Bunratty's 25th anniversary breaks records

by Macauley Peterson
2/27/2018 – The largest Irish Open, and arguably the "best weekender in the world" attracted 362 players across four tournaments, including a strong Masters Open won by GM Sergei Tiviakov. Tiviakov last visited Ireland 19 years ago when he won the 6th edition of the tournament back in 1999. Gawain Jones (pictured beer in hand), himself a two-time winner, tied Tiviakov on points with 5.0 / 6, but lost a two-game blitz tiebreak. A look at this fun-filled fixture on the international calendar. | Photo: Alina l'Ami

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Through ups and downs, Bunratty lives on

Sunday morning in Bunratty, the round is scheduled to start at 9:15 AM and many players shuffle in bleary-eyed. It would be early enough to disorient some players even at a "normal" tournament. But Bunratty is not your typical weekender. After 25 years, and going strong, it's becoming legendary and attracts players of a calibre for whom two games a day is anathema. On Saturday in Bunratty, there are three games! After a late night down the road at Durty Nelly's pub, getting to the morning round is more challenging than usual.

Nigel Short and Gawain Jones had a good laugh as to whose opponent would turn up first. Nigel won, and won the game, defeating IM Thomas Rendle, on board three. Short, who won here last year, was surprised to be "back up with the big boys" as he joked after initially being unable to find his board on one of the lower tables.

Short and Rendle

Short did not repeat as Bunratty Champ, but came close | Photo: Macauley Peterson

Bunratty affords amateurs the opportunity to mingle with and even be paired against top grandmasters in a cosy, jovial environment. The atmosphere and tradition are two of the key factors that attract players year-after-year, as the festival takes on the feel of a weekend-long party for players of all ages. Indeed there was a tremendous turnout of scholastic players in the "major" and "minor" sections, and the tournament is quite child-friendly — something one might not expect from its reputation for imbibing. 

Back from the brink

Most of the players stay under one roof at the Bunratty Castle Hotel, which is also one of the event's sponsors since 2010, when the tournament moved here after their previous home closed down. That was a watershed year for the tournament — and not in a good way — as a lack of sponsorship and unavoidable conflict with the 4NCL schedule reduced turnout in the Masters to just 26 players and led the organisers to consider folding up the operation after 17 years.

But fortuitous eavesdropping by Gary O'Grady on a conversation in the bar that year led to his company, Blackthorne International Transport, sponsoring the 2011 tournament, an arrangement which has continued ever since. O'Grady himself has played in the Challengers tournament in Bunratty for 23 of the 25 years, a record bested by only one other player, Paul Kiely, who's made it for all 25!

That doesn't mean O'Grady has managed to play every game. Organiser Gerry Graham related an incident which took place a few festivals ago when O'Grady was late to a morning round — a casualty-in-the making of the late-night socializing that is a hallmark of the event. Bunratty allows a 30 minute grace period to arrive at the board, and there was a bit of a to-do about whether someone should call him to be sure he was awake. Arbiters are not allowed to interfere, of course, but perhaps a friendly third party could give it a go? After all, it wouldn't look good to default the tournament sponsor!

Fortunately O'Grady did turn up just in time to make his first move, but unfortunately, he neglected to switch off his mobile phone, and when the would-be good Samaritan did, in fact, call him, the ringing of a mobile phone at the board was an infraction they had no choice but to punish under the rules.

Gary O'Grady

Tournament sponsor Gary O'Grady was enticed to say a few words at the prize giving for the first time in many attempts — he usually stays in the background | Photo: Macauley Peterson

This year the tournament was bursting at the seams, with 362 players in all — a new record — filling the hotel to capacity. There's even talk about capping the entries in 2019, as the venue simply can't accomodate many more players. A good problem to have for an open!

Coming up short

Things didn't go according to plan for the returning champ, Nigel Short. He came into Bunratty evidently preoccupied with FIDE politics, of which he's been a keen observer from a distance, and as a result, it took a while to get in gear. Two draws against far weaker opposition is generally not conducive to winning a short open tournament! 

In the second round, he was even at risk of becoming worse:


White bailed out with 25.Nf6+ Kg7 26.Nh5+ Kg8 26.Nf6+ and a move repetition. Instead 25.Nd6! is double-edged, but Black has to play precisely to keep the balance.

After the second round, however, Short won his next two games, to rejoin "the big boys". Back to Sunday morning and his game against IM Rendle, who spotted the former World Championship challenger about 15 minutes on the clock, and the game progressed along the lines of a French Tarrasch variation recently played by the English IM.


Here, a few weeks ago, Rendle played 8...O-O against IM Torbjorn Ringdal Hansen, but this time he took first with 8...cxd4 . The difference is subtle, but Nigel went for the computer's first choice of taking on f5 followed by recapturing Nexd4. The e5-pawn is very annoying for black, and White can play against the weak d5 and f5 pawns.

After lengthy manoeuvring, Short eventually seized the chance to break through with 35.h5!


Play through the moves on the live diagram!

After 35...Qd7 36.g4!? (36.hxg6 fxg6 37.Ree1 heading for h1 is a good alternative) Black really had to take 36... fxg4 37.hxg6 fxg6 38.Qxg6 Bf7 which is just barely holding things together). Instead, 36...f4 was a decisive error. 37.hxg6 Bxg4? (37...f3+ 38.Qxf3 fxg6) 38.f3 Bh5 39.e6! winning material. 1-0 (47) 

Williams vs. Jones

Williams vs. Jones was one of the last games to begin on Sunday morning | Photo: Macauley Peterson

Simon Williams was dangerously close to running afoul of the default time as well, arriving with more than 23 minutes off his clock, after enjoying his Saturday night until the wee hours — all part of the fun in Bunratty. The tournament is not FIDE rated on account of its schedule and unusual time control with just a 15 second increment, which is one reason why so many strong GMs make a habit of coming back.

Jones, a two-time winner himself, was nursing an edge out of the opening, but in this position it looked like he would have to trade off his nicely centralised queen:


Instead, Jones found the strong idea 19...axb5! 20.Rxd4 cxd4 21.Na2 Na6 with material equality and active pieces, especially the bishop pair.

In the final position, White is almost in a mating net, and will be forced to shed further material.


In the final round, both Jones and Tiviakov had the white pieces with a half point edge over their opponents, but neither could afford to play it completely safe, lest the other pull off a full point, and with it, clear first.

Tiviakov got a small edge against Mark Hebden, another previous Bunratty winner, and could play for two results for much of the game. But Hebden held firm, and made a draw for a share of third to sixth place with 4½ / 6.

Mark Hebden

Hebden recently celebrated his 60th birthday! | Photo: Macauley Peterson

That left an opening for Short, who by this point was a pawn up in a rook endgame against Jones on board one, and needing to win to force a playoff. But Jones was a pretty calm customer, and managed to hold the endgame with relative ease. 

Gawain Jones

Gawain Jones on Sunday morning | Photo: Macauley Peterson

Blitz tiebreak

Jones and Tiviakov split the €1,000 first prize, but there remained the matter of who would take home the crystal trophy. In front of a large standing-room-only crowd, the pair contested two blitz games at a time control of 3 minutes plus 2 second increment. The first game was a hard fought draw. In the second game, Jones blundered an exchange, then struggled mightily to drum up some counterplay, but Tiviakov remained firmly in control until Jones finally resigned.


The tiebreak scene, as Jones and Tiviakov contest the second blitz game | Photo: Alina l'Ami

It was a minor disappointment for Jones, who missed a chance to become the first three-time winner of Bunratty, but he didn't leave empty-handed; in addition to the prize money, a fan from Germany who played in the Major section — Uwe Walschus — surprised Jones with a custom printed coffee (or beer?) mug, poking fun at another recently missed opportunity by the English GM — being a piece up against the World Champion Magnus Carlsen, but going on to lose.

Jones' mug

On the mug presented to Gawain Jones by a fan at the opening night party

Jones wasn't the only one to receive a unique souvenir. The Cork Chess Club purchased a nice wooden board for one of their members — Joe Brown, who recently turned 90 year old — and the Bunratty team arranged for all the top players to sign it.

signed board

Board signed by all the top players — click or tap to enlarge! | Photo: Macauley Peterson

More Bunratty

Next year's festival already has fixed dates: February 22-24, 2019. In fact, to avoid future conflict with the 4NCL, Bunratty plans its dates a full three years in advance now.

Among the grandmaster guests expected is Wesley So, the 2015 winner, who promised to return regardless of the outcome of his run at the World Championship this year!

Final standings 

Rank Name Score M/F Rating TPR W-We BH-HiLo BH PS 1 2 3 4 5 6
1 GM Tiviakov, Sergey 5.0 M 2569 2645 +0.61 16.5 23.5 19.0 1 1 1 ½ 1 ½
2 GM Jones, Gawain 5.0 M 2646 2713 +0.57 15.5 23.5 19.0 1 1 1 ½ 1 ½
3 GM Short, Nigel 4.5 M 2681 2559 -0.56 14.0 21.0 15.0 ½ ½ 1 1 1 ½
4 GM Hebden, Mark 4.5 M 2454 2466 +0.24 13.0 19.5 16.5 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 ½
5 GM Baburin, Alexander 4.5 M 2423 2449 +0.28 12.5 18.0 14.5 ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 1
6 WGM L'Ami, Alina 4.5 F 2310 2421 +0.92 12.0 19.0 14.0 1 0 ½ 1 1 1
7 IM Bates, Richard 4.0 M 2364 2456 +0.77 14.5 21.0 17.0 1 1 1 ½ 0 ½
8 GM Speelman, Jonathan 4.0 M 2503 2359 -0.82 14.0 20.5 14.0 ½ + ½ ½ 1 ½
9 GM Williams, Simon 4.0 M 2453 2399 -0.19 13.5 20.5 15.5 ½ 1 1 1 0 ½
10 GM McShane, Luke 4.0 M 2643 2413 -1.32 13.5 19.5 13.5 1 0 1 ½ ½ 1
11 IM Collins, Sam 4.0 M 2459 2316 -0.94 12.5 18.5 13.0 1 0 ½ 1 ½ 1
12 IM Heidenfeld, Mark 4.0 M 2360 2312 -0.14 12.0 18.0 14.0 1 ½ 0 1 1 ½
13 WGM Belenkaya, Dina 3.5 F 2286 2476 +1.47 15.0 21.0 14.0 1 1 0 ½ ½ ½
14 GM Wells, Peter 3.5 M 2427 2327 -0.57 13.0 19.0 14.5 ½ 1 1 ½ ½ 0
15 Vogel, Constantin 3.5 M 2026 2267 +1.46 13.0 18.5 10.5 0 1 0 1 + ½
16 IM Vuilleumier, Alexandre 3.5 M 2345 2294 -0.34 12.5 20.0 12.0 1 0 ½ ½ 1 ½
17 IM Pein, Malcolm 3.5 M 2346 2368 +0.22 12.0 18.5 13.5 1 1 0 0 1 =
18 FM O'Donnell, Conor 3.5 M 2293 2209 -0.43 12.0 18.5 13.0 ½ 1 0 1 1 0
19 IM Wallace, John Paul 3.5 M 2411 2197 -1.43 12.0 18.0 12.5 1 0 1 0 1 ½
20 Li, Henry 3.5 M 2187 2270 +0.60 11.5 18.0 11.0 ½ ½ 0 1 1 ½

All Masters games


One final note: as last year, we'll also be featuring a brief photo report from IM Alina l'Ami in the coming days. She focused on playing rather than shooting this time and did quite well! As you can see above, she was among the group of players tied for 3rd-5th with 4½. But she nevertheless had her camera slung over a shoulder at every round!

Alina l'Ami

Alina l'Ami receiving her prize at the closing ceremony | Photo: Macauley Peterson


Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.


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