What a round the last one proved to be, and a very unusual one as regards the format. The hosts and sponsors were understandably desirous of avoiding a multiple pile-up at the top. Who can blame them? One of the absurdities of some chess tournaments is that it can take ten days not to produce a single winner. Very few sports tolerate such a state of affairs and if we are to be taken seriously as a sport we have to find a solution to this problem. The innovative Gibraltar solution was to schedule all last-round Masters pairings involving potential winners of the tournament at 10am in the morning, thus leaving time for a possible play-off at 3pm to be played alongside the rest of the last round games. I’ll leave others to debate the advantages and disadvantages of this system, but the Gibraltar gets top marks for ingenuity.
Board 1: Bu Xiangzhi vs Ni Hua
There were six players who could finish in the top score group so three games were scheduled for the early morning start: Bu Xiangzhi vs Ni Hua, Nakamura vs Efimenko and Gopal vs Bologan. It was a little unfortunate that the two Chinese players should come up against each other. Bu Xiangzhi could have made things tough for his fellow leader Efimenko (who had Black against a resurgent Nakamura) had he won but he opted for a brief draw with his compatriot – 27 moves in 22 minutes.
Board 2: Hikaru Nakamura v Zahar Efimenko
That left Efimenko with a chance of outright first place had he beaten the American. But his strategy of shuffling the pieces around on the first three ranks proved to be utterly disastrous. Perhaps he had hoped that Nakamura might have been provoked into overreaching himself. Instead Nakamura simply occupied the uncontested centre ground with his pawns and then threatened Black’s weakened b6, d6 and f6 pawns in turn. This could almost have been a tribute performance to the late, great Bobby as Nakamura unleashed a venomous attack of Fischer-like clarity. 25 c5! was a beautiful move to open up the attack on the d6 pawn.
White now broke open the d-file with 25 c5!
Efimenko gave up the exchange but then Nakamura simply smashed open the f-file and set up a mating/material-winning conclusion.
The final position after 34 Bf1! when Bf1-c4+ is coming with mate or win of material
Five straight wins meant that Nakamura had recovered from his poor 3/5 start and had qualified for the afternoon tie-breaker.
Board 3: GN Gopal v Viktor Bologan
But there still the question as to whether the tie-break would consist of two or three players. Gopal versus Bologan was a full-blooded encounter. Most pundits had expected Bologan to have the better chance of winning based on a 135-point rating advantage but in fact it was the young Indian who set the pace. The young Indian, full name Geetha Narayanan Gopal, not yet 19 and only recently, produced a superb performance which took him to the brink of the play-offs.
However, Viktor Bologan complicated matters around move 50. At one point the players had two queens each and Bologan was forced to give up one queen for a rook. But, despite having two queens on the board, Gopal was unable to force the win. This meant that neither player could reach the play-offs.
Frustration for Gopal (White): he has two queens but cannot
defend against perpetual check with Qh1+ and Qe1+
So the stage was set for a memorable showdown between two of the best players from the two world super-powers, USA and China. The format for the tie-break was two games of rapidplay chess, played at the rate of ten minutes each plus ten seconds added per move. Were that to fail to produce a winner, then would follow the dreaded ‘Armageddon game’ in which White would get 5 minutes to Black’s 4, but with a draw would give the £12,000 winner’s cheque to Black. And the player with the higher average of opponent’s ratings would get choice of colour.
Nakamura took the white pieces in the first game. Behind the scenes, the technical staff at the Caleta Hotel were busily preparing to have the moves broadcast across the internet. Nakamura took the initiative with White and Bu Xiangzhi went on the defensive. Around move 16, the Chinese grandmaster made an error and Nakamura forced home his advantage.
Play-Off 1: Nakamura is close to success
First blood to America: but immediately in the second game, Bu Xiangzhi produced an innovation that he must have prepared for the game and this time the American was forced back on the defensive. The Chinese player broke through and won a queen for rook and knight.
Nakamura to move and he has to surrender the queen for rook and knight
But he didn’t follow up as incisively as he might, and he was suddenly confronted with a fortress position.
"Fortress Nakamura": Bu Xiangzhi couldn't breach its defences.
Try as he might, Bu couldn’t break down the defence and force the win that would have led to Armageddon.
Play-Off 2: Bu Xiangzhi cannot find a way into 'Fortress Nakamura'
A draw was no good to Bu Xiangzhi, so it was all-out attack as the crowd of onlookers round the table strained to get a glimpse of the quick-fire action on the board. Eventually Bu Xiangzhi overplayed his hand and was checkmated.
So Hikaru Nakamura had won 2-0 and taken the Gibtelecom Masters title and the cheque for £12,000. Bu Xiangzhi’s consolation was the runner-up cheque of £8,000. It was a fantastic conclusion to a marvellous event which had been superbly hosted by the Caleta Hotel and provided with excellent technical back-up by Gibtelecom.
Now, some honourable mentions for a few people who did well at Gib '08. First, let's hear it for two English veterans who have cause to look back on the tournament with quiet pride...
Jonathan Speelman: TPR 2690... Robert Bellin: GM Norm
Jonathan Speelman's current rating doesn't do him justice but he will be moving some 27 points up the list after his 2690(ish) TPR in Gib. He likes the 3pm starts here, which give him a chance to go through his time-honoured pre-match rituals... a walk (and it's especially pleasant here, with the balmy weather - not a drop of rain all ten days), Times Crossword, Sudoku, sandwich - and somewhere in their some preparation. He told me he had adjusted his preparatory method but I'd better not reveal the secret as this may be taken down and used against him. Jon confesses he found it desperately hard fighting against a field which, between round 2 and 8, ranged between 2607 and 2670. He was especially aggrieved at facing Kiril Georgiev who is just the sort of tough opponent you don't want to face when you are clawing your way back to form. But he came back with a win in the final round to finish on 6½/10.
Robert Bellin is even older than Jon - indeed, incredible though it may seem, even older than the writer of these lines. But he has a bit of unfinished business left over from the 1970s and 1980s - the acquisition of the GM title. Since then, real life has intervened and one wonders whether, during this hiatus, Robert has looked on in bemusement as hordes of youngsters have become GMs despite knowing less than Robert has forgotten about chess. Gib '08 was a golden opportunity to put that right and he did so.Along the way he has scored some valuable victories over the likes of GM Tiger Hillarp Persson and the strong Chinese IM Zhao Xue. So it would appear that the juices are beginning to flow again.
As well as the battle for first place, there was an exciting conclusion to the race for the women’s and rating prizes. In the end the women’s prize was split four ways, between Antoaneta Stefanova of Bulgaria, Viktorija Cmilyte of Lithuania, Harika Dronavalli of India and Ketevan Arakhamia of Scotland. Stefanova and Cmilyte in particular had outstanding tournaments, the Bulgarian making a 2690 TPR and the Lithuanian chalking up a full GM norm.
The four women's prize-winners: Viktorija Cmilyte,
Harika Dronavalli and Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant (they also shared a special prize for having the hardest names to type without making a typo)
As well as Robert Bellin and Viktorija Cmiyte, Zong-Yuan Zhao of Australia made his final GM norm and it was most fitting that the country's first and foremost GM, Ian Rogers, was on hand to congratulate him. The 21-year-old is a charming young man who was able to perform a valuable service for the greater good of the tournament: he was the unofficial interpreter for the Chinese contingent and it was quite clear that he was as popular with them as he was with his compatriots and fellow competitors. he was also the one player who managed to beat the eventual winner.
It's there in black and white: Zong-Yuan Zhao is a grandmaster.
There was also a fine crop of IM norms. Max Devereaux chalked up his third norm and he briefly exceeded 2400 so it is probable that he gets the title.
IM (probably) Max Devereaux
Two of the Chinese women players, Shen Yang and Zhao Xue, also qualified.
IM Norms: Zhao Xue and Shen Yang
IM Norms for Joachim Thomassen and Ismael Karim
Joachim Thomassen is one of the huge Norwegian contingent and there was a huge cheer at the prize-giving when he went up to receive his IM norm certificate. Finally, Ismael Karim of Morocco also made a norm - excellent that Gibraltar's neighbours across the water should achieve success in this way.
At the gala dinner and prize-giving, the head of the sponsoring Gibtelecom company, Tim Bristow, announced the amazing statistic that an audience of 300,000 people worldwide had tuned into the live chess broadcast on the final day of the competition, with Germany, USA and China heading the audience figures. Later, when he went up to receive his £8,000 runners-up cheque, Bu Xiangzhi was given a tremendous round of applause for a brilliant chess performance which really set the tournament alight.
Spare a thought for a wonderful runner-up - Bu Xiangzhi
Then Hikaru Nakamura stepped up to podium to receive his £12,000 cheque and then make the winner’s speech. He proved to be almost as brilliant at the microphone as he is at the chessboard, with a degree of eloquence and wit at the lectern that might have surprised anyone under a misapprehension that chessplayers are all introverts. And still only 20!
A pat on the back from Caleta Hotel proprietor Brian Callaghan
The website statistics were great news for all the generous sponsors of the competition who enjoyed an upsurge in visits to their websites. So it wasn’t just the prize-winners with smiles on their faces – the event was pronounced a resounding success for the hosts and sponsors alike. And we’ll all be back to make the 2009 event even more successful. Hope you’ve enjoyed the coverage – this is John Saunders signing off in Gibraltar.