John Saunders reports: The fourth round of the #GibChess Battle of the Sexes at Gibraltar’s Garrison Library, ended in a narrow victory for the men’s team by 5½-4½, wielding the white pieces for the second time. This was Team Sabino’s second successive victory, following the women’s double success in the first two rounds but of course only game points are relevant and Team Pia remain in the lead by a single point. The score is thus 20½ to the women, 19½ to the men.
One factor which I had previously overlooked when it came to assessing the teams and the differences between them is that most of the female players know each other well from women-only events plus the Gibraltar Festival where many women take part. Thus they arrived as a ready-made team of friends and acquaintances, making the bonding process almost automatic. For the past two nights they’ve been meeting together in the hotel and enjoying the sage advice of their captain and most experienced player, Pia Cramling. We’ve just published a video of Pia talking about her life in chess on our YouTube and I do recommend people watch it as it’s quite delightful. Her passion for chess is palpable and her calm manner and style of speech are positively therapeutic. It is also obvious that she is admired and respected by other members of her team who regard her as a pathfinder for women’s chess and a role model.
Contrast the men’s team: because there are so many more male chess players in the world, of whom quite a large number outrate the players in this squad, they don’t necessarily receive invitations to plum chess events. Consequently, some of the ten guys that constitute the team barely knew of each other’s existence before the event began. They were ten individuals rather than a team. Maybe that is a partial explanation of their poor results in the first two rounds. Certainly their captain Sabino Brunello faced a far tougher job than Pia Cramling when it came to engineering some esprit de corps. There is no doubting Sabino’s qualities: he is very affable and easy-going, a delightful conversationalist with a nice line in self-deprecating humour. Perhaps the recovery in the team’s performance owes something to Sabino’s personal qualities and the fact that the bonding process is starting to kick in. Last night the women’s team announced themselves on Twitter with a group selfie and the simple message “Team Pia!” I look forward to seeing Team Sabino’s response to this demonstration of togetherness. Maybe a New Zealand style haka before play starts in round five?
The game between Balazs Csonka and Mariya Muzychuk, a Caro-Kann, was over so quickly that I hadn’t even had time to process my photos and bundle them off to the waiting world chess press. I appeal to FIDE to make this illegal. “No game to be agreed drawn until the fat photographer uploads his photos.” There - I’ve even drafted the legal wording for you. I expect to see it ratified at the next FIDE Congress. Seriously, though, folks, these short draws are the bane of chess. We’re supposed to be mounting a battle here, not a pacifist meeting. There needs to be a change to the culture around the agreeing of early draws.
There were six other draws but they featured a slightly higher degree of combativity. The game between Leandro Krysa and Zhansaya Abdumalik, a Grünfeld, looked quite good for White around move 18 but, short of time, the Argentinian player opted for 19 Ncb5 and multiple exchanges rather than something keeping the queens on which might have left him better. However, he was somewhat short of time so decided not to take undue risks.
Bobby Cheng, after drawing against Marie Sebag, declined an invitation to an interview, saying “I’ll do it when I play a more interesting game later.” I shall hold him to that promise, but in some ways he was right as the game didn’t stray far from the path of Semi-Slav righteousness at any stage, with engine analysis endlessly recording an assessment of +0.00 indicating a dead level position.
Eric Rosen versus Olga Girya was an old-school Giuoco Piano (with an early d4 rather than d3), with a modern treatment. There looked to be an awkward moment when the white rook was pinned against the king, but it was an illusion as White demonstrated that there was a simple way to reach safety. A repetition ensued.
Husain Aziz versus Marsel Efroimski was a Semi-Tarrasch Queen’s Gambit and still in known territory after 18 moves. White eventually created a thematic passed d-pawn but it was easy enough for Black to blockade it, after which there were no obvious ways for either player to make progress. A draw was a fair result for an accurately played game.
There was a long wait for a decisive result but when it came it was a win for Team Pia. Gillian Bwalya went in for a sharp 3 e5 variation against Jovi Houska’s favourite Caro-Kann Defence. It’s a scary line to meet for Black but if you survive the kingside onslaught, you can often look forward to a positional plus later in the game, in a similar way to some lines of the French Defence. This was more or less the pattern of the game. White’s decision to give up his dark-squared bishop for a knight on move 13 looked suspect after which the dark squares were vulnerable at different stages of the game. But when Black passed up an opportunity to win a kingside pawn with 17...Bg2! things once again became unclear. Black was obliged to give up her light-squared bishop. White opted to open up a path to a vulnerable looking black king but the monarch proved to be better defended than it had first seemed. Suddenly Black’s threats became the more potent, and it soon became clear that White was dead lost. Black duly won. It was only after the game that a mutual oversight was identified: on move 42 there was a fairly straightforward tactic for White, which might saved a half point.
Four games in the match lasted more than 50 moves, with three of them ending on move 61. The two most experienced players in the two teams, Joe Gallagher and Pia Cramling, drew a 58-move Taimanov Sicilian. The opening was sharp: White advanced on the kingside while Black counterattacked against a long-castled king on the queenside. White gave up a pawn to gain the two bishops and to secure some play for his pieces. Gradually the pieces came off and Black retained her extra material and an edge. Briefly, on move 48, Black missed a chance to secure a substantial, if not winning, advantage with 48...g3. Instead her winning attempts proved fruitless and a draw was eventually agreed.
The women’s fleeting missed chance in the Gallagher-Cramling was balanced out by the men’s much clearer and longer lasting opportunity to win in the game between Ravi Haria and Gunay Mammadzada. White emerged from a Closed Sicilian with a tangible positional plus, which transformed into a clear extra pawn on move 22. Black tried a desperate bluff with 22...Nf4, where the knight could simply be taken and any compensation in terms of a kingside counteroffensive rebuffed, but White chose to duck the question. Having said which, he was still completely winning after the move chosen, but made a mess of the resultant position which had been close to overwhelming. Having earlier tied up one of Black’s rooks in one corner of the board, White found his king marooned on h1 though not in any danger of being mated. White’s positional advantage evaporated completely but he still emerged from the complications and exchanges with his extra pawn. Nevertheless Black continued to find imaginative ways to neutralise White’s winning attempts and she eventually steered her way to a draw. Ravi Haria will be kicking himself for missing out on the full point but huge credit to Gunay Mammadzada for fighting back from a terrible position and bamboozling her opponent with some tricky play with her knights.
That leaves two games to consider, both wins for the men’s team, giving them the match win on the day but still one point adrift in the overall standings. One of these was a captain’s innings from Sabino Brunello, who tried an unusual 4 c5 against Nino Batsiashvili’s QGD. Even stranger was the sequence 6 Nf3 e4 7 Ng1, which is not an opening manoeuvre one sees everyday in GM chess. After nine moves, Stockfish assessed White’s position as around -1.70. However, Black’s exploitation of this unexpected positional gift was perhaps non-optimal. She gave up a pawn to develop her pieces, but compensation was slight. White then gave up a piece for three pawns and an initiative. This proved to be the turning point. It wasn’t immediately decisive by any means, but the black king was left exposed and the defence proved problematic. Faced with a deficit of four pawns which soon became five, and with no pawns of her own, Black needed to use her extra minor piece to get to the white king to secure either mate or, more realistically, a draw by perpetual check. She came, with the white king being chased around the board by queen and rook, but it eventually reached safe haven surrounded by pawns in the middle of the board. A strange game in many ways, but credit to Sabino Brunello for finding a way to win a very important win for his team.
If Sabino Brunello’s opening had been bizarre, that of Bilel Bellahcene was perhaps even more so. Facing Irene Sukandar, who was on 2½/3 and the best scorer in the event to date, he played 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Bb4 and uncorked the novelty 4 g4!? perhaps in homage to Shakhriyar Mamedyarov’s 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 g4!? against Esipenko a few days before in Wijk aan Zee. I talked to Bilel after the game and he told me he had indeed been inspired by the Mamedyarov move and worked on his own idea subsequently, which he thinks is an improvement. During the Mamedyarov game I had tweeted that 3 g4 was crying out to be labelled ‘the Shak Attack’ and I promised Bilel that I would try to find a similarly alliterative name for his own creation. The best I’ve come up with so far is ‘the Bilel Bulldozer’? What do people think? Is there a better idea out there. Answers on Twitter, please: Don’t forget to use the hashtag #GibChess or our account address @gibraltarchess.
It’s interesting that neither Esipenko nor Irene Sukandar risked capturing the g4-pawn. I asked Bilel if he was willing to share his plan if Irene had taken the pawn (which probably tells us that he is not planning to repeat the experiment anytime soon). You can find out some more details of his intended continuation by watching our post-game chat posted on YouTube. As played, Black studiously ignored the g4-pawn and continued to play normally, but engines suggest she might have usefully removed it on move 8 rather than offer an exchange of queens. Without queens, White could defend the g-pawn and claim a small edge based on possession of the two bishops and the awkwardness of Black’s pawn structure. White exploited this cleverly with his 31 R6b5 move, threatening a pawn and simultaneously offering an exchange sacrifice, but one which would lead to the loss of at least one pawn and further undermine Black’s game, leaving her no way to activate her pieces. It was an exemplary performance by the young Algerian player and gets my vote for game of the day.
All in all, a great day’s chess, with the match now tightening up. Note that Saturday 29 January is a rest day - round six is on Sunday 30 January at 15.00 CET.
Photos of Round 4 may be found on Flickr via the web link here
Live coverage of the event will be found at the official website: https://www.gibchess.com/live-commentary