Midnight express

I left Baku the night after my elimination from the World Cup in the round of 32 against Sindarov… A real disappointment, of course, which led me to take the first available flight to Paris.

In order to arrive in the best possible conditions, I left for Azerbaijan on July 31, for the start of the competition on August 2. I had prepared in advance for at least the first two rounds, against Dragnev or Kobo, then against Sindarov or Ragger.

I arrived rather rested and in good shape. I met up with all the French players who had been present in the preliminary round from which I had been exempted.

For me, the World Cup remains an exciting tournament. There are a lot more players than in the elite tournaments, which makes for a very special atmosphere.

The organization on site was fairly clean and well run. It’s clear that experience plays a part; as the editions go by, FIDE has taken the measure of the things to be done. Besides, Azerbaijan is used to organizing major sporting events.

There was just one point that surprised me, and that was the fact that the games were broadcast live. I asked FIDE about this and didn’t get an answer. Admittedly, the on-site anti-cheating measures were satisfactory. But even so, I can’t see what would have been the drawback of implementing a thirty-minute delay for security reasons…

A look back at the 6 games I played in Baku:

MVL – DRAGNEV, first leg 1/2

A complicated start against a player who is always well prepared. I really wasn’t expecting this variation of the Queens’s Gambit.

After the locking of the Queenside with 14…a4!, I was never able to make the e4-break work, and got absolutely nothing.

DRAGNEV – MVL, 2nd leg ½

After a first repetition with 17…Rd8 18.Bb6 Rd6 19.Bc5 and with a certain lead on the clock, I hesitated to refuse the draw, which could be done in two different ways. First with 19…Rf6, but I was a little afraid of 20.Re1 (but certainly not 20.Qxd5+ Be6) 20…Kg8 21.Bf1 threatening 22.Re3 which wins the Queen, while really attacking d5, and possibly e7. After 19…Rd8 20.Bb6, the other way to continue would have been to sacrifice the exchange with 20…Bf5!? 21.Bxd8 Rxd8, and the Bishop pair coupled with the central pawn duo offers obvious compensation.

In the end, I preferred to repeat moves and rely on tie-breaks, but perhaps that wasn’t the best decision objectively.

Début du tie-break contre Dragnev (Photo : Fide).
Beginning of the tie-break against Dragnev (Photo: Fide).

MVL – DRAGNEV, Tie-break (2) 1-0

After a first tie-break drawn without too much fuss with black, I got a good position out of the opening in the second:

Here, the young Austrian gave me the exchange in one move with 18…c6? 19.Bd6 cxd5 20.Bxf8 Ne6. But here, I probably wanted perfection too much, looking for the cleanest technical solution. Of course, I quickly rejected 21.Qxd5 Qxg4+ 22.Qg2 Qxg2+ 23.Kxg2 Kxf8, which seemed anything but easy to convert. My first thought was the obvious 21.Bxg7 dxc4 22.Bxf6 Qxf6, but I couldn’t find a decisive move as I saw black’s Knight popping up on d4 or f4. But just 23.Qd5! and I’ll win c4 or improve my Queen on e5. As a result, I finally opted for 21.Ne5? which seemed more secure, but didn’t achieve this goal at all after 21…Bxe5 22.Rxe5 Rxf8, and it becomes very hard to demonstrate an advantage, if any. I could have tried to keep control of the situation with 23.Rxd5 h5! (23…Qe4 24.f3 Qe3+ 25.Kh1 Nf4 26.Rd8 g6 didn’t reassure me either, but I missed the difficult 27.Qb3!, which must be enough since black’s Queen can’t come to e2 or f2 because of the exchange on f8 followed by 29.Qb4+ which wins the Nf4!) 24.Rxh5 Qe4 25.f3 Qe3+ 26.Rh1, but after 26…Nf4, which wins a crucial tempo on the Rook, the activity of the Queen/Knight pair makes up for the material deficit.

So I decided to make the best of a worsening situation with 23.Qf3 d4 24.Qe4, but if I restricted the activity of the black pieces, it was by leaving their d-pawn alive!

Fortunately, Dragnev got a little carried away and instead of continuing to defend with a move like 29…Ne6, he thought he could afford 29…d3?, falling into a nice trap; 30.Re8! and he realized that 30…d2? was not possible because of 31.R1e7!; facing the threat of 32.Qxf7+, black has no choice but to give up his d-pawn with 31…d1=Q+. 30…Kg7 31.g5! didn’t really appeal either, so he opted for 30…Ne6, but after 31.Rxf8+ Nxf8 32.Td1, white pockets the d-pawn, and I didn’t spoil the technical conversion this time 😊.

Jules et Maxime sortiront tous les deux au 3e tour… (Photo : Fide).
Jules and Maxime will both be knocked out after round 3 (Photo: Fide).

SINDAROV – MVL, first leg ½

After a rather well-controlled game, I reached the following position with black:

We were both starting to run out of time, and unfortunately I couldn’t make 34…Bf8! work, which was indeed the right move. After 35.Rxb7? (white should then have settled for a move like 35.Kf1 or 35.Rd5, but Black’s advantage is then undeniable) 35…d3! 36.Ne3 (36.Rxd7 dxc2 37.Rc3 Ra1+ -+), there’s one move I missed that really hurts, 36…Bh6!.

So I resigned myself to protecting b7 with 34…Ra7?, but Sindarov offered me a new opportunity with 35.Ra3? (the Rook exchange favors Black by freeing his d-pawn). Unfortunately, I didn’t believe in the strength of the d-pawn and played 35…Bf8? while offering a draw, which was immediately accepted; after 36.Rxa7 Nxa7 37.Rd5, white effectively recovers his pawn with equality.

Perhaps with a little more time, I’d have paid more attention to 35…Rxa3 36.Nxa3 d3!. It looks like the d-pawn is going to be surrounded, the white knight is coming to c4 and black isn’t going to get anything good out of this push, but on closer inspection this isn’t the case and white is really suffering. 37.Rd5? Nb4! loses immediately. 37.Nc4 Bc3! also raises many questions. 37.Kf1 or 37.Rb1 are undoubtedly better, but White will have to suffer to earn his half-point.

Another « half-opportunity » missed with black, which obviously leaves some regrets, especially given the scenario of the second game…

MVL – SINDAROV, second leg 0-1

I won’t go into the details of this wild Arkhangelsk variation, let’s just say that Sindarov and I both had this position, which is not theoretical, in our files. I didn’t remember the best move 19.Qf5! which is very difficult to find on the board. It’s actually a prophylactic move, with white anticipating …Re8, preparing to position the Queen on f3 or d3 if it’s chased, and above all, to respond to 19…c5 with 20.d5.

After much thought, I chose the more human approach 19.Nd2 c5 20.Nf3 cxd4 (the machine teaches us that 20…Re8! first is more accurate) 21.cxd4 Re8. Here, 22.Qf5 was too tempting, the threat 23.Ng5 seemed too strong for black to have the courage to take on d4. Now after the game, we know objectively that 22.Qa5! was the best move, but it was anything but obvious in the course of it. After a prolonged thought, Sindarov dared 22…Bxd4! 23.Ng5 h6, and after 24.Qh7+ Kf8 25.Nf3 Qb6, we reached the following decisive position:

I thought about it for almost a quarter of an hour. Of course, I immediately saw that after 26.Nxd4, black had the intermezzo 26…Rxa6. I then analyzed 26.Bd2 Bxb2 27.Rb1 Qxa6+ 28.Kg1 and realized that the position had to be equal or balanced after, for example, 28…Rab8 29.Bb4+! Rxb4 30.Qh8+ Ke7 31.Re1+ Qe6 32.Rxe6+ fxe6 33.Qh7, as after 28…Qa3 29.Nh4, as the threat 30.Nf5 should recover the exchabge. Unfortunately, I was then attracted by a « brilliant » idea that seemed to lead to a clearer draw… 26.Nxd4? Rxa6 27.g3!? (the pseudo-point that gives everything with check, but in our noble game, the capture is not obligatory 😊). If black cashes in with 27…Rxa1? 28.Nf5! Rxc1+? (28…Qb5+ and it’s still a draw after 29.Kg2 Qxf5 30.Qxf5 Rxc1 31.Qh7 f6), he’ll have to lower their flag after 29.Kg2 Qb7+ (the only way to avoid mate) 30.Kh3 f6 31.Qh8+ Kf7 32.Qxg7+ Ke6 33.Qxb7 Kxf5 34.g4+ Ke5 35.f4+ and 36.Qxe6. If after 27.g3!?, black opts for 27…Qxd4, then 28.Rxa6 Qc4+ 29.Kg2 Qxa6 30.Qh8+ Ke7 31.Qxg7 with a drawn endgame.

Unfortunately, the quiet 27…Qb7! thenappeared on the board, a little intermediate move that had completely escaped my attention! A cold shower that quickly made me realize that the World Cup was over for me…

The game ended with 28.Qh8+ Ke7 29.Qxg7 (29.Qxe8+ Kxe8 30.Rxa6 Qxa6+ 31.Kg2 Qd3 32.Be3 offered no fortress prospects; black will push his Kingside pawns to destabilize white’s construction) 29…Rxa1 30.Nf5+ Ke6 31.Nd4+ Kd5 and white can resign.

Le tombeur de Maxime en pleine concentration avant la partie décisive (Photo : Fide).
Maxime’s winner in full concentration mode before the decisive game (Photo: Fide).

Obviously, the outcome of the World Cup wasn’t what I’d expected, given that this tournament was really my big goal for the year. So it’s a disappointment in terms of the result, but much less so in terms of the content. I think I need to build on the momentum of this World Cup. Of course, there are still a few details to iron out, but my level of play is clearly higher than what I’ve been able to show over the past year.

I’ll be playing in a few Rapid and online tournaments at the end of August and throughout September, before returning to the classical games at the European Club Cup, which takes place in Albania, October 1-7. My club Asnières will clearly be aiming for the podium, so i twill be an important challenge, as well as excellent preparation for the Grand Swiss (October 25 – November 5), my last chance to qualify for the 2024 Candidates. In any case, I intend to arrive on the Isle of Man with ambition and well-prepared…

Maxime’s games:

Just before leaving for Baku, Maxime achieved a feat that only Wesley So and Nakamura had achieved before him: winning both editions of the famous weekly « Titled Tuesday » on chess.com. Every Tuesday, two successive blitz tournaments bring together an average of around 500 titled players. On July 25, Maxime won both, with scores of 9.5/11 and 10/11. Among the participants were Carlsen, Nakamura, Caruana, So, Duda, Kramnik, Kamsky, Fedoseev etc., and a host of GMs. The only thing missing for Maxime was the icing on the cake: after securing the second tournament win with 10/10, Maxime conceded his only loss of the day to Nakamura, while trying to achieve 11/11 perfection!