Decisive Start: Kosteniuk Defeats Defending Champion
10 contenders duke it out in the American epicenter of chess. Photo: Crystal Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club.

Decisive Start: Kosteniuk Defeats Defending Champion

| 19 | Chess Event Coverage

A heavily decisive round one with four victories out of five games commenced the Cairns Cup 2023 on Saturday. GM Alexandra Kosteniuk scored her first-ever classical victory vs. GM Humpy Koneru, the second-highest-rated woman in the world. GM Irina Krush won a dynamic Sicilian thrill ride against GM Zhansaya Abdumalik.

GM Harika Dronavalli pressed a small advantage in the ending into a victory vs. GM Elisabeth Paehtz. Finally, IM Gunay Mammadzada capitalized on GM Bella's Khotenashvili's opening mix-up blunder. 

Kosteniuk, Krush, Harika, and Mammadzada begin the event in a tie for first. 

The Cairns Cup continues with round two on Sunday, June 4, starting at 11:20 a.m. Pacific/20:20 CEST.

How to watch?
You can watch live games of the FIDE Women's Grand Prix on our Events Page. The rounds start each day at 11:20 a.m. Pacific/20:20 CEST.

For the 2023 Cairns Cup, 10 of the strongest women in the world have gathered in St. Louis to challenge each other over the next two weeks.

The event, named after the maiden name of Dr. Jeanne Cairns Sinquefield, is the counterpart of the Sinquefield Cup, one of the strongest events in the Grand Chess Tour. This year will be the third edition.

Humpy, the current world number-two, will be defending her title after winning in 2020, the most recent edition. Humpy and Harika, India's two highest-rated women, are the top and third seeds respectively.

A joyous opening players' meeting (seated left to right): Harika, Humpy, Mammadzada, Abdumalik, and Khotenashvili. Photo: Crystal Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club.

Kosteniuk, the 12th women's world champion, is competing as the formidable second seed.

Representing the American home court are the two women who together have won a dozen U.S. women's championships, eight-time champion Krush and four-time champion IM Anna Zatonskih.

The best women players from several countries are competing against each other (left to right): Dzagnidze, Paehtz, Kosteniuk, Krush, and Zatonskih. Photo: Crystal Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club.

The only newbie to the tournament (and her first time visiting the U.S.) is the youngest competitor at age 22, Mammadzada, the top woman player in Azerbaijani. Georgia is another country with the numbers one and two making an appearance, GM Nana Dzagnidze and Khotenashvili. Paehtz and Abdumalik finish out this prestigious field as the top woman player from Germany and Kazakhstan respectively. 

To kick off the tournament, the players drew lots by choosing from a row of Cairns Cup gift necklaces.

After the camaraderie at the opening meeting, the players geared up for intense competition in round one, which featured four decisive games out of five.

Kosteniuk vs. Humpy

The top seeds faced off in the very first round. Entering the game, Humpy had a huge advantage in the head-to-head score of 6-0 with eight draws. In an Italian game with an early queen trade, Kosteniuk prepared the insightful h4-h5-h6 plan to disrupt her opponent's structure, leaving Black with pawn islands scattered about the board. Commentator IM Almira Skripchenko shared her creative description of Black's situation: "This position has more holes than Swiss cheese."

As the center files opened, Black's king felt increasingly uncomfortable, and Kosteniuk soon launched a deadly king hunt. Can you find how she eliminated the last of Black's defenses?

This is our Game of the Day with analysis by GM Dejan Bojkov.

Victorious in the battle of the top seeds, Kosteniuk is one of the favorites to win the event. Photo: Crystal Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club.

Abdumalik vs. Krush

Abdumalik and Krush have an all-decisive score against each other: 3-4 in Krush's favor. The American grandmaster steered the game into the complex and double-edged Richter-Rauzer Sicilian where Black intentionally allows White to cripple her kingside structure to gain a solid grip of the center squares. 

Even as the queens left the board in a closed position, Krush's tactical style shone through. Can you find how she unsettled White's position?

Though Krush gained an advantage and won a pawn, she rejected Abdumalik's exchange sacrifice and faced challenges in trying to convert an extra yet isolated and doubled pawn. When Abdumalik became overly ambitious, Krush seized her opportunity. She created an outside passed h-pawn that raced down the board faster than its queenside white counterparts.

Krush herself felt that the endgame is "much easier to play on intuition for Black than it is for White." She finished the game with a dazzling sequence. Try to spot it.

Here's the full game from their exciting battle.

Krush prepared quite the fighting opening for her game vs. the Kazakhstani number-one. Photo: Austin Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club.

Harika vs. Paehtz

Harika vs. Paehtz was the longest game of the day, a nearly six-hour, 80-move battle. By move 15, most of Paehtz's pieces were on the back rank, her King's Indian Defense struggling against Harika's vast space gains and greater development. As commentator IM Nazi Paikidze pointed out: “This seems like a Benoni where Black waited 15 moves and let White do everything they wanted.”

Despite this, Paehtz made a fight of it, establishing a potent knight on e5 and trading away some of White's well-placed forces. Harika won a pawn, and the players headed to a rook ending, which they dueled out for nearly 50 more moves. Though the German number-one had good drawing chances as pawns were traded away, Harika created a passed pawn on the queenside and supported its journey to the other side with her king. 

Zatonskih vs. Dzagnidze

This game was the most balanced one, ending with a fitting result between two equally matched competitors. With the kings castled to opposite sides, Dzagnidze strived to create play on the queenside, pushing her pawns and gaining a bishop vs. knight imbalance. Zatonskih retaliated by bringing her queen to the seventh rank, and the players traded into an even rook ending. They fought on until they reached an impasse with neither king able to cross to the other side. 

Mammadzada vs. Khotenashvili

This game was the shortest due to an unfortunate blunder by Khotenashvili on move nine, mixing up the opening theory and falling into a desperado tactic. 

After the game, Mammadzada shared her reaction to Khotenashvili's Ng4: "I couldn't believe my eyes. I thought maybe I was hallucinating because I was sleepy."

With a 10-hour time difference between St. Louis and Georgia (Khotenashvili's home country), jetlag may have been a major factor in her blunder. 

Results - Round 1

White Black
Kosteniuk 1 - 0 Humpy
Harika 1 - 0 Paehtz
Mammadzada 1 - 0 Khotenashvili
Zatonskih 1/2 - 1/2 Dzagnidze
Abdumalik 0 - 1 Krush

Standings - Round 1

In round two, we will see the defending champion Humpy face eight-time U.S. Women's Champion Krush. Additionally, two of the leaders and higher seeds, Kosteniuk and Harika, will meet, offering a chance to pare down the top of the standings. 

Pairings - Round 2

White Black
Humpy  -  Krush
Dzagnidze  -  Abdumalik
Khotenashvili  -  Zatonskih
Paehtz  -  Dzagnidze
Kosteniuk - Harika

All Games - Round 1

The Cairns Cup 2023 takes place June 3-13, 2023, at the Saint Louis Chess Club. The format is a 10-player round-robin. Fans can look forward to a chess tournament similar in style to the prestigious Sinquefield Cup with the 10 best female players from around the world competing in the World Chess Hall of Fame for a $180,000 prize fund.

NM Vanessa West

Vanessa West is a National Master, a chess teacher, and a writer for In 2017, they won the Chess Journalist of the Year award.

You can follow them on X: Vanessa__West

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