Akobian on Top in Australia Print E-mail
By GM Ian Rogers   
March 25, 2008
Varuzhan Akobian, on top of his game in Australia. Photo Cathy Rogers

North Hollywood’s Varuzhan Akobian won the O2C Doeberl Cup in Canberra over the Easter weekend, finishing ahead of the strongest field ever assembled in the event’s 46-year history.

Akobian’s path to victory was far from smooth, including a rocky first round and a controversial last round, which left Akobian's opponent threatening to appeal the result with FIDE.

However all this was far from Akobian’s mind when he arrived in Canberra, Australia’s capital, 300 kms south of Sydney. Akobian had just spent the previous week holidaying in Bangkok and Sydney and his main worry was “maybe I am feeling a little too loose.”

For those who are thinking  - “Typical professional chessplayer – holidaying all the time. Money for nothing and your checks for free.” – it should be noted that the holiday was an economic imperative after Akobian discovered that it was cheaper to fly to Sydney via Asia than take a direct LA – Sydney flight. Besides, it wasn’t all pad Thai, kangaroos and harbour cruises – Akobian, 24, also won a blitz tournament during his stopover in Bangkok and will play an Open tournament there on his way home.

The Doeberl Cup is Australia’s longest running weekend tournament, having been held in Canberra every year since 1963. The list of previous winners includes only one American – Larry Christiansen in 1988.  Legend has it that Christiansen prepared for the tournament by spending a day lying on Sydney’s Bondi beach and eating four-dozen oysters and a lobster.

Canberra is a man-made city, created as a compromise solution when Melbourne and Sydney could not decide which city should be the capital. The area retains many of its original kangaroo inhabitants, with the tournament organizer able to take some amazed GMs to an area just behind his house at sunrise to watch hundreds of wild kangaroos graze.

In 2008, the Doeberl Cup organizers decided to extend the tournament from seven to nine rounds for the first time, making title norms possible. Akobian found himself seeded third, behind Singapore’s Zhang Zhong and Belgium’s Vadim Malakhatko, in a field of 82 players in the Premier division.

In the first round, Akobian discovered that looseness was not a quality conducive to winning tournaments. After a four-hour, 77 move, draw against local 15-year-old Max Illingworth, Akobian was far less loose, becoming the only one of the 8 Grandmasters in the tournament to falter on the first day.


“The kid played well,” admitted Akobian after the game. “He seemed very motivated against me.”

Akobian playing against Australia GM Darryl Johansen. Photo Cathy Rogers

Akobian then knuckled down to his task, winning his next five games. Akobian’s fifth round win over early leader, Australian GM Darryl Johansen, was the American’s best game of the tournament.


Opening: Bogo-Indian
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Bb4+ 4.Nbd2 b6 5.a3 Bxd2+ 6.Bxd2 Bb7 7.Bg5 h6 8.Bh4 d6 9.e3 Nbd7

After the game Akobian suggested to his opponent that Black should prefer 9...g5 10.Bg3 Ne4, although Michael Adams has enjoyed success with the plan employed by Johansen.
10.Nd2 c5   

Position after 10...c5

10...Qe7 is slightly more precise, preventing 11.Be2.
11.Be2! Qe7 12.0-0
Curiously, this natural move is very rarely played, White generally preferring the innocuous 12.Bf3.
12...0-0 13.b4 Rfe8 14.Qb3 cxd4?!
The start of a faulty plan. 14...e5 immediately or 14...Nf8 was less committal.
15.exd4 e5 16.dxe5

Position after 16.de5

16...Nxe5 was necessary - "A beginner's mistake," said Johansen. 17.Rfe1 Qe6 18.Rac1 Ne4 19.Nxe4 Bxe4 20.Red1 g5
Criticised by Akobian but it is already almost impossible to find moves for Black, faced with an invasion on d6.
21.Bg3 f5 22.f3 Bc6 23.Qc2! Nf6 24.c5! Bd5 25.c6
25.Rxd5!? was also very strong.
25...Kf8 26.Qc3 f4 27.Bf2 g4 28.Bh4 gxf3 29.Bxf3 Bxf3 30.Qxf3 Qf5 31.Bxf6
31.Rd6 wins even more simply.
31...Qxf6 32.c7 e4 33.Qg4
33.Qh3 Rac8 34.Rd5? Rxc7! would be much weaker.
33...Qg5 was the last chance for resistance.
34.Rd5 Qg7 35.Qxf4+ Kg8 36.Qf5 Qb2 37.Rf1 1-0

However it was his sixth round victory over India’s SS Ganguly that had the spectators on edge.

Akobian, playing Black, should have finished off Ganguly with a kingside attack but instead grabbed material and the two players soon entered a crazy time scramble. Akobian twice ran himself down to one second, Ganguly once, but eventually Akobian outplayed his opponent and secured the outright lead in the tournament for the first time.

The next day Akobian was embroiled in controversy when, playing White, he forced a repetition against top seed Zhang Zhong after only 14 moves. Tournament rules stated that draws in fewer than 30 moves were permitted only with consent of the arbiter.
Akobian’s repetition, while hardly in the spirit of the rule, was also not entirely spurious so the draw was allowed, though Akobian was made aware that the organisers were displeased with his lack of courage.

Opening: Nimzo-Indian

The draw in round 7 maintained Akobian’s half point lead but the pack behind him was growing larger. English GM Gawain Jones was the most surprised to be only half a point behind the leader, having won an amazing endgame against second seed Malakhatko with two rooks against his opponent’s queen and two connected passed pawns!

The following round Akobian secured another draw but at played well over his quota of moves, torturing Jones in a rook endgame but failing to convert.

By now Serbian GM Dejan Antic had pulled level with Akobian going into the final round and the two were to meet in the final round.

Akobian and Antic appeared content to play out a draw and share first place when they began repeating moves early in the game. Antic, playing Black, claimed a draw by repetition but this time the arbiter stepped in and told the players to continue the game. (Antic had also been warned for contravening the 30-move rule earlier in the tournament after a short and obviously prearranged draw against Atanas Kizov.)
Since Antic had moved before making his claim, it was Akobian’s move, and he thought long and hard before choosing a new path.

Of course in theory the players could have continued to repeat moves until move 30 but then the players ran the serious risk of being double-forfeited for bring the game into disrepute.

In any case, the intervention seemed to give Akobian a new focus. He soon began to play more aggressively and overwhelmed Antic to win the first prize of $4,000 outright.


Opening: Queen’s Gambit Declined, Slav Defence
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 a6 5.c5 Nbd7 6.Bf4 Nh5 7.Bd2 Nhf6 8.Bf4 Nh5 9.Bd2 Nhf6 10.Bf4 Nh5

Here Antic claimed a draw (and Akobian concurred) but the arbiter told the players to continue the game.
11.Bg5 h6 12.Bd2 Nhf6 13.Bf4 Nh5 14.Bd2 Nhf6 15.Bf4 Nh5

Position after 15...Nh5

Now, just when the spectators were wondering whether the players might continue repeating moves until move 30, Akobian took a deep breath and played...
"Actually, I know quite a bit about this line," Akobian said later. "I don't like the 7.e3 systems."
16...Nxe5 17.Nxe5
Now the advantage of provoking ...h6 becomes apparent - the knight on e5 is harder to dislodge with ...f6 because the g6 square has been weakened.
17...Nf6 18.e3 Bf5 19.Bd3 Bxd3 20.Qxd3 e6 21.0-0 Be7?

Position after 21...Be7

"He had to play 21...Nd7," said Akobian.
"Now I was sure I was going to win,"  Akobian said. "He can't do anything."
22...0-0 23.Nb6 Rb8 24.b4 followed by a queenside advance would be unpleasant but the text move gets Black into an even worse tangle. 23.Nb6 Ra7 24.b4 Bd8 25.a4 Bc7 26.f4
Played somewhat reluctantly, since it concedes the e4 square, but one strong knight can't compensate for Black's problems on the queenside.
Now White crashes through, but even 26...Qd8 27.b5 Bxb6 28.cxb6 Qxb6 29.bxc6 bxc6 30.a5 Qc7 31.Rfc1 leaves White with total control over the board.
27.cxb6 Ra8 28.b5 cxb5 29.axb5 a5 30.Rfc1 Qd6 31.Rc7 0-0 32.Rxb7 Rab8 33.Rxb8 Rxb8 34.Rxa5 Qxb6 35.Nc6 Ne4

Position after 35...Ne4

The last difficult move. 36.Qa3? Qxc6!! would have spoilt all White's good work.
36...Rb7 37.h3 g6 38.Qa4 Kg7 39.Qa3! Rd7 40.Ra8 Rd6
40...Nd6 41.Rb8 Qc7 42.Qc5! would also be hopeless for Black.
41.Rb8 Qc7 42.Qa8 h5 43.Rb7 Rxc6 44.bxc6 1-0

Antic was extremely upset by the result, refusing to attend the closing ceremony (and thus risking 20% of his prize money). Antic believed that he had had a legitimate triple repetition claim refused and threatened to take the case to FIDE. His argument was that a triple repetition claim overrides any tournament draw restriction rules. General opinion in Canberra was, however, that Antic was too willing to flout the spirit of the new rule and that he therefore deserved little sympathy.
Meanwhile, Akobian admitted some relief at being forced to play hard. “I have a problem with last rounds,” admitted Akobian. “I lost the US Championship from a winning position in 2003 and since then I often make a draw in the last round. But it was good that I had to play on – after all, it was such a good tournament that it was a small thing for the organisers to ask. ”

Akobian chilling with a Koala

Akobian finished a full point ahead of Antic and four other GMs: Zhang Zhong, Jones, Ganguly and Merab Gagunashvili from Georgia. Macedonian IM Kizov and Australian Champion and IM Stephen Solomon also joined the tie for second, Solomon the best Australian performer in an otherwise disappointing event for the locals, who dominated the 2007 event.

Akobian is currently competing in the Sydney International Open, which began on Tuesday and will continue on to the Bangkok Chess Club Open next week.

For an interview with Doeberl Cup winner Varuzhan Akobian and other videos about the tournament, visit the tournament web site at
www.doeberlcup.com.au. Also watch out for the April Chess Life Magazine, which includes an interview with Akobian by John Hillery.