— from John Saunders
The 2019 Gibraltar Masters starts on 22 January 2019 and there is another mouth-watering line-up of chess stars contesting this most prestigious of open tournaments and vying for the first prize of £25,000.
The tournament sports no fewer than 14 players with ratings of 2700 or more, and a further 24 rated between 2600 and 2700. Let’s have a look at the big-name entrants first:
Top seed in 2019 is 28-year-old French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, rated 2780 on the January list, which puts him at number six in the world. Playing on the Rock, Maxime has previously been ‘close but no cigar’. Last year he finished in the monumental seven-way pile-up on 7½/10 when, despite being one of the four who went into the play-off and dispatching speed star Nakamura in the semi-final, he lost out in a blitz play-off to Aronian. In 2017 MVL also scored 7½ but there were three men ahead of him on 8. In 2016 he scored 8/10 but so did Nakamura and it was the American who won that play-off.
Second favourite in 2019 is last year’s winner Levon Aronian going for his third Gibraltar success (he shared first in 2005 before the first prize tie-break rules had been instituted). But the 36-year-old Armenian star returned to earth with a bump in March, finishing last in the Candidates’ tournament. As regards the rest of 2018 his one notable success was shared first place with Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana at the Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis. He is currently tenth in the world rankings and will be looking to reinvigorate his form back in Gibraltar.
Wesley So is making his debut in Gibraltar in 2019 and it is great to welcome this great player to the Rock. Wesley’s annus mirabilis was 2017 when he maintained a 2800+ rating until the latter stages of the year since when he has slipped just a bit in the rankings. The 25-year-old Philippines-born American is currently 11th in the pecking order although he was as high as second behind the world champion on four lists in 2017. Like Aronian, Wesley disappointed in the Candidates’ tournament and finished behind Sam Shankland and Fabiano Caruana in the US Championship. Otherwise his best results during the year seemed to come in shorter forms of the game.
Just one rating point behind Wesley So at the moment, and 12th in world rankings, is Yu Yangyi of China. The 24-year-old has yet to break into the world’s top ten, but it can be only a matter of time. He played a lot of team chess in 2018 and the proudest moment would have been when he received a team gold for winning the Olympiad as board two for the Chinese team.
The fifth rated player in the line-up here needs introduction to those who have followed the action at previous Gibraltar tournaments. Hikaru Nakamura has won here four times, excelling in tie-break situations and also winning three consecutive titles from 2015 to 2017. Last year he only failed to continue his streak when outblitzed by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the tie-break semi-final. In April he could finish only 4th in the US Championship but a shared second place in a very strong Norway Chess 2018 marked an upswing. Then another downswing, the Sinquefield Cup, and a disappointing result as part of the US Olympiad team. The big Isle of Man was a chance to put things right but a loss in the penultimate round put him out of the running. The 31-year-old US player now stands at number 16 in the world ratings and he will be hoping to fight his way back into the top ten with a good performance at his most successful tournament venue.
The remaining 2700+ rated players, in rating order are David Navara (Czech Republic), Arkadij Naiditsch (Azerbaijan), Nikita Vitiugov (Russia), Le Liem Quang (Vietnam), Vassily Ivanchuk (Ukraine), Vladislav Artemiev (Russia), Rauf Mamedov (Azebaijan), Michael Adams (England) and Maxim Matlakov (Russia). Amongst their ranks are three previous winners of the tournament, Vitiugov, Ivanchuk and Adams, with Ivanchuk’s remarkable victory in 2011 with 9/10, leaving such players as Fabiano Caruana in his wake, living long in the memory. Any one of these players could win the tournament, as indeed could some of the less favoured in rating terms immediately below them in the list. Just below 2700 are Ivan Cheparinov, formerly of Bulgaria and now of Georgia, and another previous winner of the tournament, Gawain Jones of England, currently riding high after a splendid performance in the Isle of Man tournament, victory in the British Knock-Out Championship and some Pimpernel-like brinkmanship for England at the last Olympiad.
The race for the top women’s prize of £15,000 will be equally fascinating. Ju Wenjun is the top-rated woman competitor at this tournament, and she had a tremendous year, winning the women’s world championship not once but twice in the space of the same calendar year, beating Tan Zhongyi in matchplay in May, and then defending her title in the much less predictable format of a knock-out tournament just six months later. If that wasn’t enough for the 27-year-old Chinese player she added the women’s Grand Prix title and the team individual board one gold medals at the Batumi Women’s Olympiad. Just about the only thing she didn’t win last year was the top women’s prize at Gibraltar: more on that presently, but of course Wenjun won the prize in 2017 in tremendous style scoring 7/10 and beating the world’s top rated female player Hou Yifan along the way.
Second in the women’s ranking order is Anna Muzychuk who has played here several times before and won the top women’s prize in 2016. With her sister Mariya the 28-year-old carried Ukraine close to the gold medal at the Olympiad but they had to be content with the team silver. She reached the quarter-final of the Women’s World (Knock-Out) Championship, being eliminated by Alexandra Kosteniuk.
Kateryna Lagno is the third favourite for the women’s top prize. The 29-year-old Russian had a very good run in the Women’s World Knock-Out Championship, beating Natalia Pogonina, Lei Tingjie and Mariya Muzychuk on the way to the final but the reigning world champion proved too tough to overcome. 2019 will be Kateryna’s fifth appearance at Gibraltar, scoring 5½ in 2005 and 2007, then 6 in 2017 and 6½ in 2018. The latter score put her into a tie for the best women’s score with Pia Cramling but the Swedish player scooped the big prize by virtue of her better tournament performance rating.
Humpy Koneru has played twice before at Gibraltar in 2010 and 2012, scoring 7 and 6 respectively. The former would normally be a winning score for the women’s top prize but Natalia Zhukova also scored 7 that year and had a better tournament performance rating. The 31-year-old Indian player reached number two in the world as long ago as 2006 when she was still a teenager and has remained there or thereabouts for many of the intervening years but she has recently slipped to number five after shedding rating points from her one-time high of 2622. Inactivity is the probable cause of this slippage but she made something of a return in 2018. In the 2018 Women’s World Knock-Out she exited in round two (round of 32) to the Polish player Jolanta Zawadzka.
There are four more women competitors rated in excess of 2500 in this year’s field: Mariya Muzychuk (Ukraine), Aleksandra Goryachkina (Russia), Tan Zhongyi (China) and Valentina Gunina (Russia). Two of the aforementioned, Mariya Muzychuk and Tan Zhongyi, are former world champions, and further down the list there is another, Antoaneta Stefanova of Bulgaria. A little further down the rankings there is Pia Cramling of Sweden who won here in 2018 for the third time in her career. In truth there are only a handful of the world’s top women players who are not here: the top women’s prize at Gibraltar has surely established itself as the most prestigious women’s title in all chess barring the world title.
As an open tournament, the Gibraltar Masters also attracts top chess prodigies from all over the world, eager to take their chances with the Swiss pairing system and cross swords with an elite player. Some of these young stars have established their celebrity before becoming teenagers and youth is well to the fore in the 2019 line-up. One such is Dommaraju Gukesh of India, aged 12, who, just days before the tournament, secured his final grandmaster norm, becoming the second youngest to achieve the title in chess history after Sergey Karjakin. There are plenty of others with very high ratings in their mid-teens, including Lance Henderson de la Fuente of Spain, who scored a grandmaster norm last year, and Prithu Gupta of India, who also played impressively at last year’s event. And no doubt there will be other youngsters, as yet unknown in this part of the world, who will use the opportunity to show what they can do on the big stage which the Gibraltar Masters represents. That is all part of the excitement of the tournament.