Cairns Cup: A three-horse race

by Antonio Pereira
2/11/2019 – All five games of round five at the Cairns Cup could have easily finished with decisive results, as all boards saw the players relentless in attack and defence — the fighting spirit was at its peak in Saint Louis. Eventually, however, the three top contenders ended up scoring wins and widening the gap with the rest of the field. Thus, Alexandra Kosteniuk is still the sole leader, while Valentina Gunina and Irina Krush remain a half point behind. | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

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Not for the faint-hearted

A gap of a point and a half separates Valentina Gunina and Irina Krush from the 'bottom' side of the standings. Their 4/5 is already a surprising score given how evenly distributed the ratings of the participants are. Thus, it goes without saying that Alexandra Kosteniuk's performance so far can only be described as extraordinary. At this point, it seems almost impossible for someone other than these three players to end up winning the event.

Time to check on the rivals' games | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

The hero of the day — at least for those who enjoy wild tactical bouts — was Valentina Gunina. The Russian never shies away from chaotic struggles, and when Marie Sebag decided to play an Open Sicilian it seemed likely that the game would be one of high entertainment value. The skirmish turned in White's favour when Marie chose the wrong square to place her queen:


Black's queen is the only defender of the f7 weak point, but by attacking the b5-knight it can simply win a piece, as the knight on b3 is also en prise. Marie could have gotten the piece on b5 with a check from b6, but instead she played 20...♛d7?, allowing Valentina to bring another piece into the attack with tempo: 21.h3. The game followed 21...xb5 22.xf7+ d8 23.g6 h6, and Gunina kept up the onslaught with a winning sacrifice:


White's pieces coordinate perfectly against the black king stuck in the centre. 24.xh6 opened up the possibility of bringing another rook into the attack and led to the elimination of another defender, Black's dark-squared bishop. Marie was hopeless and continued 24...gxh6. After 25.ad1+ d5 26.g7 xg7 27.xg7 axb3, Valentina did not even find it necessary to capture the free rook on h8:


28.f7! is mate-in-five. The amazing attack finished with a flourish — after 28...c5+ 29.h2 e8, Gunina closed the deal with the fiendish 30.f8+. Certainly a memorable game. (Remember that you can try more variations on the diagrams above!)

The ever smiley Gunina | Photo: Spectrum Studios / Saint Louis Chess Club

While Gunina won her game in typical style with White, Irina Krush did the same with the black pieces against Zhansaya Abdumalik — the American used strong positional concepts to get complete control over the position and squeeze her opponent ruthlessly.

Zhansaya, true to her attacking spirit, played 9.f4 against Irina's Caro-Kann, but Black had a solid setup and managed to find a decisive break on move 22:


Krush thought for nine minutes before playing the strong 22...b4, creating targets for her pieces and roads to penetrate White's position. This quickly resulted in Black's domination of the dark squares. 

Already in a winning position, Irina showed how paralysed her opponent's pieces were by keeping control of White's only hope of counterplay:


Forcing moves like 41...g5 or 41...xf4+ were winning, but Krush chose 41...b3 instead, as White cannot do anything to improve her setup on the kingside. Four moves later, Abdumalik resigned.

It was a methodical win for Irina | Photo: Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

Kosteniuk's victory was not as clean. She played a line which required — if she wanted to put pressure with White — a rather risky pawn push up to d6 early in the game. She did choose that line but could not find the correct follow-up. Therefore, Bela Khotenashvili probably started considering she had good chances to win the game. Soon enough, given Kosteniuk's creative play, Bela found herself a piece up in the middlegame:


The black king is in a very vulnerable position, so the best possibility for Khotenashvili in the diagrammed position was to get more material with 24...xa5, forcing White to draw by perpetual check. Instead, the Georgian — who came from losing two games in a row — kept the fight going with 24...f6?.

At this point the computer already gave White a significant advantage, especially after Kosteniuk transferred her bishop to c3, controlling the long diagonal. However, Alexandra was in time trouble and it was difficult to find the moves that would lead her to an eventual victory. Clearly pressured by the clock, the Russian implicitly offered a draw by repetition on moves 30-34 — and once again Bela rejected the offer! 

When the time control was reached, Kosteniuk found herself an exchange up in a queenless endgame. The Russian showed good technique and won the game in 54 moves.

Alexandra only dropped half a point so far | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club

Meanwhile, both Elisabeth Paehtz and Harika Dronavalli wasted good chances to get full points against Nana Dzagnidze and Anna Zatonskih, respectively. Paehtz has now drawn three games after her two losses at the beginning of the event, while Harika is on 50% after having drawn all her encounters before the rest day.

Tuesday's round six will see the big clash between Kosteniuk and Krush. The former world champion and current leader of the tournament confessed in the post-game interview that Krush has been a difficult opponent for her since their first childhood encounters. Will Krush go for the throat with the white pieces? Or will she play it safe? 

Elisabeth Paehtz | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club

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Commentary by GM Yasser Seirawan, GM Maurice Ashley and WGM Jennifer Shahade

Standings after round five


All games



Antonio is a freelance writer and a philologist. He is mainly interested in the links between chess and culture, primarily literature. In chess games, he skews towards endgames and positional play.


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KrushonIrina KrushonIrina 2/11/2019 08:45
Krush vs. Kosteniuk tomorrow is the key matchup in the tournament thus far.

Go Irina!! You can do this!
Cat Bayun Cat Bayun 2/11/2019 08:05
It we, clubmen A. Kostenyuk, the day before, advised it to use lateral thinking in a game. And as you can see - Flight normal!! translation -
Это мы, члены клуба А.Костенюк, накануне, посоветовали ей использовать латеральное мышление в игре. И как видите - Полёт нормальный !!