A trip to Saudi Arabia

by Irina Bulmaga
3/23/2019 – The 1st Hail Rapid Chess Tournament for men and women took place from the 15th to the 18th of March in Hail, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It gathered more than 200 participants from 18 countries. Wang Hao took clear first in the men's tournament while IM IRINA BULMAGA won the women's tournament and sends her reflections. | Photos: KSAchess Twitter

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Wang wins rapid

What are you thinking of first when hearing “Saudi Arabia”? Each of you probably has a different but related answer. I think that very few of you associate it with what I will describe. My experience there came as a surprise to me and I felt like I could share.

To start at the beginning: If you ever plan on visiting Saudi Arabia, I strongly recommend you to have a visa in your passport and not just a letter which says you’d get it in the airport. As I'd rather not dwell on the unpleasant, I’ll just jump to the next part.

Local womanIt was my second trip to the KSA, after participating at the World Rapid & Blitz Chess Championships in Riyadh, 2017. I knew that I could trust the organizers and I would not be risking going there, but even so the human mind tends to become preoccupied with scenarios of what can go wrong. Well, after landing in Hail, nothing went wrong, things were getting just better and better with every day.

First of all the women playing in the tournament didn’t have to cover their heads. We only had to stick to a "smart casual" or elegant dress code. During my whole stay there, I felt that one couldn't care less about what I was wearing — concerns I had on this score were just in my head. I met some very friendly local participants of the tournament who told me that many changes are indeed taking place in the country and it is developing at a vertiginous pace. 

Hail located in the North-Western part of the country and has a population of about 1,200,000

Turing to the chess...there were three days reserved for playing (with three rounds a day), and one free day after six rounds. There were two sections — men and women and both had the same prizes (20 thousands dollars prize fund each)! The participation wasn’t huge, as one would expect given the prizes, but quite impressive for a country where the chess tradition goes back to only 2013, when the first chess tournament took place.

Coming directly from the HDBank Open in Vietnam, I didn’t have high expectations about my performance. I just wanted to complete the event with a result not to be too ashamed of. My first two days didn’t go especially well or badly, I won against two local players and made four draws against the titled foreigners. Entering the free day, I was just looking forward to wrapping it up and going home fast.

But the free day proved to be a blast! It was very unexpected. We took a trip to Jubbah, a city completely surrounded by the vast Nefud Desert. Despite this fact, it has an abundant agriculture, mostly focused on growing dates. Did you know that there were more than 30 species of dates? Well, I didn't, but I learned it in Jubbah. The city is largely known for its rocks (Jabel Umm Sinman) which feature inscriptions dating from the Mesolithic period (between 11,000 and 8,000 years ago). It was recognized as an UNESCO heritage site due to the 10,000 years of history it tells.


We had a very nice experience visiting it, the people were very open and showed us great hospitality! Some of us tried to ride a horse or a camel there — the first time for many! We also enjoyed a traditional lunch afterwards. Each member of a local family attending the event brought a home-made dish specially prepared for the occasion. It was great — a real celebration of tastes! We also enjoyed watching traditional dances and songs.

Camel ride


Traditional dance

I like the free day so much, that I made 3/3 the next day, clinching the overall tournament win with a score of 7 points out of 9 in a very close fight! IM Subbaraman Vijayalakshmi (the first WGM of India) came 2nd with 6½ points and there was a tie for the 3rd place. GM Monika Socko of Poland had the better tie-breaks. As the games were not broadcasted live, here is one of mine which I could recall from memory.


Subbaraman Vijayalakshmi

Subbaraman Vijayalakshmi, India's first female IM

The Open section was convincingly won by the Chinese GM Wang Hao, with 8½ points out of 9, followed by GM Ahmed Adly of Egypt, with 8 points out of 9. It was a tie between GM Gabriel Sargissian of Armenia and GM Sriram Jha of India for the 3rd place with 7 points out of 9 with the latter 4th based on the tiebreak score.

Here is Wang's win over Sargissian with my notes:


Wang and trophy

Wang How hoists the trophy

GM Wang Hao seems to be on fire, winning first the strong HDBank Cup and Hail back-to-back. What are the odds for him to continue in the same manner at his next tournament, the 3rd Sharjah Masters, where he actually is the top seed?

To conclude, I have the most pleasant memories from Hail and it is not only because I came 1st, but also thanks to the great efforts of the organizers, who tried and (I would say) succeeded in putting Saudi Arabia on the chess map. It was a great event and I definitely hope to be back!

Final standings — Open (top 10)

Rk. Name Pts.
1 Wang Hao 8,5
2 Adly Ahmed 8,0
3 Sargissian Gabriel 7,5
4 Sriram Jha 7,5
5 Malakhatko Vadim 7,0
6 Samhouri A. 7,0
7 Eldesoky Hatem 7,0
8 Pujeda Ronald 7,0
9 Gallardo Aldrin 7,0
10 Asoque Romelio 7,0

Final standings — Women (top 10)

Rk. Name Pts.
1 Bulmaga Irina 7,0
2 Vijayalakshmi Subbaraman 6,5
3 Socko Monika 6,0
4 Szczepkowska Karina 6,0
5 Tsatsalashvili Keti 6,0
6 Cornette Deimante 6,0
7 Ambartsumova Karina 6,0
8 Hassan Hala 5,5
9 Zozulia Anna 5,5
10 Alhassan Aljowhrah 5,5

Irina Bulmaga is a WGM/IM born in Moldova, currently representing Romania. She became the youngest Moldavian Champion among Women at the age of 14 years old. Since 2010, she has been a part of the Romanian Olympic team, successfully representing it at 5 Olympiads, winning an individual bronze medal in 2014.
Discussion and Feedback Join the public discussion or submit your feedback to the editors

dissonant dissonant 3/24/2019 05:43
Some info on Saudi Arabia: human rights abuses, civil rights abuses, censorship of free speech, imprisoning citizens with no due process, imprisoning political rivals, imprisoning critics, imprisoning human rights activists, lack of basic freedoms for women, public beheadings, killing journalists, drugs smuggling, sponsoring Islamist extremists all over the world, sponsoring ISIS and other terrorist factions, sponsoring hate preachers calling for the killing of Christians, Shi’ites, Alawites, and Jews, sponsoring Wahhabi schools where students are taught to hate the modern liberal West, waging war in Yemen killing tens of thousands of innocent people...

And just recently the CIA concluded that the Saudi crown prince ordered Jamal Khashoggi's death, as reported by CNN.

All of this can be confirmed with the help of an internet search engine. (Though it's getting increasingly harder to do so.)
DevilSea DevilSea 3/24/2019 12:17
Saudi Arabia or I may say Prince Bin Salman is trying to restore its reputation following the heinous crime committed against Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul back in October, their last move was spreading the rumour that there is a conflict between the King and crown Prince in a bid to give the impression that crown prince is not taking the big decisions. The reality however is that the king is under house arrest and he suffers Alzheimer, his son is ruling from behind the scene and he's just waiting for the Khashoggi affair to be forgotten before reappearing to the world stage.
artegall artegall 3/23/2019 09:49
This is a healthy conversation on a serious subject, and I applaud ChessBase for allowing it. No disrespect is meant to Irina or to Arabian history. Disrespect belongs only to those who have earned it. In this regard, the Clown Prince is a grandmaster, of pink-hatted pigs, the piggest.
chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 3/23/2019 07:06
According to New York Times and AL JAZEERA, a Special Group under Crown Prince Salman has been involved in the harassment of arrested prominent human rights activists and women's rights defenders, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Iman al-Najfan. Saud al-Qahtani, a royal court advisor attended several such sessions to torture Loujain al-Hathloul. He also threatened to kill her and throw her body into the sewers according to the testimony of her sister, Alia al-Hathloul. The women were beaten, subjected to electric shocks, waterboarding, and threatened with death and rape during the interrogations. Loujain's sister said at first the Saudi authorities did not send the arrested women to jail, but in a secret location in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. According to US intelligence assessment, the brutal interrogations prompted university professor al-Najfan to attempt suicide. The women's trial began recently after nearly a year in detention, but the Saudi government did not announce the charges against them.
Ms Irina Bulmaga should have been more circumspect and not allowed herself to be taken for a ride by friendly local players who told her lies that positive changes were taking place and the Saudi kingdom was making rapid strides towards progress.
Alexandru27 Alexandru27 3/23/2019 06:54
Shame on you, artegall, for talking like that to a lady!
sceptic101 sceptic101 3/23/2019 05:06
Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 by Ibn Saud. Its rich Islamic culture goes back to the early 7th Century and its tribal way of life even beyond to ancient civilizations. This is not a history lesson. But people need to read a lot more before passing a sweeping judgement on a state about which they know little. The oppressive Saudi regime and its terrible human rights record should not be mixed with the decency, friendship and hospitality of common folk that WGM Irina Bulmaga describes here. I have only one point of dissent. She has quoted friendly local participants saying, many changes are taking place in the country and it is developing at a vertiginous pace. That’s a bit misleading. While the young really want change and women all the more so, it is met with brutal repression under Prince Salman. However, his regime has learnt its PR lessons well. This time it has lifted restrictions like the hijab on women chess players. It would be interesting to see if it continues to allow this freedom for its players.Ms Bulmaga had gone to play chess in Saudi Arabia and it would have been out of place for her to ask probing questions to Saudi fellow players. From their point of view it would have been dangerous as well to answer such questions freely and frankly.
Serse Serse 3/23/2019 09:12
@artegall I couldn't say it better. I live in a country that is very tolerant of Saudi Arabia (we sell them a lot of weapons). Ethically difficult to accept. And all the geopolitical considerations we are being served will not change that.
eric b eric b 3/23/2019 06:58
I don't think I'd go there either being as I'm gay and all. I mean, they would put me in prison or execute me or something for being gay, right?
artegall artegall 3/23/2019 05:50
Dear Irina. Is Saudi Arabia really a Kingdom? Isn't it just an American client state? A manufactory of sorts? Pink hats don't justify the murder and dismemberment of a Saudi diplomat turned journalist for the Washington Post. Is this the vertiginous change you speak of? Let's be direct. A golden toilet seat is no excuse, even for the American president, to settle under it and open one's mouth when the Crown Prince signals he wishes to take a dump.
Philip Feeley Philip Feeley 3/23/2019 05:38
Participation wasn't huge because over 90 of them registered didn't show up! How crazy is that?