Cairns Cup: Fireworks

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
2/12/2020 – All five games of the Cairns Cup ended decisively on Tuesday, leaving Ju Wenjun and Alexandra Kosteniuk in the shared lead on 3½ out of 5. Humpy Koneru took down former sole leader Nana Dagnidze, Valentina Gunina scored a fine attacking win against Harika Dronavalli and Carissa Yip got on the scoreboard with a victory over compatriot Irina Krush. The players will rest on Wednesday before returning to the fray for the final four rounds. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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Ju and Kosteniuk take the lead

Sharp tactical battles, turnarounds and mating attacks were all on display in the exciting fifth round of the Cairns Cup. All five games finished decisively, with former sole leader Nana Dzagnidze losing her first game of the event. Thus, the standings table was completely altered before the rest day.

Alexandra Kosteniuk and Ju Wenjun faltered at some point during their games, but also showed precision once they got a clear edge to become the new leaders in Saint Louis. Nana Dzagnidze and Humpy Koneru will go into the final four rounds a half point behind them, while Kateryna Lagno, Mariya Muzychuk and Harika Dronavalli still have chances to get first place with their fifty-percent scores. 

Cairns Cup 2020

The event takes place at the Saint Louis Chess Club | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Lagno 0:1 Ju Wenjun

Kateryna Lagno played 2.c3 against Ju's Sicilian. The world champion played actively from the get go, but her decision to gain a pawn without completing development could have cost her dearly:


Lagno had spent twelve minutes on her tenth move, 10.e3, when she probably calculated that she has 12.d5 — which she played quickly — in the diagrammed position. Strangely enough, however, after 12...exd5 she did not have a response ready. Capturing the c3-pawn had been a grave mistake by Ju, as 13.♖c1 or 13.♗d4 leave White with a major edge, as it is difficult for Black to protect her king with the knight still on g8. Lagno opted for 13.xd5 instead, after spending close to a half hour. The position was balanced and Lagno was pressured by the clock.

On move 22, Ju gave up her bishop to get the initiative, correctly assessing that it would be difficult for her opponent to deal with the complexities of the position during time trouble:


The idea is that after 22...xh3 23.gxh3 Black has 23...xe2 24.xe2 xf3, when the computer thinks the position is roughly balanced, although it is very hard for White to play actively, as her king is vastly more vulnerable. 

Lagno's position started falling apart shortly after, and Ju showed her strength while converting her superior position. This was the Chinese's second straight victory.


Kateryna Lagno, Ju Wenjun

Kateryna Lagno missed her chance to get a superior position in the opening against the world champion | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Kosteniuk 1:0 Muzychuk

The former world champions played a sideline of the Ruy Lopez. After Kosteniuk was the first to deviate from theory with 11.c3, Muzychuk played a sequence that left her on the back foot strategically.  Everything was going well for the Russian, until she made a difficult-to-explain decision on move 20:


After the game, Kosteniuk highlighted the fact that she could not quite explain a couple of her decisions, noting that she would like to say it was a smooth win from start to finish...but that was not the case at all. She particularly pointed out at the diagrammed position, when the most natural 20.♘c5 is clearly the way to go. Instead, she played 20.a5, gifting her rival a chance to regroup.

A few moves later, Kosteniuk erred again, but Muzychuk could not find the refutation:


The mistaken 24.f3 allows 24...♜e2, when White needs to be careful to avoid getting in deep trouble. Black played 24...ae8 instead, and White rerouted her knight with 25.c6 5e6 26.d4 getting a strong setup. From that point on it was smooth sailing for Kosteniuk, who had a completely winning position when Muzychuk's flag fell on move 40.


Alexandra Kosteniuk

Alexandra Kosteniuk got back-to-back wins before the rest day | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Gunina 1:0 Harika

Out of a Closed Sicilian, Gunina was the first one to deviate from theory — in typical style, she decided to push her h-pawn:


The Russian later explained that after 12.0-0 she would have to play a structure she is not very familiar with, while 12.h4 d4 13.h5 leads to the kind of tactical skirmish she enjoys.

Harika did not consider White expansion on the kingside to be dangerous, as she took her queen to the other flank and even captured the faraway pawn on a2. This decision turned out to be a mistake, as Gunina simply ploughed ahead on the f, g and h-files, getting a completely winning position after Black's mistaken 23.Be7. The defending champion got to finish her opponent off in blazing fashion:


33.e6 opens up the way for a queen transfer to the h-file. Harika played the desperate 33...xg5, but after 34.xg5 d8 35.f6 White is ready to give mate on the dark squares. Resignation came three moves later.


Valentina Gunina, Harika Dronavalli

Going all-in on the kingside — Valentina Gunina v Harika Dronavalli | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Dzagnidze 0:1 Koneru

In the marquee game of the round, at least in terms of its repercussion on the standings, the contenders played critically in the early middlegame. On move 23, however, Dzagnidze shied away from going for a sharp continuation that would have left her in the driver's seat:


Here White had 23.♘xe4 dxe4 24.e6 (a key intermediate move) f5 and the very strong 25.♖d7, with a double-edged struggle in store. Instead, after thinking for over fifteen minutes, the Georgian star went for 23.e2, and after 23...c5 24.d4 xe5 Black was a pawn up and had a clear target on f2.

Getting the win was not a walk in the park for Humpy, however, as she stumbled during time trouble, allowing her rival to occupy the dark squares, almost getting a fortress against Black's queen and light-squared bishop. The Indian never stopped putting pressure though, and when she managed to break through on the kingside with 52...f4 it was only a matter of time before she got the full point.


Humpy Koneru

Humpy Koneru | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Krush 0:1 Yip

The all-American battle followed the script of Krush's games during this event. The seven-time US champion got a clear strategical edge in the middlegame, but let her advantage slip when the time control was approaching. Instead of keeping up the pressure, Krush allowed her opponent to untangle and eventually give up her queen for two rooks:


White could have continued to squeeze her positional trumps with 20.♖fd1 but went for 20.xe7 instead. She still was in the driver's seat, but when Yip got to coordinate her pieces against White's queen the tables turned in the youngster's favour. 

Already in danger, Krush could have tried to maximize her chances of getting a perpetual:


Better than White's 36.xe5 was 36.♕g4, when Black will need to deal with the queen giving checks and threatening to coordinate an attack with the light-squared bishop. After the text, on the other hand, the game continued 36...ce8 37.d5 f3+ 38.h3 xf2 and there is no way to stop the f-pawn without losing material. Yip was very relieved by getting her first win before the rest day. The youngster thanked her friends and supporters for cheering her up during her rough start.


Carissa Yip

16-year-old Carissa Yip | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Standings after Round 5


Commentary webcast

Commentary by WGM Jennifer Shahade, GM Yasser Seirawan and GM Alejandro Ramirez

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Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.


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