Aronian Wins Gibraltar Chess In Playoff
Pia Cramling, Tradewise CEO James Humphreys, and Levon Aronian at the prize giving. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Aronian Wins Gibraltar Chess In Playoff

| 58 | Chess Event Coverage

GM Levon Aronian is two-for-two in his last open events. They just happen to have come 13 years apart.

He won the £25,000 first prize at the 16th Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival on Thursday after drawing with the reigning champion Hikaru Nakamura in round 10 and then beating Richard Rapport and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the playoff (the Frenchman had earlier knocked Nakamura out of the playoff in its opening round). Aronian was part of a large tie for first here in 2005, the last time he jumped into the arena with amateurs.

"I'm starting to respect Hikaru much more," Aronian joked during his winner's speech, referencing the new difficulties he faced playing in an open. He began slowly, including an opening-round draw, before finally creeping back to a share of the lead in the tournament's later stages.


GM Levon Aronian and GM Hikaru Nakamura drew in round 10, but Aronian would take the title eventually anyway. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/

The win ends Nakamura's quest for four straight trophies in Gibraltar. With the closing awards ceremony lasting until past midnight, that meant the event technically closed on Groundhog Day. It was Vachier-Lagrave who ultimately made sure Nakamura would not repeat the day again.


GM Pia Cramling, 54, received a warm applause for winning the £15,000 first prize for women.

The long day of chess could have ended five hours earlier. With five players tied atop the tables on 7.0/9 going into the final day, Aronian easily had the best chances in that score group to win it all in regulation.

The regulations also helped produce a fight. With the mathematical possibility of about a 10-way tie for first if none of the leaders could win, only the top four players on performance rating would be through to the playoff. Essentially, nobody could feel safe by playing it safe. In the end, seven players alighted on 7.5/10, but three were eliminated from the playoffs due to lower performance rating (TPR).


After their round-10 games, Nakamura and Vachier-Lagrave queue for interviews. Maybe Vachier-Lagrave is letting Nakamura know he wants revenge in the playoff this year. | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess.

Nakamura said going into the day he thought he'd need a win to capture his fourth straight title in Gibraltar. His TPR was fantastic thanks to opening with five consecutive wins and having a tougher strength of schedule, but he was worried about being overtaken by one of the other 7.0 guys.

So, the Gibraltar king trotted out the Pirc, which has had quite a few iterations at the tournament (Aronian himself played it in round one).

Aronian invoked dangerous weaknesses on the American's kingside, then It seemed he had botched it. After a miscalculation, he spoiled a promising position and had to bail out into a repetition. That led to two hours of break, followed by a four-player and nearly three-hour playoff.

Hailing from a chess-mad country, the Armenian unwittingly gave the chess world much more free chess.

"It was a pretty bad game by me," Nakamura said. "Lev played fairly principled. He tried to rush it a little."

"It was a generally disappointing start to the day because I had a promising position against Hikaru," Aronian said. Then he had lunch with GM Boris Gelfand, whose counsel Aronian cherishes. 

The other pre-round leaders could also not get the full point to end the drama. Vachier-Lagrave drew Rapport on board two. The final 7.0 player, GM Daniil Dubov, lost to GM Le Quang Liem.


IM-elect Lance Henderson de La Fuente of Spain won again to finish only a half-point out of first and as the top junior. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Aronian actually had to sweat out those final games. Of the four players who eventually qualified for the playoff on TPR, he was the lowest of the four. Had Dubov turned his game around, or had GM Wang Hao vs. GM David Howell been decisive, or had GM Mikhail Antipov won, then any of those results would have pushed out Aronian.


The unassuming GM Pia Cramling (6.5/10) beat out GM Kateryna Lagno (also 6.5/10) on tiebreaks for the top women's prize, then she beat out nearly everyone in applause at the awards ceremony. | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess.

Aronian said he didn't expect to make it, but the results all came back in his favor. Dubov and Antipov lost, while Wang and Howell couldn't break their deadlock (Howell said he missed a way to get R+B vs. R, which would have elongated the tension another 50 moves!).

So the final seven on 7.5/10 were Nakamura, Rapport, Vachier-Lagrave, Aronian, and then the three missing the playoff due to lower TPR, GM Nikita Vitiugov, GM Michael Adams, and Le.

Aronian Rapport

 The 21-year-old against the veteran in the playoff's opening round. | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess.

In side-by-side opening-round playoff matches, a random drawing of lots aligned Aronian with Rapport and Vachier-Lagrave with Nakamura. Spectator heads were bobbing left and right like a tennis match.

"Lev," which means "lion" in Russian, arrived in a blazer and t-shirt adorned with a four-eyed cat.

"Generally in the tiebreak you want to be comfortable," he said. "This is one of my comfiest t-shirts."

Aronian cats

The "lion" has two eyes for his own game and two for the playoff game behind him. | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess.

Aronian broke through first in the opening 10+5 game. His two knights were trickier than the two bishops, as so often happens in blitz.

Rapport seemed to change tactics for the second game. Needing to win as Black, he played incredibly quickly, and at one point was up eight minutes to two on the clock.

Playoff matchups, as chosen by random drawing. | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess.

Aronian used just enough time to wind his way through the complications. At the end, the Hungarian was out of firepower and Aronian thus advanced to the playoff finals with a 2-0 match win.

"It was a tough one," Aronian said about the playoff semifinals. "I was playing very shakily in the first match. He was better in both games.

"Somehow when I need to make a draw I'm much worse of a player than when I need to win!"

Another "win" for Aronian was the extra 20-minute break he earned by not advancing to the 3+2 games. Just a few feet away, Nakamura and Vachier-Lagrave were reprising their 2016 playoff drawfest. 

Nakamura MVL

Illness pervaded the tournament hall, and GM Hikaru Nakamura was not spared, but he said the lack of sleep was really what hobbled him. | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess.

Back then, they played four draws in the playoff before Nakamura won the title in an Armageddon game. This time around, they drew the two 10-minute games before Vachier-Lagrave survived a wild endgame to score first against the champ.

It was the first loss by Nakamura, of any kind, in his four-year run in Gibraltar.

Nakamura spent the few moments before the second 3+2 game looking away from the crowd and dealing with the missed chances of all those passed pawns.

When play reconvened, the duo outdid themselves, playing perhaps the wildest game of the playoff. This time Nakamura had the extra piece for the mass of pawns. The evaluation shifted from -3 to +5 amid the walking kings and advancing pawns.

It looked like a bishop+knight mate might have to be executed by Nakamura, but in the waning moments, the Frenchman found a trick to trade off instead of sacrifice for the last white pawn.

Nakamura's run was over. As he shook Vachier-Lagrave's hand, he informed him how he could have won the previous game.

But Vachier-Lagrave had no time to dwell as Aronian was summoned from his hotel room to contest the playoff finals. The two would reprise their thrilling head-to-head battle from last year's World Cup.

The pair made two draws in the 10+5, then another in the first 3+2 game. Finally, just before Armageddon befell Gibraltar again, Aronian clinched the game and the title.

Aronian Vachier-Lagrave

Aronian closes in on the title in the final game of the tournament. | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess.

"Maybe I spoiled it somehow but there are too many weaknesses here," Aronian said. "My only weakness is [having] eight seconds."


Aronian told he gets "a little shaky" in the 3+2 games, but he looked as composed as one can be in that situation. This reporter heard him hit the clock hard exactly once in the dwindling seconds of the tiebreak.


Vachier-Lagrave always stands for interviews, even in defeat. | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess.

The winner used the Gibraltar event as his final warmup before the Candidates' Tournament, but also to reconnect with the outdoors. He could be seen hiking in town many mornings before the tournament, listening to podcasts as he ascended the town's ancient steps.

"It was a wonderful time," Aronian said. "I saw the sanctuary, I saw the lemurs, I saw the monkeys. I had a very animalistic experience."

As for norm seekers, chief arbiter Laurent Freyd sent a long list, which he thinks is a record.

GM norms were earned by FM Andrey Esipenko, IM Nino Batsiashvili, IM-elect Lance Handerson de La Fuente, IM Adam Kozak, and GM Prithu Gupta.

Esipenko had already applied for the title and Batsiashvili reported that this is her third norm, so she should be applying soon.

IM norms were earned by WGM Aleksandra Goryachkina, FM Johnathan Bakalchuk, FM Alan Tate, FM Raunak Sadhwani, FM Eric de Haan, and FM Andrew Merario.


IM norm achievers. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/


WIM norms were earned by FM Gabriela Antova and WFM Daniela Movileanu. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/

2018 Tradewise Gibraltar | Final Standings (Top 25)

Rk. SNo Fed Title Name Rtg Pts. TB1
1 3 GM Nakamura Hikaru 2781 7.5 2822
2 12 GM Rapport Richard 2700 7.5 2763
3 2 GM Vachier-Lagrave Maxime 2793 7.5 2759
4 1 GM Aronian Levon 2797 7.5 2746
5 7 GM Vitiugov Nikita 2732 7.5 2731
6 11 GM Adams Michael 2709 7.5 2731
7 6 GM Le Quang Liem 2737 7.5 2713
8 16 GM Howell David W L 2682 7 2760
9 31 GM Gupta Abhijeet 2610 7 2732
10 81 GM Debashis Das 2501 7 2728
11 9 GM Duda Jan-Krzysztof 2724 7 2713
12 33 GM Oparin Grigoriy 2607 7 2713
13 10 GM Wang Hao 2711 7 2710
14 32 GM Vocaturo Daniele 2609 7 2679
15 14 GM Gelfand Boris 2697 7 2673
16 25 GM Sethuraman S.P. 2646 7 2672
17 19 GM Sutovsky Emil 2673 7 2668
18 15 GM Dubov Daniil 2694 7 2658
19 116 Henderson Lance 2429 7 2642
20 93 GM Kobo Ori 2477 7 2638
21 13 GM Cheparinov Ivan 2699 7 2634
22 18 GM Motylev Alexander 2673 7 2633
23 45 GM Narayanan S. L. 2573 7 2633
24 66 GM Epishin Vladimir 2536 7 2595
25 35 GM Bindrich Falko 2605 7 2594

Full standings are here.

The 16th Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival was a 10-round open event that took place from January 23-February 1 at the Caleta Hotel in Gibraltar. Live commentary with GM Simon Williams and IM Jovanka Houska and player interviews with IM Tania Sachdev can be found at or the official site.

nullElisabeth Paehtz, Anna Muzychuk, Lei Tingjie, Nino Batsiashvili, Valetina Gunina. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/


Sarah Hoolt, Anastasia Paramzina, Lilit Mkrtchian, Dinara Saduakassova, Mariya Muzychuk. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/


Irine Sukandar, Bela Khotenashvili, Antoaneta Stefanova, Aleksandra Goryachkina, Ticia Gara | Photo: Maria Emelianova/


Michael Adams, Nikita Vitiugov, Le Quang Liem. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/


Wang Hao, Daniil Dubov, Boris Gelfand, Sethuraman S.P., Daniele Vocaturo, Stuart Conquest. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/


This wonderful family plays every year: Pia Cramling, Anna Cramling-Bellin, and Juan Bellon Lopez | Photo: Maria Emelianova/ 


James Humphreys (Tradewise), Brian Callaghan (organizer) and Levon Aronian. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/

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FM Mike Klein

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Mike Klein began playing chess at the age of four in Charlotte, NC. In 1986, he lost to Josh Waitzkin at the National Championship featured in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." A year later, Mike became the youngest member of the very first All-America Chess Team, and was on the team a total of eight times. In 1988, he won the K-3 National Championship, and eventually became North Carolina's youngest-ever master. In 1996, he won clear first for under-2250 players in the top section of the World Open. Mike has taught chess full-time for a dozen years in New York City and Charlotte, with his students and teams winning many national championships. He now works at as a Senior Journalist and at as the Chief Chess Officer. In 2012, 2015, and 2018, he was awarded Chess Journalist of the Year by the Chess Journalists of America. He has also previously won other awards from the CJA such as Best Tournament Report, and also several writing awards for mainstream newspapers. His chess writing and personal travels have now brought him to more than 85 countries.

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