The First Lady of the London Chess Classic

by Sabrina Chevannes
12/19/2016 – The London Chess Classic has come to a close now and we’ve known for a couple of days that Wesley So would take home the title. We’ve also seen a French domination in the FIDE Open, but this weekend was all about the outstanding performance by Valentina Gunina winning the rapidplay with 9/10.

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Photos: Lennart Ootes

The London Chess Classic has certainly not disappointed this year. With 15 decisive results across the tournament, we didn’t have a single day without action. And yesterday was all about Topalov’s extraordinary finish against Levon Aronian.

Before this round, Topalov had been the “whipping boy” of the event, with six rather painful losses. He has clearly not been in form and has also been quite unlucky throughout the tournament. It looked as though he was heading down another depressing route when he went a piece down for two pawns.

In the following position, he had a crucial decision to make:

White is threatening to play a3 and trap the black knight… 15…e4 would have been a tactical way of saving the piece, by placing it on d3. However, that pawn may also turn weak down the line and it seems Veselin did not fancy defending it and chose to simply sacrifice his knight on b4 with the immediate 15…b5?!

What looked like a decent sacrifice with three pawns for the piece, turned into only two and the position started to look a little dubious. People started to write him off quite quickly, and Levon also started to look rather confident.

But the Armenian underestimated the power of those pawns and perhaps did not even fathom Veselin turning this around and going for the full point. When things started getting complicated, the crowds started to really get behind the Bulgarian.

All the sympathetic viewers started cheering for the guy who was about to double his score in this year’s London Chess Classic!

Levon Aronian is a very popular GM at the top level and I know many would have been very happy to see him win the tournament, but people simply couldn’t help but feel happy for Veselin Topalov.

I have to say, that throughout this tournament, despite how badly things had gone for him, the Bulgarian number 1 was always smiling. In fact, I bumped into him shortly after his rather quick loss to Wesley So, when he took the time out to ask how I was! I was so taken aback as to how polite he was and in remarkably good spirits considering he basically got mated in under 30 moves with White!

I’ve been impressed with his resolve all event and I’m actually very pleased for him to finish what was probably the most difficult tournament of his life, in such a way.

Veselin told the viewers that he is a new father to a baby girl and is not getting much sleep. However, he is not using that as an excuse for his chess, but admits he has not done proper preparation. My favourite comment of his was the adorable “I can go back and tell her I won a game!”

Veselin Topalov, always seemed to be smiling

Topalov finally winning a game in the London Chess Classic was not the most surprising news of the day. The Super Rapidplay came to a close with a rather surprising finale. Valentina Gunina from Russia absolutely dominated the tournament and crushed almost every man that sat in front of her. Well, her first two rounds were against females, but to Gunina, they were all victims, regardless of their gender.

Not many people from the English chess scenes knew much about her and were also surprised to find out she was a “real GM”. I was pretty shocked by this, but then started to think if she was the strongest female player the tournament had ever seen. I remember Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant, a female GM from Scotland, playing in last year’s Super Rapidplay. However, the UK must just be used to her being around. Gunina took everyone by surprise.

Being so mild-mannered and sweet, perhaps the men took her for granted, but this girl takes no prisoners. Her chess is fearless, attacking and creative – not how many say girls stereotypically play.

Her score did not quite beat Luke McShane’s 9.5/10 from last year, but she did score a remarkable 9/10 and 2831 performance! Her victims along the way were three of our top GMs – John Nunn, David Howell and last year’s winner himself.

Players from all over the world came up to Valentina all evening to congratulate her on an outstanding performance. However, what I liked the most was how her performance inspired the women throughout the tournament. Everyone was talking about her result, saying how proud they were of her. Many women took the time out to personally let her know just how inspiring she was.

Strong female players all over the world are taking to social media to vocalise their awe in what she achieved this weekend:

Of course, she has male fans too… although this has been retweeted by yet another strong female chess player.

Valentina just happens to be one of the sweetest and humble chess players out there too, making her victory all that much more pleasing to see. I caught up with her after her victory for some celebratory drinks and a quick interview, so stay tuned for some insights into what was behind such an amazing performance.

Born in 1986 in Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, England, Sabrina now lives in London where she is managing director of the London Academy of Chess and Education. With over 300 members of the academy, she has one of the largest following of students in the UK. Sabrina is a Women International Master and an active chess player.


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