Sharp drop…

Trou d'air

I arrived in Wijk aan zee ten days before the start of the Tata Steel tournament in order to respect the quarantine period before the tournament started. Most of the players preferred to have this quarantine time during the tournament, but I thought it wasn’t necessarily a bad idea to acclimatise to Wijk. I didn’t have an ideal environment in Paris either, with not much more to do than in the small Dutch seaside town. Well, I probably underestimated that 25 days there, with all the restaurants closed and a very early curfew, was going to be a bit long!

I especially lacked activity because when I could go outside, it was either freezing cold or there was that unpleasant wind so typical!

But the most important thing is that I was happy to play again in a live tournament and to find some reference points before the Candidates’ resumption.

Concerning the overall analysis of my tournament, I’m not going to beat around the bush, it was clearly a failure all way long. Obviously, there were a lot of things that didn’t work. Having said that, I prefer to take this as a no-cost warning and frankly, I don’t expect to show this terrible level of play in the Candidates. In any case, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t happen 🙂 .

On the whole, I didn’t get the positions I wanted and even in the rare cases where I did get them, I would quickly make mistakes that ruined everything.

At the beginning of the tournament, the situation didn’t seem so bad, with 4 draws in a row, but without losing and with some chances, notably against Anton and Firouzja. It’s true that it could have changed my tournament, but in general, my level of play was too low to say that it was played on details; that’s not the case at all, and the truth is that I showed too many weaknesses.

Dreadful tournament, but still smiling to the interviewer (photo: L.Ootes).
Dreadful tournament, but still smiling to the interviewer (photo: L.Ootes).

First of all, from the beginning I felt that I didn’t have the same marks as usual and that clearly there was something wrong. The long interruption of the physical tournaments, the isolation and the quarantine in Wijk, the complicated preparation for the Candidates, all this obviously played a role…

Then, I got some bad reflexes back when the tournament started to go wrong; desire to be back on track too quickly, hasty decision making, loss of motivation… But in any case, I made miscalculations that shouldn’t happen, as well as errors of judgement that shouldn’t happen either.

As a result, I rarely had the opportunity to play my A-game. One of the few games where I did have that opportunity was against Giri, and even there I found myself in trouble from a position that looked so promising!

Mvl-Giri
Giri-Mvl, Round 9.

Here, I had sacrificed the exchange and a pawn, but white can no longer move a piece! But no luck, the position remains objectively balanced and I unfortunately tried to take the advantage at all costs.

That’s why I played 34…b4?! after 15 minutes of thought because, to put it plainly, I didn’t want to do nothing but wait, and then what else than …b4?. After 35.axb4 Qxb4 I mainly looked at 36.Ra4, while his move 36.d6 was more critical. I continued with 36…Rb8 (maybe 36…Be6!?) 37.Ra3, and here I had to find the only move that holds the fort down, 37…Db5! which is still, given my position three moves before, quite incredible 🙂 . Which I failed to do, and I quickly went downhill after 37…Qb7? 38.Kc1! Qd7 39.Qd5 Bxd6 40.Ra6! (1-0, 70 moves).

Instead of going to -1, I found myself at -3 with 4 rounds to go, definitively ruining my tournament.

In spite of my deplorable final result (5/13), it was nice to be able to meet all the players I hadn’t seen face to face for some time 🙂 . And my guess is that the organisation was at the level of the moment’s requirements – very high ones obviously – and this even if the arbiter in the last game of the tournament (intervention at the end of the game Firouzja-Wojtaszek to move on another board); but obviously it did not deserve the torrent of gratuitous nastiness that spilled over onto the organisers afterwards.

A quick word about Jorden Van Foreest, who defied all predictions and won convincingly in front of his (virtual) home audience.

In conclusion, I would say that this tournament has highlighted the fact that I still have a lot of things to improve. I have a good two months of preparation in perspective for the Candidates, since if there are no guarantees on the exact dates, everything indicates that the tournament will resume in the second half of April in Russia.

With a clear deadline now looming on the horizon, I know what I still have to do…

Maxime’s games:

During the previous Champions Chess Tour tournament, the quality of the air breathed at home by five of the participants was measured (Carlsen, So, Giri, Harikrishna and Mvl). The detectors tracked Co2, temperature, as well as humidity, volatile organic compounds, and radon.

And over the duration of the tournament, Maxime enjoyed the healthiest air on average. Coincidentally or not, Airthings noticed that it was also the one of the five who went the furthest, finishing third in the tournament!

The Indian Harikrishna was the “bad pupil”, as you can see from the figures below…

Airthings Mvl
Air quality at MVL’s home during the Airthings tournament
Airthings Harikrishna
Air quality at Harikrishna’s home during the Airthings tournament

Fresh air?

Mon baptême de l’air

Not mine, of course, but the one in my home – the air in my Parisian flat. Indeed, the sponsor of the second Champions Chess Tour tournament was the company Airthings, which specialises in air analysis. As a result, all the participants received a small box that allowed the commentators to give a regular overview of the quality of the air the players breathed 🙂 . With around 800 ppm of CO2, I think I was in a good average!

The Airthings tournament was the first of the 3 Majors of the circuit, guaranteeing a double prize fund and Tour points. That said, in terms of preparation, I must confess it’s not easy to start a tournament right after celebrating Christmas 🙂 .

Generally speaking, I didn’t play very well in the Preliminaries, especially since I missed the few opportunities I had.

PRELIMINARY PHASE

I owe my qualification to a last-minute miracle, combining an improbable (and unique) last round victory with black against Grischuk with other results – all in my favour! Qualifying 8 players out of 12 participants seems like a lot, but in the end, as I had a round 4 accident against Nepo, I found myself in a bit of trouble early on. I managed to get some more chances against Dubov and Aronian, but in the end I only scored one point out of these three games! So after eight rounds I was still at a winless -1. It was clear that it wasn’t going to be enough, especially since my last day was set to be difficult. I first lost a game against Giri in which we were both all-in, before I made an unexpected rescue against Radjabov and finished on this unexpected black win against Grischuk.

So the turning point for me was this 4th round, where not only did I miss a direct win, but I even ended up losing that game!

Mvl-Nepo, Ronde 4.
Mvl-Nepo, Round 4.

In spite of his spectacular Rook move to h2, Nepo has his King in a mating net, and the simple 37.Rxg6! would have put an end to the game: if 37…Rxf2 38.Rf6+ Kg4 39.Nxf2+, and if 37…Rf8 38.Rxh2 Bxe4+ 39.Kc3 Bxg6 40.Rf2+ (the move I had forgotten) regains the Rook, with a clear exchange up in both cases.

Instead, I played 37.Rxh2? Bxe4+ 38.Kd2, but the ending was not easy at all, although obviously the loss was not necessary at the end 🙂 . In fact, I pushed too hard to win, and I made a few risky decisions, because I thought I would always have a draw somewhere in the worst case. It didn’t happen like that and the moral is that you shouldn’t be stubbornly looking for what doesn’t exist! (0-1, 69 moves).

Maxime in an interview for Norwegian television (www.championstour.com).
Maxime in an interview for Norwegian television (www.championstour.com).

1/4 FINAL : MVL – SO 2-1

After this hard-fought qualification, my match against So started almost in the best possible way. Because if with white, I wasn’t majestic against the Berlin (in spite of promising positions), I caused some damage with the Najdorf 🙂 .

So-Mvl, ¼ finale 1.2.
So-Mvl, ¼ final 1.2.

After a struggle of rare complexity and – I believe – very high quality play, we reached the position of the diagram. Impossible to summarize the first 40 moves otherwise than by a complete bazaar on the board after bold risks taken by Wesley. Here, it is the spectacular move 41…Rf3!, threatening mate in one while cutting the Bg2’s diagonal, which allowed me to change the game for good. After 42.Qd8+ Kc6 43.Bg3 Qe6! I control as many squares as possible and in practice, the position becomes a nightmare for white to play. He immediately cracked under the pressure with 44.Rb1? which allows the liquidation sequence 44…Rxg2+! 45.Kxg2 Rxg3+ 46.Kxg3 Qg6+ 0-1. The machine claims that 44.Kh1! was still holding, but I think it would have been very, very hard for him anyway.

I also won the second Najdorf in the last game of the set, after a big mistake from him in the opening.

In the second set, it was more complicated, especially with this defeat in the first game, a Grünfeld where I did everything wrong in the opening. Then I brought myself to a good defensive performance, and I even almost succeeded to reach a draw, although I ended up losing. He defended the Berlin very, very well in the second game and didn’t try his luck in the third with white. By winning the fourth, I would have equalized the set and won the match without any tie-break; I felt that I had a big advantage, but I didn’t manage to make it work. Then I even found myself slightly worse because I pushed too hard and then lost the trend. But it was at the moment when it became easier for him that he let me back into the game, losing his pawns one after the other, until he had to transpose into an inferior endgame. But kudos for his tenacity in this opposite-coloured Bishop endgame which seemed very delicate to hold (1/2, 92 moves).

In the tie-break, I was able to shoot his Berlin wall, before losing the return blitz by missing an obvious move in the opening.

So-Mvl, Blitz 2.
So-Mvl, Blitz 2.

Here, 12…e4! refuted white’s opening by forcing the horrible 13.Ng1 (13.Qxe4? Ff5!). After this miss and 12…Re8? 13.Bxc5 e4 14.Nd4, I never had enough compensation for the pawn (1-0, 34 moves).

So, everything was going to be decided in the Armaggedon. Many were surprised by So’s choice to take white, even though we know his solidity and his ability to hold positions. But I had a feeling he would opt for the extra minute and the move, as he had been in trouble with black in our match, and to defend a Berlin with 4 minutes against 5, good luck! I understand that in general the sample is rather in favour of Black so far, but it is only a small sample and we have to take into account the specificities of each confrontation. In any case, I think his choice was fully justified, and if it had been up to me to choose, in a situation that would have been kind of symmetrical, I would have opted for white as well. So I myself had a strong decision to make, because I had also been in trouble with black in the Anti-Grünfeld. So I finally took the gamble of changing – albeit risky – to a Hedgehog, theoretically more solid. I suffered, it wasn’t perfect, but I held the draw and won the right to face my friend Levon in the semi-final.

Le studio principal des commentateurs à Oslo (www.championstours.com).
The main studio for commentators in Oslo (www.championstours.com).

1/2 FINAL : MVL – ARONIAN 0-2

I was immediately in difficulty with a first loss with white, after having clearly overestimated my position; note the very efficient conversion of Levon.

Then there were two draws, the second one being a real defensive performance from him, with moreover little time on the clock. The last game of the first set was therefore for me a must win with black, which can’t work every time 🙂 .

I didn’t have so many problems in the second set. But once again, Levon defended very accurately and it is true that he won the match on his quality to hold difficult positions, since I never managed to score against the Berlin. It could have passed at least once if he hadn’t performed some little miracles in defence. Especially in the second game, with all his weak pawns and the opposite-couloured Bishops.

In the third game, which would turn out to be the last one, a too quick choice in the opening will have been fatal for me:

Aronian-Mvl, ½ finale 2.3.
Aronian-Mvl, ½ final 2.3.

Here, I knew 8…Bg7 was the move, but I quickly decided to swap on d4 first, to take away options like 9.c4 (which wouldn’t have been good anyway). But after 8…cxd4? 9.Qxd4! (the bad news, instead of 9.cxd4 Bg7 which transposes into a normal variation), I found myself compelled to exchange Queens, which is really not the idea of the position 🙂 9…Qxd4 10.cxd4 Nc6 11.Nf3 and white is simply better. Then I defended as I could – rather ingeniously, by the way – until I finally cracked at the moment when the draw was within reach!

Aronian-Mvl, ½ finale 2.3.
Aronian-Mvl, ½ final 2.3.

In this position, I missed a simple liquidation because it had not been possible a few moves before, when the King was on e7 because of Kd4 Kf6 / Bd3 and Black is prevented from playing …e5. But here, simply 67…Bxc5! 68.dxc5 Bxa4 69.Bd3 (69.Kd4 Kf5 =) 69…e5! 70.f5 Fd7 followed by 71…Bxf5 and we can sign the draw. My move 67…Ke7 may not have been a definite loser, but it was too complicated to defend and Levon won the game, the second set and thus sealed the match (1-0, 113 moves).

Airthings Masters KO Phase Table (www.championschesstour).
Airthings Masters Bracket (www.championschesstour).

MATCH FOR THE 3rd PLACE: MVL – DUBOV 1.5-0.5

I have to admit that I am not a fan of the « little final » because the competitive aspect comes down after a defeat in the semi-final, and this is where the fatigue is really felt by the way. So I didn’t have much fun in this match because I couldn’t motivate myself.

Then, I obviously understand the idea of setting up a match for third place. It’s not a marathon either, like my match against Yu in the 2019 World Cup, which was scheduled over one week 🙂 .

I still managed to have a surge of motivation and energy in the first set, after being led 0-2.

Mvl-Dubov, Match 3e place 1.3.
Mvl-Dubov, Match for 3rd place 1.3

Here, I first looked for a win with the natural 27.Qd5, but I didn’t find it; 27…Qxd5 28.Rxd5 b4 29.Rb5 Bc3 30.Kf1 and it seems that White will win by bringing the King, but in fact it’s not enough: 30…Ra6! 31.Ke2 b3 32.Kd3 (32.Rc5 Ff6! 33.Kd3 b3 and I couldn’t find how to win with the black pawn landing in b2) 32…Be1! and I didn’t see how to progress either; if 33.Re5 Bb4, and if not I can never play Kc4 because of …b2! exchanging the a and b pawns. An exchange which would not be possible with the King on d3 because of …b2?/Rc2, but Black would then be happy to do nothing, and I have no way to make progress. So I reviewed the initial position, and I then found 27.Qd3! which blocks the b-pawn further on. After 27…Qxd3 (on a move like 27…Qc4, 28.Qf3! and the a-pawn becomes a monster) 28.Rxd3 b4 and I was now able to bring the King decisively: 29.Kf1 Kf8 30.Ke2 Bc3 31.Kd1 Ke7 32.Kc2 Ke6 33.Kb3 (1-0, 51 moves).

In the last game of the set, a draw with white was enough for him, but I don’t think it’s Dubov’s style to change his play. He always does his normal stuff – that is tense play- and doesn’t care about the result. So he opted for a pawn sacrifice in the 3.Bb5+ Sicilian. I made a mistake and he immediately had an objectively overwhelming but still complex position, in the sense that there are almost too many attractive options for white. He didn’t choose the most radical one and the position then turned into irrational, a gift from heaven when you are in a must win situation with black! I ended up winning and tied 2-2 the first set, a small miracle that wasn’t deserved at all.

In the second set, I started by winning the first game with black from a losing position again, because of the same combination « fatigue = playong too fast ».

But my quality in quick games is to know how to complicate the position to the utmost, even in the most desperate situations; and there it paid off. There has to be an advantage in playing fast, after all!

In the second game, I managed to find myself slightly worse out of an Italian with white. But there, I took a good practical decision by giving a pawn right away to get out without too much damage, and I drew.

In the third game, I tried to play more solid chess and then I finally did an incredible thing in the following position:

Mvl-Dubov, Match 3e place 2.3.
Mvl-Dubov, Match for 3rd place 3.2

I instinctively rejected 23…Qxe4 because of 24.Qh5, whereas the simple 24…Ne5! 25.Qxh6 Qg6 26.Qxg6+ Nxg6 was enough, because with the control of the e5-square, I risk nothing in this simplified position. After this mistake, I degraded my position again and ended up letting him equalise the set (1-0, 59 moves).

Luckily, I came to my senses in the last game with white, as I succeeded in taking my time at the right moments. I don’t think I would have been able to keep my full concentration in all 4 games of the day, but knowing that this one could be the last, I managed to focus (1-0, 46 moves).

In the end, I finished third in the tournament, earning a correct 5th place in the Tour rankings. I will have to improve in the Preliminary phase, because I came very close to the trap in each of the first two tournaments. Next stage of the Tour, now called Meltwater Champions Tour, will be from February 6th to 14th.

Le classement du Tour après deux tournois (www.championsschesstour).
Tour rankings after two tournaments (www.championsschesstour).

Finally, a short word about the year 2021 which is just beginning. We obviously remain a little bit in the vagueness of the pandemic, especially in relation to the resumption of the Candidates. This is of course the deadline that I have in my sights, even if we are still waiting to know the modalities, the place, the dates etc… Clearly, this will be the main objective of my year. Although, if I was to win the tournament, there would then be a new and even more important challenge for the end of the year 🙂 .

In the meantime, there are a number of other tournaments coming up, in addition to the online Meltwater Champions Tour, and I sense that the calendar for the year is going to be very busy!

In any case to start 2021, I will be happy to make my comeback on the wooden chessboard on the occasion of an Elite competition in Wijk aan zee. I haven’t been back there since the 2015 edition, which I finished in 2nd place – half a point behind Carlsen.

I arrived this Thursday 7th in the small Dutch seaside resort, where a ten-day quarantine awaits me before the start on January 16th 🙂 .

This tournament will allow me to get back in touch with my thinking mechanism in front of the board, which is obviously quite different from the one we deploy during online competitions.

Maxime’s games :

In the context of the Telethon last December, Maxime took part in the « Stars Solidaires  » (in french) operation, a tombola to win prizes offered by celebrities. Alongside many artists, but also some of the biggest names in French sport – M’Bappé, Parker, Gasly… – Maxime contributed to the overall collection of nearly €2.2M for the Telethon, thanks to 600 tickets sold under his name. In February, he will have the pleasure of welcoming the winner of his prize, Benoît, for a private masterclass.
Article on the involvement of French sportsmen: https://oran.ge/3pXOHcb (in french)

Carlsen, made it; Naka, broke it!

As every year, the www.chess.com platform organised its Speed Chess Championship in November-December, and the big novelty in 2020 was obviously the return of Carlsen, after several years of absence. 16 players, knockout format, each match consisting of a duel of increasingly faster games: 90 minutes of 5′, 60′ of 3′, and 30′ of 1′, with an unique increment of one second for each of the cadences; this is the recipe of Speed Chess…

I really like the idea of having a knockout format. The Speed Chess one is excellent, except for one thing, and that’s the main criticism I would have to make. As we are limited in time, certainly if the match is tight, it will be nice to watch anyway. But if it is really too unbalanced, after an hour and a half it can be virtually over, and we play another hour and a half for nothing. In that case, the players don’t enjoy the end of the match, and neither do the spectators. In this sense, I’ve been lucky this year, with some pretty tight matches that all settled down in the last hour. Of course, it’s also because I didn’t know how to kill some matches 🙂 . But elsewhere, this 2020 edition saw a few heads-up that were not necessarily pleasant to follow.

Another argument is that players have the possibility to slow down games voluntarily. For example, by going round in circles when leading on the scoreboard, in certain positions that allow this. That this little subterfuge is used by the players is normal, but they should not be given the opportunity to do so. So, for these two reasons, I don’t understand why we don’t start with sets rather than predefined time periods; with also a mix of all the cadences, in three winning sets. If the match is tight, it will last 3 hours anyway, and if not, then it will be shorter but the winner – for example 3-0 or 3-1 – will be indisputable.

With this reserve made, such a tournament, with almost all the best, it’s sure fun to play. It gives quality matches on the whole, except for some confrontations in the first rounds that were too lopsided.

Obviously, online Speed Chess cannot be compared to some major tournaments, such as the upcoming Tata Steel or the Candidates. But anyway, there is still a rather important dimension to playing these matches, trying to compete with all the best players in the world on formats that are rather long and therefore quite significant. So for me, a victory like the one against Magnus definitely means something 🙂 .

1/8th FINAL: MVL – SARIN 16.5-11.5

A tricky match, against the young Indian, always very dangerous.

I gradually took the lead, being four points ahead after 11 games, and that’s when I let him come back into the match, until only two points of gap remained in the Bullet. But after that, I managed to get back into the race and I took two, then three points of advantage, including three victories in a row.

Mvl-Sarin, Bullet. game 5

This is the really critical game because, even if I got a very good position at some moments, he had a nice opportunity to come back to only -1.

After 37.Rxa7?? which was a blunder, he played 37…Be2?? 38.Re7 (phew!), instead of 37…Qe3+! 38.Qf2 (38.Kf1 Bh3 or 38.Kh1 Bh3 wins the Nd2) 38…Qxf2+ 39.Kxf2 Rxh2+ and the Rd8 will come into play to win the Nd2, which would have taken him to -1.

1/4 FINAL : MVL – ARONIAN 14.5-12.5

In general, I think that the openings went well, especially with black, even if I had some difficulties with the closed Sicilian. Afterwards, Carlsen and especially Nakamura, took up these kind of variations against me.

Once again in this match, I couldn’t make any difference. In particular, I was three points up at one moment and I lost my last three black games of the 3′ segment, and quite stupidly so. Even if it is not forbidden to lose games against Aronian, when you are at +3, you are not allowed to finish at 50%!

Mvl-Aronian, 3’, game 3.

This is the game that gave me the initial advantage in the 3’ segment, and it ended very nicely: 28.c5! (the main threat is 29.Rb6 followed by Qxb3+ winning a rook) 28…Qb4 29.Nxe5+! (the refutation!) 29…fxe5 30.Qxe5 Ra7 (in spite of the defending pieces returning, the Black King remains too exposed) 31.Rd4 Qb5 32.Qe6+ Kf8 33.Rf4+ Ke8 34.c6! (the most effective, threatening mate on g8) 34…Kd8 35.Qd6+ 1-0 (35…Ke8 36.c7 is lethal).

1/2 FINAL : MVL – CARLSEN 13-11

The match poster.

It was a very tense match! After two difficult first games where the positions didn’t really turn out the way I wanted, I had a little bit of help in the third one, which was also degenerating. Luckily, Magnus threw a large part of his advantage, and even ended up losing on time! That was the strong point that I was able to show in this match, playing fast and posing concrete problems almost every time.

After that, I managed to impose my play, and tried to have him slip on banana peels on just about every game, with a consequent success rate. However, I never managed to create a significant gap. Often, I was at +2, up to +4 in the Bullet. There, it should have been over, but I lost three in a row, even though they were tough battles. Luckily I managed to pull myself together for the very last decisive game, which I was happy to win 🙂 .

On the match’s physiognomy, I think the final result is quite logical, each of us having had our share of success.

I also want to point out that all games lasted very long. 24 games is really not much, it shows that all the games were hard-fought. Because even if I played fast, I often caught up on time at the end, either to conclude well or because the position had deteriorated.

What helped me a lot was that I quickly made a difference in the Bullet. So, even when he came back at high speed towards the end, I was still able to keep a minimal lead. The final 4-4 score in the Bullet segment seems justified to me, and if I had to choose, I would say that the turning point of the whole match was the last game of the 3′ segment.

Mvl-Carlsen, 3′ – game 8.

Here I played 23.e6, which is a very tricky move after the normal 23…fxe6 24.Rg4. 24…Ne7?? is a blunder, but it’s so natural since you expect 25.Rxg7 Rxg7 26.Bxg7, and you’d rather have the Knight on e7 than on f8 or h8! Which explains why you miss the little tactic 25.Nxc5 Rxc5 26.Ba3 winning a piece. This is an example of the play based on tactical resources that I had decided to set up for this match.

FINAL: MVL – NAKAMURA 12.5-18.5

I was obviously very motivated for this final, with the idea to confirm my performance against Carlsen, even if I had to play again the next day, whereas the other semi-final had taken place 72 hours earlier.

I think the level was very high in this final match. There weren’t many mistakes, even if I started the match by dropping a Rook in one move! In fact, I always managed to come back on the score and I was quite happy with my play throughout. The only problem, but that’s always the danger in a 3-hour match, is to lose some games too easily. There are at least two or three of them, and that’s already a lot at this level. Because the games I win, I have to go and get them – because of his consistency – while he got some easy points. On the other hand, I was ultra resilient in some games, especially the last one in the 5’ segment, which I should have lost 50 times and which I finally won, allowing me to stay afloat.

The duel remained very close until the beginning of the Bullet, where I won the first two; good games though… Then he came back to +1, and I guess the turning point was the 6th Bullet:

Mvl-Nakamura, Bullet, game 6.

I felt that I had a very good position. But with only 17 seconds on the clock, I looked at 34.Ne8, 34.Nf7+, 34.Re7 and 34.Bxg7+ which I finally chose. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to find the decisive 34.Re8! Rxe8 35.Bxg7+ (35.Nxe8 b1=Q 36.Bxg7+ Kh7 37.Qf7! was also an elegant win) 35…Kxg7 36.Qf7+ Kh8 37.Nxe8 Qc3 38.Nf6. Instead, I had to defend a very unplesant endgame, though objectively drawish, after 34.Bxg7+? Rxg7 35.Nxc8 Qxc8 36.Qb5 Qc7+ 37.g3 Qb7 38.Qe8+?! (38.Re8+ Rh7 39.Tb8! was an immediate draw) 38…Kh7 39.Rb1. With only one second of increment, I couldn’t resist Hikaru’s infernal manoeuvres; it’s not a criticism, I would have done the same thing 🙂 .

Mvl-Nakamura, Bullet, game 6.

After having played Kg2-h2 for a dozen of consecutive moves while Hikaru was moving his heavy pieces without apparent goal, he finally played the tricky waiting move 55…Kg7, and after 56.Kh2?? (arrgh!) 36…Rxh4+.

Instead of equalizing, I found myself at -2, about 10 minutes from the end; too much of a handicap in front of such a specialist.

Final bracket and results.

Now I want to confirm my progress in online chess, which I will soon have the opportunity to do with the second tournament of the Champions Chess Tour, starting just after Christmas (« Airthings Masters », from December 26th).

And I’m also looking forward to getting back to the « physical » chessboards, which will be the case in Wijk aan zee (Netherlands), where the Tata Steel starts on January 16th. Please note that I will be there from the 5th of January for a 10-day period of penance, in full accordance with the Dutch sanitary regulations 🙂 .

Maxime’s games :

Absol is a renowned Youtuber in France, whose particularity is to manage a main channel (Absol Videos, 407k subscribers), but also a secondary channel (Absol Human, 45k subscribers), mainly dedicated to chess games against different guests. A few weeks ago, Maxime went to visit him and played three games against. To spice things up, the French champion was having a certain handicap, as he just played without his Queen! Quite a challenge against a club level player, and not an absolute beginner…

If you want to watch the videos, it’s this way (in French):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOjt0l71BaY (Partie 1)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TV2iCqLn-4 (Partie 2)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTmAVCSVrwU (Partie 3)

Here we go again!

Skilling open

Magnus Carlsen always thinks big. After the Carlsen Tour born out of the pandemic, he and his associates have decided to go for it again with a new online circuit, the Champions Tour. This time it will be spread over almost a year and will consist of 10 tournaments in a unique nine-day format. The first of these, held at the end of November, was the Skilling Open. Overall, I found the competition was very well attended, with quite a few viewers; and quite a lot of support for me as well, which of course helped.

This circuit offers me the chance to show that I can do better than in the previous online Tour, so I decided to approach the competition in a rather serious way, with notably more rigour and preparation 🙂 . Clearly, I was better equipped at all levels for this tournament. I really wanted to see if I could compete with the best this time 🙂 .

On the whole, I am rather satisfied with the level of play I have shown, especially in defence. It also went better in the openings, where I came back quite a bit to my favourite lines, Najdorf and Grünfeld.

It’s true that in this period where there aren’t many physical tournaments, this Tour is very welcome. This being said, the danger of such a dense circuit, composed of 10 tournaments – even if probably nobody will play them all – is fatigue. By the way, these tournaments are very tiring in terms of energy. About five hours of play every day – and that’s not five hours of play in a classical game. It’s five consecutive games, and that’s a lot; that’s five times as many key moments, intense moments, sometimes with turnarounds. It’s obviously very, very complicated to manage.

PRELIMINARY STAGE

Even though I finished the first day of the Preliminaries at -1, I was still happy, in the sense that I knew I was there, and that if I kept this level of play, I would qualify. Paradoxically on the second day, I can’t say I was that satisfied even though I won two games, because I felt I was starting to run out of energy at the end of the day.

These were in fact the first signs of what would happen next, especially in the quarter final’s second day. On the third and last day of the Preliminaries, the turning point happened to be my game against Svidler:

Svidler-Mvl, Round 13.

In this tactically very complex position, I played 21…Kg8 because after 21…Bf6, I feared 22.e5! (but not 22.Ne6+ Ke7 23.Nxc7?? cxb2+ 24.Kb1 Na3 mate!). After 22.Qe6+ Kh7, I would have taken the draw in case of 23.Qf5+ Kg8 because I didn’t see myself taking the risk 23…Kh6!?. But Peter preferred to continue with 23.Bh3 (if 23.b3, the other way of not repeating moves, I wanted 23…Qa5, and even the vicious 23…Nde5!? was possible). That’s where I did the irreparable with 23…Bf6? ; it’s hard to justify why I didn’t take b2 with check before, but I just thought I had time and that he could never play b3. But now after 24.Bf5+ Kh6 25.b3! I am simply busted because the planned reply 25…Qa5 would have been refuted by 26.Rdg1! which gives the d1 square to the White King while completing the mating attack (1-0, 40 moves).

Against Ding Liren in the penultimate round, there was an interesting moment in the opposite-coloured Bishop endgame.

Mvl-Ding Liren, Round 14.

Here Ding played 43…Bf2 and waited for my King to slide to f5 before playing …b6 (Draw, 50 moves). This was the most relevant choice because the impression that there is a fortress simply by playing 43…b6? 44.Bg4 Be3 45.Kc6 Bd2 46.Kxb6 Bb4 is an illusion. Those who have studied these endings a little will quickly notice that the break on b4 is in the air! It is necessary to prepare this move correctly, and if it is in no way forced, the long variation which follows illustrates well that the fortress certainly does not hold: 47.Kc6 Ba3 48.Kd5 Bb4 49.Ke5 Bc3+ 50.Kf5 Bd2 51.Bf3 Be1 52.Bd5 Bd2 53.Kg6 Be3 (54.b4! would follow in any case against any other move) 54.b4! cxb4 55.c5! Bxc5 56.Kxh6 Kf6 57.Kh7 Be3 58.Kg8 Bh6 59.Bb3 Ke7 (59…Be3 60.Kf8 Bc5+ 61.Ke8) 60.Kh7 Bf4 61.Kg6 Be3 62.h6 Bd4 63.h7 Bc3 64.Kf5 Bb2 65.Ke4 Kd6 66.Bd5 b3 (sooner or later forced in order to get …Fc3, because otherwise white plays Kd3-c4-b5-xa5 and wins with the a pawn) 67.Bxb3 Bh8 68.Bd5 Bg7 69.Kd3 Bh8 70.Kc4 Bg7 71.Kb5 Bc3 72.h8=Q Bxh8 73.Kxa5 Bf6 74.Ba2 Kc5 75.Ka6 Kc6 76.a5 with a trivial win.

It was ultimately a defeat of Alireza Firouzja in the last round that allowed me to qualify for the quarter-finals at his expense…

In this preliminary phase, I think I was not paid very well for my efforts. It is true that I qualified a bit by a miracle at the end, but it is also clear that considering the games themselves, I could have done it much more comfortably.

¼ FINAL: MVL-NAKAMURA

Objectively, this match turned out to be really unclear and very tense, and could easily have gone either way. I won the first set a bit of a snatch and then collapsed in the second, but I still had opportunities in the tiebreak that I could have – and should have – converted.

I opened the score in the first game, in one of the most analysed variations of the Berlin Defense.

Mvl-Nakamura, ¼ Final, Set 1, Game 1.

In this exact position, during the Candidates Tournament in March, Grischuk had played 26…Ke7. After a long think, Hikaru opted for 26…Be6?, a bad move. I suspect that he was not so well prepared or that he didn’t remember the lines correctly. In any case, I was able to calculate the nice sequence 27.Rf2 Rd8 28.h5 Rh6 29.Nxf7 Bxf7 30.Bxh6 gxh6 31.e6! Bxh5 32.g4! (deflecting the Bishop from the promotion square of the e-pawn) 32…Bxg4 (32…Bg6 33.Rf6) 33.e7 Nd7 (with the Bishop on g4, 33…Rc8? is not possible anymore because of 34.Rf8+) 34.exd8=Q+ Kxd8 35.Rf7 with an ending that looks won, but which is not so simple at all in reality. After 35…h5 36.Rg7 Nc5 37.Re5 b6, I was almost sure that the direct transition by 38.Rg8+?! Kd7 39.Rxc5 bxc5 40.Ra8 would not be enough to win; indeed, after 40…c4! 41.c3 (41.Rxa5 c3! and the c2-pawn becomes too vulnerable) 41…c5 42.Rxa5 Kc6 followed by …Kb6, there are still three black pawns on the c-file, and the a-pawn is very well controlled. So I preferred to start with 38.Kf2, and I was expecting 38…Na6! after which I still don’t know if White can win. I looked a bit at it after the tournament, but so far I don’t see an entry point for white. On the other hand, after his unfortunate choice of 38…a5?, this time I was able to sac an exchange back under good circumstances, because after 39.Rxc5! bxc5 40.Rg5 Kc8 41.Rxc5 Kb7 42.Rxa5 Kb6 43.Rg5, Black has a version of the endgame with one of the c pawns missing, making the technical realisation much easier (1-0, 52 moves).

Maxime commenting from his living room (www.chess24.com).

In the last game of this first set – where a draw was enough for me – I quickly took a decisive advantage with black. But Hikaru has the impressive quality of being able to find practical counter-chances in almost every situation. I even nearly lost this game, from a position three pawns up 🙂 . Fortunately, I defended rather well when the situation threatened to become critical, and I found the right moves when I had to.

We finally got the following position:

Nakamura-Mvl, ¼ Final, Set 1, Game 2.

Here, Black threatens to brutally push his g-pawn, but I was able to calculate the following sequence: 45…e4 46.g5 hxg5 47. hxg5 e3 48. g6 e2 49.Re6 (if 49.g7, I had first seen 49…e1=Q 50.gxh8=Q Qe2+ 51.Kg3 Qxa6 with a probable draw, but the winning 49…Rg8! is much more efficient !) 49…Rh5! and liquidation is now total after 50.Kf2 Rf5+ 51.Ke1 Rf1+ 52.Kd2 Rd1+ 53.Kc2 e1=Q 54.Rxe1 Rxe1 55.g7 Rg1 56.g8=Q Rxg8 57.Bxg8 Nxa2 58.Bxa2 b3+ 59.Bxb3 Draw.

In the second set, I wasn’t into it and it showed…

So it all came down to the tie-break. In the first leg, I think we produced a very high quality game for blitz.

Mvl-Nakamura, ¼ Final, tie-break, first leg..

Here, I think that Hikaru may have let himself be exhilarated by the position and that he wanted to play for the win. In any case, he certainly missed 36.Qf6!, which causes a lot of problems. White threatens 37.Rd6 or 37.Rd8, the Rd5 is immune in view of 37.Qxh6, and the exchange of Queens leads to a miserable endgame because of the pawn duo f6-g7 which suffocates the Black King. After the correct and unique 36…Rc1 (preventing the Rd5 from moving because of mate on h1) 37.Rf3, I was expecting 37…Qxf6 38.exf6 which remains complicated, even if my instinct told me that it should be equal. On the other hand, neither he nor I imagined that black could avoid mate after 37…Qxd5 38.Qxh6 f5! ; it is obviously the machine that demonstrates it. Hikaru finally blundered with 37…Rh1+? 38.Kxh1 Qxd5 39.Qxh6! Qxf3+ 40.Kg1 f6 41.Qh8+ Kf7 42.e6+! Ke7 43.Qxe8+ Kxe8 44.g8=Q+ Ke7 45.Qf7+ Kd6 46.Qd7+ Kc5 47.e7 1-0.

Nakamura-Mvl, ¼ Final, tie-brea, second leg.

The opening of the second blitz, where a draw was enough for me, went like a dream, when I quickly won the exchange. I regret to have taken material right away though, as the « draw blackmail » with 23…Na2! 24.Rc2 Nb4 would have forced him to play 25.Rcd2 Bxd2 26.Rxd2 Nd5 with an easier winning position. After 23…Bxc1 24.Rxc1 Nd5 25.f3, a straightforward liquidation solution existed however, guaranteeing at least a draw in the endgame… Simply 25…Rxc3! 26.bxc3 Qxb1 27.Rxb1 Nxc3 28.Rb2 Nxe2+ 29.Rxe2 exf3 and it would have been curtains on the match! Instead, I played 25…exf3?! 26.Bxf3 Qb5?! and in this position, it’s no more simple at all ; there are already counter-chances for white, based on the position of my king, on my black squares weaknesses, and on his white-squared Bishop, which is quite powerful. It’s not easy to manage such a position in a blitz game and the rest of the game was the proof of it! I quickly got into a lot of trouble whereas normally, after 22…Nb4, the game should have been over (1-0, 54 moves).

After this big miss, I couldn’t do better than a draw with white in the Armageddon. signing my elimination from the tournament.

The Skilling Open knockout bracket (www.championschesstour.com).

Congratulations to Wesley So for his final victory in the tie-break against Carlsen himself.

For my part, I am happy to be qualified for the next Tour tournament, which will start just after Christmas. I will try to do even better in terms of quality of play.

In the meantime, I will be competing in the semi-final of the Speed Chess Championship against Carlsen, on the 11th of December, 6pm CET.

Maxime’s games:

QUEEN’S GAMBIT

The series produced by Netflix is all the rage and everyone is talking about it. As for me, I was on the whole pleasantly surprised by the way in which the world of chess was portrayed, as well as by the game scenes themselves. In addition, the series is full of great images, with a nice soundtrack. On all these aspects, I have almost no complaints, especially since the acting of the lead actress, Anya Taylor-Joy, is excellent. But the flaw in Queen’s Gambit, in my opinion, is the script itself, which seems to me to be too light, as if a little sloppy. This reservation prevented me from really getting into the story and fully appreciating the series.
I had the opportunity to give my opinion to the daily Libération, on the series itself and on the situation in the chess world in general. Read it there: https://www.liberation.fr/sports/2020/12/04/echecs-the-queen-s-gambit-est-le-plus-gros-coup-mediatique-depuis-deep-blue-contre-kasparov_1807526 (paying article in French).

Back on board!

Bundesliga 2020

For me, the start of the new school year in September was marked by a succession of three tournaments. The first and the third would not deviate from what has become the new standard for the last six months, and were obviously held online.

SAINT-LOUIS SHOWDOWN

The Saint-Louis Showdown, from 11 to 13 September, had the particularity of being played in Chess960, a format that offers the advantage of not requiring any work on the openings. So I prepared very simply, by playing a few practice games against Stockfish, the result of which I will keep secret so as not to damage my self-esteem 🙂 .

10 players, an all-round format over three days, the presence of world champion Magnus Carlsen, 960 world champion Wesley So, the legend Garry Kasparov and rising star Alireza Firouzja – this made the competition very attractive! In spite of that, it took me a barren spell of 5 games before I could settle my play. In particular, I lost the first three, against Carlsen, Caruana and Nakamura. The one against Caruana hurt me most…

Caruana-Mvl, Round 2.

Here, a normal move like 28…Rd8 would have left black with a more pleasant position. Unfortunately, I had anticipated the follow-up and I (too) quickly played 28…Qxg2?? which loses directly after 29.b4! because the Bishop is overloaded and cannot prevent Rb6 and Re7 at the same time, with mate on b7 (1-0, 38 moves).

With 0.5/5 and being a deserved laggard in the tournament standings, I got a gift from Svidler who declined a perpetual to self-destruct, then from Dominguez who made a decisive mistake losing a pawn on the third move!

Mvl-Dominguez, Round 7.

In this position, the new American played 3…0-0? (yes, don’t forget that this is possible in 960 🙂 ). But after 4.Bf4 Qc5 5.Qc3! Qxc3 6.Nbxc3 Ne6 (6…c6 was ugly, but probably a lesser evil) 7.Nd5! the mate threat on e7 changes everything! (1-0, 73 moves).

I continued with my only clean game against Aronian, before an ultimate fighting draw against Kasparov.

Final rankings of the Saint-Louis Showdown (Image www.saintlouischessclub.org).

With a final score of 4/9 and a 6th place in the rankings, I almost saved my bacon, but it is clear that the path to it was rather ugly…

BANTER BLITZ CHESS 24

On 23 and 24 September I took part in the final phase of the Banter Blitz organised on Chess24. 16 players in the bracket, knockout matches at the best of 10 games (cadence 3/2).

The idea of this formula is to make the broadcast attractive because the matches are commented live by the players themselves. It’s rather nice to share your emotions a little bit, like what I think about during a game. But it’s never easy to play and talk at the same time, and I have to say that I feel I’ve really played the game – and probably talked too much 🙂 . For sure it’s exhausting, but fortunately it doesn’t last that long.

Tournament bracket of the Banter Series by Chess24 (Image www.chess24.com).

In terms of results, I’m not unhappy with what I’ve done on the whole, even if, when I play online, I often get slack, like I have blanks that cost a lot. In the 1/8th final against Oparin, my team-mate in Asnières, I was able to control the situation (5.5-1.5), but it didn’t go the same against Wesley So in ¼ finals. I was leading 4-2 – certainly against the run of play because I had been under pressure in most of the games – before collapsing and losing 4-6.

I think the turning point of the match came in the 9th game when the score was 4-4:

Mvl-So, Game 9.

In this slightly superior position I was really unlucky as I played 31.d5? immediately realising that it was a blunder because of the « coming from nowhere » tactical resource 31…cxd5,and if 32.cxd5? Ng5! and I lose material. But apparently Wesley hadn’t seen it according to his stream, and maybe I should have bluffed and quickly taken back on d5. In the game, I just ended up a pawn down after 32.Nd2 Ng5 (0-1, 45 moves).

Of course, I am a bit disappointed to have lost this match, especially after having been clearly ahead, but then again, I had a 4-game long downfall, which is not manageable …

BUNDESLIGA

In between these two online tournaments, I had the pleasure of spending a week in Germany in order to get back in touch with the classic game of chess, face to face. Indeed, the Bundesliga had decided to organise a 2020 championship with 8 teams, while waiting to resume next spring the 2019/2020 championship which had been interrupted after 8 rounds because of the pandemic.

Aerial view of the Karlsrühe Exhibition Centre.

About sixty players met on September 16th at the Karlsrühe Exhibition Center, only a few kilometers away from the French border. Mention must go to the organisers who, despite the circumstances, were able to create a very pleasant environment and atmosphere in the playing hall. My coach Etienne Bacrot accompanied me in this mini-competition, but as a player since he too is a member of the Baden-Baden club. Germany required us to have a negative Covid test of less than 48 hours to enter its territory without forced quarantine, so we had to show great ingenuity to get it in the Parisian suburbs the day before departure 🙂 .

I started the competition on the second board – behind Caruana – against the German GM Heimann :

MVL – HEIMANN (2617) 1-0

I must say that I got used relatively easily to the new constraints of the « physical » chess game; the Plexiglas which cuts the chessboard in two does not really represent a discomfort, and it makes it possible not to wear the mask. The obligation is only activated as soon as you get up from your seat. For my part, I usually wear the mask, but I allow myself a few « breaks »…

Mvl-Heimann, Ronde 1.

My last move 21.Re1!? set a nice trap into which my opponent did not fall; indeed, in case of 21…hxg5? it should be understood that the trap was not 22.Qxe5 Qxe5 23.Rxe5 Rf7 24.Bxg5 Ra7 25.Bxe7?! Raxe7 26.Rxe7 Rxe7 27.Nxf5 with a fairly balanced endgame, but rather 25.Nxf5! Nxf5 (25…Rxf5 26.Rxe7 Rxe7 27.Bxe7 and the 2 Bishops should dominate the Rook) 26.Re8+ Kh7 27.Bc2 g6 28.Re6! with ideas of g4 or h4-h5, and it seemed to me that the compensation for the exchange was full and complete.

After 21.Re1!?, Heiman replied correctly with 21…e4 22.Qh5 Bg6 23.Qh3 Nf5 24.Nxf5 Bxf5 with a very unclear position which he played badly afterwards (1-0, 39 moves).

HUSCHENBETH (2612) – MVL 0-1

Same opponent profile as the day before, 28-year-old German GM with a ranking a little above 2600… I played a Hedgehog-type position that turned out well for me in a match that saw us score one of our three 7-1 in the competition (0-1, 51 moves).

MVL – TARI (2630) 1-0

Magnus’ Norwegian runner-up chose a line in the Semi-Tarrasch that I knew was dangerous for black since a painful defeat against Grischuk.

Mvl-Tari, Round 4.

I reached this winning position, the most trivial solution to end the game probably being 29.Rxe7 Qxe7 30.Bxe4. But I opted for the more aesthetic – and perhaps also faster – 29.Qg6!? Qxg6 30.Bxg6 Bxg6 31.Rxe7 Bxh5 32.Rxg7. Because of the discovered checks looming on the long diagonal, black is in fact totally helpless: the game ended with 32…Rd1+ 33.Kh2 Be2 34.f4 h5 35.Kg3 Rf1 36.Kh4 Rxf4+? 37.Rg4+! 1-0.

Mc SHANE (2680) – MVL ½

The only game where I suffered, after a good prep from the Englishman reputed to be « the strongest amateur in the world ». (1/2, 45 moves).

Mvl against Malakhov in the last decisive round, with mask and Plexiglas window (Image www.chess24.com).

MALAKHOV (2669) – MVL ½

The decisive match of the last round, against the co-leaders from Viernheim. I had my second black in a row, against the very solid Russian GM Malakhov, and a small curiosity arose in the opening:

Malakhov-Mvl, Round 7.

I had already reached this position against Xiong at the 2018 Isle of Man tournament. Except that because of move orders and interversions, my pawn was already on h6 instead of h7! A minimal difference, however, which should not modify the judgement of the position. So, I remembered what I had written here at the time, namely that my move …Kd7?! was not famous and that it was better to go 18…Nd7, with the idea …g6 and …f5.

After 18…Nd7, my opponent anticipated this plan and made the right choice 19.Nf5! Bxf5 20.exf5 Nf6 21.Fe3 Rc4 22.Rc1 followed by 23.b3 and then Nd5 with a quick draw (1/2, 26 moves).

By narrowly winning this last match, Baden-Baden has added another title to an already long list …

Bundesliga 2020 final rankings (Image www.schachbundesliga.de).

September is just over now, and it’s time to focus on the Candidates 🙂 , with a few days of holidays and the resumption of specific preparation. The first round of the tournament is still scheduled for November1 in Yekaterinburg, although, at the time of writing, I have no further details, and still no news of the health protocol…

Maxime’s game in the Showdown:

Maxime’s games in Bundesliga :

Maxime’s games in Banter :

C’est en 2009, alors qu’il se trouvait à Wijk aan zee pour le traditionnel Festival de janvier, que l’artiste tchèque Peter Herel Raabenstein décida de mettre en œuvre un projet qui lui tenait à cœur : réunir les peintures ayant trait au jeu d’échecs à travers l’histoire. Pendant dix ans, ce n’est donc pas dans les arcanes de la Défense Sicilienne ou des finales de Tours qu’il se plongea, mais dans une recherche méthodique des peintures à thématique échiquéenne, au gré de ses voyages à travers le monde et de ses rencontres. C’est ainsi qu’est né « Art in Chess 1100-1900 », le premier opus de ce travail de titan, qui compile plusieurs centaines de peintures de la période. Plus d’infos sur le livre : https://chessinart.com.