Newly-minted GM Abdumalik crushes in Gibraltar

21-year-old Zhansaya Abdumalik blew away the field to win the Gibraltar FIDE Women’s Grand Prix with an unbeaten 8.5/11, finishing 1.5 points clear of Mariya Muzychuk in second place. The Kazakhstan star broke through the 2500 barrier to confirm her grandmaster title. The biggest winner, however, was arguably Kateryna Lagno, whose 4th place in three Grand Prix events proved enough for a spot in the 2022 Women’s Candidates Tournament, where she’ll be joined by Humpy Koneru, who racked up enough points in just two events.

The FIDE Women’s Grand Prix series, that began in September 2019 in Skolkovo, near Moscow, is finally over. The 4th event, originally planned for May 2020 in Sardinia, took place in the Caleta Hotel in Gibraltar from May 22-June 2, 2021. Zhansaya Abdumalik won by a remarkable 1.5 points (click on any result in the table below to open the game with computer analysis).

The Grand Prix series offered two qualification spots for the 2022 Candidates Tournament that will decide Ju Wenjun’s next Women’s World Championship challenger, but the overall winner, Aleksandra Goryachkina, has already qualified as the runner-up in 2021.

As you can see, Zhansaya’s 160 FIDE Grand Prix points for 1st place in Gibraltar and 110 points for 3rd in Lausanne almost gave her enough points for a qualification spot for the 2022 Candidates Tournament, but as a replacement for Zhao Xue in Lausanne – the Chinese player was unable to travel due to the pandemic – she wouldn’t have been eligible for qualification.

Humpy Koneru, as an original participant of the Grand Prix series, was eligible despite deciding not to travel to Gibraltar due to the pandemic, and her sole 1st place in Skolkovo and joint 1st place in Monaco proved sufficient.

That left one more spot, which was ultimately taken by Kateryna Lagno, for whom consistency paid off – finishing 4th in Skolkovo, 4th in Monaco and 3rd-4th in Gibraltar got the job done… just!

Now let’s take a quick look at some of the action.

Zhansaya Abdumalik clinches her grandmaster title

2017 Girls World Junior Champion Zhansaya Abdumalik had already impressed when she finished 3rd, just half a point behind Nana Dzagnidze and Aleksandra Kosteniuk, in the Lausanne Grand Prix. That event, in March 2020, was one of the last over-the-board tournaments before the coronavirus shut down regular chess, but it seems Zhansaya hasn’t wasted her time over the last year.

In an interview before the event she confidently stated, “my main goal is to become Women’s World Champion, and I hope I will reach it soon”.

She also noted that she achieved her 3rd and final grandmaster norm in 2018, so that all she needed to confirm the title was to cross the 2500 rating barrier. Picking up 30 points in one top-level event is verging on the impossible, but she made it!

It wasn’t quite as smooth as it looks on paper, with the final surge from rounds 7 to 9 seeing late twists in her wins against Nana Dzagnidze and Alina Kashlinskaya, before the game that confirmed her title, against Valentina Gunina, was an epic 133-move win in a game mainly dominated by her Russian opponent. The fun started on move 19.

Valentina’s 19.Nxc4! Nxc4 20.Qd3 threatened mate with Qh7+ and Qh8#, but 20…Bxa3! gave the king an escape square while regaining the pawn. Soon Valya nevertheless picked up the pawn on b3 and, despite one fleeting early chance for Zhansaya (46…f4!! wins), went on to set up a winning position.

Black is almost in zugzwang since White has mating threats with Qf6-g7, or Qd8/e7-f8-g7, and Valentina could have won with 52.Ra5 or the simpler 52.Rb5! When White captures the b3-pawn it’s hard to imagine too much can go wrong for her in the game.

Instead after 52.Qd2!? Ra4 53.Qg5? Qxd4! (fearing no ghosts!) Zhansaya was able to exchange off queens on h4 and enter an ending where she was a pawn up, but Valentina could make a draw by repetition at almost any moment. What helped Zhansaya, however, is that making draws was the last thing Valentina ever wants to do in a game of chess, and the game went on, and on.

Gradually Black took over until, around move 100, Zhansaya began to believe she could win. A pawn break enabled her king to invade her opponent’s position until the game was finally decided by a tactic after 130.Ke2? (130.Kd2 and the battle goes on).

130…Rxc3! 131.bxc3 b2 132.Kf2 and the b-pawn queens. All that was required was to avoid mate-in-1 with 132…Kh3! 133.Rh6+ Kg4 and Gunina resigned, making Abdumalik a grandmaster.

Zhansaya talked to John Saunders immediately afterwards, with her, “crazy, oh my god, what a game!” summing it up nicely.

In the next round Zhansaya Abdumalik took an instant draw against Kateryna Lagno to confirm victory in the Gibraltar FIDE Grand Prix with a round to spare. It may also have won her the super-grandmaster title!

Kateryna Lagno snatches the Candidates spot

That draw made sense for Kateryna Lagno since it meant she went into her final round with White against Mariya Muzychuk knowing that a draw with the white pieces would guarantee her a spot in the Candidates Tournament. She could only lose out if she lost to Mariya while Nana Dzagnidze beat Valentina Gunina – though in the end that could easily have happened!

The tournament had got off to a great start for Kateryna, with early wins over Gunina and Alina Kashlinskaya. Alina’s pawn grab with 20…Qxa3? (20…Bxf5!) was a big mistake in a better position.

21.Nxg7! was a bolt from the blue, but it’s a simple tactic. 21…Kxg7 22.Bh6+! would pick up the black queen on a3.

After those early games, however, Kateryna said she’d run out of energy, even before the rest day after Round 6, and compared herself to the power in Gibraltar, which cut out in the final round and also an earlier round. The last game would prove an ordeal.

Kateryna wisely said she’d chosen not to watch Dzagnidze’s game, since “she plays Valentina and everything is possible!” Going into the final round the Russian had scored 4 wins and 6 losses, with not a single draw. Valentina herself admitted that whatever she does her games end up looking “like a mess”, and that while she plays she doesn’t care about anything else and even sometimes forgets what her opponent looks like – only focusing on the other player’s hands.

Against Dzagnidze, Valentina was worse in a dozen moves, soon seemed to be dead lost, but kept on fighting, and even fighting for a win, despite the computer saying that at no point after the opening was she better even for a single move. Veselin Topalov called the decision to keep playing on when she could take a draw “kamikaze chess”, but it was hard not to admire the sheer willpower required to keep on fighting for over 6 hours and 135 moves when the tournament intrigue was over.

Fortunately for Kateryna Lagno’s nerves, she didn’t need to worry about the outcome of that game, since her game against Mariya Muzychuk ended in a 31-move draw that confirmed Mariya in second place and Kateryna in the Candidates Tournament.

On paper the game went well for Kateryna, but she was surprised by the Caro-Kann in the opening and never felt comfortable despite gaining a significant advantage. There could have been a late twist, with Kateryna explaining she’d twice blundered that her opponent’s rook could come to c4. 27…Rc4! shocked her, and the second time could have been critical.

Mariya should have played 30…Rxa4! and followed up after 31.c4 by not moving the knight but capturing on c4 with one of her rooks. “I didn’t see this square today!” said Kateryna, who would have had a tough fight ahead to stop Black’s queenside pawns. Instead Mariya declared an amnesty with 30…Nxc3? 31.Bxc3 Rxc3 and a draw.

Kateryna finished the tournament in joint 3rd place (for Grand Prix standings), level with Azerbaijan’s 20-year-old Gunay Mammadzada, who like Abdumalik was there as a replacement but went on to play a starring role. Gunay inflicted the one defeat on Lagno, earning her the bronze medal, and fell just short of a grandmaster norm. In a video talking about her career, she comments:

Chess for me is like my family. I feel safe, I feel good and it gives me happiness!

Mammadzada, Abdumalik and also Dinara Saduakassova will feature in the Gelfand Challenge, the 2nd event on the Julius Baer Challengers Chess Tour, that starts in one week’s time on June 10th.

Lagno, meanwhile, can play the Women’s World Cup in July without having to worry about qualification for the 2022 Candidates. She’s already booked her spot alongside Aleksandra Goryachkina and Humpy Koneru. Three players will qualify for the 8-player event from the World Cup, one from the Women’s Grand Swiss and finally one player by rating.

It was great to see live chess back in Gibraltar, but let’s hope that in January 2022 it’ll already be possible to stage the open tournament it’s renowned for again!

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