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Sunday, 16 Feb 2020 09:14
Cairns Cup 2020: Koneru leads the field

In an electrifying penultimate round, the hunt for first place shifted dramatically. Carissa Yip stole the show as she took down tournament co-leader Wenjun Ju in an absolute masterclass. Meanwhile, Humpy Koneru catapulted herself into clear first as she took down Valentina Gunina in a one-sided demolition. Alexandra Kosteniuk continued her roller-coaster tournament with a victory over Nana Dzagnidze and now stands in clear second place. Going into the final round, four players are still in contention for first place, but Koneru is the player to catch. 

Wenjun Ju - Carissa Yip: 0 - 1

Chess fans were treated to a show in the first ever clash between the young American talent and the reigning Women’s World Champion. Carissa Yip displayed some of her best chess of the tournament thus far. She outprepared Ju Wenjun from the black side of Morphy Defense in the Ruy Lopez and received a comfortable time advantage. In the middlegame, Yip’s play was nothing short of sensational. After a few inaccuracies from Ju, Yip harmonized her pieces beautifully, and created immense pressure on all areas of the board. In a series of tactical blows that seemed like punches, Ju’s position collapsed. Yasser Seirawan called this victory “an electrifying moment for American chess fans.” This game marks the first time an American female player has defeated Ju in classical chess. To put the icing on the cake for Yip, she has now entered the top 50 female players in the world according to the live rating list with today’s win. Ju now stands in a tie for 3rd place with 4.5/8 and will need a miracle tomorrow to have any chance at tying for first. 

Humpy Koneru - Valentina Gunina: 1 - 0

14 years ago, Humpy Koneru swiftly defeated Anatoly Karpov by achieving a winning position on move 16 in the Semi-Slav. Today, she achieved the same opening setup against Valentina Gunina and reached the identical winning position! Such an occurrence demonstrates the importance of researching all of your opponent’s games; even the older ones! After the opening, Koneru won without much of a fight. Gunina held off on resigning for many moves, but there was never any doubt about Koneru’s crushing advantage. Tomorrow, Koneru will have the black pieces against her compatriot Harika Dronavalli in a critical final game. A win for Koneru will clinch clear first, while a draw will guarantee at least a tie for first.  

Mariya Muzychuk - Harika Dronavalli: ½ - ½ 

In a highly strategic battle emerging from a Sicilian Najdorf, Mariya Muzychuk was pushing for a win most of the game. After an early queen trade in the opening, Harika Dronavalli had to defend a difficult endgame. She was up to the task however, and did not crack under pressure. One of the differences between these elite professionals and lower level players is the ability to avoid blundering in difficult situations. Harika showed her class and defended incredibly well to secure a half-point. With this draw, Muzychuk sits at 4.5/8 points and has very slim chances to tie for first. 

Kateryna Lagno - Irina Krush: ½ - ½ 

Irina Krush’s woes continued as she failed to convert an absolutely crushing advantage against Kateryna Lagno. Thanks to a sweet intermezzo, Krush obtained a substantial material advantage in the late middlegame. A few simple consolidating moves would have led to a simple win for the American grandmaster. Instead, Krush went for a forcing variation and ironically overlooked an in-between move herself (46.h4!) which allowed Lagno back in the game. In the end, Krush was up 3 pawns, but it was impossible to break Lagno’s fortress due to the nature of opposite-color bishops. Despite having so many better or winning positions throughout the event, Krush has yet to score a victory. While this performance is certainly disappointing, it points to a highly critical area of improvement. The ability to convert advantages is an essential skill at all levels and can make a huge difference for a tournament result.

Nana Dzagnidze - Alexandra Kosteniuk: 0 - 1

After obtaining a better position from the rare 4.Bd2!? Nimzo Indian, Nana Dzagnidze let her advantage slip. Moreover, after a flurry of exchanges, Alexandra Kosteniuk emerged in the driver’s seat in the endgame. After the shift in evaluation, GM Seirawan exclaimed, “every time we think we understand the plot of the tournament, we get a huge change like this.” The Russian grandmaster proceeded to display exceptional endgame technique. She showed why having a passed pawn and an active king can be enough for victory. While she did suffer a couple tough losses earlier in the event, this win puts Kosteniuk in clear second place. When asked about her feelings going into tomorrow’s round, Kosteniuk calmly responded, “I’m happy that I’m doing fine... I cannot complain.”  

With all the drama that has unfolded so far, chess fans can surely expect an exciting finish in the final round of the Cairns Cup!

Text: IM Eric Rosen
Photo: Austin Fuller, Crystal Fuller, Lennart Ootes, Spectrum Studios
Official site: https://www.uschesschamps.com/2020-cairns-cup/