Al Ain Classic: the people, the places, the sights

by Diana Mihajlova
1/10/2015 – With its third edition concluded just before the end of the past year, the Al Ain Classic has proven that it is firmly joining ranks with the Dubai and the Abu Dhabi Opens. All playing would agree that Al Ain Classic is becoming not only one of the best tournaments in the Gulf but also in the world. See what makes it so special in this large illustrated report with videos.

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The $50,000 prize fund, of which the top prize was $11,000, was an excellent incentive to attract about 70 titled players, which included 43 grandmasters.

The organisation did not fault in any aspect – courteous and welcoming hosts, great playing venue and excellent accommodation - it all contributed to an unforgettable chess and cultural experience.

The good care was evident already at the collection points at the two Dubai airports but also at the nearby Sharjah and at Abu Dhabi. Transfer vehicles were operating throughput the preceding day and night before the start of the tournament to meet players from 27 federations and deliver them to the five-star Hili Rayhaan by Rotana hotel in Al Ain. 

Diana Mihajlova and Indian grandmaster Abhijeet Gupta, winner of the last year's edition,
at the airport in Dubai, met by Louai (on the left), who headed the transport arrangements,
with his assistants, Mohamed and Ahmed.

A postcard of the official hotel, the five-star Hili Rayhaan by Rotana

The Opening Ceremony already set up the quality and high standard of the Al Ain Classic. It was nothing less than grand. It took place in the hotel’s garden, by the swimming pool, in the presence of representatives of the royal family; with video projections depicting the UAE culture and history, children’s performances, poetry reciting, wonderful traditional songs and dances and plenty of varied sweets and teas served throughout the evening by traditionally clad young men.

On this occasion, many of us would have been acquainted for the first time with the Arabic ‘stick dance’ or ‘cane dance’, which is performed by groups of men, positioned in straight lines with their arms linked together, who sing and make short rhythmical movements holding long sticks with a hook at the end, resembling a cane, called ‘assaya’; it is normally used  to direct camel herds.

‘Hair and stick dance’

In this traditional dance, ‘Ayyalah’, mainly camel sticks, but also swords and old fashioned rifles are used symbolically to re-enact battles. At one point during the performance, suddenly, long-haired teenage girls climbed on the stage and started dancing by swinging their long hair from side to side while swaying their bodies following the strong bit of the music. It was a powerful experience of dance, music and tradition. Tradition holds it that the hair is used as a symbol of women’s beauty that man fought to protect. 


A glimpse into the Al Ain Opening ceremony (Video by Diana Mihajlova)

Al Ain, which means ‘spring’, is 120 km south of Dubai. It is a far cry from the bustling opulence of the wonder city of Dubai, and you will not see a skyscraper. Its main attributes are flowers, parks and palms, which has earned it its nickname: ‘Garden City’. Actually, the country’s urban planning commission forbids building higher than five story dwellings, with the exception of mosques’ minarets, to preserve the scenery and tradition of this large desert city, found on the east side of the UAE, close to the border with Oman. It is the second largest city in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and the fourth largest city in the United Arab Emirates. 

A typical architecture of the villa type houses with geometric lines and monochromatic hues
of cream and light brown predominate in this genteel city in the Arabian Desert

The ‘winter’ is 25 degrees Celsius daytime with slightly cooler evenings. However, at around
5 pm, it is already starting to darken and the sky becomes an intense red-purple sunset.

The organiser offered daily free morning excursions to the local nature, historical and cultural sights, as well as a ‘late night Dubai experience’.  

The mountain Jebel Hafeet which rises nearly 1300 m above sea level is a well known landmark and a tourist attraction.  Around its picks and hills swirls the longest ‘snake road’ which is very popular as a cyclists’ training pitch. At the foothills of Jabal Hafeet lies the Green Mubazarrah, a huge natural park with hot springs of salty water, some of which sprang up creating a large lake.

Jabal Hafeet mountain and the Green Mubazarrah with a hot spring jet

The Al Ain Palace Museum

Al Ain is the birth place of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first president of the United Arab Emirates. Built in 1937, the Palace was occupied by the sheikh’s family until 1966 when they moved to Abu Dhabi where the Sheikh Zayed took the position of Ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. He played a major role in the creation of the federation of the UAE.

The Palace was made into a museum in 1998. It displays ethnographic and archaeological artefacts as well as portraits and paraphernalia of the ruling family.     

The key person for the success of the Al Ain Classic as well as chess in general in this part of the world is the Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa Shakhboot Al Nahyan. Equally charming, friendly and professional and truly dedicated to chess, he is President of the Al Ain Chess and Culture club as well as of the Asian Chess Federation, which is an official branch of FIDE.

Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa Shakhboot Al Nahyan

Under his auspices, Al Ain has already hosted many prestigious chess events of local and international character and many more are planned to fill the rich chess life of the country.  

Diana Mihajlova had the pleasure of meeting the UAE’s extraordinary
chess promoter, the Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa Shakhboot Al Nahyan

The Sheikh Sultan visited the tournament on a couple of occasions and attended the Prize giving ceremony to deliver prizes to the winners.

Every now and then, an obscure player from the lower echelons would lift the cup leaving behind a pack of much higher rated GMs. That was the case of Georgian GM Gaoiz Nigalidze (2536) who at the Al Ain Classic emerged as a surprise winner. Having started as a 28th seed, by the 6th round he was already a sole leader with 5.5/6 and a performance of 2889. Among his victims were GMs above 2600 - Alexander Areshchenko, Abhijeet Gupta and Yuriy Kuzubov.

The winner of Al Ain 2014: Gaoiz Nigalidze raising the winner trophy. On the left: Saif Salem
Lekhraibani Alnuaimi, the Secretary general of the Al Ain Chess and Culture Club and Head
of the Organising Committee; on the right: Tarek Al Taher, the Tournament’s Director.

Best woman: IM Eesha Karavade (IND) with her huge cup and the medal

Second and third best women: WGM Atousa Pourkashiyan (IRI) and IM Lilit Galojan (ARM)

While The Emirates fascinate us with the state-of-the-art chess clubs, the greatest example being the Sharjah chess club, biggest in the world and an architectural masterpiece, Emirati players are relatively new on the international chess circuit with, so far, their only active GM, the Emirati star, Salem A.R. Saleh. At the rapid tournament which took place the day before the start of the Open, Saleh beat a strong field of international grandmasters and took first place. He is heading soon at the Tata Steel Challengers in Wijk aan Zee. 

Salem A.R. Saleh holding the Al Ain rapid winner’s cup

Several GMs and IMs are employed as full time trainers by the major chess clubs of the country - Dubai, Sharjah, Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, as well as by the UAE Chess Federation.  The young chess club of yet another UAE emerging chess centre, Al Fujayrah, employs the Tunisian IM Njili Kamel whom we already know from the El Haouaria tournament he organised a couple of years ago. Njili’s students, predominantly youngsters to whom he refers to as ‘my children’, have achieved remarkable results at international youth events, five of them emerging as champions.

The trainer Njili Kamel with ‘his children’ from the Al Fujayrah chess club

At the Al Ain Classic, one of them, the 14 year old Ali M Alkindi (on the above photo on the far left), was awarded as the best Emirati and also the best Khalij (‘gulf’ in Arabic) player. With 4/9 and wins against much higher rated opponents, Ali pocketed 115 rating points. Considering he has been playing chess for only about a year, he has obviously a bright future.  Another of his team members, ten-year-old Ammar Sedrani(on the far right) also had a great tournament having made 4.0/9 and gaining 58 rating points.

The Al Ain Chess and Culture Club is centrally located and provides Al Ain with a very active
chess life. This is its entrance.

Both the Al Ain Chess Club and the Asian Chess Federation are housed in the same building

Colourful comics decorate the walls to make it less intimidating for the youngest club members

Slovenian chess couple, IM Tadej Sakelsek and FI Misa Hrenic, are trainers at the Al Ain Chess and Culture Club

At the time of my visit, the national women championship, the ‘President’s Cup’, was taking place. Ladies chess players, with their coaches, from all over the country, were busy at work. 

Coaches from the Dubai chess club, WGM Vita Krivoruchko (on the left) and IM Vasilevich (top);
the ‘President’s cup’ arbiters, Hiba, Reem and Hind

The ‘President’s Cup’ winners joined the Al Ain Classic’s closing ceremony where they were presented prizes by the Sheikh Sultan.

Winner: WIM Al-Zarouni Kholoud Essa  (on the right),  2nd place, WCM Al Maamari Wafia
Darwish (on the left),  3rd place, Alia Ali

Alia Ali with her proud mother. Alia Ali is eight years old, unrated, and won the third place!
Could she be a future UAE woman champion?

An Arab family, the  Aljeldehs, brother and sisters - chess players and arbiters at the Al Ain Classic

Hesham Alargha and Huda Alnajjar, a Syrian couple , both arbiters; Huda happily announced
that all her family, today based in the UAE, were chess players, including her grown up children

Saif Salem Lekhraibani Alnuaimi, head of the Organising committee, Tarek Al Taher, the
Tournament’s Director and the chief arbiter Ashot Vardapetyan (ARM) who also arbitrated
at the 2013 World Championship Match, Carlsen-Anand.

GM Dimitri Komarov (UKR) commented the games; Mehrdad Pahlevanzadeh (IRI) contributed
many photos, videos and relayed the games on the YouTube Al Ain chess channel

Chess couple IM Sagar Shah and Amruta Sunil provided wonderful coverage, in five reports,
on the ChessBase News pages

The Al Ain Classic’s tournament director, Tarek Al Taher, under whose secure hand the event
run ever so smoothly, on a late night stroll in down-town Al Ain with (from left), GM Gasanov
Eldar, WGM Elmira Mirzoeva, GM Evgenij Miroshnichenko and Viorel Iordachescu

The following two videos represent a roundup of players, the wonderful atmosphere in the hotel, the press coverage the tournament elicited in the local press and further snippets from the prize giving ceremony.


A video gallery of players in the playing hall and around the hotel (video by Diana Mihajlova)


Summary, interviews with players, and press coverage (video by Mehrdad Pahlevanzadeh)

Dr. Saif Alnuaimi, head of the organizing committee, hinted that next year's prize fund would be further increased. 

I wish to dispel the immediate, preconceived idea that participating at this far away tournament might be too expensive, which probably puts off many more foreign players. Upon closer inspection, it compares favourably to even the most expensive chess destinations (Gibraltar, etc), and a couple of low-cost flights serve the Dubai airports. Not only does it offer a chess adventure  in the company of a high number of titled players, but also an unforgettable experience with the fascinating historical, geographical and  cultural heritage of the wondrous United Arab Emirates. The Al Ain Classic is a tournament to be ticked in your chess calendar. 

A beautiful face of my new friend at the Al Ain’s Camels market


Official tournament site
Official Facebook page
Final standings

A former university lecturer in Romance philology, she is currently a painter as well as a chess journalist, and reports regularly from the international tournament scene.


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