High flying Division 2!

After more than a month without any competition, I took part in the second Champions Chess Tour online tournament, from May 8 to 14. The formula is a little complex: after a preliminary round in the form of an open (the « Play In »), the best players have access to a second day devoted to « Division Placement », which divides players into D1, D2 and D3. Thereafter, each Division is contested by direct confrontation, but with the new principle of a Winners’ Bracket and a Losers’ Bracket, allowing all players to have a second life.

I played well in the Play In, finishing just behind Caruana, but I completely missed out on the Division Placement, and had to settle for competing in Division 2. That said, with the presence of players like Caruana, So, Aronian, Dominguez, to name but a few, this second Division looked appealing!

I’m all the more satisfied to have won it in the end, after successively beating Van Foreest, Martinez, Dubov, Oparin and So, as it offers me direct qualification for Division 1 of the third and penultimate tournament, in July.

Over the eight days of play, I’ve had a lot of long games, and I’m going to take this opportunity to look back on a number of interesting endings.

MVL-Vokhidov, Play-In Round 4 : 1/2

In a game of the preliminary Open where I had to give away my Queen to survive, I still managed to establish a fortress.

After 67...Qe4+
After 67…Qe4+

Here, my opponent has just given check on e4; panic-stricken and running out of time, I replied 68.Kh2??.The problem with this move is that, after 68…Kg4, I can’t play 69.Rf4+? Qxf4! 70.gxf4 Kxh4 71.f5 gxf5 since black’s King takes the opposition! So the only move was 68.Kg1! which is a bit paradoxical because it allows 68…Kg4, but now there would be 69.Rf4+ Qxf4 70.gxf4 Kxh4 71.f5 gxf5 72.Kf2 recovering the opposition. And if not, on the next move I’ll be able to play Rf4 again and keep the fortress, knowing that if Black plays …g5, hxg5 Kxg5 at some point, with the Rook on f4 and the pawn on g3, it’s a well-known drawn position, even if it’s a little less easy than with the pawn on g2 and the Rook on f3.

In the end, my opponent missed the win and let me collect the half-point.

Van Foreest-MVL, round of 16 game 2: 1-0

I’d won the first game. I wanted to finish the 4-game match at once and I made a few decisions that were a little too risky. I tried to remain active and not trade too much, but I ended up paying dearly for it in an endidgame where I was just slighyly worse.

After 54.e6
After 54.e6

Everything crystallized in this position. We were running out of time, and the endgame is a bit of a pain to defend. Here I had the choice between 54…Kg7 and 54…Kg6. The logical move is 54…Kg7, but I wanted to play 54…Kg6 to have my King in support of the h-pawn. The problem is that after 54…Kg6? there’sthe move I missed 55.Re3! which is also very classical. Now the e-pawn goes to Queen because I can’t bring my King back to f8; I lost the game a few moves later.

MVL-Van Foreest, round of 16 Armaggedon : 1-0

After 57...c6
After 57…c6

A Knight’s endgame rather difficult to win, in which I put the pressure on as best I could, but in which Jorden defended really well up to this point. The number of pawns is drastically reduced, especially as he’s going to exchange one more by force. So I’m virtually down to only 2 pawns… But I’ve kept coming up with ideas, starting with 58.Ke3!?; he can’t take on d5 right away, because he’d lose the f6-pawn, or the pawn endgame. But he played well again: 58…Kd6 59.dxc6 Kxc6. Here, the logical move would be 60.Kc4 to play b5 of course, but I thought I’d fish in troubled waters instead, choosing 60.Ke4 Kb5 61.Kd5 Kh3 62.Kf3 Kc4. Here, I first checked 63.Kg2 obviously, but 63…Kxd5 63.Kxh3 Kc4 and black is on time, tempo-wise. But there was still one last trap, which I’d calculated in advance anyway, so as not to give him time to figure it out! 63.Kxf6 and 63…Kxb4? loses after the pretty 64.Kh5! trapping the Knight. Jorden resigned after 64…Kg1 (64…Kc5 65.Kg2 Nf4+ 66.Nxf4 exf4 67.Kf3 Kd6 68. Kxf4 Ke6 69.Kg5 winning the opposition) 65.Kf2 Nh3+ 66.Kg2 1-0.

Instead of taking the b4-pawn, 63…Nf4! was the only move, but frankly after 64.Ke4, you’d think that the b-pawn could now be defended (since 64…Kxb4? 65.Nd5+), and with very little time on the clock, you’d tend to stop there. However, this was the right line to escape, because here 64…Nd3 65.Kd5 Nf2+ 66.Kf3 Nxg4 gets the draw!

Le « Villeneuve », la bible francophone des fins de partie, a été très utile à Maxime dans sa formation !

The “Villeneuve”, the French-speaking bible of the endgame, was very useful to Maxime in his formative years!

Mvl-Dubov, ½ final game 1 : 1-0

After overcoming the Martinez obstacle in the ¼ final in a tense match, I faced Dubov.

After 45...Kd7
After 45…Kd7

I was a pawn up from the start of the endgame. My Knight is worth his Bishop and my King is supporting the pawn, but it feels like a draw with all the pawns on the same wing. I had some time to think, but I still played fast to keep the pressure on; I thought it would be more useful here than trying to find a win that didn’t yet exist 😊. At first, I looked at 46.Nd4 f4 47.Ne2 to keep the g-pawn, but I saw 47…f3 followed by 48…Bxg3. I then thought of 46.Ng7!? f4 47.Nh5 fxg3 48.fxg3. Here, I suspect it’s still a draw, but he’s going to follow the wrong plan; 48…Kd6 49.Kd4 Ba7+ 50.Ke4 Bf2 (Dubov must have thought I was in zugzwang and would lose a pawn) 51.Ng7 (I must say I hadn’t seen this resource in advance 😊) 51…Be1? (not 51…Kd7? either because of 52.Nf5 followed by 53.Kf4xg4. In fact, Black didn’t defend in the most precise way and was therefore forced here to find a difficult series of only moves. 51…Ke7! 52.Nf5+ [52.Kf4 Bxg3+!] 52…Kf6 53.Kf4 [53.d6 Ke6 54.Kf4 Be1! 55.Kxg4 Bd2 zugzwang, is an elegant way to draw] 53…Bb6 only square! 54.Kxg4 [54.d6 Ke6 55.Kxg4 Bf2 only one square! 56.Kf4 Be1 57.g4 Bd2+ 58.Ke4 Bc1 59.Kd4 Ba3 and white makes no further progress. Note that in this line, black’s last five Bishop moves are only moves] 54…Ke5 55.d6 Bd8! with an aesthetically pleasing mirror zugzwang [56.d7 Ke6]. Obviously, all this can hardly be found with a few dozen seconds on the clock) 52.Nf5+ (my Knight now protects g3 and also allows black’s King to be cut off from the d5 pawn) 52…Kc5 53.Ke5 and win a few moves later, the King accompanying the d-pawn while the Knight went to h5 to protect g3 while never being attacked by the opponent’s King.

Dubov-MVL, ½ final game 2 : 1/2

After 36...Kd7
After 36…Kd7

An opposite-colored Bishops endgame in which I was in great difficulty. Fortunately, I had succeeded in forcing his pawns on white squares by pushing mine on the Kingside, anticipating a possible counterplay. In these positions with two passed pawns, if I don’t have a target in his camp, white’s King is bound to infiltrate somehow, and one of the passed pawns will escape. Here, all my counterplay is based on the fact that I can attack the g2-pawn with my Bishop, while controlling the a6-square. However, the machine indicates that white could win by playing 37.Ke3! with the idea 38.f4. His mistake 37.Kc5? is a funny moment, because after 37…Bf1 38.e6+ Ke7 (I didn’t want 38…Kxe6 39.Bd8, but it turns out that 39…Kd7! 40.Bxg5 Bxg2 still works), we get a position where I can’t take the g2-pawn because the a-pawn goes to Queen; but as soon as his King moves, either he takes c6, in which case I now take g2 and the long diagonal is open, or he plays Kb6 and I reply …c5; he’ll then have to take c5 (or play a6, whatever) and I take g2 then f3 and after that, I have my own passed pawns on the Kingside, and it could quickly get out of hand for white! So he finds himself in a situation where he’s forced to accept the draw by status quo; 39.Bc7 f4 40.Be5 (40.Kb6 c5!) 40…Kxe6 and nobody does anything.

Dubov-MVL, 1/2 final game 4: 1-0

A game of great adventures, in which I was under great pressure most of the time, with a few missed wins for white in the process. But then, thanks to a good defense with very little time at the start of the endgame, I avoided forced wins for him and managed to reposition my pieces somewhat miraculously. Inevitably, there were still a few reciprocal errors and in the end, we found ourselves in an extremely difficult Rook endgame, which was probably losing for me though. But with only 5 seconds for him too, he navigated badly and we reached this objectively drawn position…

After 82.Kc6
After 82.Kc6

Instead of repeating the position a second time with 82…Rc4+, I suddenly remembered that I had my g and h pawns, so it looked easier to bring my King back with 82…Kf6…After 83.b7 Rxb7 84.Kxb7+ Kf5, « I’ll support the pawn advance, white’s King is too far away », I thought. True, except for the cold shower 83.Kc5! and I can’t move my Rook to b1 because there’s 84.b7 with check, then 85.Rb6. So I’m forced to sacrifice my Rook right away with 83…Rxb6 84.Rxb6+ Kf5 but now 85.Kd4 and white’s King returns. I still tried 85…Kf4 86.Rxg6 (86.Kd3 Kf3 87.Rf6+ was even simpler) 86…h4 but 87.Rh6 Kg3 88.Ke3 h3 89.Rg6+ also wins by one tempo, but that’s all it takes in chess!

Dubov-MVL, ½ final Armaggedon : 1/2

In the Armageddon I found myself in dire straits again in the opening, the same one as in the second game. For the record, I once again made the wrong move in relation to my files 😊, but afterwards I defended myself rather well.

After 35.e6
After 35.e6

My original idea was 35…Rf6? but there is 36.e7 Re6 and, for example, 37.Qd8; there are probably 36 wins, but 37.Qd8 Rxd6 38.e8=Q Rxd8 39.Qe5 mate is convincing! Anyway, I realized that I couldn’t play 35…Rf6 and so I fell back on 35…Rg7, with the idea that after 36.e7? there’s the unlikely 36…Ke6!… I thought he might fall for it, knowing that if white wins exist, they’re not so easy either. And that’s exactly what happened 😊. With the King on e6, all of a sudden my pieces control his Queen’s squares and as soon as it moves, I can now take e7 because there’s no more Bxe7 Qxe7, Qxc6+.

Dubov reacted well with 37.Kg3. I was very worried that the pawn endgame could be lost right away, so I thought about it for a minute or so. I played 37…h5, which is a good move because now if 38.Kf2, there’s 38…Qb6+! (but not 38…Qb2+? 39.Kg1! Qb7 40.Qxg6+! Rxg6 41.e8=Q+ Kxd6 [41…Kf6 42.Be5+ Kf5 43.Bd4! and it’s mate somewhere] 42.Qxg6+ Kc5 [42…Kc7 43.Qf7+] 43.Qxh5+ with a winning Queen’s endgame). After Dubov’s 38.a5, I was able to play 38…Qd7! (and not 38…Rxe7? 39.Qxg6+). The pawn endgame after 39.Qd8 Rxe7 40.Bxe7 Qxe7 41.Qxe7+ Kxe7 42.Kf2 Ke6 holds because if 43.Ke3, unfortunately for him, there’s 43…Kf5 44.g3 a6 and it’s white who’s in zugzwang. So he played 43.g4 a6 44.Ke3 hxg4 45.hxg4 Kd5 46.Kf2 (46.g5 c5 and no zugzwang!) 46…Ke6 47.Ke2 Kd6 and a draw just after.

MVL-Oparin, Final game 1: 1/2

It all went down to a gift from me, as I blundered a piece in a good position. Still, I managed to create a few problems in this winning endgame for black, right up to the diagrammed position…

After 55.c6
After 55.c6

The technical realization isn’t so easy once my c-pawn has advanced. I thought I’d done the hard part, but in fact Black had 55…Be5! 56.c7 Rb4+! (very important) and I can’t take, while if 57.Ka6 Rc4, the pawn falls.
But Oparin played 55…Rf1? the logical move, which also sets a trap: after 56.c7 Rb1+ 57.Kc6? Rc1+ 58.Kb6 Rxc7! with the same idea. That’s what we both thought during the game, but in reality the « trap » doesn’t work because of 57.Ka6! Rc1 58.Rd7! (threat 59.Kb7) and Black can’t escape without self-pinning with 58…Kg6 59.Rd6+ Bf6 (59…Kf7 60.Rd7+) 60.Kb7 and the pawn will still cost the Rook. In the game, I had seen the other way out, 56.Rd5. The endgame still looks losing, but after 56…Rb1+ 57.Ka6 Rc1 58.Kb7 Kg6 59.c7 Bf6 60.Rd6 Rxc7+ 61.Kxc7 f4, I found the only move 62.Rd5!.But I hadn’t calculated the whole line to the end. By force of circumstance, I’m obliged to cut his King off: because if he plays …Kf5 and then …f3 my King is too far away. So the idea is 62…f3 63.Rd3 f2 64.Rf3 which comes back to the rest of the game, 62…Bxh4 63.Kd6 f3 64.Rd3 (especially not 64.Ke5? Kg5 65.Ke4 Kg4 66.Ke3 Kg3 67.Ke2 Kg2 followed by …Bg3 and the h-pawn triumphs) 64…f2 65.Rf3 and I’m just in time to draw after 65…Kg5 66.Ke5 Kg4 67.Ke4 Bg3 68.Ke3 Kh3 followed by 69.Rxf2.

MVL-Oparin, Final game 3: 1-0

A pretty cool game! I’d survived a scary attack in the second game, so I wanted to solidify my play a bit. But my Asnières teammate chose to take quite a few risks in the approach to this game. On the contrary, I tried to maintain a small, stable advantage as soon as I could. I knew that I had stronger moves at times, but that inevitably involved an element of risk that I didn’t want to assume in this particular context.

After 42...Rxb5
After 42…Rxb5

Obviously, this endgame is likely to be drawn if Black defends perfectly, but in practice, the probability of winning isn’t that low at all. After the simple 43.Rd2, I protect b2 and it’s my King who will win the d3 pawn after 43…Kf7 44.Ke3 Rb3 45.Kd4 Ke6 46.Kc4. After 46…Rb8, 47.b4! is an important, time-saving move compared to 47.Kxd3?. So I didn’t know whether this endgame was winning or not. In my mind, it was rather a draw, but the machine says it’s not! On reflection, it’s not so surprising, as Black doesn’t have much time left, with my King supporting the advancing b-pawn. For me, in this type of situation in a rapid game, the important thing is not whether it’s a win or a draw (it’s the opposite in a classical game, of course). What I want is for the defense to be as complicated as possible. By the way, in just a few moves, Oparine exploded, proof of the difficulty of the task. After 47…Rh8 48.h3 Rh4+ 49.Kc3 Kd5 50.Rxd3+ Kc6, he missed 51.Rg3! and now if 51…g5, there’s 52.Rf3 and his Rook will be cut off one way or another, whether on h6 or h7. He preferred to play 51…Kb5 but 52.Rxg7, and he resigned since he has no way of recovering the b4 pawn.

Classement du Champions Chess Tour 2024 après deux tournois sur 4 (Image : www.chess.com)
2024 Champions Chess Tour rankings after 2 tournaments out of 4 (Image: www.chess.com).

So-MVL, Grand Final game 1: 0-1

A game that wasn’t very clear at first, in which I preferred to opt for a line that was a little more solid than usual and, above all, that I don’t normally play…

We got to an endgame at the start of which I was 5 minutes ahead on the clock. By the way, playing fast has helped me enormously in many matches; of course, it’s not without risks, but when you get to the money time with a lead of several minutes, it’s a big advantage…

After 35...d4
After 35…d4

Here, he should have played 36.Rd8 to control the advance of the d-pawn right away. He figured he’d play 36.Kg2? first, because after 36…d3, he’d have 37.c6 and since there’s no longer 37…Rb1 ith check, he can therefore take b7. Except that I had calculated all this and continued here with 37…d2!. The first idea is 38.Bxb4 d1=Q 39.cxb7 Qd5+! and 40…Qxb7. The second idea is 38.cxb7 d1=Q 39.b8=Q Rb1 or 39…Qd5+ and Black mates. The trivial 38…Kd6 also wins by the way, but that I hadn’t seen 😊.

So he played 38.Rd8. Here I made a little mistake; well, first I calculated 38…Rd4 39.Rxd4 Kxd4 40.cxb7 d1=Q? 41.b8=Q and I couldn’t find the win because the Queen protects g3! For example 41…Qf3+ 42.Kg1 Ne2+ 43.Kf1 and I no longer have 43…Nxg3+. But this is all a bit silly, as the simple 40…Nc6 would stop the pawn 😊. I said to myself that this was frustrating, but that I should look at the other candidate move 38…Nd4. Note that it took me a minute to play 38…Nd4, so everything I’m describing still went pretty quickly! 39.Bxb4 (39.c7 loses in the same way) 39…d1=Q 40.c7 Qf3+ and then you see 41.Kf1 Qh1 mate or 41.Kg1 Ne2+ 42.Kf1 Nxg3+ and it’s mate. After 41.Kh3, checkmate is a little different: 41…Qh1+ 42.Kg4 f5+ 43.Kf4 (43.Kg5 Ne6#) 43…Qe4+ 44.Kg5 and Black can choose between three different mates! In the game, he played 41.Kh2, and it’s mate too after 41…Qxf2+ 42.Kh3 Qf1+ 43.Kh2 Nf3#.

After many adventures in this match, including an Armageddon very well mastered by Wesley, I had to bow out. Except that, having won the Winner’s bracket, I was entitled to an extra life! In the Reset match, I was able to strike again with black in a beautiful Grunfeld.

So I had white in the second game, and once again, a draw was enough to win the tournament…

MVL-So, Grand Finale Reset game 2: 1-0

Wesley chose the Najdorf and I found ways of exchanging as many pieces as possible in the way I wanted, i.e. while remaining fairly active. That’s how you manage a game where you have to draw with white 😊.

After 37.Ne5
After 37.Ne5

Here, Wesley played 37…Nf5+. Given the match situation, knowing that a draw was sufficient, I could play 38.Bxf5 exf5 39.Ng6+ followed by 40.Nf4. I could also play 38.Kf4 without exchanging on f5, followed by Nc4-e3; I can do a bit of everything really, but I forced myself to calculate anyway! And what immediately catches the eye is to exchange on f5 and then 39.Nxc6 bxc6,to play the pawn endgame. I’ve got my passed pawn on g5, I’ve got a 3 vs. 2 on the Queenside, and my King controls the opponent’s two connected passed pawns. So, intuitively, this should be good. The simplest and most technical move to make it all work is 40.b4! which controls a6 and c6, and the next moves are c4, a4 and b5; especially not 40.c4? which doesn’t win because of 40…a5! and white’s majority is under control.

After 40…Ke6, I didn’t have to start with 41.Kf4, but there’s no reason to allow 41.a4 Ke5 42.c4 f4+, even if it’s still a win for white. In the game, Wesley resigned here, since after 41…Kd5, I have the choice between 42.c3 to prevent …Kd4, or 42.g6 Ke6 43.c4 Kf6 44.a4 Kxg6 45.b5 and black’s King isn’t in the drawing zone.

It’s a bit like the two weaknesses principle, but adapted to pawn endgames: the King can’t chase both pawns at the same time!

Thanks to this victory, next time in Division 1, I’ll be joined by Firouzja (brilliant D1 winner) and Carlsen (finalist), as well as 5 other players from the qualifiers.

Maxime’s games :

Maxime is regularly asked to travel to chess events, particularly in France, and when his schedule permits, he gladly accepts. On May 19, for example, he was present in the magnificent salons of the Mairie du XVe arrondissement in Paris, where the final phase of the Top Jeunes 2024, the flagship team competition for under-16s, took place. An annual gathering that Maxime knew well when he was one of the Espoirs himself, and which is very popular among French chess circles.

Maxime avec les jeunes de son propre club formateur, Créteil (Photo : Ligue IDF des Echecs).
Maxime with the youngsters from his own youth club, Créteil (Photo: Ligue IDF des Echecs).