Inaugural Cairns Cup Takes Off With 4 Decisive Games
The start of the Cairns Cup's first round. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club.

Inaugural Cairns Cup Takes Off With 4 Decisive Games

| 33 | Chess Event Coverage

Some top women grandmasters tend to say that their chess is more exciting because they play fewer draws. That theory was supported some more in the first round of the inaugural Cairns Cup in St. Louis, with four out of five games ending decisively.

Not only FIDE is focusing more on women's chess these days. While is about to announce something big in that field as well, the Saint Louis Chess Club gets first honors in 2019 by staging a brand new top tournament for women only.

A 10-player round robin started on Wednesday in St. Louis and runs until February 15 with one round per day, and a rest day on the 11th. At stake is a $150,000 prize fund with the top three finishers receiving $40,000, $30,000, and $20,000 respectively.

With two players from the world's top 10, the field is not as strong as the organizers would have liked to see (some players had to decline due to U.S. visa issues as the tournament was announced relatively late), but it's still a great group of players:

2019 Cairns Cup | Participants

# Fed Title Name Rating Age Rank
1 GM Alexandra Kosteniuk 2532 34 7
2 GM Nana Dzagnidze 2513 32 9
3 GM Valentina Gunina 2501 29 11
4 GM Bela Khotenashvili 2491 30 12
5 GM Marie Sebag 2476 24 16
6 GM Harika Dronavalli 2471 28 17
7 IM Zhansaya Abdumalik 2468 19 19
8 IM Elisabeth Paehtz 2466 34 20
9 GM Irina Krush 2435 35 39
10 IM Anna Zatonskih 2428 40 41

Cairns Cup 2019 participants
The Cairns Cup 2019 participants. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club.

"Inspired by its mission to further promote the game of chess to women and girls, the Saint Louis Chess Club created and named the Cairns Cup in honor of Chess Club co-founder Dr. Jeanne Sinquefield, whose maiden name is Cairns," says the press release about the name of the event. 

“We are really excited to introduce this new international chess tournament for women,” said Dr. Jeanne Cairns Sinquefield, co-founder of the Saint Louis Chess Club. “We hope this will inspire more women to play chess on a competitive level. We look forward to hosting this tournament for years to come and for it to become one of the premier chess tournaments in the world.”

2019 Cairns Cup Jeanne Sinquefield
Jeanne Cairns Sinquefield speaking at the opening ceremony. | Photo: Crystal Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club.

At the opening ceremony, the Sinquefields added even more financial support to women's chess. Jennifer Shahade, the newly-named women’s program director for US Chess, announced a new partnership between the Saint Louis Chess Club and US Chess Women that includes a $100,000 commitment from the club to promote, retain and encourage girls and women in chess.

Shahade, a two-time U.S. champion herself, said: "Last week members of the Cairns Cup field and I led a scouting workshop where the first girls in history earned their chess merit badges. This is incredible synchronicity as we are now set to make history with the first Cairns Cup. These types of experiences are why this event is so important; girls all over the world—and boys and adults too—look to these women for inspiration, for the dream of playing on this grand stage, and for representing their country and chess."

Jennifer Shahade 2019 Cairns Cup
Jennifer Shahade. | Photo: Crystal Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club.

As said, Wednesday's first round was an exciting one where we didn't need to wait to witness the incredible fighting spirit that these players have. Incidentally, three of the four victories were scored by the black pieces.

The former women's world champion Alexandra Kosteniuk, the top seed in St. Louis, started with a shaky opening but did score the full point at the end, against Elisabeth Paehtz.

"I thought I was still in my home preparation but somehow the lines I prepared at home I didn’t like," Kosteniuk said. "That’s why invented this 14...Qb6 move which is certainly a move in the wrong direction."

Paehtz said she wanted to "punish" her opponent for her opening play, and Kosteniuk admitted "she had all the reason to!"

Alexandra Kosteniuk Cairns Cup 2019
Alexandra Kosteniuk: "I should work on my openings!"| Photo: Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club.

Another exciting battle was Valentina Gunina's win over Bela Khotenashvili. Both players started to think early because they were both not very familiar with this particular Closed Ruy Lopez, but the Georgian grandmaster really stretched it as she was left with about a minute (plus a 30-second increment) 20 moves before the time control.

Already having the advantage, Gunina stuck to her style by going g2-g4-g5 to sharpen up things even more. Already finished with her game, Kosteniuk noted that it's always an adventure to play team tournaments with Gunina sitting next to her! 

Gunina: “My teammates told me they don’t like to look at my position because it’s always a mess; they prefer to watch at the end, to be sure!”

Gunina-Khotenashvili Cairns Cup 2019
Gunina-Khotenashvili. | Photo: Crystal Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club.

The 19-year-old Zhansaya Abdumalik of Kazakhstan is fortunate to be able to play such a strong tournament at the start of her career, as she will get invaluable experience. However, since she started with a win right away, at the moment she should simply be considered to be one of the contenders for victory.

“The game was really tough. I think it should a draw somewhere but she missed a move with little time,” she said about her Gruenfeld endgame win against Anna Zatonskih, who hasn't played many tournaments before where she was the lowest seed.

Zhansaya Abdumalik Cairns Cup 2019
Zhansaya Abdumalik. | Photo: Austin Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club.

At the end of the day one more winner was added to the group of early leaders. Irina Krush nicely outplayed the second seed Nana Dzagnidze from a Symmetrical English. Initially Krush thought that pushing d5-d4 might have been too early, but when she neutralized the queenside pressure with 12...Qd6 and and 13...Rb8 she started to feel confident.

Irina Krush Cairns Cup 2019
Irina Krush. | Photo: Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club.

The only draw was played between Harika Dronavalli and Marie Sebag, who played a fair bit of theory in the Moscow variation of the Sicilian. 

Harika Sebag Cairns Cup 2019
Harika vs Sebag just before the start. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Each round will be 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 live broadcast of the Saint Louis Chess Club.

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