GM Joel Blogs on Curacao
By GM Joel Benjamin   
August 18, 2008
Joel Benjamin in Curacao
 Photo Ard Van Beek
GM Joel Benjamin takes a break from answering questions to blog on what he calls the "greatest tournament ever", the 2008 Curacao Chess International. Send your questions about Curacao, chess and anything in between to [email protected]. Also look for a two-part article this week on GM Joel at the U.S. Chess School.

Life is but a Breeze in Curacao

As you all know from Jennifer’s report, the 2008 Curacao Chess Festival ended on a very positive note for me as well as my fellow Hall-of-Famer Larry.  But first, I want to tell you why Curacao is the GREATEST TOURNAMENT IN THE WORLD!

The Setting

Curacao is a lovely Caribbean island (though Trevor the Arbiter claims, amid controversy, that Barbados is lovelier) off the coast of Venezuela.  Other islands may have more sights and historical places, but at this tournament, you really don’t need to go anywhere.  Breezes, the site hotel, has it all—swimming pools, sports (including volleyball, rock climbing, table tennis, exercise room, etc.) and live entertainment.  It’s right on the beach with excellent snorkeling and scuba for the more adventurous.  You can work on your tan or lie on lounge chairs under excellent shade.  And the sunsets, which Natasha C. dragged Larry and me to see, really are breath taking.

The best part of the resort is that food and drink are included in the price.  All you want to eat, all you can drink.  You can put your wallet away, and the energy you save on meal planning can be diverted to enjoyment of the setting.  Families should note that children under 14 stay at Breezes for free.

The Tournament 

The field is still small, with about forty players fitting very comfortably into the climate controlled playing hall.  With one game per day at Game-90 +30 second increment, you don’t have to spend your life in the tournament room.  The competition is still serious, with a respectable number of grandmasters (five this year, with one WGM), and there is ample time to prepare.   Expert and master level players can expect to play a number of titled players.  Locals and other islanders ensure that club level players will not be overwhelmed by the opposition.  All in all, the tournament is relaxing and compelling at the same time.  There are few, if any other events I can say that about.

July is a light work month for me, so I can take two weeks off with a clear conscience.  Unfortunately, my wife, Debbie, had to stay home this year while pregnant with our first child.  [She told me it was okay to go without her.  Really.]  Luckily, Larry and Natasha came to Curacao for the first time so Debbie’s absence was slightly mitigated.

The Man

I think mention has to be made of the chief organizer and sponsor for the event, Fabio Mensing.  The first name may evoke flamboyance (like the long-haired guy who had that bird fly into his face), but this Fabio is a quiet, unassuming guy.  He does a lot of good works for chess but doesn’t care about receiving recognition (which is why he is especially worth recognizing).

Fabio Mensing, Photo Jennifer Shahade

I arrived a few days before the event so I had a lot of time to get to know Fabio.  He is a big baseball fan, as are many natives of Curacao (unlike several cricket-infested islands).  It turns out the 1986 World Series made both of us cry.  Mine were tears of joy for my beloved Metsies, while Fabio ardently supported the representative of the American League.  We both remember that Atlee Hammaker was hit hard by the American League in the 1983 All-Star Game, but Fabio remembers the entire sequence of what every batter did in that seven-run third inning.

Fabio will again be representing Curacao at the Dresden Olympiad.  He can take with him a personal best for this tournament; his score of 5.5 tied for best result for a player from Curacao.

And with that, I will segue back into the chess.  I received a rude awakening in the third round, losing to Spanish IM Luis Javier Bernal Moro.  I felt objectively that I should accept a repetition (Black is not entirely forced into it, but he planned to take the draw) with 24.Bd2, but I was too stubborn for my own good.  24.Nd4 was a ridiculous move.  I hoped for 24…Qxb2? 25.Na4, but he thought for about two seconds on 24…Nc7 and I was suddenly clearly worse.  He outplayed me efficiently after that.


I had created a monster, and other players would soon join in on the process.  In the next round Anna Zatonskih turned down a draw, without justification, and lost a few moves later.  In round six, Christiansen pressed hard and spurned chances to draw.  Bernal then beat young Dutch IM Robin Swinkels (the first person to play scuba chess games on consecutive days; first with IM Hans Bohm, then with our own Anna Z.) and held Daniel Fridman to a draw.  Unfamiliar with Spanish names, the organization wrote out his name card as L.J.B. Moro, when Bernal is his proper surname, and Moro his mother’s surname.  But Moro seemed appropriate, as the diminutive Spaniard was playing like his powerful Russian namesake.  With a full-point lead going into the last (and a GM norm in his pocket) the first place trophy looked already ticketed.

After doing nothing for most of the tournament, I got back into contention by knocking off the second seed, Dutch GM Jan Werle.


Werle chose the Zaitsev Variation for the first time in his career (he normally plays 9…Na5).  I thought it would be wise to avoid his preparation and maneuver around.  I didn’t give much thought to the Marshall like sacrifice that could have arisen after 14.exd5 Qxd5 15.Bb3 Qd7 16.Nxe5 Nxe5 17.Rxe5 Bd6.

18…Bc8? (18...a5 looked better) 19.b4! cemented my advantage.  With 16.Ba2, I set a sneaky trap, though Black has to pitch a pawn with 16…Be7 to avoid it.  After 26…Rb7 27.Qd2, Werle did not need to be shown 27…Ra7 28.Bxf7+! Kxf7 28.Qa2+.

Check out two games from Larry below. Photo Natasha Christiansen

Larry needed less time to get warmed up.  Top-seeded Fridman’s opening novelty 12…Qd5 looks poorly conceived.  Larry apparently had even stronger continuations in 15.Ne5 and 17.Bxe7.  Fridman defended doggedly but Larry ultimately squeezed out the win with a minimum of material left.


Larry had a bit of fortune in Curacao, though I believe an aggressive, confident player like Larry has a hand in creating good luck.  He over-sacrificed against Swedish GM Pontus Carlson but won in the end.  [He had to promise Natasha not to sacrifice two pieces after that game] 

Then there was this escape from the penultimate round:

Larry Christiansen-Jan Werle
Curacao (8), 2008
White to Move

Here Larry had no choice but to risk 1.Kxc5, but it loses by force!  Werle answered 1…Qd6+ 2.Kc4 Qc7+ 3.Kxb4 and went deep into thought.
Position after Kxb4. Before scrolling down to read the analysis, can you see how Black can win by force?

After a minute or so I noticed what was up.  I was pretty sure Larry did, too.  I noticed Bernal and another Spanish player whispering to each other about the game.  Though Werle couldn’t hear them, the mere sight of players discussing your game intently can lead you to suspect a combination is at hand.  So I positioned myself in between.

With about forty seconds left Werle played 3…Qb6+?? 4.Ka3 (4.Kc4 would give Black another crack at the combo) 4…Qc5+ 5.b4 Qxf2 6.Kb3 Qb2+ 7.Kc4 Qa2+ 8.Qb3 Qe2+ 9.Qd3 Qa2+ ½-1/2

Everyone but Werle saw 3…Bc3+! 4.Ka3 (4…Qxc3 a5+) Qc5+ 5.Ka2 Qxf2+ and White can avoid mate only by giving up his knight.  Charlie Hertan is right—always look for forcing moves!

Thus reprieved, Larry won convincingly over Anna in the last round.  I took on her husband on the next board.


The position below after 27.Bg1 was reached in about a half-hour, mostly off my clock.  The only reason why I thought at all was that I couldn’t understand what he was doing!  Fridman had played the same line against Korchnoi.  I analyzed it on my computer and found that 22.Rd8+ is a clear improvement on Korchnoi’s 22.Nxa8.  I anticipated Fridman’s continuation, and noted Rybka’s recommendation, 26.e6 fxe6 27.Bg1. [I have Rybka on my laptop, but I can’t seem to get it as my search engine on my desktop]  Rybka gave White a clear plus, so I didn’t see a need to analyze it further.  Fridman believed the endgame to be an easy draw, but found out over the board that it is quite complicated.  If Black retreats his knight and tries to capture White’s trapped knight, he may find the White king running amok in his position.

Position after 27. Bg1

Daniel passed on 30...Nf3 31.h3 h5 32.hxg4 hxg4 33.Ke3, which maintains good winning chances for White without complications, for instance 33...Ne5 34.Nb6.  I’m not sure 32.Nc8 was correct because Black can complicate with 32...Kd7! 33.Na7 Nxh2 34.Nxb5 e5 and Black’s pawns look quite dangerous.  After 34.Ng8!, the Koltanowksi-esque knight’s tour made the result clear.  My technique was perhaps overly cautious, but I got the job done in the end.

I was very pleased to tie for second with Larry when I was informed that I had actually tied for first…

Thomas Willemze was not happy with the first eight rounds.  The Dutch IM had not beaten a titled player yet, and found himself upfloated two points to the Spanish juggernaut in the last round.  His friend, Ard van Beek--website man, photographer, table tennis hustler, and all around funny guy—was letting him know the score, too.  Thomas got tired of Ard’s razzing, and eventually proposed a $100 bet on the game.  With proper incentive, Thomas turned down little Moro’s draw offer on move four (much too early; your opponent can hardly accept at that point, and it shows a bit of fear) and patiently went about grinding.  The psychological edge certainly helped Thomas’ chances, and in the end he reached his goal.

It was a bit surprising that Bernal Moro’s tiebreaks were not sufficient for first; he played IMs and GMs in the last seven rounds and led wire-to-wire.  But then again, Larry’s last seven opponents were titled as well, so his first-place trophy was duly earned.  In contrast, I played only five titled players, though I’m pretty happy to beat the two highest-rated players in the tournament.

Leaving Curacao happy is something everyone manages to do.  You might expect Daniel and Anna to be down after their disappointing finishes, but there was no sign of gloom at the closing ceremony.  While many of the locals fetched autographs of titled players on their name plaques, Anna got signatures from the locals.  I have to say I found her congeniality and positive attitude quite refreshing.

I think Larry and I are feeling something similar:  It’s nice to show that “we’ve still got it.”  Neither one of us plays much anymore, with the climate today much more favorable for teaching and writing than for playing.  Larry and Natasha are looking to come back next year, and I hope to return with my wife and chess baby in tow.