Zatonskih Wins Cairns Cup With Round To Spare, Kosteniuk Second

It's not uncommon for talented young chess players to travel the globe in search of tournaments that offer favorable chances of earning a coveted GM norm. After all, what's the alternative? Wait until you're almost 45 years old and win a prestigious invitational as the lowest-rated player in the field?


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In what she described as the highlight of her playing career, Zatonskih won the Cairns Cup and earned her first GM norm (courtesy Bryan Adams/SLCC)


It might not catch on as a trend, but we can now call the above strategy the "Zatonskih Method" of achieving one's first GM norm, as IM Anna Zatonskih did just that a month before her 45th birthday, winning the Cairns Cup with an undefeated 6/8 performance a full point ahead of the field. The American even managed to clinch the event with a round to spare after rejecting a draw by repetition and subsequently grinding down GM Zhansaya Abdumalik in a precise endgame.

While Zatonskih was already in sole first by the rest day, both GM Irina Krush and GM Bella Khotenashvili were lurking a half-point back. But things broke Zatonskih's way when Krush lost her encounter with Kosteniuk in round six:



Pouncing on the opportunity, Zatonskih won her third game with black after her opponent mixed up her lines in the Catalan:



In round seven, Khotenashvili kept up the pressure by producing her fourth consecutive win after an 0-2 start (and a sixth round bye). All of the annotations following come from WGM Begim Tokhirjonova.



Just when Kosteniuk seemed back in form, ready to join the hunt, a promising position against GM Nana Dzagnidze collapsed.



This opened the door for Krush to stay firmly in the hunt, as she managed to do by her winning her game against GM Harika Dronavalli:



The stakes for the penultimate round were high. A Krush draw and Khotenashvili loss would clinch the tournament for Zatonskih if she could win her game against Abdumalik, who was having an uncharacteristically poor event. But defeating a young, talented grandmaster is never a given, nor were the two other "ifs" that had to break Zatonskih's way.


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GM Bella Khotenashvili played seven consecutive decisive games, ultimately finishing in a tie for third after starting the event with two losses (courtesy Bryan Adams/SLCC)


With a final round game against Krush lurking, it seemed likely that the tournament would be decided on a dramatic final day, perhaps even in the game between the two rivals who have combined for a dozen U.S. Women's Championships. 

But wait! First, Khotenashvili was about to lose to Kosteniuk. Until! And then again. Until! And then...



All the while, Zatonskih was indeed pushing an advantage with the white pieces (after three draws in her previous games with the first-move "advantage").


Zatonskih Abdumalik
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The decisive game of the tournament: Zatonskih (L) versus Abdumalik (courtesy Crystal Fuller/SLCC)


She had an opportunity to repeat the position a third time and claim a draw, but decided that her opponent's position could require energetic, stubborn defense that might be hard to muster at this point in a disappointing tournament. Her practical evaluation paid off:



Krush, then, had to win to keep her chances of a comeback alive. Alas, by the point Zatonskih won her game, Krush's was a dead draw.



So there we have it, everything that had to happen happened, and Zatonskih clinched the Cup, the norm, and the $45,000 prize a day ahead of schedule.

Still, there was plenty of chess to play, beginning with an interesting opening discussion in the other game of round eight:



The story of Monday, then, was the wide-open race for second place. Kosteniuk, Khotenashvili, and Krush all entered the round with 4/7 scores. Krush pushed for 130 moves trying to earn a share of second, but Zatonskih was determined not to end the tournament on her first loss.



Khotenashvili was unable to get much out of the opening against Dronavalli, and ended up sacrificing just to keep equality.



This meant that a win for Kosteniuk would be sufficient for clear second. It also meant that a win for her opponent, GM Elisabeth Paehtz, would be enough for Paehtz to catch Khotenashvili and Krush in a tie for second. Perhaps this explained some of Paehtz's choices, which certainly benefited Kosteniuk.




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GM Alexandra Kosteniuk earned her second second-place finish in the Cairns Cup (courtesy Bryan Adams/SLCC)


Finally, Dzagnidze managed to bounce back from a string of three losses following the news that her fourth-round win over GM Humpy Koneru had been discounted to end on a high note and reach an even score.



Congratulations to the organizers on a successful third iteration of the Cairns Cup! And huge thanks to the players for producing 22 decisive results (and many more tense draws) out of the 36 games to count towards the standings. One would be hard-pressed to find a better display of top-level fighting chess. 


Cairns Sinquefield
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It wouldn't be a Cairns Cup without Dr. Jeanne Cairns Sinquefield kicking off at least one round, as she did here on the final day (courtesy Bryan Adams/SLCC)