Gunina Maintains Lead, Clash With Kosteniuk To Decide Cairns Cup
GM Valentina Gunina, on her namesake Valentine's Day, just barely held on to maintain her lead. | Photo: Lennart Ootes, Cairns Cup.

Gunina Maintains Lead, Clash With Kosteniuk To Decide Cairns Cup

| 9 | Chess Event Coverage

Russia vs. Russia. One board. The inaugural Cairns Cup will be on the line tomorrow and there will be no playoff.

After the two leaders drew today, albeit with wildly different methods, GMs Valentina Gunina (6.5/8) and Alexandra Kosteniuk (6.0/8) and their pending head-to-head matchup in round nine will decide who wins the inaugural title. Since there's no way for them to end on the same number of points, nor for anyone to catch them, we're headed for a Friday finish. Kosteniuk takes white.

Today Gunina nearly slipped back into a tie, but IM Zhansaya Abdumalik failed to finish off another winning position. As predicted on the live show, and harkening the words of GM Peter Svidler, sometimes it is better to have only one winning move that you must find instead of several shades of winning moves. Somehow Gunina's zombie king couldn't be killed as she channeled her love of horror movies onto the chess board.

Still, it wasn't the cleanest way to protect a lead, especially as white. 

Zhansaya Abdumalik
IM Zhansaya Abdumalik, frustrated at not being able to find a mate. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Cairns Cup.

Weighing in on the idea was none other than GM Fabiano Caruana, making one of his few public appearances since the new year began. He said he has several times been leading a tournament, only to lose focus too early. "That’s when things usually go wrong," he said, "when you think you might win [the tournament], then you get complacent."

Gunina has a unique way to put the day's event aside. "When I watch horror movies, my brain can relax," Gunina told about her nightly viewing of gore and slashing.

Fabiano Caruana
Some guy named "Fabi" showed up and talked a bit. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Cairns Cup.

Today Abdumalik could barely describe how she failed to convert a winning position for the second day in a row.

"Just amazing," she began, the frustration evident despite the soft smile. "At the end I didn't see how to win. That's a little sad."

"When you play these young girls, it's so dangerous," Gunina said after the game.

But what about tomorrow's opponent? Would she describe her countrywoman and longtime national teammate as an acquaintance, a friend, a best friend? Gunina's demurral on the live show was something that even a politician would admire. She refused to clarify the nature of their relationship.

"They may be friends but that will have no impact on the way they play tomorrow," Caruana said.

Alexandra Kosteniuk
GM Alexandra Kosteniuk will get another chance at something she failed to do in 2013. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Cairns Cup.

When asked by about playing someone so well known, she was more unequivocal: Gunina would not prefer to play Kosteniuk tomorrow.

"We have quite a lot of training camps together, so I would prefer not," Gunina said. But it wasn't the insider knowledge of openings that has her worried. "She's too strong!" Gunina explained. "She's fighting all the time."

In fact this is not even the first time this exact finale will take place between the two. The 2013 Russian Superfinal also pitted them against each other in the final round, also with Kosteniuk as white, also on 6.0/8, and also trailing by a half point. Gunina held the draw, taking the national title. 

Valentina Gunina
After the last few games she's been looking slightly haggard, but beforehand, it's all smiles for Gunina. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Cairns Cup.

Kosteniuk told just the opposite: she would rather face someone that she's already formed a "portrait" of her play.

"I always prefer to play someone that I know," she said. "That's how I make a picture of the player. The first few games are quite difficult."

Kosteniuk also regards Gunina as a fighting player, so much so that she told that yesterday's focus by Gunina on making a draw was bunk.

"When I read accounts that she was thinking about a draw, I don't believe it," Kosteniuk said. 

Today Kosteniuk was perturbed at some imprecisions in her play, but at least she wasn't in danger of losing like yesterday. She especially didn't like her decision on move 25 to start gobbling the kingside pawns. Instead, targeting the queenside weakies with 25...Rac8 was her preference in hindsight.

"I'm just better, with no counterplay at all," she said about the alternative. "I should be punished for this level of play."

Later, she admitted to still being a little unsure after yesterday's missed tactics. So she played it safe by trading queens, despite her opponent's king being more loose than her own. She said wanted to ensure she couldn't lose. 

"I just didn't use all my chances in the rook endgame," Kosteniuk said. "Probably this endgame is winning," she said about the unplayed ...h5.

With Gunina turning on the television to escape the day's play, how does the former women's world champion release the stress? She likes to go for a run, and to review the game. Even after yesterday's debacle, she can't set aside a poor game until after the event – she has to disembowel it that evening.

"I need to analyze," she said. "I need to understand what was going on. I need to review the game immediately." Kosteniuk said that for Gunina the game flows "so naturally...she just feels where to put the pieces" but that she's more of a calculator, which is tiring.

Today the only win came from the French GM Marie Sebag, who handed GM Irina Krush her second straight loss. Sebag explained that GM Etienne Bacrot has been helping her out.

Marie Sebag
GM Marie Sebag, finally with a reason to smile. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Both Sebag and Krush praised the move 24. Qe4, which sets up an exchange sac on d4 to not only stop mate, but also force through a dangerous white pawn to the seventh.

"I like it because my plan with d7 is very strong," Sebag said. Indeed, that pawn played the part of eventual hero.

The other two games ended drawn.

Irina Krush
GM Irina Krush, still on a plus score and still in the hunt for third place despite back-to-back losses. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Gunina ended today's struggle visibly exhausted again. What's her hope for Kosteniuk tomorrow?

"I hope she is also tired," Gunina said. Kosteniuk said she indeed is – she claims to expend more energy than many of her peers in a long tournament. If facial expressions are evidence of this, then her story checks out.

"I think it's a great situation," Kosteniuk said about tomorrow's final round. "If I want to win the tournament, I have to win the game. It's easy."

She was referring to the math, not the game itself.

Alexandra Kosteniuk
For Kosteniuk, focus equals energy. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Cairns Cup.

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 eight live broadcast of the Saint Louis Chess Club.

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