Chess at the Rock of Gibraltar Reaches New Heights
By Macauley Peterson   
February 5, 2012
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Photo: Anna Zatonskih giving a Master Class

 "Hoot," was a better word choice, but Irina Krush had opted for "dark" as a clue meant to prompt the answer, "owl." She and I were teammates against IM Jovanka Houska and GM Emil Sutovsky, in a word game over dinner.

Each evening the players gather for a buffet in the main dining room of the Caleta -- Gibraltar's only seaside hotel -- and home for the 10th annual Gibraltar Chess Festival.

After a day or two, new friends and acquaintances greet you at every turn, and "jovial" is the operative word, to describe the ten day event.

The centerpiece of the festival is the ten round Masters group, which this year sported 256 players, including eight Americans.

It is no exaggeration to say that this is the strongest open tournament in the world, with fifty-six GMs, including eleven rated over 2700. Grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian came in as the 24th seed, while U.S. Women's Champion Anna Zatonskih was 49th in the starting rankings.

Gibraltar has become known in particular for turning out a high proportion of the world's best women, and this year the Masters saw the strongest group of women ever to participate in a mixed event, according to the organizers. Vying for the £10,000 (or about $15,800) prize for the highest scoring woman, were former World Champions Zhu Chen and Antoaneta Stefanova, as well as the best female player in history (who has never been World Champion by choice), Judit Polgar.

Until recently, Polgar has not competed in open tournaments or pursued women-only honors, and in Gibraltar as the sixth seed overall, she was a favorite to win both. However, it was the current World Champion, Hou Yifan, who stole the show, beating Polgar in their head-to-head and tying for first place in the Masters with Nigel Short. [View video highlights of the Hou-Polgar game, and the playoff with Short.]



It was a woman as well who finished with the highest score among the American contingent; Anna Zatonskih's 6.5 points gave her a share of 3rd place among the ladies in Gibraltar. She faced three 2700 GMs with black, including the number two seed, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, and number ten Sergei Movsesian.

"It was a very close game with Movsesian. I missed some drawish chances and I just blundered, in some variation, a checkmate -- I thought it was already a draw."
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Movsesian-Zatonskih, after 37...c1(Q)

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This was Zatonskih's fifth trip to Gibraltar, but she returns for more than just the prize money on offer. "I like the climate, I like the atmosphere at this tournament, yeah of course prizes are good, and it's especially lovely to have summer in the middle of winter. I like the weather, and I'm swimming here -- the water is cold, but I'm swimming."

Varuzhan Akobian twice reached as high as board 4, but a grueling pawn-down queen ending in the penultimate round ended in a loss to Mamedyarov, which drained his energy for the last round.

"Anyway, I think it's a good experience overall...I played two 2700+ guys when I never get to play these kind of players in the U.S.," Akobian noted. "Mamedyarov was a big test for me. Even though I lost, it was a very tough game for me, but I think from an experience point of view it's very important to play a guy like him at 2750, and I think it will be helping me in the future."



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Position after 102...Qa7

Akobian has managed to keep white's pawns from advancing for 25 moves, but now white sacrifices one to force an exchange of queens, winning:

103.f6+! Kxf6
104.Qd8+

And no matter where the king moves, white will have a check that attacks the queen.

"That game went on forever, 105 moves, and I always had chances to draw even at the very end I had a draw, but I was just defending, defending for six hours and I didn't manage to hold that position. So it was really disappointing."

The next morning, Akobian missed a chance to win against Spanish GM Alexis Cabrera, but says he then over-pressed in a drawish position, and so lost, finishing on 6 points.

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Mackenzie Molner gets set for his last round
Also ending on 6, were IMs Marc Arnold and Mackenzie Molner. Arnold, who is on a gap year tournament spree before starting college in the Fall, was the only American with a performance well above his rating. While he was never in contention for a GM norm, he says he learned a lot that will help prepare him for the next opportunity, Reykjavik, in March.

Krush and FM Teddy Coleman each scored 5.5. Further down, Stephen Jablon flew over from Washington DC, and FM Eric Schiller made the trip from California, overcoming a difficult physical disability to play.

So strong is the appeal of Gibraltar, that players come from all over the world to participate, and many even had to be turned away from the Masters for lack of space! The festival includes two "Challengers" tournaments (under 2250), two "Amateur" tournaments (under 1800) in the mornings, and evening activities like the popular Master Classes.

From day trips up the Rock of Gibraltar to visit the barbary macaque (a.k.a. Gibraltar monkey) population, to convivial nights of blitz by the bar, the annual festival has a unique and growing place on the international chess scene.

You could say it's a real "hoot"!

Find more information, games and videos from Gibraltar on the official site.