Africa!

Abidjan

2019 Grand Chess Tour has begun in Africa, a premiere for a world class tournament. By the way, it was also a first for me… The tournament itself took place in the Pullman Hotel, where we were also accomodated. From this point of view, nothing new under the sun, as everything was on par with western standards, with the addition of a local flavor in the food that was welcome. Of course, our luxurious surroundings were sort of clashing with Abidjan’s reality. And yes, I had the opportunity to visit the town during the tournament, which doesn’t happen very often! Indeed, organized in collaboration with Vivendi and Canal+ teams – as will be the Parisan leg – this tournament has given place to another premiere; the filming of a 26-minute, two-part documentary for French-speaking audiences, with large highlights on my own tournament course. The second part will be filmed during Paris Grand Chess Tour leg, at the end of July. Thus, I had the opportunity to visit Abidjan during the first days, helped by the fact that games were scheduled at 5pm. I had a lot of good moments with Ivorian people; we played blitz sessions in the middle of nowhere, memorable though improvised football games with kids 🙂 , or simply had a drink somewhere.

Impromptu blitz games with Ivorian champion, MF Simplice Degondo (Photo Almira Skripchenko).
Impromptu blitz games with Ivorian champion, MF Simplice Degondo (Photo Almira Skripchenko).

Beyond the Grand Chess Tour itself, organizers really tried to popularize chess in this part of the world, with the participation of Africa top player, Amin Bassem, but also by planning a side team event for players of Western Africa.

Coming back to the tournament itself, it was my first Rapid since Saint-Louis last August.

After the first two days, I said that despite a very average result (2.5/6), I felt the content of my games was correct anyway. At the end of the day, I’ll be proven right 🙂 .

Let’s now have a look at some important moments in my games;

It is never plesant to begin with a loss…

Nakamura-Mvl, Rapid round 1.
Nakamura-Mvl, Rapid round 1.

In this position, I had planned 18…d4 19. Ne2 d3 with easy equality. Except that actually, 20.Ng3! controls f5 and wins a pawn for white. So I had to content myself with 18…Rhe8 and I never fully equalize, even if I certainly could have put up a stiffer resistance afterwards (1-0, 52 moves).

L’accès à la salle de jeu (Photo Grand Chess Tour).
L’accès à la salle de jeu (Photo Grand Chess Tour).

The second day began on better grounds, with a smooth technical win on the Bishop pair theme:

Mvl-Wei Yi, Rapid round 4.
Mvl-Wei Yi, Rapid round 4.

After 27.Kc2, with the idea to bring the King up to a6 to take a7, I knew that his only chance was 27…Nh5 in order to generate counterplay on the Kingside. But he tried to bring his King back to the Queenside, and this plan doesn’t work at all; I had already calculated that after 27…Kg8 28.Kb3 Kf8 29.Ka4 Ke7 30.Kb5 Kd8 31.Ka6 Kc7 32.Bd5!, it’s curtains (1-0, 43 moves).

Against Carlsen, I created difficulties for myself, as I didn’t remember at all the theory – let alone the correct lines! – of this specific 6.Be3 Ng4 Najdorf variation. By the way, on more general terms, almost everybody in Abidjan tried to catch me in the Najdorf, each one of my opponents having prepared his specific line, and I must confess that it’s never easy for me to remember eveything. This being said, despite a few precarious positions, I don’t think I should blame the opening itself in all these games 🙂 .

Carlsen-Mvl, Rapid round 5.
Carlsen-Mvl, Rapid round 5.

At the end of a very complex middlegame, I had the feeling I got out unscathed, until we reached this critical position where Magnus had just played 33.g4. My answer 33…Rxa4? has been criticized a lot, and quite rightly so, as I’m totally lost after the opening up on my King 34.g5!. This being said, what seems obvious when looking at the comp is much less clear on the board where, despite the blatant danger looming, you can easily imagine that defensive ressources will show up.
But there’s also another explanation for this mistake. First of all, I realized that the move I planned – 33…Qc4 – didn’t work because of 34.Qa7+ Kf8 35.Qa8+ Kg7 36.Qd5!. I also briefly saw that 33…Ke8 didn’t fix anything. And then, I didn’t evaluate properly plan B 34…Qc5 35.Qxc5 dxc5 36.Rd5, assuming I would suffer in this Rook ending, whereas it gives good drawing chances after 35…Rc3. Hence my default choice 33…Rxa4?, to try fishing in murky waters (1-0, 42 moves).

A last draw against So closed a not so brillant two-day run in accounting terms. But I remedied the situation the next day, by winning my last three games!

Topalov-Mvl, Rapid round 7.
Topalov-Mvl, Rapid round 7.

After a rather well played opening, in which I quite liked the consolidating manoeuver …Rc8-c6, I got this position, certainly winning, but assuming you find the correct path! 27…Rxc3! 28.bxc3 Rxc3 29.Rd2? Qb5+ 0-1. I still had to make sure that 29.Rdh1 wouldn’t have been enough: 29…Qb5+ 30.Kd2 Nf3+ 31.Kxc3 Nxd4 32.Rh7+ Kf8 33.Rh8+ Ke7 34.R1h7+ Ke6 (black’s Queen covers e8!) 35.Kxd4 and as white has too many weaknesses, the Queen will dominate black’s Rooks.

Filming in Abidjan (Photo: Leenart Ootes).
Filming in Abidjan (Photo: Leenart Ootes).

This nice day was concluded by a victory against the African leg’s local, Amin Bassem. But not without a few scares, in particular in the following position!

Amin-Mvl, Rapid round 9.
Amin-Mvl, Rapid round 9.

Here, Amin played the terrible 32.R1e2? and black wins after 32…dxe5, the pawn being immune because of …Qf1 mate after the exchanges. However, had he played 32.Rf4, I assume I would have lost that game! Not because my position would have suddenly become terrible, but simply because I had already planned, against an opponent down on time, to unfold the pretty variation 32…Bh6 33.exd6 Bxf4 34.gxf4 Rxf4 35.Re7 Qxe7 36.dxe7 Rg7+ followed by 37…Rf1 mate or 37…Rf3 mate; and after 33.Rxf5 (instead of 33.exd6), I thought I had the clearance check 33…Qb7+ 34.Kg1 Bxd2; unfortunately, this latest variation is mined! 35.Rxf8 Bxe1 36.e6!, and the double threat 37.Rh8 mate and 37.Rf7+ is decisive. Would have I found it out in time? Nothing could be less sure!

There’ll be trouble! (Photo Grand Chess Tour).
There’ll be trouble! (Photo Grand Chess Tour).

With 5,5/9 in the Rapid, I was able to approach the Blitz part more smoothly, and I began it with 5 straight wins, bringing to 8 the number of my consecutive wins. I know it remains anecdotal, but it is rare enough to be worth mentionning! Series like this one are also based on details which go in the right direction, as I was completely lost in the first blitz against So, and clearly worse in the second against Carlsen!

Carlsen-Mvl, Blitz round 2.
Carlsen-Mvl, Blitz round 2.

Here, the world champion lost track with 43.a6? (43.Nd5!) 43…Bh4! 44.Qd2 Nf4 0-1, as the mating attack is unstoppable.

The following round against Nakamura, I was able to uncork a long home-cooked prep in the Berlin Wall, that I had in store for previous tournaments!

Mvl-Nakamura, Blitz round 3.
Mvl-Nakamura, Blitz round 3.

I knew 24…fxg6 was correct, because the King will need square f7, but Naka played 24…Bxg6?, which loses after 25.Nc5 b6 (25…Nc3 26.Rh1! is the point, black’s King has no square!) 26.Na6, targeting simultaneously c7 and the Nd1. But I misplayed the conversion phase, and almost failed to win, which would have been quite embarassing though… Because I don’t think I will ever again have 4 minutes left when Naka only has 15 seconds! (1-0, 88 moves).

It’s Ding Liren who put an end to my 8-game winning streak by earning a draw in round 6. This is a fair return though, as I was the one to end his unbelievable 100-game series without losing in classical games!

Then, tiredness took over, and I threw in the towel against Topalov.

Topalov-Mvl, Blitz round 7.
Topalov-Mvl, Blitz round 7.

I am unable to recall why I was attracted to 20…Qxb6? instead of the normal 20…axb6. And after 21.Rfe1?! (21.b5! is better), I forgot that 21…Qxb4 was possible, because of 22.Ba3 Qb7!. Though the position wasn’t that bad yet, I continued this poor course and lost without real resistance. (1-0, 36 moves).

Two erratic draws against Russians Karjakin and Nepo concluded this first day of blitz, though I was leading it with 6.5/9.

Ivorian Sports Minister, Paulin Claude Dahno, neglected his development! (Photo: Leenart Ootes).
Ivorian Sports Minister, Paulin Claude Dahno, neglected his development! (Photo: Leenart Ootes).

The next day, I lost from the outset against So, pushing a bit too boldly my Kingside pawns, before succombing to a nice tactic. Not a very good way to begin the day, especially when you have to play Carlsen and Nakamura next!

Surely, the world champion wanted to take revenge from the previous day, and even if I probably didn’t make all the good choices in the middlegame, the position remained approximately even.

Mvl-Carlsen, Blitz round 11.
Mvl-Carlsen, Blitz round 11.

With his last move 33…Ne5, threatening to penetrate on d3, Magnus probably believed he would put me under pressure. But after 34.f4 Nd3 35.Kf1!, I had anticipated that his Knight would be trapped on d3. Magnus blitzed out 35…Ra1+ 36.Ke2 Rd7, and then seemed to panick after 37.Nf3. He took time to ultimately play 37…Rb1 38.Rd2 Rb2? which loses by force, while 38…Rxb3 39.Ne1 Nxf4+ 40.gxf4 Rxd2+ 41.Rxd2 Rh3! would have given him very good drawing chances, as there are not lots of pawns left. In the game, after 39.Rxb2 Nxb2 40.Ne5, I quietly went on to win (1-0, 55 moves).

The topsy-turvy course of this last day continued afterwards. First a loss against Nakamura, then a terrible game with Amin Bassem, despite the win. Against Wei Yi, I won again, but with energy rather than technique. Then came an uneventful draw against Ding Liren, and it’s again not cleanly at all that I beat Topalov, in a game full of mistakes on both parts. In the second to last round, I had an ultimate standstill against Karjakin.

Karjakin-Mvl, Blitz round 17.
Karjakin-Mvl, Blitz round 17.

Here, I played the pseudo-freeing move 24…d5?, and after 25.exd5 Rxd5 26.Rxd5 Nxd5 27.Qe4, I found myself with too many weaknesses to defend. I really don’t know why I played this move. I was head to head with Naka for the second place, I just said to myself that I had to win this game, and thus play 24…d5. But the follow-up was that I lost my pawns one after another, and I resigned very lately, through sheer inertia.

End of the very last game against Nepo, under the watchful eyes of Carlsen and Wesley So (Photo: Leenart Ootes).
End of the very last game against Nepo, under the watchful eyes of Carlsen and Wesley So (Photo: Leenart Ootes).

Fortunately, all ended well, with a best-case scenario in the last round. Naka lost with white against Carlsen, though the position looked symetrical and completely equal. On my side, I concluded the Abidjan leg with a fine win against Nepo, which allowed me to catch in extremis the American for second place!

Mvl-Nepomniachtchi, Blitz round 18.
Mvl-Nepomniachtchi, Blitz round 18.

Focused on my game, I hadn’t seen that Carlsen had beaten Nakamura. But I knew that anyway, I had to win to entertain hope, all the more as a loss would have cost me nothing. To prevent threats of a Rook infiltration on e7 or e8, black should have opted for 50…Qd6!. Then I would have had to find 51.Re4! in order to keep the advantage. In the game, Nepo tried to figure out a perpetual, but it doesn’t exist if white’s King demonstrates his fancy footwork! 50…Rd2? 51.Re8! Rxg2+ 52.Kxg2 Qd2+ 53.Kg3 Qd3+ 54.Kh4 g5+ 55.Kg4 Qd1+ 56.Kf5 Qd3+ 57.Kxf6 Qd4+ 58.Kxg5 Qg1+ 59.Kf5 Qc5+ 60.Nd5 Qc2+ 61.Re4 Qc8+ 62.Kg5 h6+ 63.Kh4 Ng6+ 64.Qxg6 1-0, as there will never be any stalemate because of the pawn on h6!

The tournament in Abidjan has obviously been marked by Carlsen’s dominant performance, 3.5 points ahead of the field. With 23 points, Nakamura and Maxime share second place, although this score is often enough to win! For sure, Maxime will have drawn a lot of attention with the two blitz games he won against the world champion (see a video excerpt below). But chess lovers have probably also been entertained by the continuous crossover for first place in the blitz live ratings. Carlsen ultimately kept his leadership, but extremely narrowly, as he gets 2922, and Maxime end up only one point short (2921)! Nakamura is third with 2902, while you have to go down to 2827 to keep track of world #4, Aronian!

Grenke: Carlsen far ahead

Grenke 2019

Three months after I played in my last tournament (Gibraltar), the Elite season really took off on April 20, when the traditional Grenke Chess Classic organized by my German team Baden-Baden began.

As usual, the first rounds took place in Karlsrühe, alongside the gigantic Grenke Open, which gathered more than 2.000 players this year! Among them, a lot of french friends, with my trainer Etienne Bacrot and my Asnières teammate Jules Moussard as leaders. Although both unbeaten, they could never play a key role in the tournament, because of the too many draws they conceded.

The Grenke Classic offered this year a very strong line-up, leaded by Magnus Carlsen, in a state of grace those last months. With vice-world champion Caruana, as well as Anand, Aronian and myself, it is half the World Top 10 which was gathered in Germany. Three members of the Baden-Baden team also made the trip (Svidler, Naiditsch and Vallejo), and the field was completed with German players Meier and Keymer. The latter, only 14 years old, was making a noteworthy entrance in a tournament of this caliber, thanks to his victory in last year’s Open.

Round 1: Mvl – Anand (2774) 1/2

Quite a difficult introduction, as I didn’t expect Vishy to enter this heavy tactical line of the Advance Caro-Kann. So I found myself falling between two chairs – so to speak – hesitating between taking a draw already known by theory, or trying to remember all the subtleties of a line I had previously analyzed. When I fully understood that I would never remember all details, I chose the path of wisdom!

Les noirs contre Caruana (photo George Souleidis)
Black against Caruana (photo George Souleidis)

Round 2: Caruana (2819) – Mvl 1/2

I was expecting with delight a Najdorf debate, but Fabiano shied away from it, and had me wrong-footed with 2.Nc3 followed by 4.Qxd4! I had the feeling I equalized though, but the reality is that a few good moves gave him the edge, in particular 19.Kd1! in the following position.

Caruana-Mvl, round 2.
Caruana-Mvl, round 2.

After 19…f6 20.Nxc6 Bxc6 21.Nd4 Bd7?!, he could have won a pawn with 22.c4! (instead of 22.f3), as what I had in mind 22…Bf8 23.cxd5 Nc3+? doesn’t work: 24.Bxc3 Rxc3 25.Bc4! and the trapped Rook will cost the exchange. Once the fright was gone, I could defend the position without much difficulty.

Round 3: Mvl – Naiditsch (2695) 1/2

It is known that I remain one of the few Elite players to keep on fighting the Berlin Wall! The fact is that the opening went well, and I got an edge. My problem was that I had a lot of options, and I probably didn’t choose the best one, at least from a practical point of view.

Mvl-Naiditsch, round 3.
Mvl-Naiditsch, round 3.

24.f4 Rf8 (otherwise 25.f5!) 25.Nf6+!? is spectacular, but the main drawback of the line is that it gives black a series of forced moves. Probably more efficient was 24.Re3!, which I rejected because of the counterplay on c4 with …Nd7-b6. But actually, after 24…Nd7, the manoeuver 25.Rg3! Rh7 26.Rgd3 Nb6 27.Bc1! gives an overwhelming advantage. The threat is 28.Bg5, and if 27…Nxc4 28.Rd7!. In the game, after 25…gxf6 26.exf6 Bd6 (26…Rxf6? 27.Bxf6 Bxf6 28.Rxe6+ Kf7 29.Rxf6+! Kxf6 30.Rd8 is decisive), I still had the option 27.Rd5! to keep an advantage. But I didn’t see this move and I chose 27.Rxe6+?!, after which I have no more than a draw: 27…Kf7 28.Rde1 (28.Rdxd6 cxd6 29.Re7+ Kg6 30.Kf2 Rd8 31.Rg7+ Kf5 32.Kf3 Nd7 33.Rg5+ Ke6 34.f5+ Kf7 35.Rg7+ Kf8 remains very messy) 28…Rd8 29.g4!? hxg4 30.h5 Nd7 31.Re7+ Bxe7 32.Rxe7+ Kg8 and I will have to content myself with a perpetual.

The beginning of a spectacular tactical fight with Naiditsch (Photo George Souleidis). .
The beginning of a spectacular tactical fight with Naiditsch (Photo George Souleidis). .

Round 4 : Meier (2628) – Mvl 0-1

I equalized easily against the try 5.h3 in the Grunfeld. After a few midllegame inaccuracies from both of us, in particular when Meier was heavily low on time, we landed after move 40 in an endgame which is probably a draw, but remains unpleasant to defend for white.

However, he did it rather well, and got a clearly drawn position afew moves later. By inertia, I kept on trying, with the vague hope of testing him in the R+N vs R endame if I had an opportunity. That’s precisely when he began to make some rather strange decisions, until the culminating point in the following position:

Meier-Mvl, round 4.
Meier-Mvl, round 4.

Here, I had seen that he had to play 71.Rd1!, in order to keep the King on the second rank, for instance 71…g3+ 72.Ke2 Rb2+ 73.Rd2!. But he played 71.Ra1?, and after 71…g3+ 72.Kg1 Nf3+ 73.Kh1 Rb2, I felt that I should be winning. But I couldn’t find exactly how, so I groped for an idea, before to find the nice zugzwang of the game.

Meier-Mvl, round 4.
Meier-Mvl, round 4.

I travelled with my King from the Kingside to b3. Here, Meier had to find the only move 82.Kh1!, in order to get the same position than in the game, but with black on the move! For instance 82…Kb2 83.Re1 Nf3 84.Rd1. In this nice position of mutual zugzwang, I would have had to admit that the King’s journey was useless, and tried to find the winning plan with the King on the Kingside. Meier made things much easier for me with 82.Rd1? Nf3+ 83.Kh1 Kb2! and being on the move, white has nothing else than 84.Rg1, giving the exchange. But beware! It is not yet so trivial after 84…Nxg1 85.Kxg1,because black’s King is far away. But I I had foreseen a clinical line, which gives the g pawn away, but isolates the white’s Knight from the King. 85…Kc3 86.Ne3 Rd3 87.Nf1 Ke2! 88.Nxg3+ Kf3 89.Nf5 Rd2 90.Nh4+ Kg3 91.Nf5+ Kg4 92.Ne3+ Kf3 93.Nf5 Rd5 94.Ne7 Rc5 0-1.

Round 5: Mvl – Aronian (2763) 1/2

Levon uncorked a new idea of closing the center in an Anti-Marschall position we had already discussed a number of times. Maybe I shouldn’t have agreed to a draw so quickly, but all the possible plans to play for the advantage involved a Kingside expansion, which on the board, looked quite risky to me.

After this game, we had a rest day which was used to make the (short) trip between the tumultuous playing hall in Karlsrühe, and the intimacy of the one in Baden-Baden!

After this game, we had a rest day which was used to make the (short) trip between the tumultuous playing hall in Karlsrühe, and the intimacy of the one in Baden-Baden!

Carlsen over the moon in Grenke. (Photo George Souleidis).
Carlsen over the moon in Grenke. (Photo George Souleidis).

Round 6: Svidler (2735) – Mvl 1/2

I fairly easily equalized against the English, and Peter took a risk when he declined to exchange Queens on move 12. So I tried to play against his offside Queen on h3.

Svidler-Mvl, round 6.
Svidler-Mvl, round 6.

Unfortunately, here I made the wrong decision of exchanging black squared Bishops by 18…Bh6?!, as I didn’t see any follow-up for the attack. I was not sure to be quicker in case of mutual attacks on opposite sides, a4-a5 being very fast for him, while his Queen might reenter the game if the position opens up. But the computer refutes me , and argues that the simple 18…Be7, as well as the sharp 18…f5!? 19.exf5 Nd5, would both have given me a clear edge! In the game, after 19.Bxh6 Rxh6 20.Qe3 Rh7 21.Rfd1 Rhd7 22.Nf1 and the exchange of all four Rooks, the position quickly simplified towards a draw.

Round 7: Mvl – Vallejo (2693) 1/2

A long game full of manoeuvers, typical of the Advance French. The problem with this kind of position is that you always feel fine, with a space advantage, but it’s in fact never that simple. I tried to organize my pieces so as to be able to sac a piece on the Kingside, but I never found a way to do so in a convincing manner.

Round 8: Mvl – Keymer (2516) 1-0

The young German is a Sicilian Najdorf fan, but I chose to transpose the fight right into the middlegame with 2.c3. In a rather simple and equal position, he opted for the radical 17…b5?!, whose idea is to get control of d5, even though at the cost of time. He had no obligation to do so though.

Mvl-Keymer, round 8.
Mvl-Keymer, round 8.

After 18.cxb5 Nb4 19.Ne5 Qxb5 20.Rh3, I was able to play my Rook all along the third rank, alternating threats on both wings. I ultimately forced the weakening …f5. Maybe the position was still within equalizing margin for him, but it’s really tough to defend in a practical game! He had a last chance in the following position, however with very few time left for his remaining 4 moves.

Mvl-Keymer, round 8.
Mvl-Keymer, round 8.

Here, objectively best was probably 37.gxf5 exf5 and white keeps an edge, but I still played 37.Qe3, as I felt that his idea was to bring the Rook to g8 via c8, and I had anticipated that it was wrong! Indeed, after 37…Rc8? 38.gxf5 Rg8+ 39.Kh2 Nxf5 40.Nxf5 exf5, I could display a nice and winning stairway manoeuver; 41.Qb3+ Kf8 42.Qb4+ Kf7 43.Qc4+ Kf8 44.Qc5+ Kf7, and now 45.Ra1! Ra8 46.Ra6! is lethal as black can’t move anymore (1-0, 49 moves). However, after 37.Qe3, he still had the loophole 37…fxg4 38.Qxh6 g3!, and the position remains very unclear after 39.Qh7+ Ke8 40.Nf3.

Last game… (Photo George Souleidis).
Last game… (Photo George Souleidis).

Round 9: Carlsen (2845) – Mvl 1-0

A very difficult game against an amazing Carlsen, who was almost assured of the tournament victory before the last round. On the board, I decided not to play my usual systems against the English, opting for the flexible variation with …d6 and …Ff5, while avoiding his prep on the way.

Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised by his move 9.Be3, with the clear intention of playing d4 in good circumstances.


Carlsen-Mvl, round 9.
Carlsen-Mvl, round 9.

But there was no reason to overreact with …a6-…b5 as I did. I had various other « normal » options at this moment; for example 9…a6 10.Qd2 Rb8, with the idea …b5, but without sacrificing the pawn! But having said A, I went on with my idea and said B, pushing 10…b5? immediately. I thought I had compensation after 11.cxb5 axb5 12.Nxb5 Qa5, but I quickly realized the truth, ie. that it was not to be! Nevertheless, I could ask Magnus tactical questions, and he had to find a transposition in a Queen’s endgame with a pawn up.

Carlsen-Mvl, round 9.
Carlsen-Mvl, round 9.

Here, I could have offered a much tougher reistance, had I played 34…Kg8 35.Qxd5 Qa3, and white still has to demonstrate how he wins this. Instead, I wanted to be active with 34…f6? 35.Qxd5 h5, only facilitating white’s task after 36.gxh5 gxh5 37.Qd7+ Kg6 38.a4 Qe2 39.Qd5! and everything is under control (1-0, 44 moves).

Thanks to this final win, Carlsen won the tournament with the staggering score of 7.5/9. There’s nothing to add; just applaud…

Grenke Chess Classic 2019 final crosstable.
Grenke Chess Classic 2019 final crosstable.

As for me, I felt I was not really in great shape in this tournament, and I didn’t play any particularly inspiring game. The result is more or less ok, not the quality of the games.

From now on, the calendar is speeding up, as I will fly on Monday, May 6 to Abidjan (Ivory Cost), where the first tournament of the Grand Chess Tour 2019 will take place, May 8-12.

It is not so frequent that Maxime is approached in Paris streets, in particular in the Jardin du Luxembourg near his flat, where you can often see him walking or jogging. Well, this is not so frequent :), but it gives chess amateurs who recognize him the opportunity to exchange a few words, and to encourage him for his forthcoming competitions.
 In Paris streets with an amateur, a few days before Grenke Classic…
In Paris streets with an amateur, a few days before Grenke Classic…

Maxime’s games :

A hell of a weekend!

week-end

After the end of the Gibraltar tournament on January 31, my schedule of February and March has been rather light. But it allowed me to recharge the batteries and to train more deeply, before to dive into an 8-month period, between April 20 and Christmas, which I expect to be the most intense in my career. But I won’t be alone here, as a lot of my colleagues will also have to go through the same agenda!

That’s because of an international calendar which could not be harmonized, and forces us to play all FIDE tournaments (Grand Prix, World Cup and Grand Swiss), all Grand Chess Tour ones, as well as private tournaments and French Team Championships, between end of April and December!

In the early days of April though, I had a foretaste of what’s awaiting me in the crazy 2019 schedule, which will begin on April 20 when I play the Grenke Classic with the likes of Carlsen, Caruana, Anand and Aronian…

It began on April 4, when I spent the day with an Eurosport crew for a TV shoot, which should be on air pretty soon.

Blitz sequence for Eurosport, filmed in the Jardin du Luxembourg (Paris), with GM Jules Moussard (photo : 7L Brand Agency).
Blitz sequence for Eurosport, filmed in the Jardin du Luxembourg (Paris), with GM Jules Moussard (photo : 7L Brand Agency).

Next day at noon, I caught a flight for Düsseldorf, as I had to join my Baden-Baden teammates some 30 kilometers further, in Solingen, for the last Bundesliga weekend of the season. The decisive match against Solingen was precisely scheduled on the afternoon of Saturday.

On the first board, I faced India #2, Pentala Harikrishna (2723):

Mvl-Harikrishna (Baden-Baden vs Solingen).
Mvl-Harikrishna (Baden-Baden vs Solingen).

Until there, Hari had followed my game against Anand, played last year in Grenke Chess (1-0, 39 moves).

A surprising choice, as he had already thought for quite a long time, and I was wondering where he expected to improve black’s play. But in the diagrammed position, I was the first to deviate with 19.Ree2. Indeed, I remembered that against Anand, after 19.Bxf8 Rhxf8 20.f4, black could have played 20…Qc4! 21.Qxd7 Bf7! and the double threat of 22…Rfd8 and 22…Qa2 allows him to keep the balance. I knew that 19.Ree2 was the best move, but I needed time to understand why it was the case after 19…e5! I finally found the cunning 20.b3 Qa5 21.Qh3!, and if 21…Qc3 22.Qxd7+ Kg8, which looks strong for black, I have 23.Rd3! on hand, freeing d2 for the KIng (23…Bxd3? 24.Qe6 mate). So he opted for 21…Rd8, but I earned a huge edge after 22.b4 (the Qh3 protects a3!) 22…Qa4

Maxime on the verge of playing 23.Qb3+! (photo : Guido Giotta).
Maxime on the verge of playing 23.Qb3+! (photo : Guido Giotta).

23.Qb3+! Qxb3 24.Nxb3.

Unfortunately, I played badly in the technical phase. I wanted to avoid complications and any hint of black counterplay, but in doing so, I let him come back into the game, until a moment when he could force a clearcut draw, which he missed!

Then we ended up playing the following ending:

Mvl-Harikrishna
Mvl-Harikrishna

Here, black’s last chance was 57…Kg7 58.Ne5 Ra5+ (58…Bc8? 59.Rg6+) 59.Kd6 (59.Kd4 Bc8 60.Rg6+ Kh7 61.Rxg5 Ra7! and the pawn on c7 falls) 59…Bc8 and the outcome remains unclear. In contrast, after Hari’s choice 57…Ke7?, I was able to play the simple 58.Rg6 Ra2 59.Rxg5 after which I was almost certain to win, especially when seiing my opponent becoming more and more feverish (1-0, 67 moves).

So we won against Solingen, and the next day, we had to confirm against a theoretically weaker team (Düsseldorf), in order to guarantee the Bundesliga title. A match which gave me the opportunity to play against a chess legend for the first time in my life, Jan Timman (2549), still active at 67.

I played quite quickly with black, trying to avoid drawish lines and keep the position alive. Timman reacted quite correctly, and kept the game afloat until we reached the following position:

Timman-Mvl (Düsseldorf vs Baden-Baden).
Timman-Mvl (Düsseldorf vs Baden-Baden).

Here instead of 29.g4 or 29.h4, Timman chose the catastrophic 29.Qb3? which loses material. It is not obvious at first glance, but after 29…b6 30.Rb5 (30.Rc4 Kh8! and white shouldn’t survive the threat 31…f5) 30…Qc6!, the pin on the long white’s diagonal happens to be decisive. The game ended after 31.Rb4 (31.f3 Rxe4! followed by 32…Rd2+ and 33…Qd7 with a mating attack) 31…Kh8 32.Kh2 f5 33.Ng5 Rd2! 0-1.

Once again champion of Germany with Baden-Baden! (photo : schachbundesliga.com).
Once again champion of Germany with Baden-Baden! (photo : schachbundesliga.com)).

The calendar being what it is, www.chess.com couldn’t find an ideal date to fit its first online Bullet Championship. It finally took place at the same time than the last Bundesliga weekend, though in the evenings. Bullet, especially without increment, is a merciless format (one minute each KO). It puts the emphasis on calculation speed, use of the mouse, and « premove » science! (ie. anticipate one’s own move before to see the opponent’s one, in order to win extra time). Therefore, hierarchy is not necessarily the same, and real Bullet experts, like the Ukrainian Oleksander Bortnik or the young Iranian prodigy Alireza Firouzja, have earned their place in the 8-player final bracket.

Final bracket of the first online Bullet Championship.
Final bracket of the first online Bullet Championship.

My « real » Saturday game against Harikrishna had been quite a long one, so the time left was scarce in order to be in my room for my scheduled ¼ final match against GM qualifier Federico Perez Ponsa, from Argentina! Just enough time to have a quick bite and I won very narrowly in overtime (8.5-7.5). Later in the evening, I played Bortnyk in the semi-final. I already had the opportunity to play Bullet series against him a long time ago, with a very tiny overall lead. But maybe this very long day of chess was a bit too much  and I lost the match 12.5-16.5.

The next evening, after having completed the Bundesliga weekend, my follow-up was the Bullet Championship third-place match against Aronian, played best of 3 sets of 6 wins. I won (6-2, 6-0) while a few minutes later, Nakamura easily clinched the title against Bortnyk (6-1, 6-2, 6-1).

It was time for me to go to bed, because the Marathon was not over yet! The next morning, I had to travel to Gonfreville l’Orcher, near Le Havre, where I was expected to attend the closing ceremony of their 50th International Open, and then give a simultaneous display on 28 boards.

Under the leadership of Cyrille Vaugeois, the sympathetic Norman club is renowned for its organizational abilities, and I could indeed witness it with my own eyes when I came to Gonfreville as a spectator for the 2016 French Youth Championships.

Signing session after Gonfreville l’Orcher simultaneous (photo : Cyrille Vaugeois).
Signing session after Gonfreville l’Orcher simultaneous (photo : Cyrille Vaugeois).

Of course, the result of a simultaneous display remains anecdotical, but I have to point out that Rouen player Bilguun Bat (2163), who is 12 years old or not yet, was the only one to earn a draw, though it would have been no scandal had he won the game! Other youngsters tried to trick me with timely draw offers, but I remained merciless ! 🙂

After the signing session, the cocktail, and the unavoidable night blitz games, I was taken back to my hotel and could enjoy a well-earned rest, after five intense days!

Playing an online chess tournament is not always easy. You need a reliable connection, a good mouse, a quiet environment… Playing from an hotel abroad doesn’t necesarily help either. Yet this is what Maxime’s Bundesliga teammate Levon Aronian and himself had to do from Solingen’s Hotel Maritim lobby, in order to play the Bullet Championship. Having both lost their ½ final match, they were supposed to meet for the third-place match the next day. Fortunately, they were able to avoid an online duel 2 meters away from one another – which would admittedly have been funny – as Maxime had booked an hotel room at Düsseldorf airport, to be sure not to miss his plane on the next morning (6,40 am !), and to reach Gonfreville l’Orcher on mid-day!

Mxime’s Bundesliga games:

Bullet tournament games :

« My new channel »

Ma nouvelle chaîne

Chess is on its way to the esport world, around which a healthy industry has already popped up. Although not yet in the gamers big shows, we can trust chess could end up there in the near future. This is something the www.chess.com platform has understood and anticipated. Armed with its more than 27 million members, the leader of the chess market has, amongst other things, sealed a partnership with the streaming giant www.twitch.tv, which offers various contents, though mainly based on online games and esport.

Supported by chess.com, I launched my own streaming channel a few weeks ago, www.twitch.tv/mvlchess . Depending on my schedule, I can free up some hours to play and comment games live. For instance when playing online tournaments, like the Pro Chess League or the latest Usa-France consultation match, when MF Kevin Bordi and myself fought against IM Danny Rensch and Nakamura.

I may also play casual games against strong players happening to be online, or dedeciate specific streaming sessions to playing against my subscribers only.

Finally, I sometimes take up challenges, like when I tried to break Nakamura’s « Puzzle Rush » World record on March 5.

This game is all the rage amongst chess players of any level; you have to solve as many tactical exercises as you can – with growing difficulty – within exactly 5 minutes (with a tolerance of two mistakes, the third one being eliminatory).

For the anecdote, when I tried to break the record live, I stopped at 53, one point short of my personal best, and two points from Naka’s record (55)…

Let’s take a moment to look at the end of my finest series of that day.

With only 27 seconds left and only one mistake registered, I was offered to score my 54th point in the following position:

« Puzzle Rush », Try for 54, white to move.

After 1.Qf4+ Kb6 2.Qxb4+ Ka6, I unfortunately played 3.Rf5 which leads to a quick mate, but this Puzzle Rush game is ruthless… 3.Rb8! was giving mate one move earlier, so my 3.Rf5 was counted as my second mistake!

Good bye record! But for the sake of honour, I wanted to reach 54.

I had 14 seconds left to solve the following exercice…

« Puzzle Rush », Try for 54, white to move.

After 1.Ne3+ Kg3 2.Qg4+ Kf2, being under severe time pressure, I instantly played 3.Nd1+?, but realized just afterwards that the winning move was 3.Qf4+!, as white mates or wins the Queen after 3…Ke2 4.Qf1+ Kd2 (4…Kxe3 5.Qe1+) 5.Qd1+ Kc3 6.Qc2+ Kb4 (6…Kd4 7.Nf5+) 7.Qb2+ Nb3 (7…Ka5 8.Nc4+ Ka6 9.Qb6 #) 8.Qa3+!! Kxa3 9.Nc2 #.

As for the record, that will happen another time!

Watch the full video of the record breaking attempt:

Watch Vive la France! MVL’s Puzzle Rush record attempt from mvlchess on www.twitch.tv

The 2019 Pro Chess League regular season is over for Maxime’s Marseille Migraines. The team ended up at the first non-qualifying place of its group, just behind the other French team, the Cannes Blitzstreams. Unfortunately, the latter didn’t manage to get out of the playoffs, and will miss the four-team finals. Though played online as the previous stages, these finals will also take place on stage, in front of the audience, in San Francisco’s Folsom Street Foundry early May! https://folsomstreetfoundry.com.

Maxime will take small consolation from the fact that he was the best performer of the regular season, with 31/44 and a 2753 Elo performance – just ahead of Caruana 2752, and Nakamura 2751!

Maxime’s Pro Chess League games (last rounds):



« 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