December in black and white

Londres 2019

I arrived in London on December 1st, in a familiar environment and in a city I like, to compete in the Grand Chess Tour final, with the same 4-player format than the previous year.

I learned of my qualification at the last minute, as it depended on the results of the other players, especially Anand. It wasn’t the most likely, but I qualified instead. It obviously overloaded my December calendar, at a time when the qualification for the Candidates was about to be decided. But I was pretty happy to be qualified anyway. The challenge was highly interesting; first playing against Magnus of course, and then the second match as well, against Aronian or Ding Liren. So I was motivated, in a format that generally suits me well. The match against Magnus was very, very tense. In the first game, for example, it was really extremely complex and anything could have happened. It ended up being a perpetual after we missed a lot of stuff. After several other draws, I was the first to win in the Blitz, from a position where I had nothing at all, by the way. However, he struck back immediately, in a game where, on the contrary, I had a very good position, but made further bad decisions. Generally speaking, the level of our match was still quite high. Maybe the key moment was when I defended the last Blitz with little time on the clock and a definitely unpleasant endgame.

Carlsen-Mvl, London Game 8; the pawn on c6 means a tedious defense ahead for black.
Carlsen-Mvl, London Game 8; the pawn on c6 means a tedious defense ahead for black.

Then of course, there was the first game of the tie-break with black, which was completely crazy; the advantage changed sides all the time, it was so tactical, but I ended up winning. After that, all that was left to do was to draw the second game; which I did .
Of course, I was very happy to win a 10-game match against the world champion, especially with a mix of cadences. Psychologically, it was a boost, because who else can claim such a result? Unfortunately, we had to go on to the final, and Ding Liren made me come down from my cloud right away, by putting me under enormous pressure in the first classical game. After that, he wasn’t precise enough in an ending that was completely lost for me. Well, I hung in there as best I could, and he freaked out a few times. I finally held the draw in a crazy four-queen position!

Mvl-Ding Liren, London Game 1; no, M. Ding, black doesn’t have any mate in this position!
Mvl-Ding Liren, London Game 1; no, M. Ding, black doesn’t have any mate in this position!

In the second game, I found myself in trouble from the start in an English opening. I misjudged the position, and with the advantage, it was clinical from him. It’s mostly a game where there hasn’t been much to do. I wasn’t alert enough, and he was impeccable….. Then in the Rapids, I tried to come back but it quickly went wrong! I still saved the honor by winning the Blitz match by a wide margin.

Overall, the balance of the Grand Chess Tour 2019 is not so bad, as I ended up second for the third year in a row.

Then, the switch to the FIDE Grand Prix was complicated because I couldn’t arrive in Jerusalem until late Tuesday afternoon after a long journey, while the tournament already started the next day. The good news, though, is that the draw looked rather good. Unfortunately, I could see right away that I wasn’t playing at my best. Already in the first game against Topalov I was in great danger; I managed to hang on and I remained unscathed by a little bit of a miracle, but I was really close to disaster. So I decided not to take any undue risks in the classical games. Especially since I quickly understood that the bonus points would serve absolutely no purpose, which was indeed the case. The important thing was to be qualified after each round…

So I focused on the Rapids. First against Topalov, and then against Andreikin, after my opening in the first classical game petered out into a draw, due to a memory error!
On the other hand, in the Rapids, it went well; against Andreikin, the first game was ultra hot. But in the end, I saw more stuff than he did, so it’s only natural that I won 🙂 .

Then there was the decisive match against Nepo, and I have to admit I didn’t make the right decisions, that’s for sure. First, I was surprised by the rare 8.Be3.

Nepomniatchi-Mvl, Jerusalem, ½ final first game.
Nepomniatchi-Mvl, Jerusalem, ½ final first game.

So I wasted a lot of time looking at 8…Ng4 9.Bg5!?, which could have been his idea. On 9.e5, which he played, I had several possibilities, not only that of taking e3. But I said to myself: “We’ll go for the simplest”; unfortunately, the simplest in question was not the best… So he took a large advantage, but then he allowed me counterplay. The critical moment was obviously after 19.Qa3…

Nepomniatchi-Mvl, Jerusalem, ½ final first game.
Nepomniatchi-Mvl, Jerusalem, ½ final first game.

Of course, I saw the natural 19… c5 20.dxc5 Qc8, which I remember having rejected because of 21.exf6 Bxf6 22.Bc4! Bxh4+ 23.Rxh4 Nxh4 24.Rd6!. I haven’t analysed the game at all since then, but on the board, it looked very suspicious for me. What happened in the game after my choice 19…fxe5 20.dxe5 Qe8 (with the idea of counterplay based on …Qc6-b6), is that I realized only after he played 21.Bg2 that the planned continuation 21…Bxe5 22.fxe5 Nxh4+ 23.Kg1 Nxg2 was refuted by the dreadful intermediate move 24.Ne4! and White wins.

Le duel contre Ian Nepomniachtchi
1st game versus Ian Nepomniachtchi – Photo : www.worldchess.com

With my back to the wall, I managed to introduce a good opening idea in the second game. And I got a very good position; unfortunately spoiled by bad decisions… First of all, 15.Nf4 was less accurate than 15.Bd2!.

Mvl-Nepomniatchi, Jerusalem, ½ final game 2.
Mvl-Nepomniatchi, Jerusalem, ½ final game 2.

But above all, 19.b4? turned out to be really catastrophic, instead of the normal 19.Nfe2 which kept the edge. In fact I completely forgot while playing 19.b4 – too fast! – that the black’s Queen was going to land on c4 via a6.

Mvl-Nepomniatchi, Jerusalem, ½ final game 2.
Mvl-Nepomniatchi, Jerusalem, ½ final game 2.

And finally, there is the last big mistake 25.Ng3? instead of 25.Nd3. In fact, after 25…f5, I wanted to go 26.e5 f4 27.Bxf4 gxf4 28.Nh5, but I quickly realized that Black is winning after 28…Bxe5! 29.dxe5 0-0-0!. As a result, I accepted to be worse after 26.exf5, and I quickly offered a draw. Anyway, there was really nothing to do here, except to lose! And I’ve lost enough games stupidly in must win situations, remember Jakovenko two years ago in identical circumstances…

Eliminated, I caught an early plane the next morning and found myself having to wait at home for the Nepo-Wei Yi final match. My destiny was no longer in my hands, but a victory for the Chinese would still have sent me directly to the Candidates! Unfortunately, the coin fell on the wrong side again, but I still made the decision not to give up the Rapid & Blitz World Championships in Moscow. I knew I was completely cooked physically, but in terms of effort it was less complicated anyway, and still quite fun. I also know that I have an ability to bounce back, so I went to Moscow full of innocent enthusiasm 🙂 . But let’s be honest, I’ve done a bit of a mess there… I’ve had three disastrous days, the first and third Rapid, and the first Blitz; that’s only two ok days… In the end, finishing 14th in the Rapid and 4-5th in the Blitz in these conditions, There’s not much to strut about, but given my state of form, I’ll take it! And given the level of my games, I have to take it even more 🙂 .

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave lors du championnat du monde de blitz. Photo : Dmitry Ikunin | http://ikunin.ru
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in Moscow. Photo : Dmitry Ikunin | http://ikunin.ru

Now let’s look ahead to 2020, which is going to be a much lighter season. It will be an opportunity for me to get back to basics, both technically and physically. In terms of events, I will play in Gibraltar at the end of the month, Norway Chess at the beginning of June, and I will participate in the Grand Chess Tour 2020 for which I am qualified.
These are the only certainties at the moment!

If you want to know more about everything concerning the world championship cycle, the qualification for the Candidates, Laurent Vérat’s open letter on wild-card, the controversy that followed, but also the relationships between French players of the elite, the possible French naturalization of Firouzja, and many other subjects, read without delay the long interview given by Maxime a few days ago to www.chess.com .

Maxime’s games in London:

Maxime’s games in Jerusalem:

Maxime’s games in the Rapîd World Championship:

Maxime’s games in the blitz world championship:

MVL inspires them !

L'express

L’Express is one of the biggest french magazines. Incidentally, it celebrates its birthday this very week.

As soon as november of its first year (1953), the weekly already published a « list of 100 », which offered a review of the hundred french people « who map out roads for the future ». In 2018, L’Express does it again to mark its 65 years of existence : only differences with 1953, parity is respected, and the political field has been excluded. As Guillaume Dubois, L’Express Director, states, the main purpose is to « bring to the fore French men and women who […] believe in their own future and in their country’s future. Coming from a broad range of areas, « reflecting a diversity of careers, of jobs, of sensitivities, and of origins, […] [the 100] are acting », he adds.
And among them, in the section of « Those who act to surpass themselves », you will find Maxime ! Do we have to see a symbol in the fact that he’s just next to Thomas Pesquet, the famous astronaut ?

Still, this recognition constitutes a huge incentive, for Maxime will jump back on the campaign trail in 2019, trying to move through the qualifying stages leading to the world championship match.

Find out Maxime’s presentation below, with the kind permission of L’Express management  (see translation below):

Article L'Express
Article L’Express

Caption: 27 y.o, chess player. He wants to become world champion.
Text: For the best french chess player in history, #1 at home, and World #5, 2017 was a terrible year. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave narrowly missed a spot in the Candidates, the tournament which selected the challenger of World Champion Magnus Carlsen, for the forthcoming title match in November. Thus, Maxime decided to treat 2018 as a transition year. Among other things, he hired a mental coach, in order to master this touch of impulsiveness which sometimes puts him at a disadvantage, despite his extraterrestrial skills (he belongs to the small circle of those who have reached 2800 Elo points, the method for calculating relative levels of chess players). Our International Grandmaster knows that his creative and sharp play can disarm Carlsen, less at ease than him in complex positions where anything can happen. Maxime has already beaten him, last time the previous year. At only 27, « MVL » has plenty of time ahead of him. But it is out of the question to miss the next opportunities of reaching the « title of titles », in 2020.

[otw_shortcode_quote border=”bordered” border_style=”bordered” background_pattern=”otw-pattern-1″]Titled tuesdayThere’s no way we would miss on this website games played by Maxime ! Thus, let’s have a slight month-long flash back, to revisit the « Titled Tuesday » tournament organized by www.chess.com. As its name indicates, this online blitz tournament takes place once a month on Tuesdays, and is restricted to titled players. Maxime played in the April 17 Titled Tuesday, probably the strongest one so far, with tens of GM’s around. The fact that an Argentinian FM prevailed, before to be banned from the website soon afterwards, contributes to global suspicions over the fairness of online chess…On his part, Maxime first crushed the competition, with 7/7 against 6 GM’s (!), before to give up two draws, and ultimately lose the decisive last-round game because of a huge blunder, even if not without finding ways to fight back (see Viewer below).[/otw_shortcode_quote]

Official site: Chess.com
Maxime’s games:

Giant meeting in Berlin

Vue d’ensemble de la salle (Photo : ©Theo Heinze).

It’s the second time the Bundesliga gathers in the main room of the Berlin Maritim Hotel, very close to the center town. With sixteen teams around playing the last three rounds of the year’s championship, it can be said that this long weekend was the culmination of the year, a kind of huge chess party. In sporting terms, we (Baden-Baden) began the final weekend head to head with Solingen, with the hope of winning this long_distance affair in one of the three rounds.
Continue reading “Giant meeting in Berlin”

Mixed record in Grenke Classic

After a quick taxi transfer beetween Karlsrühe and Baden-Baden during the rest day, I took residence in a town and an hotel that I get to know pretty well ! The next day, I approached my game against Carlsen half a point ahead of him, but with black.

4th round: Carlsen (2843)-Mvl ½-½
I didn’t really expect him to enter this variation of the English opening ; especially since after the game, he said he had something special in mind, which he finally didn’t play. I don’t know what happened exactly, because he looked rather well prepared in this variation, which requires to remember very specific moves. I had already analyzed the exchange of Queens, a new try for white, and his later choice of sacrificing a pawn by 17.d6+ Kxd6 18.Rad1+ Ke7 19.Be5 wasn’t an easy follow-up to find, but it was certainly the best practical chance.

17.d6+, the best practical chance for the world champion.
17.d6+, the best practical chance for the world champion.

Thanks to this good prep, I never left my comfort zone, though it was not so trivial to keep things even. Observers might have expected more suffering from me against Magnus, who loves that kind of endgame, but I feel I found the precise moves to neutralize him rather quickly !

Facing Magnus… (photo Grenke chess).
Facing Magnus… (photo Grenke chess).

5th round: Mvl-Aronian (2794) ½-½

I arrived at the board with a fresh idea in the anti-Marshall (12.h3), but unfortunately, I reacted badly to his manoeuver …Qb8-b5, which I hadn’t anticipated. Instead of 14.c4, I should have played 14.Be3, a move I rejected because of 14…d5, but 15.c4! would then give white an advantage, because the compensation for the pawn is huge after 15…dxc4 16.dxc4 Qxc4 17.Nbd2. Later, I was happy to find this little tactic 19.Nxe6!, though in the end, it doesn’t bring a lot !

17.Nxe6!, spectacular but not as strong as it looks.
17.Nxe6!, spectacular but not as strong as it looks.

At the end of the tactical sequence, he uncorked the excellent 25…g5!, which looks anti-positional but locks down the position. I should have tried 26.Kh2 (idea 27.Rg1) 26…h6 27.h4! in response, as Levon mentioned after the game ; white can still continue to press, but it probably wouldn’t have been enough against an accurate defense.
Then, I didn’t play well the ending that followed, notably when I foolishly decided to trade rooks. In fact, after 28.Rd1?, I was the one at risk in this Bishop endgame where my pawn on a5 falls, even though it holds by a hair’s breadth ! And yet, instead of 28.Rd1?, almost any move keeping the Rooks on the board would have guaranteed an immediate draw…

6th round : Vitiugov (2735)-Mvl ½-½
Once again, I could deliver a new idea, this time in the Neo-Grünfeld with 5.Qa4. An early and very interesting pawn sacrifice (6…0-0!?), regrettably spoiled by an idiotic move, played too impulsively, 14…Rfd8?.

6…0-0!?, the proof that you can still find novelties as soon as move 6 !
6…0-0!?, the proof that you can still find novelties as soon as move 6 !

I completely forgot that after 15.Rf1 Nd3, white was not forced to play 16.h3 Be6 17.Nd4 which leads to a draw, but had the strong 16.Nb3! at his disposal, after which I had to suffer for five hours before to salvage the draw.
Instead of 14…Rfd8?, 14…Nbc4! would have prevented white to establish a Knight on d4, and after 15.Nxe5 (15.Nxc4? Nxf3+) 15…Nxe5, black has adequate compensation for the pawn. Afterwards, I think I defended rather well the difficult position, but I could have spared myself sixty additional moves !

Against Vitiugov, just before the novelty 6…0-0!?.
Against Vitiugov, just before the novelty 6…0-0!?. (photo Grenke chess).

7th round : Mvl-Caruana (2784) 0-1
Against Fabiano, I decided not to face his new weapon, the Russian defense.
But I didn’t expect him to play the …Bb4 variation of the 4 Knights English. I took time to decide how to react and how to handle the position, the more so as my theoretical memories were a bit distant ! After hesitating quite a lot, I finally chose one of the safest lines, 9.Qc2, which is obviously also one of the less ambitious ones. By the way, I had forgotten during the game that the theoretical reference after 11…Bf5 was a game of mine ! (against Van Wely in 2008, draw in 37 moves -Ed.).
Anyway, I quite liked my position after the opening, and that’s why I tried 14.Qb2, followed by the unorthodox 17.Bf1!?, to try keeping the Bishop pair in the long run.

17.Ff1!?, an unorthodox try to keep the Bishop pair.
17.Ff1!?, an unorthodox try to keep the Bishop pair.

But I lost too much time immediately afterwards, with two moves in a row which didn’t fit together, 18.a4 and 19.Rac1 ; I could have played 18.a4 and 19.Qb5, or 18.Rac1 and 19.c4, perhaps even 18.a4 and 19.c4, but not the combination of moves I chose !
Actually, in the course of the game, I underestimated the strength of 20…Qf5! because I hadn’t anticipated 21…Qc5+ at the end of the variation. Thus I was adequately punished, as Fabiano could even choose beetween the actual 22…Bd5, which does the job, and 22…Bxf3+ 23.exf3 Qf2!, which also wins.
Of course, this game remains a disappointment, and that day was clearly not mine, but it is no disaster either ; I just tried something different in the opening, and it backfired.

 The young german player Bluebaum is about to take on d5 in the opening (photo Grenke chess).
The young german player Bluebaum is about to take on d5 in the opening (photo Grenke chess).

8th round: Bluebaum (2631)-Mvl ½-½
I didn’t really anticipate to face this brand new fashion line in the symetrical English, with 5.e3 and 6.dxc3, which is no great danger to my mind. I even thought he was going to exchange all four rooks at move 18, leading us back home very promptly ! With his move 18.g4!?, he gave me new hopes of creating something, but it wasn’t to be enough. At the end, I must say I’m not that far, but he still holds an impregnable fortress, because not enough lines are open in the position.

42.Rc3! completes the fortress ; the exchange will be worthless in this blocked position.
42.Rc3! completes the fortress ; the exchange will be worthless in this blocked position.

9th round : Mvl-Meier (2648) ½-½
There again, with white, I wanted to change. I was rather pleased with the position which came out from this atypical Reti opening, with my rare 6.Qd3 opposed at his early …b5 ; indeed, there was room for creating imbalances, against a black setup which looked a bit passive.

6.Qd3!?, once again an original position on move 6 !
6.Qd3!?, once again an original position on move 6 !

I must confess that Georg reacted pretty well, proving that he knew that kind of setup and its ressources. He succeeded in playing the freeing 21…c5, even though I thought I could reduce his pieces to extreme passivity with my pawn sacrifice 22.Rec1 cxd4 23.Qd3, in particular with the Nb8 which could hardly move.
But in this kind of dynamic equilibrium, I was the one who ultimately found himself in bad shape, because of my try to force events with h4-h5… At the end, I had to be precise to earn my half point.

The Grenke Classic scene in Baden-Baden (photo Grenke chess).
The Grenke Classic scene in Baden-Baden (photo Grenke chess).

All in all, I would define this tournament as a sort of dress rehearsal one, with an average result at the end, but very interesting games, which is rather good news in view of the season’s follow-up.
Even if I messed up a bit with white at the end, my opening prep was satisfactory on the whole. Especially after a few months break from the highest level, since I probably had less fresh ideas in store than other players…
However, I was suprised to lack energy at the end ; I was rather expecting to struggle at the beginning of the tournament to find my form.

Kudos to Fabiano for the impressive achievement of scoring twice, Candidates and Grenke !
Next rendez-vous, the Norway Chess in Stavanger, with the opening blitz on May 27, and the tournament from May 28 to June 7.

Official site: http://www.grenkechessclassic.de/en/
Maxime’s games

[otw_shortcode_quote border=”bordered” border_style=”bordered” background_pattern=”otw-pattern-1″]Take me homeThe rail strikes in France didn’t interfere with Maxime’s travel for the Grenke tournament in Germany. Indeed, he took the train for his outward trip just before the strikes began ; and as for the return path, it was scheduled on Tuesday, April 10, a right timing as this day was spared by the union calendar… But others in Baden-Baden weren’t that lucky, although they were not heading towards France ! It turns out that the ground staff of four huge german airports, including the nearby Frankfurt hub, were on strike that day, forcing Lufthansa to cancel more than 800 flights ; among them were numerous long haul ones that some of the players were supposed to catch in order to fly back home. About star chess24.com commentator, IGM Jan Gustafsson, who had planned to fly directly to Thailand in order to play in the Bangkok Open, he lamented himself during the last round show, unable to know if he would be able to make it to Asia the next day ![/otw_shortcode_quote]