Cycle change

Etienne Bacrot and I stopped our collaboration a few months ago… A collaboration that had started more than seven years earlier, in the spring of 2015, when he became my head coach; it was a long cycle that we lived together. And this cycle has now come to an end, since we shared the observation that there was not enough renewal of ideas and not enough new challenges in our collaboration. In the end, a certain routine had set in on my side, and it was becoming detrimental to my sporting results.

This is an opportunity for me to go back to the beginning – and even before the beginning – since the first time Etienne talked to me about working together, or rather that he works for me, was in 2014, during the French championship in Nîmes where I had spent a day.

He told me on this occasion that since the tournament in Biel the year before where we met, he had been convinced that I had become extremely strong. Even if my score there was only +1, with 3 wins and 2 losses, he considered that in my play, all the ingredients to bring me to the highest level were already present. And so he offered to help me, to guide me…

I must admit that my spontaneous reaction was mixed; in fact, this proposal proved to be complicated for me to handle. Even though I was flattered by his offer, he and I were still neck and neck in terms of Elo, so it seemed a bit premature to me in terms of this rivalry.

But for Etienne, I had just held the first board of the French team at the Tromso Olympiads, and the handover was now irreversible. He considered it natural to offer me his services. This discussion finally led to a trial run, i.e. a first preparation camp that we did together at the end of 2014, without any notion of coach/trained.

At that time I was still working with Alexander Beliavsky from Slovenia. Objectively, it was going pretty well, but that was the time when I started to participate in the most important tournaments and to play against really well-prepared top players. Certainly, Wijk aan zee in January 2015 had been a great success, as I broke my Elo record there, with 2775. But then there was a very complicated quarter, with I think only one win in three or four months!

That’s when I felt that something had to change. So I went back to Etienne, and he « officially » started working for me.

It completely changed my perspective on preparation in the openings because it was the first time I was confronted with someone who had a much more global vision of the work required. Alexander was a very good coach, but in terms of openings, he had become really limited, especially in trying to get the advantage with white. And the work with Etienne came to fruition quickly, in the second half of 2015, when I was moving up the world ranking at the same time as I started to play all the big tournaments, especially the Grand Chess Tour ones, first in Norway, then in St. Louis, and finally in London – with an extremely accomplished performance by the way.

Parfois, on doit jouer ensemble ! Comme ici au Grand Chess Tour 2017 à Paris, avec un certain Garry K qui donne le go (photo : Gct).
Sometimes they have to play together! Like here at the 2017 Grand Chess Tour in Paris, with a certain Garry K giving the go (photo: Gct).

In terms of work organization, it’s true that I was not as creative anymore, in the sense that I was less looking for ideas myself. My mission was mainly to be efficient in mastering my opening repertoire, and to arrive with as much energy as possible on the board! As for Etienne, his main task was to generate the opening files with the help of more and more powerful computers. This obviously meant checking carefully all the new ideas, everything that had been played in the previous week’s games, or even the day before, in order to be sure not to miss anything. In this way, I built a much stronger repertoire with black, able to resist the test of time; while avoiding having to work at the last minute before each game, which is obviously essential to compete with the top of the top. Although the openings remain central in the preparation, Etienne also constantly made sure that I kept my chess form through well chosen exercises and studies.

Throughout these seven years of collaboration, the main evolution has of course been the access to more and more powerful and easier to use software. There is no need for huge machines anymore since the arrival of AlphaZero (even if this software was not available to the public), which paved the way for Artificial Intelligence. Closer to us, the current Stockfish, Stockfish 15, is so much stronger than Stockfish 8 for example… So it makes some of the work easier, in the sense that finding the correct moves or the right ideas is obviously much more simple! But the problem is that everybody has access to these ideas and to make a real difference, you have to bring something more. So, it requires a lot more work, leading to ever increasing in-depth files, with the major risk of getting lost into them; as has often been the case for me lately 🙂 .

I had a rather complicated period in 2022, at least as long as Eloi s concerned. But despite that, I didn’t compromise my goals for the next two years, mainly thanks to my qualification for the 2023 Grand Chess Tour. I will therefore be present next year on all major competitions and on the qualifying events for the 2024 Candidates.

Obviously, I am not sitting idly by during this transition period, especially since I recently hired a new chess coaching team, whose profile fits the characteristics and orientations that I had set with my staff. Of course, working in a new environment requires a period of adaptation and adjustment. The good news is that I am lucky enough to have this time, a rare commodity usually! Indeed, my next big events should start around May 2023, which leaves a little bit of margin…

I’m going to take advantage of these lines to make an assessment of my period with Etienne, by recapitulating my palmares of these seven years… I won a lot – well, I don’t know if it is « a lot », but let’s say a certain number 🙂 – of tournaments. In Classical chess, the Sinquefield Cup twice, Bucharest, Dortmund, Shenzhen, as well as two new titles in Biel and two World Cup semi-finals; Rapid/Blitz in Paris and Zagreb, and the 2021 World title in blitz; 2nd place on the professional circuit (Grand Chess Tour) four years in a row! Let’s not forget the team competitions, which brought me several titles with my German club of Baden-Baden, with Clichy in 2017, then a French Cup with Asnières in 2019. The French national team did not win any competition during the different campaigns of these years, but we will nevertheless remember the beautiful silver medal we got at the 2021 European Team Championship in Slovenia.

In terms of world rankings, I had the opportunity to sit on top of the lists in Blitz as well as in Rapid, and be 2nd in the world in Classical. And finally, this famous second place at the Candidates 2020/2021, which will remain at the same time a good result and a disappointment 🙂 . Between the day when Fide announced that I was replacing Radjabov and the interruption of the tournament halfway through, only 3 weeks passed! Again, a big thank you to Etienne for his reactivity and for all the work done in this short time…

Mini-stage de préparation, juste avant les Candidats 2020 (Photo : Alpha Echecs).
Mini training session, just before the 2020 Candidates (Photo: Alpha Echecs).

All in all, the results are quite positive, even if the disillusions linked to the world championship cycle are certainly what will have marked people the most.

There was a very nice period in 2015/2016, as soon as Etienne and I started working together, although the very first tournament was catastrophic (Grand Prix Fide, Kanty-Mansyik), with a last place and a record of 4 losses in a row. So I went back down to a low point of 2723, but in the second half of 2015 I finished on a high to get to 2785 in early 2016. By the way, I think my best years in terms of results were 2016 and 2017; I went undefeated for a long period of time and got to my highest point at 2819.

If there’s one year where it’s a real shame I didn’t qualify for the Candidates, it’s 2017, which was probably my most successful season…

So the future has already begun for me, and I’m pretty excited about the new environment and ways of working that are now mine. I’m sure that the next few months will allow me to absorb the change and go into the major upcoming events better equipped.

Until then, there are still a few goals for the end of the year, with the World Team Championship in Jerusalem (November 20-25), and of course the defense of my world title during the Rapid and Blitz World Championship in Astana, Kazakhstan (December 26-30). As for the first months of 2023, nothing is very clear in the calendar for the time being…

The only time Maxime travelled to Austria was when he was just 10 years old, in early December 2000. He played in Graz in the U12 category of the Central and Western European Rapid Championship (Mitropa). Maxime took second place in the tournament. 22 years later, he had the opportunity to come back to Austria twice in the space of a month! At the beginning of October to compete in the European Cup with his club Asnières, which finally won the bronze medal in the competition. Then at the beginning of November with his new club Linz, for the first rounds of the Austrian Bundesliga. The competitions were organized in the Tyrol region, in both cases quite close to Innsbruck. In terms of result, Maxime scored 4/8 in total (+1, -1, =6, with 5 blacks), for what could have been his last appearance in a classical game for a long time…