The St. Louis Chess Club played host to 10 of the finest female chess players in the world for the last couple of weeks. The brand-new event, the Cairns Cup, saw the participants face each other in a nine-round, all-play-all-format event for a whopping prize fund of $150,000.
Commentary was broadcast on the internet featuring the familiar trio of Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley. In addition, there were two other all-female commentary duos: Almira Skripchenko and Anastasiya Karlovich did Russian-language commentary for online audiences, while Tania Sachdev and Tatev Abrahamyan did on-site commentary at the Kingside Diner next to the Chess Club. Suffice it to say, this event was a big deal, and it was treated as such.
The champion of the Cairns Cup was Russian Valentina Gunina. She went on a tear midway through the event, amassing four wins in a row in rounds 4-7, and held off tough challenges in the last couple of games to finish with an undefeated 7/9. Some tournaments are won by the steadiest player or the one who plays the most solid chess. In Gunina's case, she treated the fans to numerous explosive games, and she never strayed from her aggressive style. Her round-five win against Marie Sebag from France was a particularly memorable one, with the commentators even going as far as to say it was one of the best games they’ve ever seen. Sebag's performance in that game and throughout the tournament was one that won’t soon be forgotten. Her $40,000 first prize was most certainly well earned.
Alexandra Kosteniuk of Russia, a former Women’s World Champion, was the top seed going into the event. Similar to her compatriot, Kosteniuk's chess was aggressive, and her games contained numerous tactical shots. She stormed out of the gate to lead the tournament with 4.5 out of the first five games. Her victory over the event’s youngest participant, Zhansaya Abdumalik of Kazakhstan, displayed great tactical acuity as well as precision. Her 6.5/9 would have been enough to win many events, and she had a chance to nab first from Gunina had she managed to beat Gunina in the last round. Abdumalik ended up in clear second and received $30,000 for her efforts.
Irina Krush is a seven-time U.S. Women’s Champion, but in this elite event, she was seeded second from the bottom. Nevertheless, she was one of the top performers of the tournament and took clear third with 5.5/9. Apart from the two Russian grandmasters, she was the only player who challenged for first place before two unfortunate losses in rounds 7-8, which put an end to her championship hopes. Nevertheless, she won a fine game in the last round against Harika Dronavalli from India, handing the latter her only loss of the whole event. Krush's clear third-place prize of $20,000 should definitely help quell the disappointment.
The reception of the tournament online was overwhelmingly positive. Chess fans of all levels, from grandmaster to beginner, gushed about how exciting the rounds were. While watching players like world champion Magnus Carlsen or St. Louis local Fabiano Caruana definitely has mass appeal, a lot of viewers seemed to think this tournament, as a whole, had some advantages. The draw rate was quite a bit lower than in most tournaments with only the top-rated grandmasters in the world, and there were very few games that weren’t fought out until the end. There were also lots of messages from parents and teachers about how their girl chess players were extremely motivated and inspired by the whole experience. The event founder, Jeanne Sinquefield (neé Cairns), has plenty more ambitions for the future of the event. She’s hoping to make it even bigger than the Sinquefield Cup, the equivalent event that features the world’s best.
Josh Friedel began playing chess at age 3 and entered his first tournament at when he was 6 years old. Friedel received the international master title at 18 and proceeded to earn the grandmaster title at 22. He is a three-time New Hampshire state champion, as well as a two-time California state champion. Friedel has played in six U.S. Championships and won the U.S. Open Championship is 2013. Friedel also participated on the commentary team for this tournament.
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