With one round to go, there are now eight co-leaders, setting up an explosive and action-packed finale on Thursday.

After seven rounds of the Gibraltar Chess Festival, there was a sole leader. After eight rounds, there were four co-leaders. And after Round 9? There are eight! co-leaders, with only one round to go.

For fans, this can only be good news. It practically guarantees that there will be lots of decisive battles in the last round as anyone who draws is likely to be left behind in the fight for first and the top prizes.  

Going into Round 8, the four co-leaders were Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Etienne Bacrot of France, Pentala Harikrishna of India, and the surprising dark horse David Anton Guijarro of Spain. The two Frenchmen faced each other and drew pretty quickly. For a while, I thought Guijarro might end up in first alone again (as he was after Round 7), until Harikrishna, who was Black, found a simple but strong defensive idea.

Black had been suffering for a long time, and White was up a pawn. However, Black found the best move in 37. … Qd5! It looks strange at first glance because it allows White to trade down to a pawn ending with an extra pawn (which is protected and passed) but the point is that if 38. Qxd5?! exd5, White simply has no way to enter the position with the king!

Guijarro understood this and retreated his queen. But he was unable to make any progress because the queen on d5 was perfectly placed — it could not be exchanged without allowing a draw, it blocked White’s extra pawn from advancing, it protected Black’s pawns, while simultaneously harassing White’s, and it continually threatened a perpetual check against White’s king. Guijarro acquiesced to the inevitable a few moves later and traded queens and the game was drawn.

The draws on boards one and two gave some of the players trailing the leaders a chance to catch up. Notably, the top seed and defending champion, Hikaru Nakamura of the United States, joined the leaders with a fine victory over Abhijeet Gupta of India.

In the above position, which is well known to top players, Gupta, who was Black, played the somewhat unusual 14. … Qd6!? The move has been played a bunch of times before and by players stronger than myself, but it strikes me as poor choice. Instead, the main move is 14. … Bd7.

Nakamura was clearly ready for Gupta’s move, as he immediately played 15. Kb1!, aiming to tuck the king away from any attacks, which is a typical idea in this line. There followed 15. … Bf5+ 16. Ka1.

At this point, the battle lines have been drawn. Black is strategically lost in the long run if the status quo remains, but if he can orchestrate the e5-e4 advance, opening up the monster bishop on g7 and loosening White’s grip on the center, he will have excellent counterplay and possibly end up better. Unfortunately for Black, I think it is much more likely that Black will have problems in this position, as I cannot see a way to force e4 through.

Gupta tried 16. … Rc8, and, after a long think, Nakamura found the correct move — 17. g4! Black was now more-or-less forced to sacrifice material because 17. … Bd7 would be met by18. g5! with Ne4 to follow and Black would never be able to play e4.

So, Gupta played 17. … Rxc3, but after 18. Qxc3 Rc8 19. Qe1 Bc2 20. Rc1 e4 21. Bd4!, Black had managed to play e4, but at a steep price, and White had also been able to blunt the effectiveness of Black’s dark-squared bisop by countering it with his own. The game only lasted a few more moves as Gupta quickly fell apart. 

Another top player who was able to join the leader was was Li Chao b of China. Li Chao suffered a big upset at the hands of Erik Blomqvist of Sweden in Round 2, but he has showed his resilience and fighting spirit by roaring back with a bunch of wins. His win in Round 9 over Luka Lenic of Slovenia was rather nice.

Li Chao was White and was up a pawn, but Black has very obvious compensation. Indeed, I think he should be absolutely fine after 16. … Bb4!, threatening to win a pawn on e2. The only way to prevent this is the extremely ugly 17. Re1, and then after 17. … 0-0, Black has a lot of activity for his pawn and can take on c3 at any time to force an opposite-colored bishops position. I think he should easily hold the game.

Lenic was instead too direct with 16. … b5?, clearly hoping to get b4 in and win the e2 pawn. But after 17. axb5 axb5 18. b3! Bxb3 19. Nxb5, all the queenside pawns had been traded, which was in White’s favor because his rook on a1 was now freed and he had the a3 square for the bishop, which he shortly used to force a bishop trade and eliminate Black’s bishop pair.

Li Chao was soon able to trade off one set of rooks and then the other, leaving an endgame of knight vs. bishop and four pawns vs. three, with all the pawns on one side of the board. In such an endgame, the knight is much better than the bishop and Li Chao smoothly converted his advantage to a win. 

S. P. Sethuraman of India and Sebastien Maze of France also joined the leaders with big upset victories over Radoslaw Wojtaszek of Poland and Ni Hua of China, respectively. Maze seems to be having the tournament of his life and I was extremely impressed with his win.

In the above position, Ni, who was White,  played the strange looking 18. Re4?! after a very long think, in what was clearly the first move he had not prepared in advance. Instead, the natural 18. Nf3!, expelling the rook on h4 rook, should be a bit better for White. Still, the move played in the game is not toothless — White is clearly aiming to push e6.

Maze responded with 18. … g6 19. Rf1 Rh3, and now the possibilities around 20. e6 are absolutely wild. Ni thought for nearly 40 minutes and ultimately chose to go through with it, but it turns out to be a bad move and Black’s calculations were better.

Maze also thought for a long time, taking 18 minutes, and then played 20. … Rxe3! The game continued 21. exf7+ Kxf7 22. Rxe3 Rxd4 23. fxg6+ Kg8 24. Rxf8+ Kxf8 25. g7+.

Ni may have expected the game to end here with 25. … Kxg7 26. Rxe7+ Kf6 27. Rxc7 Rxg4+ and a draw can be agreed, but Maze found the brilliant 25. … Kf7!!, allowing the pawn to queen.

Black is a piece up and White can’t let him keep it, so he is forced to try 26. Rxe7+ Kxe7 27. g8=Q, but after 27. … Rxg4+, White has to give the queen right back and Black ends up with an extra pawn. A fine piece of calculation by Maze, who eventually scored his second upset with Black this tournament over a much higher rated player.

Given the number of players who are in contention for first place, there is likely to be a playoff after Round 10.


Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 7 in the country. He is a professional player and recipient of the Samford Fellowship in 2013, the most prestigious award in the United States for young chess players. He is @GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.