Cairns Cup: Russian showdown

by Antonio Pereira
2/15/2019 – The Russian participants are the only ones with a chance to take home the first prize of $40,000 at the Cairns Cup. Valentina Gunina will enter her final round game against direct rival Alexandra Kosteniuk a half point ahead…but she will have the black pieces. Both players drew their Thursday games in Saint Louis, albeit through very different paths: Gunina was close to lost against Abdumalik while Kosteniuk had the upper hand during most of her encounter against Dzagnidze. | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

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Sebag the only winner

No round at the inaugural Cairns Cup finished with all games drawn so far. In the penultimate day of play, however, only Marie Sebag managed to score a full point — she did it by beating Irina Krush in a Classical Sicilian setup. This was Marie's first victory of the tournament and Irina's second straight loss. Sebag has now left the cellar in the standings, while Krush now shares third place with Harika Dronavalli.

Krush repeated the strategic mistake that led to her defeat the previous round, as she gave up a pawn to get an attack with 22...d5 when it was not clear the position on the board justified such decision. After that sequence, Sebag used her passed d-pawn efficiently and dealt with Black's threats by timely sacrificing an exchange. It was a rather typical Sicilian gone wrong for Black.


Sebag arrived in the playing hall with the right attitude | Photo: Spectrum Studios / Saint Louis Chess Club

The biggest story of the day, however, was Zhansaya Abdumalik's inability to use her chances against the leader Valentina Gunina. The young Kazakh has been showing good chess in Saint Louis but has also gotten disappointed more than once in the end. Against the seemingly unbeatable Gunina, she countered her opponent's ambitious play with active accurate moves. Valentina was left with her king stuck in the centre, but Zhansaya did not find a forcing continuation that would have left her clearly ahead:


White has just captured Black's dangerous bishop on d3. Zhansaya automatically took the exchange by quickly replying 34...cxd3, but this gave White a tempo to improve her king's position by going 35.f3. Instead, Abdumalik could have attacked at once with 34...h1+, since after 35.e2 e8+ White cannot play the natural 36.e3? due to 36...d4#. In the game, Black was an exchange up but White was left with two connected passed pawns on the kingside, so it made sense for the players to agree to a draw quickly afterwards, on move 42.

Zhansaya Abdumalik is here to stay | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club

While her compatriot suffered against Abdumalik, Alexandra Kosteniuk had a slight pull against Nana Dzagnidze during most of their encounter. It was a tough position to convert, however, and Nana's experience helped her keep it cool and deal with the threats effectively. Kosteniuk was nonetheless a pawn up in the ensuing rook endgame, but there was no way to break through given White's active king position.

Harika Dronavalli signed a 29-move draw against Bela Khotenashvili and now shares third place with Irina Krush — 'plus one' is enough to get that place in the tournament table now that two players have gotten so far away at the top of the standings. 

What to do? Things don't work out sometimes... | Photo: Spectrum Studios / Saint Louis Chess Club

So everything is set for the big showdown on Friday. It only makes sense for Kosteniuk to go all-in with the white pieces, as she has secured second place no matter what happens. Luckily for the spectators, she will face a player that apparently does not know how to 'play simple chess' and go for a draw. 

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Standings after round eight


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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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