit of having the best performance of the three players was that Anton was able to sit and watch while Nakamura and Yu Yangyi battled it out for the right to play him in the final.
The format was two rapid games at 10 minutes per player + a 5-second increment, followed, if necessary, by two 3+2 blitz games, then 5 vs. 4 Armageddon. You can replay all the games using the selector below:
Nakamura’s experience was in full evidence, since he was almost always in control. Yu Yangyi had White in the first game, but couldn’t prevent a 21-move draw. The second was one-way traffic, but Yu Yangyi defended tenaciously a pawn down to force blitz. Again it was Nakamura pressing and Yu Yangyi defending for his life, but with only seconds on his clock the Chinese player blundered away a crucial pawn and the game. Yu Yangyi needed to win on demand to take the match to Armageddon, but Nakamura swapped off queens early and held comfortably, with Yu Yangyi finally forced to overpress and lose.
David Anton has been Spanish Blitz Champion ahead of Paco Vallejo and regularly tops the chess24 blitz rankings:
That meant it wasn’t going to be easy, and in the first game Nakamura admitted to coming under some pressure with the black pieces:
It seemed Anton might slowly but surely be able to bring over his king and gobble up the isolated c5-pawn. Instead the advantage fizzled away to a draw.
The second rapid game initially saw David achieve a very playable position with Black, but Nakamura thought his opponent was struggling after he’d achieved b4:
The decision to play 26…Nd7 here cost David over 2 minutes, and time would be a factor in the remainder of the game. He opened up on the kingside, but that soon began to look like suicide with his rooks out of play over on the other side of the board:
39.Qf1! was the final turn of the screw from Nakamura, with the threat of 40.Rh3 impossible to parry. David soon ended up playing a piece down, but resignation came on move 55.
It was a bitter end for Anton, but unlike last year when he
lost to Nakamura in his final game and went home with just £600, this year he
took the 2nd - 3rd prize of £16,000! He summed up:
Now I’m a bit angry with this loss, but of course in general it was a fantastic tournament for me.
Hikaru took home the top prize of £23,000 and had pulled off the stunning feat of winning a hugely strong open tournament for three years in succession:
He also talked to Tania Sachdev afterwards:
What remained, of course, was the traditional prize-giving dinner as well as plenty more chess!
Thank you for following the event here on
chess24! The good news is that the 16th Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival is already
confirmed for Monday 22 January – Thursday 1 February 2018, with Vladimir
Kramnik a likely participant.