Cairns Cup: Gunina grabs the lead

by Antonio Pereira
2/14/2019 – Valentina Gunina, who started the inaugural Cairns Cup with a win and two draws, has now won four in a row — her latest victim was Anna Zatonskih — to grab the sole lead and overtake her compatriot Alexandra Kosteniuk. The other winner in round seven was Bela Khotenashvili, who was having a tough time in Saint Louis but recovered by taking down Irina Krush with the white pieces. | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

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As good as it gets

Rounds 4-7 could not have gone better for Valentina Gunina, as four straight wins left her alone on top of the standings with a 6/7 score. Her latest victory was achieved with the black pieces against Anna Zatonskih — the American has lost the thread in Saint Louis and now shares last place on 2/7.

Perhaps due to Anna’s bad form — or simply because she is a fearless player — Valentina advanced her kingside pawns in the middlegame. Zatonskih answered with hesitant play and found herself in a tough spot when the struggle in the centre took off. White could not avoid losing the exchange in following sequence:


After Black captured with 25…xd4, Anna’s alternatives were not very encouraging — capturing with the pawn would result in her position becoming too vulnerable against the f4-push, while capturing with the rook lost the exchange by force. She chose the latter and was material down after 26.xd4 e5 27.xe4 xd4. Saving the exchange on move 27 does not work due to the weakness on c3, as Black can easily pin the knight with her rooks from c7 and c8.

In the complications that arose after this sequence, however, Zatonskih created strong threats that stood in the way of Gunina’s plans. Nonetheless, the Russian’s material advantage was too much for White to handle when the endgame was reached:


White closed the e-file but Black’s penetration is still unavoidable: 44…b1+ 45.e2 c2+ 46.e3. And here came the killer blow:


Valentina immediately played 46…d4+ and White resigned after 47.f3 d3+ 48.g2 g8, winning the queen.

Will Gunina keep her good form until Friday? | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club

Before the rest day, Gunina was sharing the second place with Irina Krush and, after drawing her game against Kosteniuk from a position of strength, it seemed like the American was a strong contender for the title. Maybe this factor played a big role in Irina’s mind-set during her seventh-round encounter against an out-of-form Bela Khotenashvili — Krush saw this as a great chance to climb in the standings and overpressed with Black:


The computer does not think Irina’s 19…g5 is a mistake, but her previous play created a position that called for this kind of move...when she usually excels at quieter positional contests.

When the time control was reached, Black’s kingside was rather exposed and Bela had a pawn to the good. A few moves later, Khotenashvili brought her last piece to the attack:


After 44.c5, a pin and a mate threat prevented Black from capturing White’s pieces that were en prise at the time. The game continued 44…h8 45.xf7 xc5:


Black managed to capture the knight, but White counted on 46.g5 and there is no way for Black to save her queen against the threatened pin from h5. Krush gave up three moves later.

Bela recovered nicely from a couple of losses | Photo: Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

In the other game relevant to the standings, Harika Dronavalli laid out a French Defence against Alexandra Kosteniuk’s 1.e4. An endgame was reached quite quickly, albeit after some complications that were proficiently handled by both players. Harika was a pawn up, but all pieces had been exchanged except the bishops of opposite colours. The Indian player kept pushing until move 48, but the inevitable pacific end to the game came when White had a perfect blockade on the dark squares.

With two rounds to go, only the Russians players have realistic chances of winning the tournament. Incidentally, Kosteniuk and Gunina are set to play on Friday’s last round, when the former women’s world champion will have the white pieces.

Harika was the one on the driver's seat | Photo: Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

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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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