Can Howell Be James Bond At Gibraltar Chess?
GMs Hikaru Nakamura and David Howell lead in Gibraltar. | Photo: Sophie Triay/Gibraltar Chess.

Can Howell Be James Bond At Gibraltar Chess?

| 15 | Chess Event Coverage

In 2015, GM Hikaru Nakamura threatened to run away with the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival, starting 6-0. Just when it looked like his seventh win was coming, a late slip allowed GM David Howell to draw.

Fast forward to 2018 and three straight titles later, Nakamura was the only player in the field to begin 5-0 this year. In round six, again Howell sat across from him. This time, the draw was much more earned, and in fact Howell had his chances to do even more.

David Howell

Two other Englishmen have won in Gibraltar, but can GM David Howell be the third Bond? | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess.

Howell then turned around a worse position to win today, making him the only player equal to Nakamura (both are on 6.0/7).

So once again we see an Englishman swooping in to try to thwart the runaway force in Gibraltar. Hmm, where have we heard this plot before?

Howell's draw today showed he does have sort of Hollywood-level magic. Even if he can't skydive, it's just as well—winds on the peninsula gusted to more than 130 kph overnight, with a large piece of scaffolding falling down near the population center.

It wasn't a day to take flight:


In the morning, sustained winds were still about 70 kph and just before today's round seven, the storm caused a rockfall that closed the road to the host hotel. You could either walk, or drive all the way around the Rock. While many players stay at the Caleta, others choose to live in town or just across the frontier in Spain. Tracking the force majeure, organizers postponed starting the clocks of late players, and while some did get delayed (including on board one), no one was forfeited.

Nakamura was stalled at first by a late opponent and then by the opponent himself. He couldn't get anything going against GM Mikhail Antipov, but his second draw in a row still kept him with a slice of the lead thanks to the round-five win over GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda.

In their first-ever meeting, Nakamura went for the Dragon instead of the Scheveningen he'd just defeated a day before.

Duda Nakamura

He could have resigned, but by allowing Nakamura to mate him, the Duda abided. | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess.

The two repeated the famous, or infamous game Carlsen-Jones from Tata Steel, played only a few days earlier. Two important differences:Nakamura went 14...Rb8 instead of 14...Re8, and Duda didn't hang a piece a few moves later like the world champion did.


The win, coupled with draws to lower-rated players by GM Levon Aronian and GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, briefly had Nakamura vault over both into the world's top five (he's given both spots back since then).

Nakamura said he'd prepared up to move 22. Here's his own analysis of the game.

While 28...c5 was a nice (and necessary) touch and Duda allowed a mate on board, an even more exciting battle took place the following day.

Nakamura entered the 10-round tournament's second half on 5-0. He'd run his first-half mark in the last four Gibraltar editions to +17-0=3. Up next was Howell, the man who had escaped with a draw to end the American's perfection in round seven of 2015.

The game ths year was notable for several reasons. First, Howell played a new move for him and made Nakamura think in the opening for virtually the first time all event. This came on the fourth move, and the two labored so much in the first moves that they were only on move seven when GM Vassily Ivanchuk lost his game!

The rare 4...Qf6 in the Scotch might be new to Nakamura, but it wasn't to at least two other world champions in the event. Both former women's world champion GM Antoaneta Stefanova and former world junior girls' champion IM Dinara Saduakassova had played it last month!

Dinara Saduakassova

IM Dinara Saduakassova could have had extra interest in board one in round six. | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess.

How slow was the pace of play? They had both combined for exactly eight moves each after 2.5 hours. Howell was always a touch slower, and had only eight minutes remaining for the 25 moves he needed to reach the time control (there is a 30-second increment from move one).

"I play these guys so rarely that I just wanted to play an interesting game," Howell said.

"You never know what to expect with Nakamura," Howell said after the game. "I was trying not to put too much pressure on myself. Same routine. I didn't prepare all that much actually."

That routine included jogging as the sun comes up. "It's good for the soul," Howell said.

The lack of preparation meant he wanted to look at the Scotch but never got around to it, so he decided on 4...Qf6 instead of his normal 4...Bc5.

"The Scotch is one of the only places these days where I'm predictable, so I thought, 'Why not?'"

And about that tough-to-find missed opportunity on move 15, Howell only even considered the move after a "poker tell" by Nakamura.

"I briefly look at it but I stopped two or three moves down," he said. "The only reason I looked at it is that he picked up his pen when I was ready to play Bxc5."

Of course we need to show the aforementioned Ivanchuk loss. GM Chanda Sandipan uncorked an idea in a relatively simple position that even the announcers didn't consider. It seems likely Ivanchuk didn't either:

So what do you do after losing so early in the round? Not long afterward, Ivanchuk and Sandipan were in the bar playing blitz against each other! Ivanchuk is now 0-2 lifetime against Sandipan in tournaments, so perhaps he needed to change the setting.

Sandipan Ivanchuk

 GM Chanda Sandipan had the rooks, the open file, and the under-two-hour win against GM Vassily Ivanchuk. | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess.

Moving back to round five for a brief moment, GM Ivan Cheparinov played a fantastic defensive move. He options are limited, but it's still a clever shot:

For the full explanation of this move and the wild tactics that Black's king barely survives, here's Cheparinov in his own words (skip to 1 hour, 40 minutes):

Watch Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival, Round 5, Part 2 from Chess on
With Nakamura not extending his lead today against Antipov despite the rare case of the sole leader getting a double White, let's focus on other action from round seven. (The only "drama" was a slightly delayed start to the game in which Antipov eventually made it to the event around the rockfall.)


GM Mikhail Antipov—happy to draw Nakamura, and also just happy to make it to the round. | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess.

Aronian may have seemed to find an inventive idea with 8. g4, but as he told afterward, he knew about this position from his game with Ivanchuk at the Your Next Move (blitz event) in 2017 in and simply forgot that the rejoinder 8...Qh4 was not to his liking. 

Ivanchuk didn't play it, and GM Nigel Short didn't either. Aronian thus won both games.

"I've played two semi-decent games, and that's making me very happy," Aronian said afterward.

In playing his first true Swiss in 13 years, he began by making three draws in his opening five games. 

"Since I haven't done this for quite some time, I understand that the general level of players has improved," he said. "It's a lot of fun because I don't normally prepare. I take it easy. It's quite enjoyable."

No, he's not "saving" any analysis for the Candidates' Tournament in March, which will be his next event.

Aronian Short

GMs Levon Aronian and Nigel Short get started while one of many boards has missing players due to the impasse on the road. | Photo: Sophie Triay/Gibraltar Chess.

"I played so many tournaments in a row, I don't know if I have any ideas left!"

Vachier-Lagrave kept pace with Aronian and shaved a half-point off the gap with the leader. The games was fairly straightforward even though Vachier-Lagrave said he got surprised in the opening.

The scariest moment of the day for the Frenchman came before the round. He went into town and got caught in the wind.

"I went out to go shopping and I feel like I almost died," he said. Here's a bundled-up Vachier-Lagrave talking about the game and the crazy weather:

And just how did Howell draw even with Nakamura, after the Englishman began the round a half-point back? Well, he got very low on time again but said he was "feeling brave" but declining a repetition around move 20.

Then, while struggling to find a way to blockade and deal with GM Ivan Saric's passer, out of nowhere the Croatian hung his pride and joy.

Saric's pain became visible on the live show, and he didn't last much longer after the blunder.

Howell said he'd faced scarier positions than this one, but he did break his New Year's resolution:

With Nakamura and Howell both on 6.0/7 but having already played each other, they will both downfloat but play up.

Howell is an on-again, off-again member of the 2700 club, and he will return there tomorrow if he can manage to win.

In the race for the women's prize, strategy is the name of the game. GM Kateryna Lagno and GM Ju Wenjun both lead with 5.0/7 (Ju is trying to repeat as women's champ). Today, Ju took a bye (as did much of the Chinese team), while Lagno took a bye earlier in the event.


Bye bye and hello to a tie for first for GM Kateryna Lagno. | Photo: Sophie Triay/Gibraltar Chess.

Finally, "Pragga-watch" is getting more interesting. A win today also has him on 5.0/7 and his performance rating rose 55 points to 2560, still a little short of the needed 2600 (the astute reader will note that his first round opponent's 2152 rating would be raised slightly for the final calculation, but it also may not count at all since this is a 10-round event and he might just be taking his final nine opponents for the norm).

For those who would like even more instruction, here's the common grandmaster-in-residence in St. Louis, GM Varuzhan Akobian, doing what he does best—a master class.

Watch Master Class GM Varuzhan Akobian from Chess on

2018 Tradewise Gibraltar | Round 7 Standings (Top 33)

Rk. SNo Name FED Rtg Pts. TB1
1 3 GM Nakamura Hikaru 2781 6,0 2891
2 16 GM Howell David W L 2682 6,0 2876
3 38 GM Antipov Mikhail Al. 2588 5,5 2814
4 2 GM Vachier-Lagrave Maxime 2793 5,5 2758
5 47 GM Moussard Jules 2571 5,5 2748
6 10 GM Wang Hao 2711 5,5 2737
7 1 GM Aronian Levon 2797 5,5 2730
8 12 GM Rapport Richard 2700 5,5 2722
9 33 GM Oparin Grigoriy 2607 5,5 2715
10 15 GM Dubov Daniil 2694 5,5 2654
11 30 GM Gledura Benjamin 2612 5,0 2782
12 9 GM Duda Jan-Krzysztof 2724 5,0 2713
13 24 GM Grandelius Nils 2647 5,0 2699
14 31 GM Gupta Abhijeet 2610 5,0 2684
15 11 GM Adams Michael 2709 5,0 2670
16 19 GM Sutovsky Emil 2673 5,0 2660
17 4 GM Navara David 2749 5,0 2658
17 7 GM Vitiugov Nikita 2732 5,0 2658
19 8 GM Ivanchuk Vassily 2726 5,0 2654
19 49 FM Esipenko Andrey 2571 5,0 2654
21 14 GM Gelfand Boris 2697 5,0 2651
22 21 GM Saric Ivan 2664 5,0 2648
23 32 GM Vocaturo Daniele 2609 5,0 2641
24 25 GM Sethuraman S.P. 2646 5,0 2638
25 59 GM Deac Bogdan-Daniel 2549 5,0 2618
26 45 GM Narayanan S. L. 2573 5,0 2613
27 42 GM Sandipan Chanda 2579 5,0 2611
28 23 GM Akobian Varuzhan 2647 5,0 2609
29 44 GM Tregubov Pavel V. 2575 5,0 2606
30 46 GM Ju Wenjun 2572 5,0 2589
31 54 GM Lagno Kateryna 2556 5,0 2579
32 74 IM Praggnanandhaa R 2515 5,0 2560
33 66 GM Epishin Vladimir 2536 5,0 2530

Full standings are here.

The 16th Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival is a 10-round open event that takes place from January 23-February 1 at the Caleta Hotel in Gibraltar. Rounds 1-9 take place at 3:00 p.m. local time (9 a.m. Eastern U.S., 6 a.m. Pacific). 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.

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