Gibraltar Chess Round 1: Aronian Gets Nicked
GM Levon Aronian: The hunted has already become the hunter. | Photo: Sophie Triay/Gibraltar Chess Festival.

Gibraltar Chess Round 1: Aronian Gets Nicked

| 23 | Chess Event Coverage

Not many elite players can say they've won the same event four years in a row, but that's exactly what GM Hikaru Nakamura is trying to do this year at the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival. He actually figured to have two chances at a four-peat this year, but with the annual event in Zurich (where he has also won the last three editions) on hiatus in 2018, only Gibraltar offers him the chance.

He's not the top seed, or even the second seed in the 2018 edition. But he will scoot up a board this round thanks to IM Anita Gara, who held top-ranked GM Levon Aronian to a first-round draw yesterday. Gara's relatively easy hold wasn't the most exciting game from an otherwise attacking-oriented opening slate, but the result itself highlights an exemplary day for the Hungarian women's contingent.

Hungary women

The top four Hungarian women scored an impressive three draws from four games yesterday. Their opponents' ratings: 2797, 2724, 2681, 2664. The combined performance of 2617 came from (clockwise from bottom left): IM Anita Gara, WGM Petra Papp, WGM Ticia Gara, and IM Szidonia Lazarne Vadja. | Photo: GM Gabor Papp.

GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who took Nakamura to a playoff here on "The Rock" in 2016, will be the new board-one defender in round two as he won his opening-round game by breaking down a fortress. Not only does Vachier-Lagrave have a score to settle from two years ago, he also has the added incentive of trying to keep the "four-peat" roster limited. Among current top-20 players, only he (Biel) and GM Vladimir Kramnik (Dortmund) have accomplished the quartet, according to this author's quick scan. If there are others, please Tweet them!


GM Hikaru Nakamura said he likes this event more than Tata Steel, which is why he keeps choosing this one on his January calendar. Of course, continually winning it doesn't hurt. | Photo: Sophie Triay/Gibraltar Chess Festival.

Aronian told that he hasn't played in a "true" open since his only other appearance in Gibraltar, which was way back in 2005 when he was a co-winner! About six weeks before the biggest tournament of his life with only the world's elite, Aronian, often considered a man of the people, is now really among the people. (Speaking of the world's elite, thanks to GM Anish Giri's torrid pace in Tata Steel, all of the top 10 players in the world will be in action today!)

However, as with other elite GMs who've re-entered the arena of amateur players after a long hiatus, it didn't go perfectly for Aronian. His first game somewhat resembled GM Magnus Carlsen's re-emergence in open in events. Recall 2015 in Qatar when the world champion was held to a draw by a female player several hundred points lower.

Gara said she "could not wait for this result...At the end I was better but I could not push more." Here's her analysis of the game:

While punctuating a splendid day for the Hungarian women, which was celebrated together at a group dinner, as the tournament progresses Anita Gara might not be as friendly with her teammates (or even her sister!). All the ladies are competing for the £15,000 first prize for women, one of the best in open events. The top overall prize is £25,000.


IM Anita Gara didn't look intimidated on board one. Maybe she should have gotten the Candidates' wildcard invitation? | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess Festival.

While the split point on the marquee board was the most glaring result of the day, several other underdogs fashioned career highlights on the opening day. Likely still jittery as he reads this, IM Gary Quillan demolished GM Daniil Dubov. The result was easily a personal best for the Liverpudlian; his previous high-water mark was beating a 2560, while Dubov is only a half-dozen points shy of 2700.

Quillan couldn't even be interviewed right after exiting the playing hall. In his thick Scouser accent, Quillan said he needed a minute to compose himself before being able to answer questions.

Gary Quillan

IM Gary Quillan, still nervous and blushing a little after his big win. But as a Scouser might say, he was completely "made up" (happy) after the win, and it was time for a "bevy." | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess Festival.

He suspected the Pirc/Modern was one of the options Dubov might use (Aronian and Nakamura both played it as well in round one!). So was the attack born from some deep opening preparation? Well, not really.

"I did look at some Be3 lines...I convinced myself I was playing 3. Be3," Quillan said. "I got to the board and I thought, no, I'll play 3. f4. I've never played it before. I could tell he was a little surprised. You could tell that he looked at my systems. I've got a few games in the database but none with f4."

Here's the game he will post to his refrigerator:

With the end in sight, Quillan nearly had trouble physically making the final moves.

"Earlier on I thought if I am winning this position I will be really cool and I won't be nervous or start shaking or anything," he said. "Trying to control the nerves still. I just about managed to sign the scoresheet."

Quillan said Dubov told him he wasn't convinced by the attack:

By finding a nifty exchange sacrifice, Vachier-Lagrave avoided giving his opponent a career highlight. Prior to that, the beginning of the game had him seriously questioning his nationality.

"Obviously I'm not ready to play against the French even though I'm a Frenchman," Vachier-Lagrave said about the opening. "I really didn't think I would win," he said about the resulting ending.

As the game progressed, the super-GM confessed that he wasn't better, since Black's bishop pair should compensate for the material deficit. Tempting as it may be, he thought Black's plan of playing 19...d4 instead of 19...dxc4 was an error. It's hard to pass up connected passers with the bishops, but knowledge of exceptions to the rules is one of the reasons why Vachier-Lagrave is Vachier-Lagrave.

Continuing on, we can complete the "Pirc Three Ways" dish with Nakamura's treatment. With the opening only scoring 0.5/2 thus far in the report, the American brought it back to even with a short win in 21 moves against several-times Scottish Champion FM Alan Tate.

Nakamura, who is always at home in open events, said he uses the clock as an additional weapon against lower-ranked players. Today he was up about an hour on time.

"He got afraid of the whole kingside attack and used too much time," Nakamura said. "When I play weaker players time comes into play much more...You should try to press on the clock. It's one of the advantages stronger players have."

Nakamura said White's plan of pushing c6 was fine, but he should have followed up with a plan to get his adjacent pawn to b6, when the speed of the mutual pawn races would have been unclear.

Other notable unexpected results came from the Indian contingent, including GM Le Quang Liem only drawing FM Gupta Prithu and IM Sharma Hemant holding countryman GM Pentala Harikrishna to a draw as well. Harikrishna told that he's expecting "only 500-600" people at his wedding in March, so he will be looking to turn things around to have the spending money for a nice honeymoon.

Besides Quillan, a few other players scored the full point over their high-ranked opposition. FM Peter Lombaers made it truly a day to remember for the Dutch, as he beat GM Ivan Cheparinov in a queen ending. FM Jouri Goriatchkin beat GM Marin Bosiocic while WIM Heather Richards, who is about 16,000 km from Australia, beat GM Alexandra Kosteniuk. Full results are here.


WIM Heather Richards (right) can barely watch in the closing moments over her win against GM Alexandra Kosteniuk. | Photo: John Saunders/Gibraltar Chess Festival.

So what about the attacks we hinted at the nut graph? It was a good day to mate your opponent, as Quillan already showed. Here's a trio of other swashbucklers. 

First, and perhaps most impressive, was GM Mikhail Antipov's "double queen sac" against former World Series of Poker final table rounder FM Ylon Schwartz.

GM Grigoriy Oparin used an age-old idea to win in only 15 moves as Black against FM Flavio Perez:

It was not a great day to have "Perez" as a middle name or surname, as GM Nils Grandelius never looked back after his piece sac against IM Rodney Oscar Perez Garcia (IM Alejandro Perez Garcia also lost in round one, but "Team Perez" was saved by its only grandmaster when GM Frederico Perez Ponsa got them on the board with a win).

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.


IM Jovanka Houska interviews Gibraltar Deputy Chief Minister Dr. Joseph Garcia, who is in the "16ers" clubs, having visited every single edition of the festival. Garcia's children have become chess players in that span. | Photo: Sophie Triay/Gibraltar Chess Festival.

FM Mike Klein

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Mike Klein began playing chess at the age of four in Charlotte, NC. In 1986, he lost to Josh Waitzkin at the National Championship featured in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." A year later, Mike became the youngest member of the very first All-America Chess Team, and was on the team a total of eight times. In 1988, he won the K-3 National Championship, and eventually became North Carolina's youngest-ever master. In 1996, he won clear first for under-2250 players in the top section of the World Open. Mike has taught chess full-time for a dozen years in New York City and Charlotte, with his students and teams winning many national championships. He now works at as a Senior Journalist and at as the Chief Chess Officer. In 2012, 2015, and 2018, he was awarded Chess Journalist of the Year by the Chess Journalists of America. He has also previously won other awards from the CJA such as Best Tournament Report, and also several writing awards for mainstream newspapers. His chess writing and personal travels have now brought him to more than 85 countries.

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