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The annual chess tournament is coming to Gibraltar  with events starting on the 25th. It’s also something of a technology coup, explains Guy Clapperton.

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On 24th January a number of chess players will gather in Gibraltar to register for a world class tournament that begins the following day. The Tradewise Chess Festival 2016 starts on the 26th, with £185,000 prize money at stake – but there’s more to it than a simple competition.

The event’s beginnings were very much as a straightforward commercial venture, explains a spokesman: the idea was to fill the Gibraltar hotels during the off season, simple as that. It soon started to attract grand masters, seduced by the conviviality of the event and the generous prizes.

“Sponsorship by Gibtelecom (still a co-sponsor with principal sponsors Tradewise) led to ground-breaking advances in chess webcasting, which have revolutionised the coverage of chess worldwide and involved a huge web audience in following the play,” explained the spokesman.

So it’s a technical feat as well as a competition, and there’s more.  “The organisers developed a unique strategy to combat the gender imbalance which had hitherto been inherent to chess, with the result that the tournament has become a mecca for women's chess, whilst at the same time ensuring that men and women compete together,” he said. “Also, the tournament remains resolutely 'open' - absolutely anyone is welcome to enter so long as they know how to play chess and can pay the entry fee. “

The competition

Pioneering trimmings aside, the event remains at its heart a competition. As per usual it will be 11 days of competition based at the Caleta Hotel, and the Masters competition has been rated as “Best Open Event in the World” by the Association of Chess Professionals in 2011, 2012 and 2013.  It’s grown; in the first event there were 59 competitors and by 2014 there were over 200, around 20% of whom were female.

World class players continue to attend. Vishy Anand, from India, os five times world champion, and the only player in chess history to have won the ultimate title in all three formats, traditional matchplay, knock-out and tournament, and the undisputed world champion from 2007 to 2013. The organisers are pitching his involvement as a “watershed” moment, showing world class players are ready to take part in open events.

Anand is in fact the third seed for this year’s tournament.. Top seed is the US number one and 2015 Tradewise Gibraltar Masters winner Hikaru Nakamura. The event’s press release suggests that Nakamura’s continuing commitment to

the Swiss system format “could be one of the factors that has changed the minds of his elite rivals about participating in open tournaments, and made them realise that they’ve everything to gain and little to lose by taking part.”

Second seed is Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France. His previous appearances at the tournament were in 2009, 2013 and 2014, nearly winning on the last two occasions. Only a few weeks ago he came within an ace of beating Magnus Carlsen to the first place at the London Chess Classic, the organisers point out, so he is a decent contender for the £20,000 first prize.

China has come to the fore in chess, winning the 2014 Olympiad and the country’s competitors are no stranger to the Gib tournament.  In 2008 Bu Xiangzhi tied with Hikaru Nakamura for first, eventually losing in a tie break. In 2012 Gibraltar hosted what must rank as the highest profile game ever played between two female players: the one and only game between the all time

highest rated women players Hou Yifan and Judit Polgar, won by the Chinese player.

This year there are three big names from China in the mix: Li Chao, Yu Yangyi and Ni Hua. British fans can watch David Howell and Gawain Jones in action. Howell had his most outstanding tournament performance to date in Gib last year, finishing second behind Nakamura, while Jones has just won the  New Zealand Open Championship in Auckland.

Play in the Tradewise Gibraltar Masters starts at 15.00 (GMT+1) on Tuesday 26 January 2016. Live coverage may be found via the official website www.gibraltarchesscongress.com

Guy Clapperton is the freelance journalist who edits the New Statesman’s Gibraltar hub. You can also find him in the Guardian, Computer Business Review and Professional Outsourcing which he edits.