Cairns Cup: Gunina Overtakes Kosteniuk For Lead
GM Valentina Gunina may be tired but she's far from "The Walking Dead," her new favorite TV show. Photo: Lennart Ootes, Cairns Cup.

Cairns Cup: Gunina Overtakes Kosteniuk For Lead

| 19 | Chess Event Coverage

GM Valentina Gunina cannot be stopped. Well, she could be, were it not for the 30-move draw rule. Now winner of four consecutive games at the inaugural Cairns Cup, she explained today that she was only trying to make a draw after equalizing out of the opening in today's round seven.

One problem: The 30-move no draws rule prevented her from offering one. She played on, and after winning the exchange against IM Anna Zatonskih, Gunina's king walked the tightrope but she found a way to convert. That pushed her to 6.0/7, which is a half point clear of GM Alexandra Kosteniuk (5.5/7).

Gunina could very well have been a full point ahead of her countrywoman after the highest seed's own king march went very wrong. But Kosteniuk's veteran moxie salvaged the half point despite some flashy tactics from GM Harika Dronavalli, who admitted she needed to study her endgames more.

Besides the irrepressible Gunina, the only other winner on the day was GM Bela Khotenashvili, who had GM Irina Krush tied up in knots by the game's conclusion. Not only did that make it a bad day for the Americans, it also effectively ended Krush's tournament hopes.

Bela Khotenashvili Valentina Gunina
Bela Khotenashvili and Gunina, the day's two winners, are all smiles after their games. Photo: Lennart Ootes, Cairns Cup.

IM Zhansaya Abdumalik could have also joined the winner's circle with her "puzzle-rush-esque" idea, but a subtle oversight only gave her a half point against GM Nana Dzagnidze

Gunina's fourth straight win seemed harmless enough, at first. She thought everything would just be liquidated after the opening, which Zatonskih explained in the confessional booth that she knew well since she played the other color back in 2012 against GM Maia Chiburdanidze.

Valentina Gunina
Instead of following the field, the field will now follow Gunina. Photo: Mike Klein,

But instead of agreeing to peace before those mass exchanges, Gunina actually had to play the moves since the two were still inside 30 moves. And a funny thing happens when you don't allow early draws...

For a little more about the drawing tendencies of this event, you might first begin by reading the analysis by NM SmarterChess that the classical games draw rate amongst Grand Chess Tour players is approaching 70 percent. For this tournament, there's now been only 15 draws in 35 games, or 43 percent draws.

There's still plenty left in the battle to hold the first edition of the Cairns Cup. Gunina could clinch the entire tournament tomorrow, or even fall back into second place. In fact, anything short of a Gunina win/Kosteniuk loss combo means the chaser still controls her fate since Kosteniuk and Gunina will contest an all-Russian battle in the final round (Gunina gets white on Friday).

Valentina Gunina
Although her opponent didn't want to tackle the Benoni, Gunina snatched a win from the jaws of a draw! Photo: Crystal Fuller, Saint Louis Chess Club.

An exhausted Gunina, who is coming off an event in Gibraltar that closed out January, just wanted to rest after the round. How does she unwind?

"Probably I will watch some horror movie to get power!" she said. Just before coming to St. Louis, she got hooked on "The Walking Dead" and now she can't wait to binge watch more episodes.'s video interview with Gunina.

Kosteniuk was fortunate to not fall further behind. Her king got out in front of her army and on an open file – not usually a great combination. Dronavalli pounced accordingly.

“When you stick your king in somebody’s face and say, ‘I dare you to punch me,’ it’s bad when they actually do,” GM Maurice Ashley commentated as it happened.

Dronavalli Kosteniuk
Alexandra Kosteniuk had to struggle to hold against Harika Dronavalli. Photo: Crystal Fuller, Saint Louis Chess Club.

But the former women's world champion saved the game by entering a two-pawns down ending that Dronavalli admitted she just misevaluated.

"I didn't expect there could be a draw with my pawns on a- and b-(files)," Dronavalli said. "I missed it completely. Maybe I should go back and learn endings!"

"This is not the first time I've done this," she told "I was a little bit pessimistic that maybe I would mess up somewhere."

Sadly, her prescience was correct.

Khotenashvili got her second win of the event by first ensnaring Krush's rook, then putting her opponent's entire kingside in a straightjacket.

"I sacrificed a knight...I didn't see any defense," she said about her finishing move late in the game. "I hope I didn't miss something!"

She didn't:

"I blundered Qc1 and then I wasn't feeling so good about my position," Krush said.

Irina Krush
After a hot start, Krush cooled off today. Photo: Lennart Ootes, Cairns Cup.

Abdumalik nearly entered the winner's column herself, but instead remains just behind Dzagnidze in the standings due to a subtle difference in rook lifts. Not every "rover" is the same!'s video interview with Abdumalik.

Finally, IM Elisabeth Paehtz missed a late win over GM Marie Sebag in a double-rook ending.

The Cairns Cup is a new, 10-player women only round robin that takes place February 6-15 in St. Louis. At stake is a $150,000 prize fund with the top three finishers receiving $40,000, $30,000, and $20,000, respectively.

Each round is streamed live daily at 1 p.m. Central Time (8 p.m. CET, 2 p.m. New York, 11 a.m. Pacific) with the expert commentary team of WGM Jennifer Shahade, GM Yasser Seirawan, and GM Maurice Ashley, as well as a Russian language broadcast with IM Almira Skripchenko and WGM Anastasiya Karlovich on On site there is live commentary with WGM Tatev Abrahamyan and IM Tania Sachdev at the Kingside Diner in St. Louis.

Replay the round seven live broadcast of the Saint Louis Chess Club.

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