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Hou Yifan, pictured in 2008: A remarkable player (Karpidis)

If asked to say where the world’s most spectacular open chess tournament takes place each year, anyone not already in the know would probably guess at one of the world’s wealthiest cities: New York or London. Or maybe, with an eye to chess culture, Moscow.

But the answer is much more surprising: Gibraltar. I wrote about the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival here three years ago, after I visited it for the first time. It had already established itself as the planet’s pre-eminent open tournament—that is, one in which anyone can enter, from world champion to unrated amateur. But this year, held as usual in the last week of January and first week of February, it broke all records.

Among entrants from 52 nations were no fewer than 73 grandmasters, including the world’s fourth strongest, the former FIDE world champion Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria, and the US number one Hikaru Nakamura. Normally such players take part only in closed invitational events, in which the amateurs must sit at a respectful distance watching the play on stage from seats in the auditorium. But in open events, ordinary club players such as your correspondent can not just play alongside but wander over to watch the greats at a distance from which we could—but absolutely should not—touch their pieces.

No wonder less illustrious players from as far afield as Mongolia and South Africa fly in to the tiny foothold that is the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, partly in the hope that they might be drawn in the early rounds to play against their heroes. But there is an additional fizz and attraction, and one which is very much the vision of the proprietor of the Caleta Hotel, which each year hosts the ever-growing event.

Brian Callaghan, a lover of chess, had long felt that the game would benefit both socially and commercially from a much greater involvement of women. Traditionally women make up no more than 1 or 2 per cent of the entrants to open chess events. This makes such occasions a little lacking in social sparkle. So Callaghan has gone out of his way to persuade the world’s strongest female players to take part, notably by offering a prize of £10,000 for the highest woman finisher. Three years ago the remarkable Chinese prodigy Hou Yifan, then only 17, not just took this prize but tied for first place overall, losing only in a tie-break match against the English former world championship contender Nigel Short. Had Hou won, it would have been the first time in history that a woman had captured the title of a major international chess open.

This year Hou once again took the woman’s prize—there was never any doubt of that—and came in a nine-way tie for third place overall. However, she very nearly took sole second place, having achieved a winning position in the final round against the 24-year-old British grandmaster David Howell, who was himself having the tournament of his life. In the end Howell, with characteristic tenacity, held the draw, which meant that he gained second place outright half a point behind the clear winner, Hikaru Nakamura.

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