Gunina Wins European Women's Championship
Left-right: Nana Dzagnidze, Valentina Gunina, Anna Ushenina. | Photo: Oleksandr Martynkov.

Gunina Wins European Women's Championship

GM Valentina Gunina won her third European gold at the women's championship in Vysoké Tatry, Slovakia. The Russian grandmaster finished ahead of GMs Nana Dzagnidze (Georgia, silver) and Anna Ushenina (Ukraine, bronze). IM Jovanka Houska reports.

It seems that the European Chess Union certainly know how to make a European women’s championship memorable. In 2016, the theme was “Romanian beach party” while in 2017 “Riga city chic” was the order of the day. Following on for 2018, Slovakian WGM-turned-organizer Eva Repkova turned to nature for her inspiration.

Hotel BellevueThe four-styar Hotel Bellevue hosted the tournament. | Photo: Oleksandr Martynkov.

Situated at the base of the High Tatras mountains, in the national park of Vysoké Tatry, Slovakia, the picturesque four-star Hotel Bellevue played host to the 19th European women's individual championship. Home to brown bears, snakes, marmots, and the rare goat-antelope, the mountains provided the perfect backdrop to such a prestigious event.
Mountains HikingWatch out for those snakes and bears! Hiking on the free day. | Photo: Oleksandr Martynkov.

It was not only the vistas that were substantial at Vysoké Tatry. The championship had a €65,000 ($80,000) total prize fund with 20 big money prizes. There was, however, a slight downside, in comparison with 2017: The top three prizes were reduced by €1,000 to 11,000, 9,000 and 7,000 Euros respectively.  Perhaps of even greater importance to the players were the 14 qualifying places for the next women’s world knockout championship.

As is common for such official events, the 11-round championship was played at the standard FIDE time control with all games broadcast with a 15-minute delay.  A little more unusual was having an arbiter specifically dedicated to anti-cheating and not allowing participants to bring their own pens. Extremely bad news for the superstitious!

The European championship is without doubt one of the toughest female chess opens, with huge strength in depth. Not only are federations sending their national champions and top players but they are often supported by trainers—making an already tough tournament even harder!  In an almost exact copy of 2017, there were 144 players competing, although this year there was an overall slight increase of titled players with 13 GMs, 35 WGMs and 29 IMs competing.

Mariya MuzychukTop seed Mariya Muzychuk in action. | Photo: Oleksandr Martynkov.

The top seed, with a rating of 2540, was former women’s world champion GM Mariya Muzychuk (Ukraine) hoping to win her first ever European title.  Ranked behind her were grandmasters Nino Batsiashvili (Georgia), 2017 European champion Nana Dzagnidze (Georgia), Valentina Gunina (Russia), Alexandra Goryachkina (Russia) and Marie Sebag (France). 

In total, there were an impressive seven former European champions competing, with GMs Gunina, Pia Cramling (Sweden) and Natalia Zhukova (Ukraine) all vying to win the title for a record-breaking third time. Other notable names in the field were newly crowned European rapid champion IM Elisabeth Paehtz (Germany) and former women's world champion GM Antoaneta Stefanova (Bulgaria).

State of play

With such a tough field it was impossible to call a firm favorite. However, the first leader to emerge from the opening scramble was 2017 champion Dzagnidze who raced to 4/4 securing a narrow half-point lead over seven other players.

Ushenina 1-0 Dzagnidze European Chess ChampionshipCrunch time: Ushenina 1-0 Dzagnidze. | Photo: Oleksandr Martynkov.

Dzagnidze's reign at the top lasted for just one round as she was promptly ousted out of her spot by 2016 European champion Ushenina with a brutal but instructive kingside attack.

The rise, rise and rise of Gunina

Things continued to progress slowly and by round six there were five grandmasters; Gunina, Muzychuk, Ushenina, Dzagnidze, and Elina Danielian (Armenia) all sharing the lead with 5/6. It was impossible and still too early to tell what could happen next. 

GM Valentina GuninaAn adherent to the "rule of three," GM Valentina Gunina. | Photo: Oleksandr Martynkov.

Just before the free day, in round seven, the situation began to clarify when Gunina broke free from the pack with the first of her instrumental victories. This time she defeated rival Mariya Muzychuk with some model endgame play.  

It is written, and I shall quote Wikipedia here:

"The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers in the execution of the story and engaging the reader."


Throughout the tournament, it seemed that Gunina was religiously sticking to the script. For not only was she competing to win her third European title, she had in fact, two three wins-in-a-row streaks!

In round eight, it was the turn of reigning world blitz champion Dzagnidze to succumb to the ever-resourceful Gunina.

Gunina's victory over Polish WGM Klaudia Kulon in round nine propelled her to the magnificent score of 8/9, but more important, allowed her to extend her lead to a full point. A solid draw in round 10 against Paehtz effectively guaranteed Gunina her third European championship title (she previously won in 2012 and 2014) and a place in the record books. All with a round to spare. Impressive!

GM Valentina Gunina European Chess Championship

With her trademark smile, Gunina with her gold medal. | Photo: Oleksandr Martynkov.

Gunina's victorious position was cemented after one of her closest rivals, IM Ekaterina Atalik (Turkey), failed to convert her decisive advantage.

IM Ekaterina Atalik European Chess ChampionshipIM Ekaterina Atalik from Turkey made a 2517 performance. | Photo: Oleksandr Martynkov.

The race for the second place

While the path to the gold medal was as straight as an arrow, the same could not really be said of the ensuing fight for the silver and bronze medals. By round eight, three players were in hot pursuit: Ushenina, Stefanova and Kulon.

WGM Klaudia Kulon European Chess Championship

WGM Klaudia Kulon enjoying the tournament of her life. | Photo: Oleksandr Martynkov.

Polish WGM Kulon rated 2319, in particular, created a tournament sensation when she produced a miracle to defeat tournament favorite Mariya Muzychuk. 

In a rather curious pattern, the number of people challenging for second place had been steadily increasing by the round. In round nine there were four challengers (Ushenina, Stefanova, Paehtz, Atalik), while round 10 saw that number increase to five when Dzagnidze rejoined the group on 7.5 points

By the end of the tournament, there were a record seven players celebrating their joint second place on 8/11! Despite three of the players in the chasing group agreeing to early draws in the final round, the medal placing was only in fact decided at the very last minute when Stefanova could only draw with Dzagnidze despite a vastly superior position. A tough thing to happen for Stefanova, especially on her birthday! 

Thus, under the ECU tiebreak rules, the placings were decided in the following order: 2.Nana Dzagnidze (GEO), 3.Anna Ushenina (UKR), 4.Ekaterina Atalik (TUR),  5.Antoaneta Stefanova (BUL), 6.Elisabeth Paehtz (GER), 7. Klaudia Kulon (POL), 8.Polina Shuvalova (RUS).

Dzagnidze, Gunina and Ushenina European Chess Championship

The medallists, left-right: Dzagnidze, Gunina and Ushenina. | Photo: Oleksandr Martynkov.

Paehtz, Atalik and Stefanova4-6, all collecting 5029 euros, left-right: Paehtz, Atalik and Stefanova. | Photo: Oleksandr Martynkov.

Both Kulon and the young Russian WIM Polina Shuvalova rounded off fantastic tournament performances with IM norms and beautiful last-round victories. Kulon powerfully defeated IM Deimante Cornette while the 17-year-old WIM Shuvalova, who had earlier in the tournament beaten GMs Sebag and Monika Socko, really set off the fireworks to defeat the hapless Muzychuk.

WIM Polina Shuvalova European Chess Championship

A huge talent, WIM Polina Shuvalova. | Photo: Oleksandr Martynkov.

2018 European Women Championship | Top 14 qualifiers

# SNo Fed Title Name RtgI Pts. TB1 TB2 TB3 TB4 rtg+/-
1 4 GM Gunina Valentina 2507 9 0 72,5 76,5 2389 19
2 3 GM Dzagnidze Nana 2507 8 0 74,5 80,5 2417 11,7
3 24 GM Ushenina Anna 2422 8 0 74 78,5 2393 21,1
4 17 IM Atalik Ekaterina 2452 8 0 67 71,5 2342 9,4
5 8 GM Stefanova Antoaneta 2479 8 0 66 71 2382 10,7
6 13 IM Paehtz Elisabeth 2468 8 0 66 70,5 2357 8,9
7 65 WGM Kulon Klaudia 2319 8 0 65,5 69 2372 34,2
8 38 WIM Shuvalova Polina 2389 8 0 65 68,5 2403 27,3
9 5 WGM Goryachkina Aleksandra 2495 7,5 0 69 74 2360 0,5
10 36 IM Mammadzada Gunay 2392 7,5 0 67,5 72,5 2424 49,8
11 47 IM Osmak Iulija 2361 7,5 0 67 72 2366 21,1
12 15 IM Javakhishvili Lela 2467 7,5 0 66,5 71,5 2359 4
13 33 IM Szczepkowska Karina 2403 7,5 0 57 61 2273 1,2
14 1 GM Muzychuk Mariya 2540 7 0 70,5 76 2381 -7,9

(Full final standings here.)

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