« Imagination rules the world »

Trophée Napoléon 2019

This famous Napoléon Bonaparte quote illustrates fairly well the chess event that took place February 16 in La Roche sur Yon. But what is the connection between Napoléon and the Vendée prefecture, you will probably ask?

It turns out that, by decree of 1804, May 25, the one who would become Emperor a few months later, ordered the foundation of a new administrative and military town, in the center of Vendée. La Roche sur Yon is hence a « Napoleonian town », which regularly honours its founder.

This year, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Napoléon’s birth, the city decided to create a chess event, as the Emperor was a player himself. So, off for a blitz match between the promising Dutch youngster Jorden Van Foreest and myself! And as « imagination rules the world », the organizers had invented a fairly original format; seven games, of which two were Classical, two were Chess 960, two were thematic, and a further blindfold game to top it off!

View of the auditorium (Photo City La Roche-sur-Yon).

A well thought out organization put the event on high level standards, for the players as well as for the audience A 300-seat auditorium almost filled up for a chess show, in an average town like La Roche sur Yon, means a clear success and is always a pleasure for the players.

As for the match itself, Jorden proved he was a worthwhile opponent. I was in danger as early as game 1, which I lost with white.

Mvl-Van Foreest, Game 1

Here, instead of the normal 9.Nxd7, I got carried away by the pawn sacrifice 9.d4?! cxd4 10.Bf4, but after 10…Qc8, I could not prove any compensation.

Fortunately, I was able to move up a gear in the second classical game, then in the two 960 games, hence recording three wins in a row.

Here is a nice tactical shot in the latest one:

Mvl-Van Foreest, Game 4.

White just played 23.Bxc5 and the position looks so symetrical. But black is on the move and tactical themes seem to favour him! 23…Qb3! and strangely enough, white has a one and only move to find to avoid losing material, and it is not so easy to spot with little time on the clock. The game went on 24.Qxb3? (24.Re1? Bd4+!) 24…Bxb3 25.Rd3 (25.Rc1 Rxc5! 26.Rxc5 Bd4+ or 25.Bd5+ Bxd5 26.Rxd5 Rxc5!) 25…Bc4 26.Rd4 Bf7! (but not 26…Rxc5? 27.Rxc4! and the tactical motif is reversed! Neither 26…Bxd4+, which would « only » win the exchange) 27.Rd7 Rxc5 0-1.

Returning to the diagrammed position, the only move after 23…Qb3! was 24.Bf3! and everything holds!

Place Napoléon in La Roche sur Yon (Photo Etienne Mensch).

The thematic games could offer nothing else than a « Napoléon Opening »!

Games 5 & 6.

Unimpressed by the imperial second white move, we both won fairly easily with black!

Then came the time for the blindfold game, with a little more time (15/10). We’re not used anymore to this type of play! Unfortunate though, as in spite of its ultra intense side – or perhaps thanks to it – blindfold chess is really interesting, as it requires an higher and unusual level of concentration. I know some players consider it is too demanding…

(Photo City La Roche-sur-Yon).

At the beginning of the game, we played the opening too quickly for the broadcast. But the IM duo Mullon/Mensch repaired the damage at lightning speed, discovering on the way that I had discarded my beloved Najdorf for the benefit of the Dragon. A choice which turned out to be no great success, although I was able to earn the half-point at the end, allowing me to win the match by a two-point margin, 4.5-2.5.

The afternoon concluded with the giant 100-board simultaneous display. We were four to face the players, Jorden and myself being joined by the commentators, IM Jean-Baptiste Mullon and FM Yannick Berthelot.

In other words, each of us was back to a certain game four moves later, which means we usually had to think from scratch!

Of course, there were a few hiccups, Jorden and I being a bit quicker than our comrades . Therefore, it happened sometimes that we overtook one of them, creating traffic jams around a few boards in the process. With the result that some players had very little time to think, while others had way too much of it…

Thus, in the general good mood around, a few pieces were left en prise, and a few games were lost by us!

Simultaneous in the Atrium (Photo City La Roche-sur-Yon).

The Trophée Napoléon in La Roche sur Yon has been a real success, and it might happen again next year. The organization team has set really high standards for a first, well supported by motivated city officials, and it definitely deserves to have another shot.

Official site: http://www.larochesuryon.fr

I take this opportunity to remind the readers that on my channel www.twitch.tv/mvlchess, I’m regularly streaming live events in which I’m playing on www.chess.com, like the Pro Chess League, Titled Tuesday, or other stuff… Sometimes, I content myself with the live streaming of casual games against strong (even super strong ) players, or with the solving of tactical exercises in limited time! Often in english, sometimes in french, I share my views and insights while playing, and I also answer lots of questions live…

Mi and l’Au is the name of a french-finnish band whose members are Laurent Leclère and Mira Romantchouk. The band is recognized among folk and ethereal music fans and has already released a few albums. The chess loving couple lives in Finland, and they wrote to us in order to share some of their melodies. Very special feature of these songs, they have been written by a lake near their house, while watching a lot of Maxime’s games! Gosh, for sure you don’t see that everyday!
Here is a piece of this music, so remarkable in its making.

Facebook page : https://www.facebook.com/wearemiandlau

All’s well that ends… badly!

First tournament of the year, Gibraltar is now the routine destination for me. I love the atmosphere there, with all the other french players, more than 10 of them this year. The numerous friendly evenings are also part of the fun: team blitz, tarot, mini table tennis, « Battle of the sexes » on a giant board, etc.

Despite the loss of my passport, I arrived on the Rock 48 hours before the beginning of the tournament, determined to enjoy my stay, but also to begin the sporting year on a positive note, in the always difficult context of a strong Open.

Round 1: Kiik (2410) – Mvl 0-1

I started against an experienced Estonian IM with black. I got an edge quite early on, but I made my life complicated before the time control. The position was no doubt still winning, but it it’s a real technical task ahead. As I was not really up to it, 17 moves later, we reached the following, critical position:

Kiik-Mvl, round 1; very hard to convert for black.

Had Kiik just done nothing, I would probably have had to go through the …g5-g4 break, which would inevitably generate counterplay for white.

But he opted for the very bad 58.g3?, which fatally weakens the position; 58…Qc5 59.Kg2 Qc1, and I put him out of his misery after 60.Qb4? De3! 0-1.

All smiles with the chief organizer, Brian Callaghan (Photo John Saunders).

Round 2: Mvl – Puranik (2536) 1/2

Mvl-Puranik, round 2; a nice resource ahead for black.

Here, I intended to play the natural 19.Be3 Qd3 20.Qa2! (but not 20.Qe1? Nxb3! 21.Rxb3 Qxc4), and the threat 21.Bf1 seems to be giving the advantage, as Black’s Queen is trapped. But I realized that black could then sacrifice the Queen with 20…Fxc3 21.Rd1 Qxe3!, and although he has merely Bishop and Knight to compensate it, the lack of access to black’s position would have prevented me to progress in any way. Therefore, I chose the slightly superior endgame after 19.Nd5 Bxd5 20.exd5 Qd3 21.Bf1 Qxe2 22.Bxe2. Then I won a pawn, but at the cost of a transposition into a Rook + opposite-coloured Bishops ending almost impossible to win.

Mvl-Puranik, round 2.

Here, in spite of a 15-minute think, I really went crazy with 42.Rf1?. I simply overlooked that after 42…Rxb3, if 43.Be6, black has the winning 43…Rc3! (but not 43…Bd4? 44.Rf7+ Kg6 45.Rxe7 Re3+ 46.Kf4). So I quickly wrote off 42…Rxb3, and focused on the other possibilities 42…Rf8 44.Bh3 or 42…Bg3. So once the move 42…Rxb3 was on the board, I had to move backwards and start defending the pawn-down ending by 43.Bd7 Bc3 44.Bb5 Rh3 45.Kf5 Rxh4 46.Ke6!. After grabbing e7 and the transfer of the King all the way to b6, I succeeded in salvaging the half-point, at the end of a not too reassuring game.

Round 3: Mvl – Onabogun (2189) 1-0

A not so simple game – far from it ! – against an unknown Nigerian player who, all the same, had beaten two GMs in the first two rounds ! Moreover, he played very correctly in the opening, and I was literally stunned when I saw him unleash 16…Nc2 a tempo in the following position!jouant 16…Cc2 a tempo !

Mvl-Onabogun, round 3; 16…Cc2, what a hell of a nerve!

I had so many tactical shots at my disposal that I was pretty sure I would find a win when I started calculating. Admittedly, 17.Bh6? gxh6 18.Nxe7+ Rxe7 19.Qxf6 Re6 doesn’t work. 17.Be3 Qxb2 doesn’t seem sufficient either. 17.Bg5 was also interesting, but I focused on 17.e5, which looked so tempting ! After 17…Nxa1 18.Nxe7+ (but not 18.Nxg7? Kxg7 19.exf6+ Bxf6 20.Bh6+ Kg6!, nor 18.Bg5 because of the pretty 18…Nd7! defense) 18…Rxe7 19.exf6 Re6!, black seems to hold. I don’t know if my opponent was aware I had bunches of tactical shots available after his 16…Nc2, but the fact is that I resolved myself to play the trivial 17.Rb1, and after 17…Nd4, black has equalized! The art of walking through a minefield while whistling!

You can eat and follow Maxime’s game after the equalizer 17…Nd4 at the same time! (Photo David Llada).

Luckily for me, after 18.Nxd4 Qxd4 19.Rd1 Qe5 (19…Rad8 was possible) 20.Bf4, he didn’t throw 20…dxe4 in, and I took advantage of it after 20…Qe6?! 21.exd5!, leading to a favorable ending, down to a pure Bishop ending after move 40.

Mvl-Onabogun, round 3.

Here, white could get an easy win with 41.Ke2! g4 42.hxg4 hxg4 43.Kd2 followed by 44.Kc2, then b3 and taking back on b3 with the King, to keep the furthest pawn on the a file. Instead, I played 41.b3? axb3 42.axb3 g4+ 43.hxg4 hxg4+ 44.Ke2.

Mvl-Onabogun, round 3.

You can see that a pawn on the a file would be unstoppable in this position, while this is far from being the case with a b pawn. Had he been watchful and played 44…Kf7! 45.b4 (45.f4 Bf6!) 45…Ke6, my opponent would have been a heavy favourite for the draw! But he forgot that after the natural 44…Kf6?, white has 45.f4!, and the prise en passant is forced not to lose d4. And after 45…gxf3+ 46.Kxf3 Ke6 47.b4 Kd5 48.b5, it is not the same story at all, as white’s King will reach f4 thanks to the threat of exchanging Bishops! That’s just the way the game ended: 48…Bb8 49.Bd8 Bd6 50.b6 Kc6 51.Bc7! 1-0. Whew!

Team blitz tournament (Photo Niki Riga).

Round 4: Vocaturo (2626) – Mvl 1/2

Against my Najdorf, the Italian GM chose a rare line in the 6.Bc4 variation, which I didn’t really understand; 6…e6 7.Bb3 Nbd7 8.0-0 Nc5 9.Qe1!?. After the game, he explained the idea, but it remains a bit over-ornate to my eyes. I got a pleasant middlegame position to play, but I made an inaccuracy on move 16:

Vocaturo-Mvl, round 4; a hasty castling

Here, I castled a bit too mechanically, allowing the manoeuver Nd1-e3.

16…Qc7! first was more precise. After 16…0-0?! 17.Nd1! Nh5 18.Ne3 Ng7 19.Bf2 f5 20.c4, the position became sharper. The computer prefers white, but I didn’t feel worse during the game! After another inaccuracy on my part (31…Qd7?! instead of 31…Rc4! =), the machine shows that white could take a large edge by surrendering e4 in the following position, a concept far from obvious when seated in front of the board!

Vocaturo-Mvl, round 4; what a complicated position!

White missed 33.Rxa6!, when e4 is immune, due to 33…Nxe4 34.Nd4! with the idea 34…Nxf2? 35.Qg6+ which is a killer. And if 33…Rxe4, it’s 34.Nc5! dxc5 35.Rxf6 Bxf6 36.Qxe4 which looks decisive. We both missed the theme, and after 33.Nd2? Rxb2 34.Rxa6 Qc7, Vocaturo should have played 35.Ra8, with a dynamic balance. But he preferred 35.Rc6? Qa5 36.Rc2, and I was the one to miss a chance with the simple 36…Qa1+ (instead of 36…Rxc2?) 37.Kh2 Qa2! 38.Rxb2 Qxb2 and white is in danger.

Undoubtedly, I felt off balance at the beginning of the tournament, my brain just wasn’t working efficiently.

Part of the « French Connection », with Romain Edouard and Maxime Lagarde (Photo David Llada).

Round 5: Mvl – Ju Wenjun (2575) 1-0

A key moment in the tournament, against the reigning Women’s World Champion…

In the English line 1.Nf3 d5 2.e3 Nf6 3.c4 e6 4.b3 Be7 5.Bb2

Mvl-Ju Wenjun, round 5; « out of book » as soon as move 5

… I didn’t know this sub-variation 5…dxc4. Therefore, after 6.Bxc4 c5, I took the decision to be upfront and straightforward with 7.g4!?, after a rather rare – by my standards – 23-minute think. I also took into consideration the fact that a normal plan with d4, or even a d3/Cbd2, would leave her in her comfort zone. So I was going to take her out of it by force! Both of us got a bit lost in the complicated tactical lines arising after 7…0-0 8.g5 Nd5 9.Nc3 a6.

Mvl-Ju Wenjun, round 5.

In this position, I probably should have played 10.Qb1. I chose 10.Qc2 to keep the option Nxd5 and Qc3, but after 10…Nb4 11.Qe4, black could have set the board on fire with the brave 11…b5!? 12.Qxa8 N8c6 (or 12…Qc7!?). She arguably wanted to be more reasonable with 11…Bd7 12.Ne5 Bxg5, but after 13.Rg1 (13.Qg2!?) 13…Ra7?! 14.Qg4!, I definitely stood better, despite the position remaining extremely messy. I like the way I converted, in particular in the following position:

Mvl-Ju Wenjun, round 5.

I felt 22.Ncd7 could win on the spot, but 22.Rxg7+ was too tempting! After 22…Rxg7 23.Rxg7+ Kxg7 24.Nc6+ Kf8 25.Nxd8 Ke7 26.Ndb7, being a pawn up with black’s weakness on a5, I had no doubt about the game’s outcome.

Round 6: Artemiev (2709) – Mvl 1/2

A relatively quiet draw against the eventual tournament’s winner. The funny thing is that Artemiev was shocked to see me across the board. Leading the field with Navara, he assumed the pairing was obvious and didn’t check it. He just forgot that in Gibraltar, you are offered the option of taking byes, which Navara did for this round!

Against the Russian Artemiev, eventual winner (Photo John Saunders).

Round 7: Mvl – Tari (2625) 1-0

We discussed a Symetrical English variation that I had prepared the previous day with black for Artemiev, and before round 2 with white for Puranik, though it didn’t occur in any of these games! This line leads to types of positions that probably don’t give white an edge, but are quite difficult to play

Mvl-Tari, round 7; not such an innocuous position.

I was expecting the normal move 13…Be6 (13…Bh3 is also possible), but the 2017 World Junior Champion played 13…h6?!, underestimating the dangers looming after 14.Nd5 Nxd5 15.cxd5 Ne7 16.Nf2!. His position quickly turned into some sort of terrible Benoni, without any normal counterplay on the Queenside, until the decisive central breakthrough:

Mvl-Tari, round 7.

25.e5! Rxf4 26.Rxf4 Rxf4 27.exd6 Qxd6 28.Nc4 Rxc4 29.bxc4 Nf5 30.Bh3! gave a technically winning endgame.

Round 8: Le Quang Liem (2714) – Mvl 1/2

The Vietnamese chose an old line against the Grünfeld, which I often played with both colours.

Le Quang-Mvl, round 8; a lot of memory required.

Here, I almost played a quick 16…Bc8, as Caruana did against me in 2013, during our World Cup ¼ final, when he took 50 minutes for the move! I still remembered in time that 16…Bd7 is better, and after 17.dxc5 bxc5 18.Qxc5 Qxc5 19.Bxc5, I could draw by force with 19…Bxc3! 20.Ra3 (20.Rxa7 Rxa7 21.Bxa7 Nc6 =) 20…Bg7 (20…Bf6? 21.e5) 21.Bxe7 Re8 22.Bd6 Rxe4! (the move I missed). I chose 19…Bc6 instead, and I was slightly worse after 20.Rxa7 Rxa7 21.Bxa7 Nd7 22.Bd3!. Fortunately, the activity of my pieces happened to give enough compensation for the missing pawn.

Over the grill of a Questions & Answers session, along with Nigel Short (Photo John Saunders).

Round 9: Mvl – Alekseenko (2637) 1-0

A typical game where the opening prep works perfectly!

My trainer Etienne Bacrot had discovered the new idea 19.dxc6 Nxc6 20.c4 during the prep of a game against Aronian. Our analyses were covering the line chosen by Alekseenko up to 25.Qg4.

Mvl-Alekseenko, round 9; still in the prep!

Here, my opponent, who had already spent almost 1 hour just to counter my novelty, didn’t find the critical 25…Nc2!. I knew that 25.Nxf7 Nxe1 (25…Kxf7? 26.Qe6+) 26.Qe6 was leading to a draw if black could find the only move 26…Qb8!, and white has nothing better than the perpetual. In this case, I would have chosen 25.Rc1!?, and even if there’s no objective advantage for white after 25…Qb2, I would still have had good reasons to keep the game going with 26.Qf5, or even 26.Nxf7, especially against an opponent whose ticking clock showed only 15 minutes remaining!

In the game, Alekseenko sinked after 25…Ra7?! 26.h4 Nc6? 27.Bh6 Bf8 28.Nd7! and white is winning.

Round 10: Karthikeyan (2570) – Mvl 1-0

Obviously, I will not hide the fact that my tournament fizzled out badly, with a last-round loss against a much lower rated opponent. Yet this decisive game for the fate of the tournament had begun with the best possible prospects…

Having countered the 6.Be3 variation against the Najdorf with 6…Ng4 and not 6…e5, I was surprised to see the young Indian taking a lot of time for the following moves, although I already played numerous games with both of those replies! After the game, he made it clear that he had only prepared 6…e5. So, he was clearly struggling in the opening, went into a rare and objectively doubtful line (12.Nf3?!), and I quickly got an edge with black, after a series of normal developing moves.

Karthikeyan-Mvl, round 10 ; hastiness!

The simple 16…Bxc3 would have kept a clear edge. But I had already planned to play 16…Rg8?, which I did very quickly, before realizing that I was just allowing white to solve all his problems with 17.Nd5! Qxd2 18.Rxd2.

In order not to just have hopes of a draw, I avoided the « normal »

18…Bxd5 19.exd5, and decided to complicate matters with 18…Bh6 19.Rdd1 f6, but it turned against me. And when you take such a bad decision as 16…Tg8?, you enter a downward spiral, a mistake usually calling for other mistakes to be made. Afterwards, I tried hard to set up nice tactical traps, but my opponent very cleverly navigated through them, and didn’t let me any realistic chance of salvation whatsoever.

Last round, after 10…h5; up to here, everything’s fine… (Photo David Llada)

A game to be forgotten, but also a few lessons to be drawn from it for the future…

Talking about the future, I now know that I won’t play any official tournament before late April or early May, after which the schedule will be fully packed throughout the remaining months of 2019.

So I have three months ahead of me to work on the adjustment of all the settings!

Site officiel : https://www.gibchess.com/

A few days after Gibraltar, Maxime played in the monthly blitz tournament on www.chess.com, the « Titled Tuesday », which always gathers an impressive number of strong GMs. While streaming his games live on the channel www.twitch.tv/mvlchess, he finished at a reasonable 8/10. Not enough though to challenge Grischuk, who was on fire; the Russian won 9 straight games, before to settle for a quick last-round draw!

Chinese Portrait

Le faux miroir (René Magritte)

As we begin year 2019, and waiting for the launch of Maxime’s sporting season, we asked him to answer a few questions, taken from the famous Proust Questionnaire, but also from more recent ones.

A little chinese portrait with no special ambition, which will nevertheless shed a different light on the french champion’s personnality.

My main character trait ?


The man’s quality I value most ?


The woman’s quality I value most ?

Honesty !

What I like most from my friends ?

Sense of humour.

My main default ?


My favourite pastime ?

Play chess !

The country where I would love to live ?

If I had to expatriate, I would choose an exotic destination, like Australia.

My favourite colour ?


My favourite writer ?

Victor Hugo.

My hero in real life ?

Nelson Mandela.

My heroin in real life ?

Mother Teresa.

My fictional male hero ?

Harry Potter.

My fictional female heroin ?

Lisa Simpson.

What I hate most ?

Hypocrisy and lies.

Historical figure I despise most ?


The reform I value most ?

The abortion law and Evin law (against smoking and advertising of alcohol -Ed.).

A gift of nature I would love to have ?

To be really good at maths.

How I would like to die ?

Doing what I love to do.

Mistakes I’m the most indulgent with ?

Those coming from unsuccessful attempts.

My favourite word ?

Win !

The word I hate most ?

Words that sound awkward, like chiasmus for instance !

My favourite drug ?


The sound/noise that I like ?


The sound/noise that I hate ?

The chalk on a blackboard, the jackhammer.

My favourite curse, dirty word or blasphemy ?

Fais chier !

The job I would hate having ?

Any repetitive job.

The plant, tree or animal I would like to be reincarnated in ?

An eagle.

If God exists, what would I like to hear from him after I die ?

gg wp !

If I were a french football team ?

Olympique Lyonnais.

If I were one of the Beatles ?

Ringo Starr.

If I were a scientific discovery ?

Newton laws.

If I were a winter Olympic town ?


If I were my favourite dish ?


If I were a sports commentator ?

The late Thierry Gilardi.

If I were a fashionable, though unbearable word .

S’enjailler. (recent neologism for « having much fun », -Ed.)

If I were a TV series ?

Breaking Bad.

If I had a super power ?

To fly.

And last question, If I were a song ?

« Here it goes again » – Ok Go.

Before his first tournament of the year (Gibraltar, January 22-31), Maxime played rounds 1 and 2 of the 2019 Pro Chess League. This online team competition organized by www.chess.com is getting bigger year after year. Maxime’s club, Marseilles Migraines, lost its first encounter against Amsterdam Mosquitoes, then drew the second one against Baden-Baden Snowballs. Two matches which allowed Maxime to test online streaming on his new channel, www.twitch.tv/mvlchess . We will come back later to this topic, which is a new way for him to share his passion and his current news with fans !

Site officiel : http://prochessleague.com

Grand Chess Tour 2018 final

The 2018 Grand Chess Tour (GCT) Finals brought together the Top 4 finishers of the regular season, Nakamura, Aronian, Caruana and myself.

I arrived in London 48 hours before the beginning of the tournament, scheduled on December 11. Indeed, the traditional Pro Biz Challenge was taking place the day before, in Google headquarters. Each player was partnered with a businessman, both alternating moves. As usual, I teamed up with Gilles Betthaeuser and for the anecdote, we had a very reasonable result of one win, one draw and one loss, as we were paired with pretty good duos…

For the last event of the year, two semi-finals were scheduled (Nakamura-Caruana and Aronian-Mvl), over three days and 8 games (2 Classical, 2 Rapids and 4 Blitz), with 6 points for each Classical game, 4 points for each Rapid, and 2 points for each Blitz.

I suffered in both Classical games. With white, I went for an erroneous plan right after the opening, 13.Nb3 followed by 14.d4. It was just a bad idea. Then, I was forced to play moves which didn’t look very natural, as 18.Ra2 in the following position:

Mvl-Aronian, Game 1; 18.Ra2, a move which didn’t please everybody!

I know this move had Kasparov screaming, as he was commentating the game live! But unfortunately, I already didn’t have much choice… I ultimately ended up in a naughty endgame, and during the game, in the following position, I was relieved to see 24…Rac8.

Mvl-Aronian, Game 1.

Instead, I was fearing 24…Ng4 25.Nc4 Nxe3 26.fxe3 Rad8! followed by 27…d5, and if 27.Rxd6 Rxd6 28.Nxd6 Rd8 29.Nc4 Rd1+ 30.Kf2 Rc1, and with the Rook infiltrated and its counterpart pitiful on a4, black’s advantage is undisputable. In the game, I was able to sacrifice the exchange for a pawn, with the feeling that the worse was behind me:

Mvl-Aronian, Game 1.

However, black could still have pressed with 33…Re1+! (instead of 33…Rb8) 34.Rxe1 Bxe1 35.Kf1 Re8 36.f3 (36.Nf3? d3! 37.Nxe1 d2) 36…Bc3. I didn’t verify, but I guess it should hold for white. Nevertheless, it was obviously a better try for him.

In the end, I could even play on an ending with Bishop and two connected pawns against Rook, but with minimum accuracy, black drew without much difficulty.

Concentrated… (Photo: GCT Leenart Ootes).

In the second game, I once again was inaccurate in the opening, in a well known variation of the English, for which Aronian had prepared the very rare 9.d4!?.

Aronian-Mvl, Game 2; 9.d4!?, the chef’s surprise!

After 9…cxd4 10.Bxe6 Bxe6 11.Nxd4, I went into a deep think and took a radical decision, 11…Nc6. Of course, I was aware of the fact that 11…Bc4+, or even 11…Bd7, were probably better moves, but from a practical point of view, I felt that 11…Nc6 would be more cautious, and would allow me to keep things under control. Unfortunately, I couldn’t manage to put my Bishop on c5, in order to exchange black-coloured Bishops, and I had to do it via the manoeuver …Bb4-a5-b6, which is pretty slow. Therefore, Levon got enough time to direct his Knight towards c5.

Aronian-Mvl, Game 2.

Here, Levon rushed with 24.Nc5?!, whereas after the excellent 24.b4!, I couldn’t see how I would react. If 24…b6 – the most natural – then 25.b5 Na5 (25…Nd4? 26.f4! Nxb5 27.Nxe5 loses material) 26.Nb4 and I don’t move an inch! So, after 24.Nc5?! Rb8 25.h4, I didn’t give it a second thought and I immediately went for the sequence 25…Nb4 26.a3 b6!? 27.Nxe6 Na2.

Aronian-Mvl, Game 2.

I had seen that 28.Rc2! would lead to a better version of the Rook endgame for him than in the game after 28.Ra1. Indeed, after 28.Rc2! Kxe6 29.b3 Rd8 30.Ke2, I can’t infiltrate the Rook, for instance 30…h5 31.Rxa2 Rc8 32.Kd1! Rc3 33.Rb2 followed by 34.Kd2. Therefore, my only chance would have been to look for counterplay by 30…Kf6 31.Rxa2 Rc8 31.Kd1 g5! and maybe black survives, but it’s tightrope walking!

In the mirror… (Photo: GCT Leenart Ootes).

In the first Rapid game, I suffered again, but for once without realizing it, until I understood, in the following position…

Aronian-Mvl, Game 3; once again a touchy opening for Mvl.

… that the move I intended to play 14…Bxf3, didn’t work after 15.gxf3 Nd7 16.f4 e5 (otherwise 17.e5) 17.fxe5 followed by 18.f4, and white is better.

With all heavy pieces on the board, I had to tolerate a protected passed pawn on d6, in a higly difficult position to play. And we arrive at the computer’s winning line, utterly surreal, judge for yourselves!

Aronian-Mvl, Game 3.

31.Re2! Rxe5 32.Qc4+ Kh8 33.h3!!, only winning move, the machine says… It’s obvious Levon didn’t play this line, but the normal 31.d7, and I replied 31…Rxe5, as I believed that 31…Qxe5 failed to the very cute variation 32.Qc8 Qf6 33.Rg1 Qe7(?) 34.Rdf2 Re1 (34…Qxd7 35.Rf8+) 35.Qxd8+! Qxd8 36.Rf8+ Qxf8 37.Rxe1 Kf7 (37…Kg7 38.Re8) 38.Rf1+. Nice, but the computer shows no mercy with the saving line 33… Qg5! (instead of 33…Qe7?) 34.Rdf2 Kg7! 35.Rf8 Re2, which is fairly impossible to find in Rapid chess.

After 31…Rxe5 32.Qxa7 Qf6 33.Kg1 Qc6, I was able to head for a smooth draw; perhaps he could have tried 33.Qa6, even though I thought I would hold after the same move 33…Qc6.

I won the second Rapid game against the famous Berlin Wall, this Queenless middlegame full of nuances, in which the frontier between getting something and getting nothing at all, is very narrow.

Mvl-Aronian, Game 4; Maxime, the only Top player to keep on playing against the Berlin Wall.

This is a very good version of this variation for white, his pawn on g4 being a plus. Levon chose the hard way with 24…Bxe6 25.Rxe6, but on 24…Rac8, I had planned the nice combination 25.g5 Bh8 26.Nxc7 Rxe2 27.Rxe2 Rxc7 28.Re7! Kc6 29.Bxc7 Kxc7 30.f4! and the Bh8 will be lost after 31.Rxh7.

With the 4-point lead given by this game, I could face the blitz portion with serenity, and I won it 3-1.

A disgusted Aronian, just after forgetting a Knight fork (Photo: GCT Leenart Ootes).

This qualification for the 2018 GCT Final against Nakamura (who had beaten Caruana) guaranteed my entry ticket for edition 2019, as well as the pleasure of leading the World Blitz rankings, ahead of Magnus Carlsen!


After a day off, the tournament was moved to the Olympia Theater. The final’s scenario was the reverse of the semi-final for me, as I was clearly dominant in the two Classical games.

In the first one, I was really surprised by his choice of variation against the Grunfeld. I knew that this position, not only didn’t give anything to white, but furthermore, could easily go wrong after an inaccuracy.

Nakamura-Mvl, Game 1; white is under pressure.

And this is precisely what happened when, in this position, Naka realized that his planned move 24.Rd2? failed to 24…Qb4!. So he chose 24.a3, and I didn’t dare going after his a pawn with 24…Ra2 25.Nc3 Qxa3 26.Qc1! (better than 26.d6 Ra1!), because I feared his counterplay, with a passed d pawn and the possibility of h4-h5. But then, after 24…Ba6 25.Ng3 Qc5 26.Qxc5 Rxc5, he could have drawn easily with 27.Nf1! (instead of 27.d6) 27…Bxf1 (27…Kf8 28.d6 Ke8 29.Ne3 gives enough play) 28.Kxf1 and I think the Rook ending doesn’t give much hope of a win. After a forced series of moves, we reached the following position:

Nakamura-Mvl, Game 1.

Here, I have been criticised for my choice of 33…f6 instead of 33…Rd1+ 34.Kf2 Rd2+ 35.Kg1 Ra2 36.Rxe5 a5. But during the game, I had the feeling white would get good drawing chances after 37.f4! a4 38.f5. However, carrying out this manoeuver without giving e5 was possible a few moves later, and I believe it’s probably there that my best chances laid.

Nakamura-Mvl, Game 1.

Here, I played 37…Rd6?, with the basic idea of bringing back the King to the Queenside. But it was a serious error of judgement because after 38.h4! Kf7 39.g4! followed by 40.g5, I understood that black couldn’t win anymore. Instead, I should have chosen 37…Ra2! 38.Rc5 h5! with intact winning chances (it is important to be able to bring the King without losing the h pawn, for example if 38…a5 39.Rc6 Kf7 40.Rc7+).

In the second game, I again managed to get the advantage out of the Berlin endgame:

Mvl-Nakamura, Game 2; black has to be very precise.

But Hikaru really defended well, particularly in this position with 31…g6! 32.hxg6 Rg8. Maybe I could have set more problems in this ending, but I don’t believe it would have been enough to change the final result (draw).

A view from the Olympia Theater scene, where the final took place (Photo: GCT Leenart Ootes).

In the first Rapid game, still in a Berlin, I put the wrong Rook on d1.

Mvl-Nakamura, Game 3; not the good Rook!

I knew 14.Rad1, but I played the imprecise 14.Rfd1?!. There are so many nuances to remember in the openings! Therefore, I got absolutely nothing (draw, 33 moves).

In the second Rapid game, I had already analyzed this line of the English opening. I knew it was ok for black, including after his pawn sacrifice:

Nakamura-Mvl, Game 4; Bishop pair against pawn.

Nevertheless, after 16.Bc4 Rf8, he found the excellent sequence 17.f4! Qe4 18.Rf2, against which I instinctively reacted by the developing 18…Nd7?!.

However, I should have stopped to think here, and not on the following move, in order to find another way (18…b5!? immediately?). Because after 19.Rd1, I realized that I had to face huge issues. My first intention, 19…Nb6, finally looked doubtful, as after 20.Rd4 Qf5 21.Bd3 Qf6 22.f5!, my position is on the verge of collapse, for instance 22…g5 23.Bb2. So I opted for 19…b5 20.Be2 Qa4, but after 21.Qxa4 bxa4 22.Rc1 Bd5, he found the impressive 23.Ba6!, and his Bishop pair gives headache.

Nakamura-Mvl, Game 4.

Even though the position remains highly unpleasant, I think I defended rather well. Realizing he was finding no decisive way through, and with the clock ticking, Hikaru started to make his usual funny faces, twice hesitating to repeat moves. He rightly ended up playing on, and while I remained in an awkward position, I spent all my time advantage to try to destabilize him with 47…a3!?.

Nakamura-Mvl, Game 4.

After 48.Rdd7 Ne4 and a third move repetition on his part (49.Rd5 Ng3 etc.), he still tried with 51.Ke2 Rg6 52.Kf1, but it was too late because after 52…Rb8 53.Rb7 Rc8 54.Rdc7, hoping to contain counterplay by clogging both open files, I had the nice ressource 54…Rc6! 55.Rxc6 Rxc6, and thanks to the Rook freeing g6, there’s no more mate in two beginning with 56.Rb8+, but only a perpetual!

The first three blitz games happened to be fairly balanced on the whole (three draws), with only one single moment when we both went wrong, in the first game:

Mvl-Nakamura, Game 5; missed opportunities.

I just played 27.Qd7? and we both forgot the move 27…Nc6!, which leads to an almost winning position for black after 28.Qxc7 Nd4, as after 29.Kf1 Nb4!. « No harm, no fool », and we instead went for the endgame after 27…Qd8? 28.Qxd8+ Bxd8 29.Bd2, but my slight advantage proved insufficient.

Ultimately, after seven straigth draws at all rates of play, everything was decided in the very last blitz. Unfortunately, one can safely say that I went crazy in that game…

Nakamura-Mvl, Game 6; an opening which will go awry for black.

We coninued our theoretical debate on this specific English line, and Naka found the idea 13.Tc1. I knew the normal move was 13…e6, but I was unsure of myself, and I preferred 13…Qa5 14.Qb3 Nd7. Unfortunately, after 15.Bb4, I’m already slightly worse in case of 15…Qa4 16.Qxa4 Bxa4 17.Rc7. But my idea was 15…Qf5?, completely forgetting that after 16.Bd3 Qh5, white has 17.e4!, and my Queen is dangerously surrounded. Then, in practice, it was almost impossible to defend the position…

Beyond my disappointment of this missed game at the very end of the final, I’d rather remember my second place in the 2018 professionnal circuit, for the second time in a row, as well as my qualification for the next edition of Grand Chess Tour.

Next year will be a busy one, and perhaps even busier, depending on what FIDE prepares for its 2019 Grand-Prix. Meanwhile, the Grand Chess Tour spokesman has announced three new tournaments for next year, a Classical one in Croatia, as well as two Rapid ones in India and Ivory Coast. The idea of expanding the number of players in order to see new faces is a good one in my opinion; among Top players, there’s a kind of weariness from playing against each other throughout the year.

2018 is now over for me, as the announcement of the Rapid/Blitz World Championships in Saint-Petersbourg arrived much too late, when I had already planned a short week’s vacation between Christmas and New Year.

Merry Christmas to all, and I will be back in 2019 for new adventures across the board!

A few days before to leave for London, Maxime played in the monthly online Open tournament « Titled Tuesday » on www.chess.com. A far from easy blitz warm-up, as among the 353 players, you could find the likes of Nakamura, Wesley So, and lots of other Grandmasters. In the end, Maxime won the tournament alone with 9/10, finishing with two draws after a resounding 8/8 start, including a win against Nakamura! The tournament crosstable:

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