Valentina Gunina wins inaugural Cairns Cup

by Antonio Pereira
2/16/2019 – The critical game of the Cairns Cup finished drawn, but only after both players missed chances to get ahead. Nonetheless, a half point was all that Valentina Gunina needed to win the tournament and take home $40,000, while Alexandra Kosteniuk's performance was not too shabby either, as she got over thirteen rating points with her 6½/9 score. Irina Krush bounced back after two losses and defeated Harika Dronavalli to finish in sole third place. | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

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A step forward for women's chess

Big prizes and an excellent organisation are guaranteed when an event takes place at the Saint Louis Chess Club and, with the Cairns Cup, elite women's chess also benefitted from the Sinquefields' generosity. The first edition of the ten-player single round robin tournament — resembling most open elite events — with an all-women line-up concluded this Friday at the same club that time and again welcomed stars such as Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and even Garry Kasparov, among others.

The big winner was Valentina Gunina, the player from Murmansk, Russia that turned thirty just two days before the tournament began. She arrived in the last round as the sole leader, and having to face the only player that could take her down in the standings, Alexandra Kosteniuk. The fellow members of Russia's national team deservedly were the main focus of the spectators during the second half of the competition — and both of them managed to finish the event undefeated.

No hard feelings, at all! | Photo: Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

But things could have easily gone in other directions...

Gunina surprised her opponent by choosing a rather positional defensive system. The strategy worked, as she left the opening with the upper hand, mainly thanks to a dangerous passed pawn on the a-file. When the time control was approaching, however, Valentina failed to find a critical — albeit difficult — continuation:


Black should use her biggest trump — the passed a-pawn — and threaten to advance it further down the board with 32...c3. The automatic capture 32...xb5, chosen quickly by Gunina, allows White to untangle her position with the break 33.d4

Kosteniuk had achieved to get a more balanced position, until she — like her rival a few moves ago — underestimated the importance of the passed pawn on the queenside:


The dark-squared bishop left its blockading spot on a3 with 39.c5, giving way to 39...a8 — attacking the rook — 40.bb6 a3. The pawn advanced to a2 in the next move, where it was safely protected by the black bishop from f7. Thus, Black had a significant advantage...

...but seven moves later Gunina allowed a sequence that squandered her biggest trump:


If White manages to play d5, the connection between the f7-bishop and the a2-pawn would be lost. Therefore, it was imperative for Black to avoid that advance with a move like 47...c8 or 47...e8 (in case of 48.d5, 48...xd5 is possible thanks to the pin on the e-file). Instead, Gunina's 47...f5 precisely allowed 48.d5 and White captured the all-important pawn after 48...fxe4 with 49.xa2.

A drawn endgame did not take long to appear on the board, and the players signed the peace treaty after 66 moves.

As happy as one can be | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

Happy endings

All four other games finished with decisive results, reshuffling completely the standings below second place. Irina Krush climbed to sole third place after beating her direct rival Harika Dronavalli, while Nana Dzagnidze finished fourth after taking down her compatriot Bela Khotenashvili. Zhansaya Abdumalik returned to 50% thanks to a win over Elisabeth Paehtz and Anna Zatonskih left the cellar with a victory over Marie Sebag.

Nana recovered from a bad start | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

Krush managed to use her space advantage out of a King's Indian Defence right after the time control:


It is time for White to make the most of her positional trumps — Irina did it by resorting to pins and ended up two pawns up on the kingside: 42.xg5 xg5 43.e4 g7 44.xg5 f5 45.b2 g6 46.xh4 xh4 47.xd6+. (Remember that you can check this and other variations on the diagram above).

Anastasiya Karlovich interviewed Krush | Photo: Crystal Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

Thursday's only winner Marie Sebag missed a critical tactic right out of the opening against Anna Zatonskih and never managed to recover:


By going 14...g6? in the previous move, Marie allowed 15.b5!, and Black is clearly worse after 15...cxb5 16.xb5+ f8 17.xh5 — White is a pawn up, but most importantly Black has lost the right to castle. The four-time U.S. women's champion never lost the thread and got her second win of the tournament after 49 moves.

A last-round win might help Anna forget a disappointing event | Photo: Austin Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

It was, above all, a very exciting tournament, with 25 out of 45 games finishing with decisive results — missed chances, noticeable nervousness and a strong sense of camaraderie were, as well, part of menu. 

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

Final standings


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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jproc jproc 2/16/2019 07:55
super event. I enjoyed following it immensely. SLCC is doing great things
royce campbell royce campbell 2/16/2019 05:14
Naysayers be damned, this was awesome, deserved, exciting and overdue! Thanks, SLCC and everyone involved!
TomE57ach TomE57ach 2/16/2019 02:25
Loved this tournament.. plenty of fighting chess, outstanding coverage, great players, and very well organized. Looking forward to next year's edition!