Bunratty's 25th Anniversary (I Played!)

Bunratty's 25th Anniversary (I Played!)

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This year's Bunratty Chess Festival was a special one. Held for the 25th time, the famous Irish weekender saw a record number of participants, which included me.

It's been five years ago since GM Simon Williams introduced me to Gary O'Grady, one of the men behind the Bunratty tournament. I was planning to attend the tournament back then, and every year after, but each time something else popped up, like a FIDE Grand Prix tournament or a European Individual, that I had to attend.

This year I had no "excuse." And as it turned out, my first Bunratty happened to be the 25th-anniversary edition! I decided to travel to Ireland early, see Cork on Wednesday and then attend the special party that was organized the Thursday evening before the festival.

On Wednesday evening, in Cork, I was about to leave my hotel room after dinner and check out one of the many pubs that had live music—it's never hard to find a good place for that in Ireland—but I ended up staying in my room. A bad move, but already the next day I was compensated.

The pre-tournament party (not a tradition, but it might become one if we may believe organizer Gerry Graham!) was a good one, which included two guitarists/singers, one of them being Gerry's brother, playing lots of well known 70s and 80s tunes with guest appearances by Gerry himself (an excellent guitarist as well; if I heard it correctly, father Graham was the one who taught the Cranberries the guitar!) and also, none other than GM Nigel Short. It will remain a mystery to everyone not at the party whether his missed notes were caused by a certain degree of alcohol consumption...

Also noteworthy of mentioning was the fact that the owner of the house had built a complete bar in one of his rooms with, besides lots of flags and other sports memorabilia, also lots of liquor including some high-quality whiskeys. For the occasion, a Guinness beer tap had been installed as well.

That party was held in Limerick, the closest city to Bunratty which is a very small village in fact, in south-west Ireland. The name is derived from "Bun na Raite" in the Irish or Gaelic language, meaning "end of the Raite river." The tournament's reputation might suggest that it's pure alcohol flowing through this river, but it's not that bad, I can assure you!

For myself, the tournament started wonderfully but also with mixed feelings. I was paired against GM Jon Speelman, whom I knew since he played against GM Jan Timman in the Candidates' back in the day. I also have some great endgame books written by him.

As expected, slowly but surely I got more uncomfortable with my position, but I was hanging on. I just made moves that didn't look immediately losing, and somehow my position started to improve. My main goal was to avoid losing another King's Indian with a silly fianchetto bishop, and I was happy when I could play e5-e4 and it started to live!

The only problem was my clock. The time control was one hour and 30 minutes plus 15 seconds increment for the whole game, and before I knew it I was in time trouble. With less than four minutes, against about 50 for him, I decided to take the draw even though I somehow felt I might still be winning if I took the pawn on a3 with my bishop.

It was silly not to do that because I could still draw any moment. But by that point, I couldn't think straight anymore. I hadn't played a tournament in almost two years, was freaking out because of the clock and probably had too much respect for my opponent as well.

"You outplayed me" and "you see much more than I do" were nice words from Jon during the post-mortem, but the fact is that there was an even simpler win in the final position as I could have just traded queens! Unbelievable. 

Because of that easy win, the game stuck in my head for the remainder of the weekend. Maybe I should have quickly run it through an engine to see how terribly bad the game actually was!

I put up a good fight vs GM Peter Wells but lost, then beat a local player called Eamon Keogh and whom I got to know much better two days later. On Sunday morning I quickly lost to the very friendly IM Alexandre Vuillemier, who used to be a subscriber to my old magazine ChessVibes Openings. I resigned very early (one of the weaker points of my play!) but the beautiful weather definitely played a role there. I thought I was breaking records when I went for a run that morning (I mean, which Bunratty chess player does such a ridiculous thing?) but later I heard that IM Malcolm Pein, who also played and is well known for e.g. being the London Chess Classic organizer, had done the same on Saturday!

In the last round (I had taken a bye on Saturday evening as there are limits to my stupidy!) I was paired against 17-year-old Diana Mirza, who played 3.c3 in the Sicilian and offered me a draw on move nine. I obviously had to punish her for that.

The main tournament was won by GM Sergey Tiviakov, who had also taken the trophy when he played for the first time in 1999. "Tivi" defeated GM Gawain Jones in a blitz playoff after both had tied for first place with 5/6. On 4.5 had ended  GMs Nigel Short, Mark Hebden, Alexander Baburin and also WGM Alina l'Ami. Here's the classical game Jones and Tivi played.

This wasn't the only playoff, though. Before the grandmasters got to play, participants of the lower groups went off to play playoffs themselves! With a projector showing the games on a big screen, and dozens of spectators watching, players from the Minor, Major and Challengers groups played blitz to decide their tournaments. I had never seen that before anywhere else, and thought it was brilliant!

Bunratty Playoff

But that wasn't all. Where many participants in similar weekenders in the Netherlands are already traveling back home while the closing ceremony is still underway, this Bunratty Chess Festival had one more event on Sunday night: the traditional blitz tournament. It was won by GM Luke McShane, who beat Simon Williams in the final. 

After scoring 5/5 I had qualified for the knockout phase, in which I got paired against Speelman once again. This time I crushed him so I got some sort of revenge.  

Special mention goes out to WGM Dina Belenkaya (2286), a charming lady from Russia who beat McShane on Saturday morning and got to play three grandmasters on one day! She missed wins against GM Speelman and IM Collins and was also better against IM Vuillemier, so her performance of 2476 should have been even better.

If you like playing weekenders and can stand the grueling schedule of three games on one day (or are willing to take a bye, as I did), then I can strongly recommend this one. The festival, which had a record 362 participants this year, is held in the Bunratty Castle Hotel right next to... Bunratty Castle. This touristic highlight and it's Folk Park right next to it is more lively in the high season, but still worth visiting as well. 

Bunratty Castle

But it's mostly the attitude of the Irish people that should convince you to make the trip next year. (The dates are 22-24 February 2019.) A small selection:

  • Waitress to guests: "Yes my love, no problem my love."
  • Organizer to players on Saturday evening: "Tomorrow the round starts at 9:15 a.m. Hangover or not!"
  • Organizer to one grandmaster on Sunday morning: "You made it to the morning round! Congratulations!"
  • Organizer to players at the start of the blitz: "There's one rule and that is: if you argue with your opponent you have to buy him a pint!"

On Monday, the aforementioned Eamon Keogh was kind enough to drive me from Bunratty back to Cork. He told me lots of stories and even took a small side road to show me the Adare Manor golf course which is owned by J. P. McManus. And, as it turned out, he had played several Olympiads for Ireland and was the first Irish player to beat a grandmaster: He won against Gideon Stahlberg at the 1964 Tel Aviv Olympiad. I found that game in the database. As a thank you for the ride and all the nice stories, I'll show it to the readers here:

Peter Doggers

Peter Doggers joined a chess club a month before turning 15 and still plays for it. He used to be an active tournament player and holds two IM norms.

Peter has a Master of Arts degree in Dutch Language & Literature. He briefly worked at New in Chess, then as a Dutch teacher and then in a project for improving safety and security in Amsterdam schools.

Between 2007 and 2013 Peter was running ChessVibes, a major source for chess news and videos acquired by in October 2013.

As our Director News & Events, Peter writes many of our news reports. In the summer of 2022, The Guardian’s Leonard Barden described him as “widely regarded as the world’s best chess journalist.”

In October, Peter's first book The Chess Revolution will be published!

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