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:

Back to the future

Grand Chess tour

This month of June 2021 marked the great return of competitions, with notably the beginning of the Grand Chess Tour 2021, after the outright cancellation of the 2020 edition. Shortened, the professional circuit offers this year two classical tournaments (Bucharest and the Sinquefield Cup), and three Rapid ones (Paris, Zagreb and Saint-Louis). 9 players are competing on this circuit, with wild cards added to each tournament. In the foreseeable absence of the next World Championship match protagonists (Carlsen and Nepo), these 9 players are Caruana, Aronian, Giri, Grischuk, So, Mamedyarov, Radjabov, Rapport and myself. Each of us will play the two classical tournaments and two of the three Rapid ones.

I obviously landed in Bucharest very motivated, eager to take things in hand. Unfortunately, everything went wrong from the start. In my defence, I have to say that I was sick during the tournament, especially in the first half.

As early as in my second round game against Deac, I made a baffling blunder in a promising middle game.

Mvl-Deac, Bucarest Ronde 2.
Mvl-Deac, Bucharest Round 2.

Here, I thought for almost 13 minutes before to play 30.Qd3? without considering for a second that he would reply 30…Rf5 winning the g5-pawn! Directly put in great difficulty, I was unable to remobilize myself. It was a very cruel defeat…

Walking on the stage between two moves (photo: Lennart Ootes).

After such a mistake and not feeling physically at my best, I found it very difficult to spend the energy required in the decisive moments, especially when I had to draw the following endgame against Giri:

Giri-Mvl, Bucarest Ronde 7.
Giri-Mvl, Bucharest Round 7.

t was actually a strange game because you might think here that I’ve already solved all my problems, but in practice that’s not quite the case; in fact I still had little issues to resolve.

In the diagrammed position, 18…Bxc3 19.Rxe6! fxe6 20.Bc4 didn’t seem so easy to hold. It’s just a slight advantage for white objectively, but it’s unpleasant. I thought what I was doing was safer, which would have probably been the case after 18…Bd5 19.Rc5 e6! (instead of 19…Bxf3), the most clinical solution to equalise. In the game, after 19…Bxf3 20.gxf3, the position was still a bit tricky to defend, even if the drawing margin remained substantial. But when you miss the simplest solutions, the rule is that it becomes less and less easy 🙂 .

Giri-Mvl, Bucarest Ronde 7.
Giri-Mvl, Bucharest Round 7.

Here, it was my last chance and it was mandatory to play 42…f6! in order to hold. Unfortunately, I preferred 42…Kf6? allowing a nice manoeuvre of white’s Bishop to come and sacrifice himself on f7 to force the win: 43.a6 Bc5 44.Bb5! Ba7 45.Be8 Ke7 46.Bxf7! Kxf7 47.Kxg5 and the Bishop can no longer fight against the pawns.

Classement final du GCT Bucarest (image www.grandchesstour.org).
Final rankings of GCT Bucharest (image www.grandchesstour.org ).

As far as the overall result of this tournament – which was finally won by Mamedyarov – is concerned, it is certainly very negative: with no wins to my credit and two losses, it’s obvious…

So I had high hopes for the Rapid and Blitz in Paris to get me back on track, especially as it followed immediately on from the tournament in Romania. Despite my third place in the final rankings, my play in Paris, without being catastrophic like in Bucharest, was still very erratic.

It is not easy to analyse the reasons for this lacklustre performance. I was used to playing these Rapid tournaments with relative consistency. In any case, not to offer such a difference in the level of the games, some very good and others very bad; with in passing some huge blunders to which I am not used either. It’s also true that I did some experimentation, which didn’t always go well, notably with the French and the 4 Knights Sicilian. So, it is difficult for me to draw clear conclusions, except that my overall performance was once again completely insufficient. Admittedly, I was not sick like in Romania, even if I was not at my best either.

This can be seen clearly by these differences in my level of play. Yet the objective of my tournament was not just to have flashes of brilliance, that’s clear!

Classement final du GCT Paris (image www.grandchesstour.org).
Final rankings of GCT Paris (image www.grandchesstour.org ).

The next event begins in Zagreb on 7 July, for the third step of the Grand Chess Tour. The good thing is that it will be a fine warm up tournament before the World Cup in Sochi, which remains my main goal for the next few months, as it will qualify two players for the 2022 Candidates’ Tournament. The World Cup will have already started by the time I leave Zagreb for Sochi, as there is now an extra round I am exempted from.

It’s clear that I’d like to find some stability in my game, and become more consistent and regular again. Everyone knows that I have a lot of similarities with Nepo. There was a time when he played very much like I do now, very erratically. Since then he has become much more stable and confident. It’s my goal to get back to that state of stability and confidence that I had in a not so distant past 🙂 .

Maxime’s games in Bucharest :

Maxime’s games in Paris :

The day after the Grand Chess Tour in Paris, Maxime went to SoFoot magazine premises, where he was invited to comment on their Twitch channel the Euro 2021 France-Portugal match. He was there in the company of well-known streamer Sardoche, as well as a YouTube pioneer, Mark the Ugly. Not by chance, since both are big fans of chess and football. So the trio, hosted by the SoFoot presenter, were able to chat in front of the screen, alternating between live commentary, various digressions on chess and little games about football.


You can watch the video here:
https://www.twitch.tv/videos/1065312273

(in french).

Tournaments are back, cryptocurrencies are in!

Crypto Cup

The Crypto Cup, the sixth tournament of the professional online circuit organised at the end of May and supported by the cryptocurrency trading platform FTX, marked the resumption of competitions. A resumption promised to take place at a sustained pace since the next few months will see the interweaving of physical competitions – which start up again in June with the first stages of the Grand Chess Tour in Bucharest and then in Paris – and the elite online tournaments.

The Crypto Cup was obviously my first playing commitment since the Candidates. I was impatient, I wanted to see where I stood before resuming the tournaments. And I was quite reassured overall, especially after the 15 games of the three days of qualification. Of course, there was that game against Mamedyarov, which wasn’t very good, but it was my only loss in the preliminaries.

Overall, I think I had a better handle on things than in previous tournaments, with a couple of very good games too, especially against Magnus and Nepo.

Here are some highlights of my Crypto Cup:

Round 2: Grischuk – Mvl 0-1

Grischuk-Mvl, Round 2.
Grischuk-Mvl, Round 2.

In this Rook endgame, I found the cleanest way to the win; it’s a classic manoeuvre, but always pleasant to play: 64…Rxd4 65.Rxh5 Rd5 66.Ke3 f5! (the Rooks’ lateral opposition prevents the en passant capture) 67.Kf4 Rd4+ 68.Kg5 Kg7! 69.Rh1 Rg4+! (the King must be pushed away first; 69…Re4? 70.Ra1) 70.Kh5 Re4 71.Kg5 (71.Ra1 Rxe5 72.Ra7+ Kf6) 71…Rxe5 72.Ra1 Re4 with a trivial win.

Round 4: Carlsen – Mvl 0-1

1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 d6 3.f3!?. On the « board », I really thought it was a mouse slip. Because I didn’t know that he had already played this little idea in a Bullet game against Firouzja; hard to guess without this reference 🙂 .

As a result, I got a Dragon position with white’s bishop on e2 instead of b3.

Carlsen-Mvl, Round 4.
Carlsen-Mvl, Round 4.

Here, it was necessary to play the somewhat counter-intuitive 16.Qxd6! bxc3 17.g5, which I had anticipated, but looked over-optimistic for white. The machine confirms that this was best, but Magnus played the more human 16.Nd5 Nxd5 17.exd5 (perhaps he had planned to take back with the Queen, before realising that 17.Qxd5 Be6! 18.Qxd6 Qa5 was very risky, for example 19.b3 Rxc2!), but after 17…e4! 18.fxe4 Re8, Black has a more pleasant game.

Carlsen-Mvl, Round 4.
Carlsen-Mvl, Round 4.

In this endgame with an extra pawn, I had to find a way to progress, as I could not bring my King directly. And here 35…Bf5 was the right choice, exchanging an important defender, the bishop on d3. 36.Bxf5 (if the Bishop escapes the exchange, black’s Queen will be able to attack c2 and h4) 36…gxf5 and the new passed pawn is too dangerous.

Round 7: Mvl – Svidler 1/2

Mvl-Svidler, Round 7.
Mvl-Svidler, Round 7.

This is the kind of game where white is better, thanks to the bishop pair, but where the slightest inaccuracy can wipe your advantage out. This is what happened here after the hasty 31.Bb6? Ne4!,and thanks to the threat of …Nc3, Black is active and completely out of danger. A more careful analysis of the position would have allowed me to understand that it was not necessary to attack the a5-pawn directly. I should rather have started by decentralizing black’s Knight with 31.Bf4!, and White would then have kept an obvious edge.


In action against Svidler (image https://chess24.com )

Round 9: Mvl – Radjabov 1/2

Another interesting endgame on the theme of the bishop pair!

Mvl-Radjabov, Round 9.
Mvl-Radjabov, Round 9.

Here I played 43.f3? which unfortunately posed no problem for Black after 43…Kg7 44.g4 Kf6. Instead, I had a very interesting try, starting with the natural 43.Kf3. In fact, this was my first choice but I rejected it because after 43…Ne6 44.Bxd6 Nd4+, I had only considered a natural King move like 45.Ke3, but 45…Nxb5 46.Bc5 a3 47.d6 a2 48.d7 a1=Q 49.d8=Q+ Kh7, and white’s King is too exposed to checks. But by deduction, one understands that the same variation should be played with the nuance 45.Kg2! Nxb5 46.Bc5 a3 (46…Nc7 47.d6 Ne6 48.d7 Kg7 49.Be7 a3 50.Bxa3 Kf6 51.Kf3 Nd8 must draw as well, even if in practice, white still pushes after 52.Kf4) 47.d6 a2 48.d7 a1=Q 49.d8=Q+ Kh7 (49…Kg7 50.Qf8+) 50.Qd7 Qb2 51.Qxf7+ Qg7 and black will still have to fight for the half-point.

Round 11: Mvl – Nepomniachtchi 1-0

A really tense, complicated game with a lot of calculations.

I developped my two Rooks on the flank files, one via a3, the other via h4, which is not necessarily very common 🙂 .

Mvl-Nepomniachtchi, Round 11.
Mvl-Nepomniachtchi, Round 11.

Here I played the « human » move 22.Bxh6? but 22.Rf4! – which I did not consider at all – was much stronger; no tactical line allows Black to protect the f6-pawn (22…Rf8? 23.Ne5! or 22…Qe7? 23.Qc6+ Kf7 24.Ne5+), after which white’s Knight will land on e5. After 22.Bxh6?! I thought he should answer 22…0-0-0! because then 23.Rg7 Qd6 as well as 23.Qxa5 Qc6! keep the position really double-edged. But Nepo preferred 22…Qd6? 23.Bg7 Qxc5 24.dxc5 Rg8 (24…Rxh5 25.Bxf6 Kf7 26.Bc3 and then again, the arrival of the Knight on e5 seems almost lethal) 25.h6 e5 26.Rg3! Fh7 27.Bxf6 Rxg3 28.fxg3 Ra6, and I should have concluded the game with 29.Bg7! Rg6 30.Nxe5 Rxg3 31.Kf2 and white’s pieces dominate the board outrageously. I thought 29.Bxe5? was just as effective, but I underestimated his counterplay after 29…Rxh6 30.Bxc7 Rh1+ 31.Kd2 Rb1. The resulting B+N+p vs. R endgame was undoubtedly a draw, but it posed such practical problems that the Russian could not save it.

¼ Final: So – Mvl 2-0 (3-1 / 2-1)

My only regret in this match is obviously that key moment in the second game of the first leg, in a Grünfeld middlegame that had gone well for me.

So-Mvl, Match aller 2e partie.

Here white completed his development and connected his Rooks with 19.0-0?.A natural move, but one that faces a clear tactical refutation. I had seen that I would get my pawn back by the simple 19…Bxe2? 20.Qxe2 e5 21.Be3 Rxc3 and so I did not look for anything else. Yet the win was not at all complicated, but certainly counter-intuitive. On a good day, I don’t think it would have escaped me though: after 19…Bxd4+ 20.Nxd4 b5! the small pawn uncovers a double pin that would have won a piece, as white can’t parry the threats 21…e5 and 21…Qxd4 at the same time.

Crypto Cup final bracket (image www.championschesstour.com)
Crypto Cup final bracket (image www.championschesstour.com)

It’s time for me to congratulate Magnus Carlsen on his final victory in a tournament where, for the first time, part of the prize fund was distributed in cryptocurrency!

And to look forward to the next stop in Bucharest, where hostilities will start on 5 June…

Maxime’s games at the Crypto Cup:

Official site: https://championschesstour.com

Already invited in 2020 by the well known Youtubeur Absol on his secondary channel dedicated to chess, Maxime intervened again at the end of May, but this time on the main channel. Quite improbable, the format of this long interview (3h16 and 75 questions!) may seem off-putting. However, many commentators are surprised at how easy it is to get caught up in this video, especially since Maxime is chatting with Absol while playing two blind games against Dicomaniaque, another chess lover streamer posted in the background with his chessboard (in french).

Candidates: see you next time!

Tournoi des candidats

After more than a year of interruption, the Candidates’ Tournament finally resumed on 19 April, right where it was interrupted, in Yekaterinburg (Russia). You can read my report of the first half.
Here is a quick review of the critical moments in each of my 7 games:

Caruana-Mvl 1-0

Caruana-Mvl, Round 8.
Caruana-Mvl, Round 8.

The first critical moment obviously arrived after the spectacular novelty 18.Bc4! Qxc4 19.Bd6. My first instinct was for the move I finally played, 19…Nf6. I still took the time to look at the alternatives, for example 19…Bxd4, which seemed a thousand times too dangerous. I also analysed the move 19…f5, which I rejected because 20.Nxc5 Nxc5 (the computer move 20…Kf7!? didn’t cross my mind!) 21.Nxf5 Qe4 22.Nxg7+ Kf7 23.Bxc5 (23.0-0+! as mentioned by Fabiano, is much more radical!) 23…Qxe3+ 24.Bxe3 e5 25.Nh5 Bg4? (Black can probably resist better) 26.0-0+ Kg6 27.Rd6+ Kxh5 28.Rff6 and White wins.

Later in the game, when I had almost equalised, I started to make inaccuracies. In fact, I think I took six bad decisions in the first four games, which is really too costly at this level.

The second key position of the game is of course this endgame where I have the wrong fortress.

Caruana-Mvl, Round 8.
Caruana-Mvl, Round 8.

The one with the Knight on h6, which I chose, would have held with the white’s pawn on g3 instead of g2; but the fact that there is an additional possibility of Rg3+, breaking the harmony of the fortress, changes everything: a nuance really not easy to detect! The real fortress was therefore to position the knight on g7, controlling access to the white squares. At the end, a defeat difficult to accept considering the course of the game…

How does the damn fortress work? (photo : Lennart Ootes).
How does the damn fortress work? (photo : Lennart Ootes).

Ding Liren-Mvl 1/2

I think I got a very reasonable position against his anti-Grünfeld with 3.h4, but I made a serious mistake on the way out of the opening, which allowed him to make an excellent piece sacrifice. I had anticipated it though, but unfortunately underestimated its strength.

Ding Liren-Mvl, Round 9.
Ding Liren-Mvl, Round 9.

The twist, a real little miracle, is that he didn’t play 31.Rf3! in the diagrammed position. I was going to answer 31…Qe4 and probably resign three moves later. So after 31.Qe2? I felt I was still in pain, but alive 🙂 .
Yet after 31…e4 32.Re3 Re8 33.Rb5 Qe5 34.g3 Qd4 35.Rb1 Rf7 36.Rd1 Qf6, the simple 37.Qc2! would have kept a huge advantage, but Ding rushed by 37.d6? forgetting 37…Re6! 38.d7 Td6 allowing me to exchange the e4-pawn for his strong passed pawn.
The satisfaction is to have held on for the next fifty moves, because it was really, really difficult; fortunately, I found all the only moves, which prevented me from starting with a prohibitive 0/2.

Mvl-Giri 1/2

Mvl-Giri, Round 10.
Mvl-Giri, Round 10.

In my opinion, the critical moment of this game was when I decided to take a pawn by 21.Qxb5? after which I thought I had a clear advantage. In reality, I had lost a good part of this advantage by playing that move, and in retrospect, I understand that I should have opted for 21.Fc2!. The problem is that during the game I thought that 21…b4 would stabilise his good knight on c5, forgetting the 22.f3! manœuvre, followed by Ff2, and I think black will suffer as the position still is quite poisonous. Again, I should have seen this and made the right choice…

Grischuk-Mvl 1-0

Although excessively complex, the position started to go wrong for me after 19.g5.

Grischuk-Mvl, Round 11.
Grischuk-Mvl, Round 11.

My first thought was to sacrifice on e4, but I saw nothing tangible after 19…Nxe4 20.Nxe4 Rxc2 21.Qe1; I would have tried it if I could have imagined the diabolical idea 21…Qc6!? 22.N2c3 exf4 23.Qh4 h5 24.gxh6 Qxe4!, even if White should probably be winning after the following series of improbable but forced moves: 25.Ka1! Be5 26.Ne4 Rxb2 27.h7+ Kh8 28.Nc3 Rxb3 29.Qe7!.

As I didn’t like 19…Ng4 20.Rf1! either, I decided to play 19…Nh5 20.f5 Rfd8 21.f6 Bf8 22.Ng3 d5!? , trying to fish in troubled waters.

After a nice tactical shot which saved me, we landed in the following position:

Grischuk-Mvl, Ruond 11.
Grischuk-Mvl, Round 11.

After a few minutes of thought, I decided to play for the win with 33…Qd5. Obviously, my first idea was 33…Rh4 34.Rxh4 Qd1+ 35.Qxd1 Rxd1+ 36.Ka2 Rd2. But during the game, I was not 100% sure to draw this endgame, and anyway I preferred the position after 33…Qd5 34.Qh5 Qxh1+ 35.Qxh1 Rg4.

Objectively, trying to play for the win with 33…Qd5 was perhaps an error of judgement, but for me the situation in the tournament demanded that I take that risk. Unfortunately after 36.Bxe5, I immediately blundered with the terrible 36…Rxg5? (36…b5! was probably enough to keep the balance) 37.Qxb7, forgetting that the Bishop is immune because of the double check on g2 and h2 winning the Rook. Obviously, the loss of the b7-pawn changes everything and I collapsed afterwards…

Mvl-Alekseenko 1-0

In this game, the young Russian handled the opening badly, and I soon got a very large advantage. On the other hand, he defended himself really well afterwards, even though I was probably not technically clinical since he still had good chances of a draw in the following critical position:

Mvl-Alekseenko, Round 12.
Mvl-Alekseenko, Round 12.

But his only chance was to avoid the Rook exchange by 30…Rb8!. Afterwards, if I fix the structure by 31.b3, he would get enough counterplay after 31…axb3 32.axb3 Ra8. So I have to take the d-file with 31.Rd1, but Black manages to create serious counterplay by activating his Rook after 31…b3 32.a3 Bf6! 33.e5 Be7 34.Rd5 Rf8!.

Instead, Alekseenko chose to wait with 30…Rd7? but after 31.Rd1 Rxd1 (31…Rb7 is no longer possible because of 32.Rd5 b3 33.a3 Rc7 and Black doesn’t get counterplay on f4 anymore) 32.Rxd1, I had calculated the Bishops’ endgame down to the final position. Obviously, there are quite a few subtleties to take into consideration, but I told myself that I had to believe in my calculations and… too bad for me if I was wrong 🙂 . I needed that confidence for the end of the tournament!

Nepomniachtchi-Mvl 1/2

It was obviously an atypical game, since I had to win with black, and thus create a position full of tension, even if I knew that it might turn against me. But given the tournament’s situation, given his blatant state of nervousness, and the evidence that he was playing to avoid any risks, I had to try everything. It’s typical of the ambiguity of playing for a draw with White: of course, it takes away a lot of possibilities for the opponent to get a normal fighting game, but on the other hand, you don’t play at 100% of your capacities anymore, and it could have played tricks on him.

After going through a very critical phase, I got the following playable position:

Nepomniachtchi-Mvl, Round 13.
Nepomniachtchi-Mvl, Round 13.

Black is down a pawn, but has reasonable compensations with control of the black squares and of access along the b-file. Unfortunately, during the game I couldn’t figure out how to improve my pieces position at all, so I resolved to swap all the heavy pieces with 28…Rab8? 29.Rxb8 Rxb8 30.Rxb8 Qxb8 31.Qb2 Qxb2 32.Nxb2 with an even ending. If I had seen this move, I would obviously have played 28…Cf7! with the idea of regrouping with …d6 and …Bc8. Not that this continuation would have given Black an advantage, but I could have just continued a complex struggle with many pieces on the board, and God knows what might have happened then?

Obviously, this is a small regret, even though I definitely can say that this is not the game where I lost the Candidates.

Mvl-Wang Hao 1-0

A final game to play for second place in the Candidates was no mean feat, even if the major prospect of a world championship match had vanished.

Mvl-Wang Hao, Round 14.
Mvl-Wang Hao, Round 14.

Here I knew that Black’s best chance was to transpose into the four-rook endgame by 20…Nxd6 21.exd6 Kd7 22.Rf3 Rhf8 23.Re1 f6!. Wang Hao preferred 20…Rhd8? but after 21.Re1! white has consolidated his knight on d6 supported by the pawn on e5, and has the advantage. For what will turn out to be his last professional game, the Chinese put up little resistance and quickly gave up.

The 2021 Candidates Tournament crosstable (courtesy of Europe-Echecs).
The 2021 Candidates Tournament crosstable (courtesy of Europe-Echecs).

Congratulations to Ian Nepomniachtchi on his final victory, and good luck to him in the World Championship match against Carlsen, which starts on 26 November in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

As for me, I obviously can’t be fully satisfied with this second place, when only the first one matters. I have already started to debrief in detail with my team on what went well and what didn’t; it is too early to draw conclusions…

It is now time to get back into the swing of things, with the tournaments starting up again, especially those of the Grand Chess Tour, and the highlight of the World Cup in Sochi (Russia) in July, a qualifier for the next Candidates Tournament, which could well be held in the spring of 2022, if FIDE is to be believed.

In the meantime, and as a warm up, I will play the next Champions Chess Tour online tournament, which will start on Sunday 23 May.

Maxime’s games:

Official site: https://en.candidates-2020.com

Unlike the first half of the tournament, Maxime did not go alone to Yekaterinburg: International Grandmaster (and World Tennis-Chess Champion 🙂 ) Sébastien Mazé accompanied him.
Besides chess, Sébastien also played the role of sports coach! You can see them below, during a session in the hotel’s gym…

Knocking on heaven’s door

Tournoi des candidats 2e partie

More than a year later, the Candidates’ Tournament will resume on 19 April, in Ekaterinburg (Russia) again. After a last minute ticket, I had done rather well in the first half of the tournament, as at the time of the break, I was leading ex-aequo with Ian Nepomniachtchi (but ahead of him in the tie-break). Remember that the winner of this tournament will face Magnus Carlsen for the World title, from 26 November to 15 December in Dubai (United Arab Emirates).

In one year, the world has changed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The practice of chess has adapted, with a multiplication of online tournaments, in which I have had mixed fortunes 🙂 . In the only face-to-face tournament I played during this period (Tata Steel, January 2021), my results were clearly bad. I took this reminder as an incentive to better approach the resumption of the Candidates Tournament, which is the most important event of my career to date.

For weeks I have been concentrating on these seven upcoming games. Because of the circumstances, I have had time to prepare myself well, both physically and mentally. On the chess side, I have spent a lot of time with my coach Etienne Bacrot, who runs my seconds team.

A new start

RangNom12345678Score
1Vachier-Lagrave M.1½½½½1½
2Nepomniachtchi I.0½11½1½
3Caruana F.½½½½½01
4 Giri A.½0½½½½1
5Wang Hao½0½½½1½
6Grischuk A.½½½½½½½
7Ding Liren001½0½½
8Alekseenko K.½½00½½½
Candidates standings after round 7

After the first half of the tournament, I’m going into a seven-game mini-tournament as the leader. With so few rounds and only a small point difference between the top six, every half point will be crucial, and I’m obviously expecting some hard-fought games.

Sous le soleil avec Sébastien Mazé : footing, études d'échecs et dîner avec le consul sont au programme de la journée
Under the sun with Sébastien Mazé : running, chess studies and diner with the french consul are on the agenda of this Thursday

I arrived in Ekaterinburg on Wednesday 14 April with GM Sébastien Mazé, not without a few administrative problems due to the difficulty of travelling at the moment. I now have four days to acclimatise and get used to the time difference (+3 hours compared to Paris). Of course, this will also be the opportunity to make the final adjustments.

My pairing at the beginning of this second half is not the easiest one, as I will successively face Fabiano Caruana and Ding Liren with the black pieces. But in any case, I will have to perform well in every game to hope to win this tournament.

White Black
Caruana, FabianoVachier-Lagrave, Maxime
Wang, HaoDing, Liren
Nepomniachtchi, IanGiri, Anish
Alekseenko, KirillGrischuk, Alexander
Round 8 pairings
White Black
Ding, LirenVachier-Lagrave, Maxime
Giri, AnishWang, Hao
Grischuk, AlexanderNepomniachtchi, Ian
Alekseenko, KirillCaruana, Fabiano
Round 9 pairings
White Black
Vachier-Lagrave, MaximeGiri, Anish
Caruana, FabianoDing, Liren
Wang, HaoGrischuk, Alexander
Nepomniachtchi, IanAlekseenko, Kirill
Round 10 pairings
White Black
Grischuk, AlexanderVachier-Lagrave, Maxime
Giri, AnishDing, Liren
Alekseenko, KirillWang, Hao
Nepomniachtchi, IanCaruana, Fabiano
Round 11 pairings
White Black
Vachier-Lagrave, MaximeAlekseenko, Kirill
Ding, LirenGrischuk, Alexander
Caruana, FabianoGiri, Anish
Wang, HaoNepomniachtchi, Ian
Round 12 pairings
White Black
Nepomniachtchi, IanVachier-Lagrave, Maxime
Alekseenko, KirillDing, Liren
Grischuk, AlexanderGiri, Anish
Wang, HaoCaruana, Fabiano
Round 13 pairings
White Black
Vachier-Lagrave, MaximeWang, Hao
Ding, LirenNepomniachtchi, Ian
Giri, AnishAlekseenko, Kirill
Caruana, FabianoGrischuk, Alexander
Round 14 pairings

See you on Monday 19th at 4pm (local) for my first game against Caruana…

Yes, the Candidates’ Tournament is a great sporting event, and one of the last in the world to be suspended on 26 March 2020. But in the current context of tougher international travel conditions, it was probably not easy for anyone to prepare their trip to Ekaterinburg, where the competition will resume on 19 April. For Maxime and Sébastien Mazé, the travel permit issued by the Ministry of Sports was not easy to obtain. Maxime’s manager, Laurent Vérat, and the President of the FFE, Yves Marek, had to intervene several times and take their time before finally receiving the precious sesame. On the Russian side, things were easier for the visa, thanks to the efficient intervention of the FIDE lawyer at the Russian embassy in Paris.
Despite a very long passport control at the Moscow stopover, Maxime and Sébastien were finally able to cross the last hurdle and board the SU1414 flight to Ekaterinburg…
Let’s play!