Online Marathon Finale

Champions Chess Tour

After my long stay in the United States, I finally came home on September 12. I was able to reconnect with the pleasures of French life 🙂 . I could see a lot of people again, because after 2 months in the United States, there were plenty of them that I had not been able to meet during the summer.

I was offered a wild-card to play the Champions Chess Tour Final for which I was the first non-qualifier. I had indicated beforehand that I didn’t want to go to Oslo and inflict an extra trip on myself, especially in view of the Grand Swiss in Riga and the preparations to be fine-tuned. Fortunately, the organizers agreed that I could play from Paris.

I also wanted to be in a more « studious » setting than my living room. After my manager contacted all the parties involved (town hall, club and FFE – French Chess Federation), I was able to play all my games from the Château d’Asnières, where the FFE headquarters are located, in a room that was kindly lent to me. It was also more convenient not to play from home, because the presence of a referee was mandatory. Joëlle Mourgues and Loriane Lebret shared the thankless task of watching me for nine days!

I had already played two tournaments on the Internet while not at home: in March, where I played from my training place in the Alps, and where Internet access was a bit complicated. And of course, in St. Louis this summer, just after the Sinquefield Cup, where I played in the club premises. But that was a little different too, because the games were played very, very early…

Le château d'Asnières - Image : Wikipedia
Asnières castle – (Wikipedia)

This final of the Champions Tour online was pretty uneven on my part. I think I got into the swing of things pretty well and had some good matches at the beginning. Then I got tired because of the intensity of the matches. Also, I was playing different openings, which made me overwork during the games, since I was in positions that I wasn’t very familiar with. Of course, I didn’t play randomly either, I knew a few things 🙂 .

MVL-Aronian: 4-3

A very interesting match, where I came back well in the last long rapid game (15 min + 10 is like a long game 🙂 ). There was a lot of bouncing around in the blitz, but I managed to win the Armageddon in the finish.

MVL-So: 2.5-0.5

My tournament was off to a good start, especially since I followed it up with a second win, this time against Wesley So. A short match (3 games) but it was quite intense in terms of games.

MVL-Carlsen: 2.5-3.5

I lost the third round to Magnus in a tie-breaker. The content of my games wasn’t bad, but I could have certainly done better to win this match.

MVL-Mamedyarov: 1.5-2.5

My first real regret was that duel with the Azeri… I missed a few chances to finish it off, and in general I didn’t play well because of the fatigue that was beginning to show. I wasn’t happy with myself after that match.

MVL-Duda: 2.5-0.5

Just before the rest day, I had a convincing win against Duda.

MVL-Artemiev: 2.5-3.5

A very tight match against the Russian player. I made some questionable decisions, including playing the Dutch in the second blitz game, after having missed the win in the first one with 3 minutes against 10 seconds!

MVL-Nakamura: 3-4

The spring broke in this match. I missed an elementary win in the second game, when I had come back from a difficult position:

Nakamura-Mvl, Ronde 6, 2e partie.
Nakamura-Mvl, Round 6, game 2

Instead of 43…Re2?, 43…Re1+! would have won on the spot. It hurt, because it was an easy opportunity to end the match.

In the third game, I made a « misclick » on the very first move (1.e3 instead of 1.e4!) which is a bit unpleasant, but finally I got away without damage 🙂 .

The fourth game was completely crazy; a kind of King’s Indian attack where his pawns were about to Queen. In the next position, I felt like I had the opportunity to launch a mating attack:

Nakamura-Mvl, Ronde 6, 4e partie.
Nakamura-Mvl, Round 6, game 4

Unfortunately I made a mistake with 29…Nf6?. The right way to attack would have been to first bring the Queen with 29…Qg5!. And after 30.Qg3 Bh5? (30…Qc8) 31.Qd6! Qe8 32.Qe5 Qd8 33.a5, I could not generate any more play on his King. From then on, he found all the right moves and won convincingly.

After winning the first blitz, I lost the second one due to questionable choices, and in the final Armageddon, I just blundered horribly.

MVL-Giri: 1.5-2.5

After the missed opportunities against Nakamura, fatigue took over. I made a non-match against Anish Giri, where I couldn’t find anything with White against the Petroff. And with Black, I lost a stupid game in the opening by playing 9…Tb8?! when I knew the right move was 9…Bb4.

Giri-Mvl, Ronde 8, 1e partie.
Giri-Mvl, Round 8, game 1

MVL-Radjabov: 0.5-2.5

This last match was like the previous one. I couldn’t understand what he was getting at with his Berlin. However, I couldn’t find the means to take an advantage, even putting myself in danger stupidly, especially in the first game.

Radjabov-Mvl, Round 9, game 2.

In the second game, I experimented with a Ragozin that went very badly, actually getting the kind of position I wanted to avoid 🙂 . In the diagrammed position, I knew that the theoretical continuation, which had been played the day before by Mamedyarov against the same Radjabov, was 7…Nc6 8.Nd2 g5!?. I wanted to try to play solid, even if it meant being slightly worse, with 7…c6 8.e3 Nd7 9.Bd3 Ndf6 10.0-0 Fg4, but my position deteriorated very quickly after 11.Qc2 Bxf3 12.gxf3 Nxc3 13.bxc3 Bd6 14.Bg3 and White threatens e4-e5, and I immediately found myself much worse off.

In the last game, I thought I had a chance, but he found a good defensive follow-up. I could still force a draw by perpetual, but knowing that I would have black in the last game, I tried a rather improbable all-in, which actually had little chance of succeeding 🙂 .

I regret this end of the tournament, which I would have preferred to finish on a better note. I may have underestimated the intensity of this format with 9 rounds of four games, plus possible tie-breaks. It’s actually very different from 9 long games. Even if the length of the match is the same, the intensity is different because 4 games, plus possible tie-breaks, means more twists and turns, and more things to digest. And it’s true that at the end, it clearly disturbed me. I wanted to play hard-fought and intense chess and I think that’s what I did, until fatigue got the better of me. I’m happy with the match against Wesley So, where I was very alert, where I could see a lot. It was my most accomplished match of the tournament.

I must also admit that overall, I held back a bit in this tournament: indeed, it was useless to come out with big preparations for a tournament where Magnus started with a 14-point lead over me 🙂 . That said, when we signed the contract at the beginning of the season, we all knew the format and we knew that this could happen.

Classement final du Champions Chess Tour
Champions Chess Tour final standings

In my opinion, it is certainly normal to take into account the preliminary tournaments, but players like Artemiev who only played 3 of them, were at a disadvantage for the final. I think that while keeping a bonus system at the start of the finals (at what scale, that’s the debate…), we could have imagined a play-off with the top 4 at the end. That would have added some stakes and all the players could have tried to play for that 4th place.

As far as I’m concerned, the main thing in the next few weeks will be to prepare myself as well as possible, in order to be ready for the Grand Swiss, which will start in Riga on 27 October. A competition with a huge stake, since it will qualify the first two for the 2022 Candidates Tournament.

If I qualify in Riga, I’ll gain three months of preparation! And if I don’t succeed, there is always the last possibility, to qualify via the FIDE Grand Prix tournaments, scheduled in Berlin from February to April.

Maxime’s games:

Since 2016, New Yorker Ben Johnson has been publishing a weekly long-form audio podcast with a personality from the chess world. Many top players have already revealed themselves on his airwaves, including Anand, Kramnik, Polgar, Nakamura, to name a few. But also authors, streamers, trainers and the list is not exhaustive…
At the end of September, Maxime was the 245th guest of this show, whose success is undeniable. The long format allows you to go more in depth with the guest, but listeners who are in a hurry can just go directly to the themes that interest them, since they are perfectly listed for each podcast.
Listen to the podcast on Ben’s website.

American tour

Road trip

As I already explained, I arrived in the US very early – on August 1st – directly from Russia. From my hotel room in St. Louis, I had all the time I needed to deal with the jet lag, but also to work well in advance on my series of three tournaments, obviously giving priority to the first and most important of them, the Sinquefield Cup, which started on August 17.

Of course, I also kept an eye on the other events that were taking place during that time, including the World Cup semi-finals and finals, as well as the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz, in which I did not play – despite being a five-minute walk from the club 🙂 . Until the last day, there were uncertainties about the presence of some players, and several of them unfortunately could not make the trip, mainly because of the pandemic.

In St. Louis, wearing a mask was compulsory, but I had anticipated this by training for this new way of playing in the Bundesliga last year, even though it wasn’t compulsory! I don’t really have a problem with it. Other players have come to terms with it too, like Caruana, who used to find it very uncomfortable.

I enjoyed the fact that I had a rather favourable pairing, including five whites, and often against the lower ranked players, which is the best configuration to try to score points.

SINQUEFIELD CUP

In fact, everything worked beyond my expectations in this tournament, especially the 4.5/5 with white. Because even though I played well in those games with white, and managed to put a lot of pressure on my opponents, there are certainly other circumstances in which the opponents would have found all the best moves until the end, which was not the case here! Svidler cracked. Shankland cracked. In a way, Swiercz also cracked, since after a meticulous preparation, with an hour’s advance on the clock, he went immediately wrong. I would say that I had a certain form of success, but it was provoked 🙂 . Another point of satisfaction is that I made very few miscalculations in the tournament: I made one against Xiong, but without any damage.

Compulsory mask in Saint-Louis (photo: GCT).

Anyway, I was very happy to get back to winning and I hope this is the start of a new cycle. Now that I’m back in the top 10, I hope to get a little closer to the first place in the next few classic events.

Here are some highlights from my tournament:

MVL-SVIDLER

A very interesting game, with quite a lot of opening preparation on both sides, in the new hype 3.h4 against the King’s Indian / Grunfeld complex. It all came down to a bad retreat move by the Knight, which gave me the opportunity to show a very elegant zugzwang!

Mvl-Svidler, Ronde 1.
Mvl-Svidler, Round 1.

28.Qa8! Qd7 (if 28…f6 29.Qc8! ; in the game, Peter preferred 28…c4 29.Qd8 Qa4 30.Kg2 Qb5 31.Bb2! 1-0; note that 31.Qxe7 was more spectacular, but much less simple; 31…Nxg7 32.hxg7 Kxg7 33.d6 Qc5 34.e5 c3 35.Qf6+ Kh6 36.d7 c2 37.Qf4+! Kg7 38.d8=Q c1=Q 39.Qdf6+ followed by mate) 29.e5! and I had calculated the following line: 29…c4 (29…e6 30.d6 c4 31.Bf6! followed by 32.Qd8) 30.e6 fxe6 31.dxe6 Qb5 32.f4 g5 33.f5 g4 34.Kg2 and black has no move left!

After an unspectacular but very complex draw against Rapport, I had to deal with another very targeted opening work from Shankland, who spilled his prep at full speed.

Unfortunately for him, he made a huge mistake further on in the game, by accepting a transposition into a losing pawn endgame!

MVL-SHANKLAND

Mvl-Shankland, Ronde 3.
Mvl-Shankland, Ronud 3.

Instead of 31…Ne8, the American allowed the exchange of Knights by 31…Ke7? 32.Nxd6 cxd6 (32…Kxd6 would not have changed the verdict: 33.b3 Kc5 34.Ke4 Kb4 35.Kf5 Kxb3 36.c5 e4 37.Kxe4 a4 38.d6 cxd6 39.cxb6 a3 40.b7 a2 41.b8=Q a1=Q 42.Qxd6 and the b-pawn will decide) 33.Ke4 Kf6 34.b3 Kg6 35.c5! dxc5 36.d6 Kf7 37.Kd5 e4 (37…Ke8 38.Kc6 Kd8 39.Kxb6 and white is faster, e.g. 39…a4 40.bxa4 c4 41.a5 c3 42.a6 c2 43.a7 c1=Q 44.a8=Q+ Kd7 45.Qc6+) 38.Kc6 e3 39.d7 e2 40.d8=Q e1=Q 41.Kxb6 and the advanced b-pawn forced black to give up a few moves later.

I then lost to Dominguez, mainly because I forgot the correct Queen retreat on the 23rd move of an ultra sharp Najdorf line, though I had it in my notes 🙂 . Nevertheless, his brilliant refutation of my mistake must be noted, as it earned him the beauty prize of the tournament.

Discours du vainqueur (photo : GCT).
Victory speech (photo: GCT).

MVL-SWIERCZ

In one of the Italian’s fashionable lines, Swiercz also spouted his home preparation until the novelty 17…Qh4.

Mvl-Swiercz, Round 5.

I quickly understood that if I played the natural 18.Nc5, he was going to throw out ten more moves of prep, which was confirmed to me thereafter:-) .

So I found an alternative with the Nd2-c4 manoeuvre, which has the double merit of changing the character of the position, and of taking him out of his book, which his very long reflection showed. After 18.Nd2 exd4 19.Nc4, he made the mistake 19…Rad8?, underestimating the strength of 20.Bxc6 bxc6 21.Bd2! ; in his defense, it was not easy to anticipate that black was already worse in this position. Instead of 19…Rad8?, he should have exchanged Queens by 19…dxc3 20.bxc3 Qg3! and the bishop pair will give white some compensation for the pawn, but probably no more.

CARUANA-MVL

As in the Candidates, Fabiano and I had a real theoretical fight on one of the big lines of the Najdorf. And after more than thirty moves of preparation 🙂 , we got the following position:

Caruana-MVL, round 6
Caruana-MVL, round 6

Here I hesitated for a long time between exchanging Queens by 37…Qb5 or supporting the h-pawn by 37…Kh8 followed by …Rh7. I made the latter choice and Stockfish claims that white would have been winning after 38.Rh2 (Caruana played 38.Rd2) 38…Rh7 39.Qc4!. Which is probably true objectively, but far from being clear in practice. So I should have opted for 37…Qb5! anyway, which I discarded because of a calculation mistake at the end of a long variation. This is the randomness that also exists in chess: I could have lost this game for having forgotten a hidden resource at the end of a long 12-move variation… After 37…Qb5 38.Rh2 (38.Qe6 Qd7) 38…Qxd5+ 39.exd5 Rh7 40.Bd2 Rh4 (threatening 41…Rd4) 41.Be3 Kf7 42.Kb1 Rh5 43.Kc2 Bh6! (otherwise, white’s King quietly goes up the board) 44.gxh6 Kxf6 45.Kd3 g5 46.Ke2 Rxh6 (46…g4 47.Kf2 Rf5+ 48.Kg1! followed by 49.Rf2) 47.Kf3 Kf5 48.Kg3 and here, you’re supposed to have seen from far away 48…Rh7! 49.Rxh3 Rb7 with enough counterplay to draw.

In the game, after 38.Rd2 Rh7 39.Bxd6, I decided to force the draw by 39…Qxd6 40.Qxd6 Bxd6 41.Rxd6 Kg8. I still hesitated to try 39…h2, to encourage him into a difficult choice at move 40! I saw that 40.Bxf8 Qxd5+ 41.Rxd5 h1=Q 42.Rd8 Kg8 43.Bh6+ Kf7 44.Rd7+ forced a draw, but I thought he might have been tempted by 40.Qa8? which loses to 40…Qf7+ 41.Rd5 h1=Q 42.Bxf8 Qg8!, or by 40.Bxe5? Qxd5+ 41.Rxd5 h1=Q 42.f7+ Rg7, or also 40.Qxe5? Qf7+! (but not 40…h1=Q? 41.f7+ Rg7 42.Rh2+ Qxh2 43.Qxh2+ Rh7 44.Be5+Bg7 45.f8=R#). But I considered that the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze, and that if I missed something in one of these variations, I would look ridiculous!

I was then able to score another win against the main line of the Berlin – which always makes me happy 🙂 – even if my young opponent Xiong made it a bit easier for me, not being a specialist of the opening.

MVL-SO

In this game of the penultimate round, I wanted to play for the win because it was a good opportunity to put pressure on my opponent and challenge him for the top spot, not in the tournament, but in the Grand Chess Tour itself. But I also didn’t want to burn out my ships because I was also alone in the lead of the tournament. So with my team, we decided to opt for a very specific sub-variation against the Berlin, the one that the Russian Paravyan had played against me in the World Cup a few weeks ago, during one of my rare forays in this opening with black 🙂 .

Mvl-So, Ronde 8.
Mvl-So, Ronde 8.

Here, So played 12…c6 while against Paravyan in the tie-breaks, I had preferred 12…Be6. I remember that during this game, I didn’t like 12…c6 because of 13.Ba3 Nd6 14.Qd2, threatening 15.Qf4, forgetting that 14…Bg5 was then completely ok for black.

So, after So’s 12…c6, I unrolled my prepared line 13.Ba3 Nd6 14.Qf3. He replied with the ultra-solid 14…Be6 15.Qf4 Be7, but I think white got a slight edge after 16.Bd3. Unfortunately, I was not able to to make this edge grow, and we quickly exchanged everything towards the draw. The game would have taken a completely different turn if he had chosen the tempting exchange sacrifice 14…Nf5 15.Bxf8 Nxd4: after a Queen move, 16…Qxf8 and the compensation is obvious. But I had cooked the spectacular 16.Qxf6! gxf6 (16…Qxf6? 17.Re8) 17.Be7, and the complications begin!

A quick draw in the last round against Mamedyarov allowed me to win the Sinquefield Cup alone, but also to finish second in the Grand Chess Tour, for the fourth consecutive year! A funny statistic.

Final standings of the Sinquefield Cup :


PlayerElo12345678910Points
1Maxime Vachier-Lagrave2751
½0½½11½116
2Fabiano Caruana2806½
½½½101½1
3Leinier Domínguez27581½
½½½½½½1
4Wesley So2772½½½
½½½½11
5Richard Rapport2763½½½½
½½01½
6Sam Shankland270900½½½
½1½½4
7Jeffery Xiong271001½½½½
½½04
8Shakhriyar Mamedyarov 2782½0½½10½
½½4
9Peter Svidler27140½½00½½½
1
10Dariusz Świercz26550000½½1½0

Final standings of the Grand Chess Tour

PlayerSuperbet Chess Classic Romania
Paris GCT Rapid & Blitz
Croatia GCT Rapid & Blitz
Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz
Sinquefield Cup
Total points
Wesley So8.31378.336.6
 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 1.57.5131335
 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov1354.5426.5
 Fabiano Caruana3.53108.324.8
 Richárd Rapport5.58619.5
 Levon Aronian 8.35.513.8
 Anish Giri 5.5813.5
 Alexander Grischuk 8.3412.3
 Teimour Radjabov 5.516.5
 Ian Nepomniachtchi 106.516.5
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Chess_Tour#Grand_Chess_Tour_2021

CHAMPIONS CHESS TOUR / AIM US RAPID

New tournament, new format, new schedule 🙂 .

Beginning the last Champions Chess Tour tournament the day after the Sinquefield Cup was over didn’t feel easy to me. However, the St. Louis club had kindly taken care of the logistical setup, cameras etc… so that I could play in peace from one of their rooms, rather than from my hotel.

Obviously, I didn’t want to sabotage my tournament, but it’s just that I couldn’t really think during the games, and as a consequence, played much, much too quickly. I also couldn’t adapt to the time change, going from a 5pm start to a 10am start overnight, and even 9:30am given the set up needed for online chess..

I could only play correctly in sequences, and my final score of 50% (7.5/15) was not enough to qualify for the ko phase. As a result, the Russian Artemiev took the opportunity to steal the 8th place from me in the Tour rankings, qualifying for the final which will start at the end of September. I’ll probably get one of the two wild-cards anyway 🙂 .

Final standings:

Rk.PlayerELO12345678910111213141516PTS
1Artemiev Vladislav2704X½1½1½½½½1½½½11110.5
2Carlsen Magnus2847½X½01½½½½1½11½1110.0
3Aronian Levon27820½X½½½½1½10½11119.5
4Firouzja Alireza2759½1½X½½½1½10½1½1½9.5
5So Wesley277200½½X½11½½10½1119.0
6Mamedyarov Shakhriyar2782½½½½½X½1½½½101½19.0
7Duda Jan-Krzysztof2738½½½½0½X0½1½111½19.0
8Dominguez Perez Leinier2758½½00001X½½1110118.0
9Giri Anish2776½½½½½½½½X½½½½1½½8.0
10Vachier-Lagrave Maxime27510000½½0½½X½111117.5
11Vidit Santosh Gujrathi2726½½110½½0½½X½01½½7.5
12Naroditsky Daniel2623½0½½1000½0½X11½06.0
13Le Quang Liem2709½000½100½010X½116.0
14Van Foreest Jorden26980½0½00010000½X114.5
15Hansen Eric260600000½½0½0½½00X13.5
16Liang Awonder2587000½0000½0½1000X2.5

SHOWDOWN CHESS 960

Having been eliminated before the ko phase of the AIM US Rapid, I had a week to recharge my batteries before the Chess 960 tournament that would close my long American tour. So I decided to make a small infidelity to Missouri and spend three days in New-York, before coming back to my room at the Chase Park Hotel in St. Louis!

On analyse ensemble la position tirée au sort (photo : Crystal Fuller).

We were given 15 minutes before the rounds to analyze the new starting position between players. I often looked at variations with Levon (Aronian) and Fabiano (Caruana). To be honest, it’s often a bit of a blind guess, but sometimes you’re surprised to see one or two ideas that work.

MVL-MAMEDYAROV

Mvl-Mamedyarov, Ronde 2.
Mvl-Mamedyarov, Round 2.

In this new position, Fabiano and I had understood through our pre-game analysis the importance of the b4 square (and symmetrically, b5 for black). On b4, my Bishop prevents castling, controls the black squares and above all, is completely unattackable! The funny thing is that after the fourth move, I was already almost winning: 1.d4 d5 2.g3 e6 3.Cb3 Cb6 4.Fb4!.

CARUANA-MVL

Here is one of those games where during the brief preparation, I had found a good idea on the second move (yes, it’s 960 🙂 ), allowing me to equalize and even take the advantage with black in the opening.

Caruana-Mvl, Ronde 5.
Caruana-Mvl, Ronde 5.

Here I tried to provoke Fabiano because I wanted to play for the win. I knew that I could draw as I wanted, for example by playing 32…f5. But I preferred 32…f6, to encourage him to continue 33.f5 Kf7 34.Rc6 because after 34…Re7 I could imagine scenarios that would turn out well for me. Unfortunately, I underestimated 35.exf6 gxf6 36.Bd4! which was a bit unpleasant. After 36…e5 37.Bc3, I decided to force a Bishop endgame with 37…Rc7 38.Rxc7+ Bxc7, because I had only considered 39.g4 hxg4+ 40.Kg3, which was not enough for white. But Fabiano played 39.Ke3 e4 40.Be1! (the move I had forgotten). And then it became difficult to defend because after 40…Be5 41.Kxe4 Bxb2 42.Bf2 Ke7 43.Kf3, it was compulsory to find the unique sequence 43…Be5! 44.g4 hxg4+ 45.Kxg4 Bc7! followed by …a5, mobilizing the Queen side majority. Whereas in the game, after the faulty 43…Ba3? 44.g4 hxg4+ 45.Kxg4, the lost tempo was fatal to me, for instance 45…Bd6 46.Kf3 Bc7 47.Ke4 a5 48.Kd5! and white wins because black’s pawn is not yet on b5, or 45…Kf7 (my choice in the game) 46.Kf4 Kg7 47.Ke4 Kh6 48.Bd4! and I had to resign soon.

Another example of successful preparation, but this time without the good result at the end!

NAKAMURA-MVL

Finally, let’s look at a rather spectacular sequence in my game against Nakamura:

Nakamura-Mvl, Ronde 7.
Nakamura-Mvl, Round 7.

Here I saw the forced winning line, namely 18…Bd4 19.Qxb7 Kf8! (frees the e8 square for the Rook) 20.Nc6 Re8 21.Nxd4 Qxd4, but I didn’t understand at all how winning it was for black! It must be said that it’s not obvious at first glance, but when you look closer, you realize that the d3-pawn is en prise, the Nb1 is offside, white’s King doesn’t flee to g2 because of …Re2+, my Bishop can sometimes come into play in d5 after a timely …d4 and finally, my King is in relative safety in spite of appearances!

So I played 18…Qxb4 which is less radical, but still should have been enough after 19.Nxb7 Rc8! keeping the terrible attack rolling. But I missed this last move and opted for 19…Bd4? which allowed a salutary exchange of Queens for white after 20.Qa5 Qxa5 21.Nxa5. The bishop pair still gives me an advantage in this position, but it becomes much more difficult, and I could not convert. As an anecdote about this funny game, Fabiano had taken a brief look at it live, and told me afterwards that he thought I was losing with my king on e8 ! In his defense, the positions of 960 after 8-10 moves are often extremely complicated to decipher!

Final standings:

RankNameScoreFed.Elo123456789
1Dominguez Perez, Leinier6.0USA2758½011110½1
2So, Wesley5.5USA27721½010½11½
3Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime5.5FRA2751011½01½½1
4Shankland, Sam5.5USA270911001½1½½
5Kasparov, Garry5.0RUS2812½½011½1½0
6Caruana, Fabiano4.5USA2806½1101½00½
7Aronian, Levon4.0ARM2782½01½0½1½0
8Mamedyarov, Shakhriyar3.5AZE278210100½010
9Nakamura, Hikaru3.0USA27360001½0½½½
10Svidler, Peter2.5RUS27140100½0001
https://uschesschamps.com

So my long American tour ended on September 12 when my plane landed in Paris Charles de Gaulle. I had left France on July 3, so I was not unhappy at all to be going home 🙂 .

Maxime’s games at the Sinquefield Cup :

Maxime’s games at the Champions Chess Tour :

Maxime’s games at the Chess9LX :

Barely arrived on the French soil, Maxime had just the time to put his bags at home before going directly to Asnières, where the Rapid Trophy of his adopted club took place.
A last minute improvisation which was a nice surprise for the participants, as well as for the elected officials of the city and the partners present. Maxime was also able to meet and encourage his coach Etienne Bacrot, who by the way won the tournament!

Victory at the Sinquefield Cup!

Sinquefield Cup winner!

This article will be very short, because the Sinquefield Cup being just over, I have to start the AIM US Rapid almost immediately (August 28-September 5). An online tournament which will close the Champions Chess Tour before the Grand Finale in San Francisco.

I will conclude this (very) long stay in the USA with the Chess 9XL, a Chess960 tournament scheduled from September 8th to 10th, with Garry Kasparov playing!

As soon as my schedule allows it, I’ll come back in detail on this American tour, probably in mid-September.

I went to St. Louis directly after the World Cup in Sochi. I was able to rest and prepare for a few days, which paid off. Apart from my loss against Dominguez, I am very satisfied with my performance, which allowed me to win the Sinquefield Cup for the second time, after my victory in 2017. I was told by the organizers that it was the first time someone had won this tournament without any loss.

Thank you all for the support and encouragement during this Sinquefield Cup, I hope to continue my momentum!

Maxime’s games in the Sinquefield Cup:

Roller coaster in Sochi

Montagnes russes

I arrived in Sochi on July 12, directly from the Grand Chess Tour in Zagreb. Etienne Bacrot, who was also qualified for this World Cup, landed in Russia the next day. We had 2-3 days to acclimatize well, and we were even able to visit the center of Sochi, which is quite nice. The tournament itself was not held in Sochi itself but in the surrounding mountains, in the heart of a ski resort.

Of course, in the middle of summer, the ski rentals do not work 🙂 . But everything else is open, like in the French ski resorts, including the sports facilities and most of the restaurants.

After these few days of settling in and resting, I went straight into the competition in the second round against the American Moradiabadi, for the beginning of a rollercoaster chess adventure, as often happens in the World Cup!

I obviously prepared myself for the match against Moradiabadi, who had benefited from one of the few withdrawals in the first preliminary round: but also for a potential third round against the Russian David Paravyan, because I knew that he was always very sharp in the openings and it was therefore important to have at least an idea of what I would eventually play against him.

1/64th : MVL – MORADIABADI (2553) 1.5-0.5

This match against Moradiabadi was a little strange, in that I had such a dominant position in the first game, everything was going so well, that I have a little trouble explaining the events after the 40th move. My position looked like it was going to be converted at any moment. But because he kept finding the correct defensive moves, it wasn’t so easy really.

Mvl-Moradiabadi, 1/64e aller.
Mvl-Moradiabadi, Round 2 – first leg.

My big regret is at move 45 because I really wanted to play 45…Rxd6!.

But I didn’t find the win after 46.Rxd6 e4 47.fxe4 Bg4+ 48.Ke1 Rf8 49.Kd2, and I stopped there; however, the nice 49…Qb7! was very powerful, with the double idea 50…Rf3 and 50…Qa8, allowing all black pieces to participate in a dreadful attack against the white king.

Missing this key move, I made it difficult for myself after 45…Qf8? 46.Nxf5 Qxf5 47.Rxd4 exd4 48.Qe4 Qf8?! (48…Qc8!) 49.c5!. Then I simply forgot that he could consolidate his position with the Queen on d3 and the Bishop on d2, and suddenly it went very wrong for me. I only saved the game in the end because under time pressure, he failed to convert and settled for perpetual check.

The second game was very easy on the other hand. Moradiabadi clearly did not play at 100% of his abilities in this game. He said afterwards that he was sick, but the line he chose in the opening is not very recommendable since I already have a clear advantage after 8 moves, although I understand that it may seem counter-intuitive at first.

Moradiabadi-Mvl, 1/64e retour.
Moradiabadi-Mvl, Round 2 – second leg.

9.d4 cxd4 10.Cxd4 Cxd4 11.Txd4 Ff6 12.Td1 followed by 13.c4, and black’s pieces can’t find good squares.

Two Frenchmen on mission in Russia (Photo: FIDE).

1/32nd : MVL – PARAVYAN (2625) 5-4

I knew that the Russian was a clear favorite from his previous round against Onischuk, which he won easily in fact. I had a feeling that this match was not going to be a fun one, because Paravyan always has ideas in stock everywhere 🙂 .

I must say that the first game was not brilliant on my part. In fact, I had seen that there had been a few Maroczy played in the tournament and I was not sure what he had concocted for me. I wanted to choose a secure variation, but I didn’t really get much out of the position.

I was hoping to be able to press a little bit more, but in the end, it didn’t happen at all.

The second game was a bit livelier, with a huge mess on the board that didn’t go too badly for me. In the end, I even underestimated my position because I thought it would be a draw anyway.

Paravyan-Mvl, 1/32e retour.
Paravyan-Mvl, Round 3 – second leg.

However, I probably should have continued with 32…Nb4! instead of 32…Bh6 and offering a draw. In this case, it would have been up to him to show how he maintains the equality.

In the first tie-break series, I have a little regret because I had controlled the first game well against his line of the sharp, but very risky Svechnikov, and had obtained a convincing victory. And it’s true that after having such a dominant position, I thought it should go smoothly for the second game.

Paravyan-Mvl, 1/32e - tie-break 1 retour.
Paravyan-Mvl, Round 3 – tie-break 1 second leg.

Unfortunately, I made the very bad decision to play 12…Nd7?. It’s an unusual move, I know, but let’s just say that from a distance it didn’t look as bad as it really was! After 13.Bxe7 Qxe7 14.Rhe1 Nc5 15.Bf1 Rd8, I think it was 16.b4! that I really underestimated. Besides, if there is no 16.b4, the position is not so bad for black. Despite his lack of time, Paravyan converted perfectly afterwards.

I was a little disappointed to have missed the opportunity to wrap it up, but that didn’t stop me from dominating the rest of the match.

In the first 10′ game, I chose the Berlin 🙂 , to be a little more solid, and I easily drew with black.

Then there was one terrible game in the opening, that Alapin one which went badly for me after the cold shower 10…e5!.

Mvl-Paravyan, 1/32e - tie-break 2 retour.
Mvl-Paravyan, Round 3 – tie-break 2 second leg.

Maybe I had a way to do something better to equalize more easily, because 11.Be3 wasreally not a move I wanted to play!

But after 11.Bb5+ Bd7, I can’t see what I am doing… As for the continuation 11.Bxe5 Bxa3 12.bxa3 0-0-0 13.Bd4 Rhe8+ 14.Kd2, it has already been played several times in practice, but frankly, it doesn’t look really tempting!

Fortunately, Paravyan did not navigate the position well afterwards, and I could even have won at the end.

The young Russian has strengths, but even if his ranking at 2620 is clearly underestimated, he must also have some small weaknesses 🙂 .

In the blitz, I thought I’d win the first one with black, after coming back to a Najdorf that went perfectly.

But Paravyan demonstrated again one of his great achievements our match, namely the ability to perfectly defend difficult positions with very little time on the clock; it was an ordeal to try to convert the advantages against him, no matter how much I was ahead on the clock!

Paravyan-Mvl, 1/32e - tie-break Blitz aller.
Paravyan-Mvl, 1/32e – tie-break Blitz first leg.

For example this sequence 48.f5 Kd6 49.f6 Ke6 50.Rf5! Kf7 51.Kd3 found on the increment, as well as all the best moves that followed. Hats off to him!

The second blitz resulted in an incident that I will explain here.

As a preamble, I must say that I should have seen a few moves earlier an elementary transition to a Bishop endgame two pawns up; it would have simplified my task and avoided the following mess 🙂 .

But the game continued and Paravyan claimed the draw by repetition in the following desperate position:

Mvl-Paravyan, Round 3 – tie-break Blitz second leg.

I knew that there was no repetition, but the arbiter ruled in Paravyan’s favor, because the computer confirmed his diagnosis! So I requested the VAR 🙂 .

I went to the arbiter’s table to show on the computer that there had been only two times the same position, and moreover, not with the same player on the move!

So I won the case, and the game resumed.

The next day, I spoke with the referee and got to the bottom of it 🙂 . He explained to me that it was a bug in the software, which had not refreshed itself from a previous game that had seen a threefold repetition!

While I was at the referee table, I calculated in my head the continuation of the game with 46.Ke1 Qc8 47.Kd2? (47.Qa7+! first and then 48.Kd2 was lethal) 47…Qa8, and now 48.Qc7+ Bd7 49.Bxb5?. It was once back at the board that I realized the existence of 49…Qxd5+, so I changed my mind with 48.Qd4, but my advantage was no longer so overwhelming, and I again failed to convert, leading us both to the terrible Armageddon!

That said, I felt surprisingly optimistic about this decisive game once I knew I would have white. Paravyan was always very short on time, so in an Armageddon with 4 minutes against 5, I didn’t see how he could hold on. And I did win that game without too much difficulty.

1/16th : MVL – PRAGGNANANDHAA (2608) 1.5-0.5

I started with a good draw as black.

Praggnanandhaa-Mvl, 1/16e aller.
Praggnanandhaa-Mvl, Round 4 first leg.

I even thought I was going to win when he allowed 24…Ne4! 25.Rd1 Nc5. But then he found the very nice defense 26.Nf3! with the idea 26…Ke8 27.Ne5! and I can’t take advantage of his trapped Rook on c7.

In the second game, however, he did not play very well.

Mvl-Praggnanandhaa, 1/16e retour.
Mvl-Praggnanandhaa, Round 4 second leg.

I think he should have played …a5 quickly enough to anticipate my b3-Kb2 plan, and have the break …a4 available. Later on, I sacrificed the Queen. Well, I don’t call it a sacrifice when you have Rook, Bishop and pawn, the Bishop pair, the open files and a central passed pawn 🙂 . I thought that even though it was probably not a forced win, it would be very, very complicated for him… Which it turned out to be.

1/8th : MVL – KARJAKIN (2757) 2.5-3.5

Not the easiest pairing in the round of 16 🙂 .

In the first game, he popped out a huge prep in the Berlin, which forces a draw in a completely linear way. And he decided not to play the second game by taking a forced draw with white.

Juste après la fin de la deuxième partie (photo : FIDE).
Just after the end of the second game (photo: FIDE).

I knew it was going to be very tense in the tie-breaks…

I was pretty happy with my prep in the first one, after using a sub-variation against the Berlin.

Mvl-Karjakin, 1/8e - Tie-break 1 aller.
Mvl-Karjakin, Round 5 – Tie-break 1 first leg.

I knew I was better after 19…g6, but I couldn’t find how on the board. The machine gives the pawn sacrifice 20.f5 Bxf5 21.g4, but I confess that it doesn’t impress me more than that. So I opted for 20.Ne4 Bf5 21.Bc5, but I must say that I hesitated for a long time to play 21.Nf2; after 21…h5 22.g4 hxg4 23.hxg4 Be6, I thought I should probably play for f5, but I was not at all sure of this position.

In the game, I was hoping to be a little better after the many exchanges leading up to a Rook endgame, but he defended very well.

After a solid draw in the second rapid, we headed to the blitz. The first one could have turned into a disaster because I thought I was following my prep, but in fact I wasn’t at all 🙂 . So I found myself in big trouble right out of the opening, and had to defend till the following position:

Karjakin-Mvl, 1/8e - Tie-break 2 aller.
Karjakin-Mvl, Round 5 – Tie-break 2 first leg.

The endgame was very complicated to defend, so at one point I decided to force events with 67…Be6? but after 68.Nxg7 Bd7 69.Nf5 Bxf5 70.gxf5 d4, fortunately he took without thinking 71.exd4? Rxd4 with an easy draw. But if he had played 71.e4! d3 72.Tc1 d2 73.Td1, I’m not sure about the final verdict of the position because I didn’t check, but it doesn’t look good!

So, in the diagrammed position, I probably should have waited with 67…Ra8, but in this case I was afraid of a breakthrough on g5 in the end, e.g. 68.Kh4 Rd8 69.g5 fxg5+ 70.fxg5 hxg5+ 71.Kxg5 Ra8 (71…Kg8? 72.h6!) 72.Nd6 and during the game, I was afraid that it wouldn’t hold. But in hindsight, I can see that the fortress is probably strong enough after 72… Be6 🙂 .

In the last blitz game, which decided the fate of the match, I followed the match plan established beforehand by opting for the London System. I took the advantage at the end of the opening, following a strange decision from him.

Mvl-Karjakin, 1/8e - Tie-break 2 retour.
Mvl-Karjakin, Round 5 – Tie-break 2 second leg.

Here I thought I was close to a win, so I took time to find it. I first checked 18.Nxe6 Qxe6 (18…Qxh5? 19.Nxg7+) 19.d5, but this is refuted by 19…Qf6!. I then calculated the line 18.Qh8+ Bf8 19.Nxb7 Nxd4, but saw no win after 20.cxd4 Qxb7 21.Bd6 Kd7! 22.Bxf8 Qxb2 23.Rd1 Qb8. Maybe I’m still a bit better, but I didn’t think it was much, even though I was aware that it was probably the safe solution.

So I finally decided to take the pawn offered by 18.Qxd5 exd5 19.Nxb7 g5 20.Bd6 Ra7 21.Bxe7 Rxb7, anticipating that I would have 22.Ba3 which could be somewhat risky, and at worst 22.Bxg5. I chose the more adventurous option 22.Ba3 f5, but there I could play 23.f3 followed by 24.Kf2 which was quiet, rather than letting the Rook enter on h2 by 23.Ke2 Rh7 24.Bc5 f4 25.b4 Rh2.

Mvl-Karjakin, Round 5 – Tie-break 2 second leg.

This is where I dropped the game by making a calculation mistake. I should have played 26.Rg1, but it was sad and I thought that I might even end up worse if he controls the queenside, puts the Knight on e6 and pushes …g4. So I chose to be active with 26.a4? Rxg2 27.Kf1 f3 28.b5? and I didn’t see at all what was coming up!

I was just worrying that the variation 28…g4 29.bxc6 g3 30.fxg3 e3 might be superior for black, when he unleashed 28…e3!, which I quickly realized was far more deadly for me after 29.fxe3 Na5!.The Knight goes to c4 or b3 with immediate devastating effect.

For me, it was a very close elimination, but in general, Karjakin was very, very strong in this match. Whether in his preparation with black, in his Rapid and Blitz skills, or in his ability to mobilize in the key moments, he was clearly up to the task. For my part, except maybe this last game, I don’t think I played a bad match.

On the whole, I found that my level of play at the World Cup was improving.

Finally, I would like to congratulate Etienne Bacrot for his excellent performance in Sochi. It took nothing less than the world champion Magnus Carlsen to eliminate him from the competition in the ¼ finals!

Congratulations also to the Pole Duda for his final victory. He and his opponent in the final Karjakin take the third and fourth places for the 2022 Candidates (Radjabov and the loser of the World Championship Match Carlsen-Nepo will have the first two).

The next step to qualify for the 2022 Candidates will be the Isle of Man Open at the end of October which, if it can be held, will offer the fifth and sixth places…

Maxime’s games in Sochi:

Despite the gradual resumption of tournaments, the pandemic continues to complicate the travel of professional players, who must constantly adapt to the requirements of different countries. Maxime experienced this once again at the end of the World Cup in Sochi. He stayed a few days after his elimination to support and help his compatriot and second Etienne Bacrot, who was still in the running (finally eliminated by Carlsen), and had to completely rearrange his schedule. Indeed, he was expected from August 15 in St. Louis (USA) to play the Sinquefield Cup of the Grand Chess Tour. But the American organizers warned him that he would not be able to enter the USA if he passed through a country in the red zone, which includes France – but not Russia 🙂 . So they proposed him to come directly to St Louis. So, Maxime left Sochi on July 31, heading for Missouri, without going through the « home square » in Paris: a journey of more than 35 hours, via Moscow and a night stopover in New York!

The taste of victory

Victoire ! (photo : Lennart Ootes).

I have just arrived in Sochi for the World Cup, on the same plane from Moscow as my new compatriot Alireza Firouzja 🙂 . I traveled to Russia directly from Zagreb, where I had played the third stage of the Grand Chess Tour. I don’t have enough time to go into details about this tournament that I had the pleasure to win, so I’ll limit myself to general remarks.

First of all, I enjoyed coming back two years later to a nice city I know well, with the Euro semi-finals and final as a backdrop – even without Croatia and France, unfortunately. I was also happy to play again in Rapid and Blitz, just after my half-hearted performance in Paris.

I started the Rapids quite badly, with an opening loss to Mamedyarov, which turned out to be my only defeat. I recovered well by beating Anand right after, and later in the tournament, Duda.

I had to deplore a few blunders over the course of the competition, but it’s hard to avoid them completely in Rapid, let alone in Blitz. But I didn’t make that many, and I can think of four from memory. My one-move loss of a Rook against Mamedyarov in Rapid, even though the position was already difficult. The Rapid against Duda, which I won after forgetting an elementary combination that lost a pawn 🙂 . And in the Blitz, the first one against Giri, where I left a pawn hanging again, and the second one against Nepo, where, from a totally equal position, I managed to be lost within three moves, even though I finally saved the half-point.

But these few absences were compensated by a great resilience, which I had missed a lot at certain decisive moments in previous tournaments. It was very important for me to regain these qualities of defense and resilience, which allowed me to lose only 2 games out of 27 in the tournament, whereas I could have easily lost five or six, and it would not have been the same story in the final rankings!

I am very satisfied with the Blitz, with a result of +8 and only one loss. I think I did the job, with some good games, especially on the first day. In the end, on the second day, I mostly tried to keep control when I saw that I was in the lead – thanks to Nepo who was losing one game after another 🙂 . After that, I was able to preserve my lead and win the tournament one round before the end, despite Anand’s final sprint.

For me, the crucial moment was against Duda in the third from last round. He was also playing his heart out because he had to win. And so we had a very spectacular fight, of which I ended up winning!

In the next game against Garry, I thought I was going to earn a half-point as I didn’t expect him to lose on time in an elementary drawn endgame; especially since he had 13 seconds left, plus the increment! Clearly, it hurt my heart a little to beat him in those conditions, the more so as I had already won the first blitz against him by miraculously surviving a nightmarish position.

Zagreb final standings
(image: www.grandchesstour.com )

The attraction in Zagreb was also the return of Anand and Kasparov in front of the board, with, admittedly, radically opposite destinies 🙂 .

Garry, who only played the blitz portion, finished with a dismal 2.5/18.

One of his problems is that he was always looking for a fight in every game, despite his preparation in the openings clearly being deficient. Because even if he still puts time into it – which I’m sure he does – you can’t keep up with the preparation of the pros so easily. It played tricks on him in many games; especially at the beginning of the tournament, when he chose the 7…Qc7 variation in the main line of the Najdorf, which was very playable only 10 years ago, and which I used to play myself at the time; but now it just loses by force, and it’s even more true in blitz 🙂 . It’s sure that it’s really hard to get pounded as he was, but I felt him very frustrated, without any reaction of pride, and lacking of fighting spirit in the difficulty. In his defense, he hadn’t played for a long time and has many other activities. Obviously, when you are in bad shape, you can’t survive against top players. I am sure that in other circumstances, he would have better results…

Concerning Anand, I have to say that I had some questions before the tournament, mainly since he hadn’t played a live tournament for over a year.

He responded beautifully, I think! Not so much in the Rapids, where he was still a bit rusty; I could see that when he lost to me – a game that would prove to be completely decisive for the final victory! On the other hand, in the blitz games, his results did not desappoint, quit the opposite! The quality of his game didn’t either, and I have as an example our first blitz game, where I put him under enormous tactical pressure, and he managed to calculate everything correctly and get through it. Honestly, even though there are probably some mistakes in this crazy game, I think it was maybe the best of the tournament. A second place in the final standings, at 51 and not having played for so long, I just say hats off to Vishy!

A word also about Nepo, Carlsen’s future challenger, who I think will be satisfied with having tilted in the blitz portion of the tournament, to avoid doing so during the match 🙂 . He is putting his game together and I think that in the Rapids, he has shown an excellent level. He’s always finding tricky moves, always causing problems; he’s obviously confirmed the progress he’s made in the last year, and his poor blitz performance doesn’t change that.

GCT standings (image : www.grandchesstour.com).

I am certainly in the lead of the Grand Chess Tour ranking for the moment, but it must be said that I am the only one to have played 3 tournaments, all the others are at 2!

Now it’s time for the World Cup! I made myself comfortable in my hotel room waiting for my entry in the competition against Moradiabadi (2555), a player I had already met in 2006 at the Paris Championship (draw). Having cleared this hurdle, I will play in round of 64 the Russian David Paravyan (2625).

Maxime’s games in Zagreb:

Between the two Grand Chess Tour tournaments in Paris and Zagreb, Maxime spent a few days in Châlons-en-Champagne, where the Top 12, the highest division of the French Team Championship, was organized. His team Asnières obtained the second place behind Bischwiller, as in the previous edition of 2019. A rare opportunity for him to meet some of his friends and French colleagues, and to renew with the conviviality of the team competitions. During these 5 days, Maxime will have been able to give his advices and analyses to his teammates, but also to play two games, with notably a long grind in the endgame against Laurent Fressinet, during the decisive match lost 1-3 by Asnières to Bischwiller.

Maxime’s games at the Top12: