FM Kurniawan tops Penang Chess Festival

by Edwin Lam
12/22/2018 – The week-long Penang Chess Festival 2018 took place from December 3rd to the 9th in the Malaysian city of Penang. This was the tenth edition of the event, which included both an Open and a Challengers section, a blitz turnament and the Wah Seong Penang Chess League. Despite the presence of a GM and several IMs, FIDE Master Muhamad Agus Kurniawan took first place in the main section after scoring 7½ points in nine rounds. | Photos: Penang Chess Association

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Already a tradition

The week-long Penang Chess Festival 2018 took place from the 3rd to the 9th of December. Incorporating the 10th edition of the Penang Heritage City International Chess Open, a Challengers section, a Blitz Tournament and the Wah Seong Penang Chess League, the festival was officiated by the honourable Yang Berhormat Jagdeep Singh Deo, who is Penang's Executive Councillor for the portfolios of local government, housing, urban and rural planning. YB Jagdeep spoke at the opening ceremony and made the ceremonial first move in round one.

First move Isomov vs Villamayor

YB Jagdeep made the ceremonial first move for Umar Isomov of Uzbekistan in his game against GM “Bong” Villamayor, which ended drawn

This year’s event attracted 92 players from fourteen different countries to play in the Open section, while 167 players from thirteen countries turned up to play in the Challengers. The Wah Seong Penang Chess League attracted 88 teams, with a total of 352 players competing with a rapid time control after the Open, Challengers and Blitz events had finished. The many “regulars” of this annual affair in Penang included GM Buenaventura Villamayor (known affectionately as GM “Bong”), IMs Emmanuel Senador, Dede Lioe and Ronny Gunawan, FMs Andyka Pitra and Kurniawan Muhamad Agus, as well as Ian Udani from the Philippines. In the Challengers' section, Frenchman Noel Nicholas, who resides in Thailand, is another regular returnee to Penang.

IM Ronny Gunawan led the entourage of Indonesian players in Penang

And then there was the large contingent of junior players. For example, WGM Nafisa Muminova came with her students to Penang — she also signed up to compete in the Open category tournament. There was also a large group of juniors from Singapore complementing the presence of many talented young Penangites — including the U-12 gold medallist at the East Asian Youth Championships, Agnes Chong Kai Ni, WCMs Sim Jia Ru, Goh Jie Yi, Chua Jia-Tien, Teh De Zen and Ding Dao En, as well as the 1777-rated 9-year old Poh Yu Tian. Even GM Alexei Barsov turned up to play in the Blitz Festival.

WGM Nafisa Muminova

Talented Penangite junior player, Agnes Chong Kai Ni, seen here in Round 7 — she was playing Black on board 16, unfazed by her taller opponent!

L to R: WCM Goh Jie Yi, WCM Chua Jia-Tien, WCM Teh De Zen, WCM Ding Dao En and WCM Sim Jia Ru | Photo: Madam See of PCA

Maybe they were attracted by the many “festivals”, traditionally held in Penang throughout December? The Christmas Jazz festival, the International Dragon Boat Festival, Pesta Pulau Pinang or the Alchemist Cup scrabble challenge, featuring the world’s #1 and #2 players...just to name a few. Or they were simply attracted by the efficient organisation of the Penang Chess Association as well as the comfortable playing venue at the Red Rock Hotel.

GM “Bong” Villamayor, champion in 2014

The “jinx”

Alumni GM “Bong” was the champion at the 6th edition of the chess open, and for this 10th edition of the tournament he was the number one seeded player. Before the start of this event, I was expecting “Bong” to fulfil his status as favourite and become the first person to win this tournament for a second time.

But, as he found out on the first day of play, the “jinx” of GMs losing half-a-point against much lower rated opponents in round one here in Penang (as had been discovered previously by GMs Barsov and Nguyen Duc Hoa in 2017 and GM Amirreza Pourramezanali in 2016) is "for real". This time around the 1949-rated Umar Isomov from Uzbekistan drew the grandmaster with the white pieces:


GM “Bong” fought back after this draw and won the next four games to return to the first board in round six. Despite a draw against FM Kurniawan Muhamad Agus in that round, he remained in the top 3 going into the next round. He remained on first board, but this time he had to play Black against IM Novita Anjas, who had won five games and conceded a single draw (to FM Kurniawan) prior to round seven.

IM Novita Anjas from Indonesia

Novita leads and wears “the yellow jersey”

This crunch game was a nervy encounter, as IM Novita went for a double-edged continuation in the opening — he traded a central pawn for Black's a-pawn. Despite being late for the start of round seven, Novita’s ninth move set the game up for a tough fight, as both him and GM “Bong” were vying for the “yellow jersey” — the winner for this match would become the tournament leader just like the leading cyclist in the Tour de France.

The crunch match on board one

“Bong” took up the challenge and White soon followed up with a tactical idea which contained a strategic gap due to the trading of White’s good bishop for Black’s weaker knight. GM “Bong” seized on the opportunity to build up a winning position, which he gradually improved until move number 47, when Black made a tactical mistake and IM Novita pounced on it to win the game. IM Novita cemented his lead at the top of the tournament table, taking full advantage of Black’s slip-up.


Under the radar

While Novita led the standings with six wins and only a single draw, his fellow countryman FM Kurniawan had been quietly keeping pace with the “yellow jersey” leader. The 20-year old Kurniawan, during the first seven rounds, had been “flying stealthily under the radar” – keeping pace with the leaders with four wins and two draws, remaining undefeated after six rounds.

In round two, FM Kurniawan fought former Malaysian national player Eric Cheah with White. After playing thirteen moves of theory, White deviated on move 14. His choice was a safe one — not the most direct option, which I’d preferred, but nevertheless a good one. Kurniawan, who is known for his solid, careful play, temporarily sacrificed a knight on move 22 to push through his attack against Eric:

Eric Cheah


In round seven, FM Kurniawan had risen to board two, where he had the black pieces against experienced Filipino IM Emmanuel Senador. Kurniawan was late for this encounter and chose the Petroff Defence. IM Senador, probably contented with a draw, played peacefully throughout the game. After 17 moves and with the queens exchanged, the position looked drawish.

IM Senador’s match against FM Kurniawan’s Petroff Defence

It was here that IM Senador made a positional error that gave Kurniawan a chance to complicate the game. Black took the chance and with it gained an outside passed pawn on the queenside, which he duly converted after successfully attacking on both wings:


Ian spoiled Novita’s party

The first three boards in the last round were occupied by leader IM Novita, on 7 points, and FMs Kurniawan and Andyka Pitra, both half a point behind the leader. Three other players — GM “Bong”, IM Ronny Gunawan and untitled Ian Udani — occupied the remaining places of the top three boards with six points each. Ian became the spoiler, as he defeated IM Novita on.

FM Andyka Pitra, another “regular” of this annual event in Penang

IM Novita chose a slightly inferior structure right out of the opening to combat Ian’s French Defence, and what was interesting to note was that a similar position had occurred two decades ago — Black won that game, thanks to a strategic error by White that gifted Black with a weak, backward e3-pawn. Interestingly, IM Novita allowed history to repeat itself here. Perhaps he was not aware of the earlier Belgian game?


IM Gunawan won his game against GM “Bong”, despite the black player having the better position after ten moves. Black's eleventh move was worse than the move played in the first-ever known game that reached this position back in 1960. Details are contained in the notes below:


With the defeats of IM Novita and GM “Bong”, the door was now wide open for FM Kurniawan to win the tournament outright. He again played solidly with White, this time against FM Andyka, but managed to build up a winning position. Then, his 20.Kb1 was too cautious and he threw away most of his advantage. In a few more moves, Black even had the upper hand, but his careless 38th move allowed White to proceed with a triple fork. Kurniawan duly converted the position into a win and with it became the champion of the 10th Penang Heritage City International Chess Open. Ian's spoiler enabled FM Kurniawan to pip IM Novita at the post!

FM Kurniawan got first place


Final standings - Open section (top 5)



FM Kurniawan Muhamad Agus

7.5 points

IM Novita Anjas

7 points

Ian Udani

7 points

IM Ronny Gunawan

7 points

IM Li Bo

7 points

FM Kurniawan (centre), flanked by Ian Udani (left) and Madam See, President of Penang Chess Association (right) — to the right of Madam See is IM Novita

The rest of the top finishers in the Open category

The Challengers

In the Challengers section, prominent Penang junior player AGM Eshwant Singh emerged triumphant with 7½ points. He was followed closely by Suyarov Mukhammadzokhid, Dhea Safitri from Indonesia, CM Tan Jun Hao from Singapore, Yip Yong (another talented Penangite junior), Tin Shan Ze, Low Chee Pang and Zairudin Mohd Luqman Iskandar, all of them on 7 points.

AGM Eshwant Singh, champion of the Challengers category

AGM Eshwant with the other top finishers of the Challengers category

Organised by the Penang Chess Association since the year 2008, this annual tournament has been backed by the Penang State Government. It is made up of three back-to-back tournaments, namely the FIDE standard-rated Penang Heritage City International Chess Open (Open & Challenger Categories), Penang Chess Blitz Festival and the Wah Seong Penang Chess League.

The entire chess festival was made possible thanks to the support from Wah Seong Corporation Berhad, Red Rock Hotel Penang, the Penang Chief Minister’s Office, Penang State Sports Council and Majlis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang. After hitting the magical 10th edition this year, this annual affair has garnered a good following. Onward and forward to many more editions of this tournament in the years to come!


Edwin Lam Choong Wai is a Malaysian chess player and author. He was previously attached to Procter & Gamble doing local, regional and global marketing roles, before joining Pfizer, Essilor and Yeo’s in both Malaysia and Singapore. He had also previously been attached to The Purpose Group, a creative and digital marketing agency in Ho Chi Minh City. He is now based in Malaysia having started an education venture known as My SKOLA+ ( since end-2017.


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True_Beginner True_Beginner 12/24/2018 08:18
FM Kurniawan is from Indonesia.