Conquest on Chess

in Features

Jo Ward caught up with Stuart Conquest, Director of The Gibraltar International Chess Festival mid-way through the Festival to find out more about the chess tournament. 

Founded in 2008 by owner of the Caleta Hotel Brian Callaghan OBE, known as the father of chess in Gibraltar and a chess fanatic himself, the Festival is now in its 18th year and has become renowned as one of the best open events in the chess world. 

Founded in 2008 by owner of the Caleta Hotel Brian Callaghan OBE, known as the father of chess in Gibraltar and a chess fanatic himself, the Festival is now in its 18th year and has become renowned as one of the best open events in the chess world. 

Stuart Conquest is a chess Grandmaster who used to be professional chess player, learning the game as a five year old, firstly taught by his father and then by a next door neighbour who kept his enthusiasm going.  

 “I came to work here in the very first year of the festival in 2003,” he explains.  “I was games commentator for the public which meant I got to know the people here, especially Brian Callaghan, and we built a relationship from there and this is now my tenth year as Director.”

Hosted at the beginning of every year, this time taking place between 20th – 31st January 2020, the Festival sees an ever-increasing number of international chess Grandmasters duelling each other on the chess boards and it has become one of the most prominent and anticipated competitions in the world of professional chess.

The ten day event attracts some of the most exciting players from all over the world. “This year we have 248 people playing in the Masters, which is the main event here,” Stuart says, “with many top Grandmasters, both men and women, from around sixty countries.” Female chess players are really well represented at the Gibraltar Chess Festival. “It is great that 25% of the field are female players,” Stuart states.  

The biggest representative Federation in regard to the number of players is India, with more players travelling from there to come to Gibraltar than any other country, including Spain and the UK. “We also have players from China, South America, Canada and four or five from Iran, so it is really global – chess is a global sport and we are a global Festival,” he comments. 

One of the highlights was a visit by the 12th World Champion and Grandmaster Anatoly Karpov who came for a long weekend before the Festival started. “He had a session with local schoolchildren who are keen on chess and he also gave a simultaneous display for thirty people which went on for about five hours,” Stuart states. 

Entry to the Festival is open to contestants with official FIDE ratings, with children as young as 10 taking part. “Maybe there is a future world champion sitting here right now as we speak,” Stuart exclaims. “There has been an influx of ambitious young juniors, keen to do battle with established stars of the game.”

The primary sponsor is now the Gibraltar Government, with several local companies offering sponsorship and support, some of which have been doing so since the advent of the Festival. Gibraltar can boast having the highest prize fund. The overall first prize has increased to £30,000, with £20,000 on offer for the top female player. This year’s joint top seeds, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave from France and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov from Azerbaijan are competing, but as the Festival is only in the fifth round as I speak to Stuart, it is too early to say whose name will go on the trophy. Stuart explains that there can only be one winner, so there has to be a playoff if there is a tie for first place.

One of the strengths of the Festival is the reputation it has for being fun and friendly. “The atmosphere is great and everyone gets into the spirit of the event,” he tells me. “It’s not just a Tournament, it’s a Festival!” In the lobby of the Caleta Hotel people are playing chess in one corner and in another having a bite to eat and drink. The competition games take place both upstairs and downstairs, and anyone can go along to watch these. In addition to the Masters, amateur and challenge tournaments, there is a blitz tournament and a number of other side events. There are screens downstairs showing the leading positions and there is a commentary room where people can listen to live commentary from GM David Howell and WIM Fiona Steil-Antoni.  

“It’s not just one person coming to play chess, we have couples, siblings and families accompanying them,” Stuart explains, “and there seem to be more than ever this year.”  There’s always a lot going on and the organisers provide a parallel social programme, with a range of events that participants are invited to take part in. 

On Sunday 26th The Battle of the Sexes took place; a fun game of chess unique to Gibraltar played on a giant chess set consisting of two teams of some of the top seeded players, one of 5 men and the other 5 women, led by team captains Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Antoaneta Stefanova. Despite all their efforts the ladies could not stop the men from taking the crown back this year.

Prior to the tournament there was a three-day chess seminar at the University of Gibraltar, with former world champion Veselin Topalov and IM Elisabeth Pähtz providing coaching sessions, followed by a Celebratory Dinner attended by Anatoly Karpov. On the last day, the 30th January, there will be a closing Ceremony and Gala Dinner and, of course, the Prizegiving. 

Going forward, there is no doubt that The Gibraltar Chess Festival will retain its reputation as being one of the top destinations for chess enthusiasts and its Masters group one of the outright top opens.

There are a couple of blitz tournaments during the event and masterclass 

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