John Saunders reports: One of the ideas behind Gibraltar tournament organiser Brian Callaghan’s forthcoming #GibChess Battle of the Sexes – a Scheveningen-format match-tournament between two teams of ten men and ten women, 23 January - 3 February 2022 – was to test his hunch that the top women players tend to outperform their published ratings when meeting top-level male opposition in his award-winning series of Gibraltar Masters tournaments. Brian Callaghan, who was awarded the OBE in the 2012 New Year’s Honours List for services to chess and tourism – the highest honour bestowed on a British subject for their contribution to chess in decades – decided to put his hypothesis to the test in this innovative project to mount a men versus women event, with teams chosen to be broadly similar in terms of rating and age. An equally important intention was to provide plenty of entertainment for the watching audience. As always in Gibraltar chess events, the competitors are encouraged to play hard as well as work hard.
It's also fascinating to look back and review the evidence generated by 18 Gibraltar Masters tournaments and pick out some highlights that might have contributed to the tournament organiser’s hunch. Nearly all of the world’s top women players of the 21st century have played in Gibraltar, tempted by the extremely generous top women’s prize (£20,000 in 2020) as well as the red-carpet welcome that female competitors receive on the Rock. There seems little doubt that the healthier proportion of female competitors in Gibraltar, unlike so many open chess competitions where women are heavily outnumbered by men, leads to a more congenial environment, allowing them to focus on their game and produce their best form.
Unquestionably the best performance by a woman player in the Gibraltar Masters to date was achieved in 2012 by the then reigning women’s world champion Hou Yifan of China. She came within an ace of clinching the main prize, in addition to women’s first prize, after tying for first place with England’s Nigel Short on 8/10 and then losing a blitz play-off to the former world championship runner-up. This was a sensational result for a player ranked 25th in the initial line-up. It amounted to a stellar rating performance of 2872 – slightly above Magnus Carlsen’s current rating. Along the way Hou Yifan defeated no fewer than four players with ratings above 2700 amongst her seven opponents rated at this level. One of her victims was Judit Polgar, universally acclaimed as the greatest woman player of all time, who was making her only appearance in the Gibraltar Masters. The loss to Hou Yifan would have been a disappointment for Judit but despite this defeat – her first to a female player in 22 years – she too performed close to her rating and scored 7/10, finishing with a win against a fellow legend, Viktor Korchnoi, making his last appearance in Gibraltar.
Hou Yifan also achieved what was probably the second-best performance in Gibraltar by a female player at the 2015 Masters. She was unbeaten in 3rd= place on 7½/10 behind Hikaru Nakamura and David Howell but on the same score as former FIDE world champion, Veselin Topalov. In the process she claimed another 2700+ rated scalp, that of Richard Rapport. On her third visit to Gibraltar in 2017 Hou Yifan was out of sorts, scoring 6/10. She was eclipsed by her in-form compatriot, women’s world champion Ju Wenjun, who scored 7/10 for a performance rating of 2731, beating Hou Yifan in the penultimate round. Had Ju Wenjun won her final game against top male Chinese player Yu Yangyi she would have finished in a tie for first and equalled Hou Yifan’s record-breaking score of 2012. A third Chinese player, Zhao Xue, has also been highly successful in the Masters, matching Hou Yifan’s second best score of 7½/10 in 2013 and only missing out on the top women’s prize in the following year, 2014, to Mariya Muzychuk of Ukraine on tie-break. In recent years seven points from ten has become the regular score required to take the big cheque, with the last two Masters tournaments to date, in 2019 and 2020, both won by Tan Zhongyi of China with that score. In 2020 she was just half a point off the eventual winner’s score.
The list of women’s world champions who have also won the top women’s prize at Gibraltar now stands at six – Antoaneta Stefanova, Zhu Chen, Hou Yifan, Mariya Muzychuk, Ju Wenjun and Tan Zhongyi. Other notable women’s top prize winners in recent years have been Nana Dzagnidze in 2009 and 2011, Anna Muzychuk in 2016, and Britain’s only winner, Jovanka Houska in 2007.
Last but not least we come to the player who has won the top women’s prize in the Gibraltar the most times: Pia Cramling of Sweden. Pia won in 2004, 2005 and then again in 2018, narrowly missing out on a fourth title in 2009 on tie-break. This is just and fitting reward for the fact that she has never missed a Gibraltar Festival, as is the fact that she will have the honour of leading the women’s team in the 2022 #GibChess Battle of Sexes.
Here is what Pia Cramling herself had to say when appointed as the women’s team captain for the 2022 event:
“I am so happy and excited to come back to Gibraltar. It has been my favourite tournament over the years, the one I never wanted to miss. Playing in Gibraltar almost feels like coming home.”
“It started almost 20 years ago in 2003. Anna, my daughter, was not even a year old and we, the whole family, Juan, Anna and I, have been to every Chess festival in Gibraltar since then. It feels like Anna has grown up with the tournament. It was here she played her first international chess event, and where she was also taught how to fill in the scoresheet at a very young age. “
“Here we meet chess players from all over the Earth. Some are the best in the world, others not so highly rated. I do appreciate the mixture of players, the fact that the tournament is open to anyone of whatever category and that we not only meet during the rounds but also for the many social events held in the evenings after the rounds to get to know each other and enjoy chess in a good, relaxed atmosphere. “
“Here we also meet more female players than in any other Open. The effort to bring and attract female players have been enormously beneficial and it goes without saying that a tournament with many female players makes a lot of difference! I am very honoured to be selected Captain for the Ladies’ Team in this coming Battle of Sexes 2022 and proud of my team with strong players from all over the World. I am sure we will make life hard for our opponents!”
Men’s team captain GM Sabino Brunello and his colleagues have been warned!