If asked to say where the world’s most spectacular open chess tournament takes place each year, anyone not already in the know would probably guess at one of the world’s wealthiest cities: New York or London. Or maybe, with an eye to chess culture, Moscow.
But the answer is much more surprising: Gibraltar. I wrote about the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival here three years ago, after I visited it for the first time. It had already established itself as the planet’s pre-eminent open tournament—that is, one in which anyone can enter, from world champion to unrated amateur. But this year, held as usual in the last week of January and first week of February, it broke all records.
Among entrants from 52 nations were no fewer than 73 grandmasters, including the world’s fourth strongest, the former FIDE world champion Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria, and the US number one Hikaru Nakamura. Normally such players take part only in closed invitational events, in which the amateurs must sit at a respectful distance watching the play on stage from seats in the auditorium. But in open events, ordinary club players such as your correspondent can not just play alongside but wander over to watch the greats at a distance from which we could—but absolutely should not—touch their pieces.
No wonder less illustrious players from as far afield as Mongolia and South Africa fly in to the tiny foothold that is the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, partly in the hope that they might be drawn in the early rounds to play against their heroes. But there is an additional fizz and attraction, and one which is very much the vision of the proprietor of the Caleta Hotel, which each year hosts the ever-growing event.
Brian Callaghan, a lover of chess, had long felt that the game would benefit both socially and commercially from a much greater involvement of women. Traditionally women make up no more than 1 or 2 per cent of the entrants to open chess events. This makes such occasions a little lacking in social sparkle. So Callaghan has gone out of his way to persuade the world’s strongest female players to take part, notably by offering a prize of £10,000 for the highest woman finisher. Three years ago the remarkable Chinese prodigy Hou Yifan, then only 17, not just took this prize but tied for first place overall, losing only in a tie-break match against the English former world championship contender Nigel Short. Had Hou won, it would have been the first time in history that a woman had captured the title of a major international chess open.
This year Hou once again took the woman’s prize—there was never any doubt of that—and came in a nine-way tie for third place overall. However, she very nearly took sole second place, having achieved a winning position in the final round against the 24-year-old British grandmaster David Howell, who was himself having the tournament of his life. In the end Howell, with characteristic tenacity, held the draw, which meant that he gained second place outright half a point behind the clear winner, Hikaru Nakamura.
This theme of gender war was most spectacularly illustrated by one of the many social events at the festival—a so-called Battle of the Sexes, in which the top women players took on the men in a team battle, moving pieces on a giant chess set, with only two minutes thinking time for each side in total. As Veselin Topalov, the captain of the winning male side, commented after the game, the women had handicapped themselves by wearing high heels (this was an after-dinner event). But revealing his determination to lead the men to victory, Topalov had rejected the women team’s request for extra time on their clock to allow for their sartorial handicap. For those who attribute men’s outperformance at chess against women to our greater ruthlessness, this was another small piece of evidence.
In view of the occasional crises in relations between Gibraltar and Spain, it was wonderful to see the large number of Spanish grandmasters taking part, and I can do no better than repeat the words of the leading Spanish chess writer and lecturer Leontxo Garcia at the conclusion of this year’s festival, who eulogised “the wonderful atmosphere of the best chess open in the world, where children, young and old, men and women, people of different races, religions and cultures, share for ten days their unbridled passion for chess at the board and in the hallways, morning noon and night”.
There should be a lesson here for our own government, which takes not the slightest interest in chess—in contrast to that of its overseas territory, which covers about a third of the cost of the event and goes out of its way to promote chess in its schools, under the direction of the festival’s organiser, the hyper-active and multi-lingual British grandmaster Stuart Conquest.
While Gibraltar has pioneered a form of positive discrimination for women, that definitely does not apply to the £1,000 best game prize, awarded this year to the French grandmaster Romain Edouard for his startlingly violent obliteration of the Georgian Woman Grandmaster Lela Javakhishvili in the final round of the event. Here it is, with the help of some analysis supplied by the winner. 1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4 3.e4 b5 4.a4 c6 5.axb5 cxb5 6.Nc3 a6!? (This move, an Edouard speciality, looks like a blunder: in fact it is a highly imaginative reinterpretation of the Queen’s Gambit Accepted) 7.Nxb5 axb5 8.Rxa8 Bb7 9.Ra1 e6 10.f3 Nc6 11.Ne2 Bb4+ 12.Bd2 Nge7 13.b3 0-0 14.bxc4 bxc4 15.Kf2 f5 16.Nf4 (16.Bxb4 Nxb4 17.Nf4 is no better for White after Qb6 18.Bxc4 fxe4) Qxd4+ 17.Be3 Qb2+ 18.Be2 (18.Ke2 Qe5! Bxc4 Bc5 is also trouble) fxe4 19.Nxe6 exf3 20.gxf3 Rxf3+!! (Exploiting to the full the power of Black’s light-squared Bishop) 21.Kxf3 Ne5+ 22.Kg3 (If 22.Kf2 Nd3+ 23.Kg1 Qe5! is again very strong) Nf5+ 23.Kf2 (If 23.Kh3 Bg2+! 24.Kxg2 Nxe3+ 25.Kg3 Nxd1 and, most beautiful of all, if 23.Kf4 Ng6+! 24.Kxf5 Qf6+ 25.Kg4 Qh4+ 26.Kf5 Be4 checkmate) Nd3+ 24.Kg1 Nxe3 25.Qa4 Bf8 26.Rf1 Nxf1 27.Qxc4 Nd2 28.Qxd3 Qb6+ 29.Nd4 Bc5 30.Qxd2 Bxd4+ 31.Kf1 Qf6 32.Ke1 Bc3… and, with her Queen now trapped, Javakhishvili resigned. No way to treat a lady.