Hikaru Nakamura beat Romain Edouard to make the playoff and then overcame Yu Yangyi and David Anton to win the Gibraltar Masters title for an incredible third year in succession. Even a defeat couldn’t stop Ju Wenjun claiming the women’s top prize, while Hou Yifan provided the other story of the day. The Women’s World Champion appeared after 25 minutes, opened 1.g4 and resigned in five moves in a dramatic but barely comprehensible protest over the number of games she’d played against female opposition.
The last round of the Tradewise Gibraltar Masters started a full four hours earlier than usual, but just as chess fans and players were slowly waking up we were given a jolt by a bizarre piece of chess theatre. Women’s World Champion Hou Yifan turned up 25 minutes late to her game against Lalith Babu and played the move 1.g4. Initially her opponent assumed Hou Yifan wanted to get him out of his home preparation, so he spent over four minutes on 1…d5 – as it would later turn out, that could almost be classed as a blunder, since 1…e5! would probably have led to the shortest possible game of chess: 1.g4 e5 2.f3 Qh4# In any case 2.f3 was played in the game, and now Lalith knew something was up. There followed 2…e5 3.d3 Qh4+ 4.Kd2 h5 5.h3 hxg4 and Hou Yifan resigned.
What on earth was going on? Peter Heine Nielsen speculated that it must be a protest but wondered at what, to which Magnus Carlsen had a suggestion:
There was no denying the media-grabbing effectiveness of the protest, but it left Hou Yifan’s opponent as confused as chess fans around the world:
What finally emerged was that the Women’s World Champion was upset at what everyone else had taken to be merely an amusing coincidence – that she’d been paired against women in seven of her first nine rounds:
In a video that came after long and painful negotiations with the organisers, Hou Yifan offered a partial apology, “that I created such a game”, but still wouldn’t back down on what she described as “unbelievable and weird pairings”, adding that “for the future there should be a 100% fair solution”. Tradewise Gibraltar Masters Founder Brian Callaghan responds in the same video, noting that being the Women’s World Champion brings responsibility and that “she let herself down a little today”. He does offer an olive branch, though, stating, “I will look forward to having her back in Gibraltar again”.
While there was some support for Hou Yifan taking a principled stance…
…this does appear to be a clear case of an unfair accusation levelled at the organisers, since the pairings of the tournament were computer generated and can be replicated to show no manual interference except to avoid a pairing between Israeli and Iranian players. The Qatar Masters organiser had a strong view:
The deliberate loss of a game in any sport can have serious consequences, but in this case, with betting, for instance, almost certainly not involved, the damage is very limited. Lalith Babu joined the 14-player tie for 10th place, which may have had a small impact on other players. As Brian notes, though, the greatest harm was done to Hou Yifan. If she had won the game – and she outrated her male opponent by 64 points and had the white pieces – she would have taken the women’s second prize of £10,000.
Among the responses to the incident the funniest came from Nikita Vitiugov:
In general, the protest was a bolt from the blue, given Hou Yifan has worked so closely with the organisers in the past, won more than Hikaru Nakamura in 2015 when she tied for third place, and this year gave a masterclass, played arguably the game of the event and gave a long interview to Tania Sachdev:
The incident spiced up the final round, but now it’s time to get to the real chess action.
Round 10: Nakamura and Yu Yangyi win on demand
The one way we could have avoided a playoff in the final round is if David Anton had beaten Mickey Adams with the white pieces, but although Anton showed ambition by rejecting what seemed like an earlier offer to repeat moves, he decided to take a draw on move 32. That ended Adams’ chances, but meant any of the other seven players on 7/9 could make the playoff with a win. There were draws in Gelfand-MVL and Matlakov-Cheparinov, but wins in two of the other crucial games.
Romain Edouard showed up 14 minutes late to his game with Hikaru Nakamura, and lived to regret it when the US star’s aggressive opening put White under immediate pressure. The white king never managed to castle and 26…Bb4! simply carried too many threats to parry: