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!

Double jeu

Double jeu

Since my mediocre performance at the Tata Steel in January, I have had the opportunity to play two Champions Chess Tour tournaments.

Obviously, these online tournaments cannot be approached as seriously as a major event such as the Candidates, which will resume on 19 April in Yekaterinburg. However, they are still quite an integral part of my preparation; indeed, the work to be done is not only, as one might think, purely theoretical, even if this is obviously very important. The training games are also an indispensable element, and in particular the 23 that I played during the Magnus Invitational, five weeks before the Candidates, made sense.

Especially when you meet the best players in the world, even if it’s online, even if it’s not the same conditions as in the Candidates’ tournament, it’s still not a bad way to prepare 🙂 .

In addition, my personal goal was also to regain some confidence after the miserable Tata Steel. And to succeed in playing good games without the final result necessarily being paramount.

Of course, « training tournaments » does not mean that I took these competitions lightly. I didn’t lose to Carlsen in the tie-break of the first tournament on purpose, nor did I do the same to Giri in the ¼ final!

Here is a quick summary of the first two tournaments of this year’s Champions Chess Tour online:

OPERA RAPID, 6-14 FEBRUARY

Unlike the first two tournaments of the tour, in November and December 2020, I qualified relatively easily in the preliminary phase.

The knockout matches were more tense. At first, I took my revenge from the previous tournament by eliminating Aronian in the quarter-finals. I think the way I did it was pretty convincing, even if it wasn’t perfect because I almost let him back into the match when I was leading in the second set after winning the first. Then I had a pretty good semi-final against Carlsen, with a bad first set, but also a great second one! After another draw in the blitz against the world champion, I finally lost with black in the final Armaggedon game.

MAGNUS INVITATIONAL, 13-21 MARCH

Again, I played quite seriously in the preliminary phase and secured my qualification spot. Then I lost the quarter-final against the future winner, Anish Giri. I can have some regrets about the first set, especially the second game which I lost stupidly from a very good position; unfortunately, I was a bit misleaded in my attack, which was badly prepared.

But in the second set, there’s not much to say because I didn’t play well enough to hope for anything. Except maybe in the first game, which was probably the best of the match, because I thought he was going to collapse in a difficult position, but he really defended very well.

However, this defeat in the quarter-finals was in the end a blessing in disguise, as I avoided four more days of play 🙂 .

Classement Champions Chess Tour
The first eight of the Tour are qualified for the next tournament… (image www.championschesstour.com).

Now it’s time for the final stretch before the Candidates…

My specific preparation started in mid-February, first in Paris, then in the Alps, and now in the south of France. I am obviously working with Etienne Bacrot, as well as with others, whose identity will however remain a mystery 🙂 . Besides, the other aspects of the preparation have also been taken into account, apart from the specific chess work; sports, physiological and mental preparation, all in order to be at my best in Russia…

I will arrive in Yekaterinburg only a few days before the start of the tournament on 19 April, which I will enter in pole position; an unprecedented situation, but one that I sure enjoy 🙂 .

What is clear is that the first half of the tournament will be crucial, as I will start by doubling black against Caruana and Ding Liren, before facing the man in form at the moment, Giri; a complicated start, which I will have to negotiate as well as possible.

Generally speaking, in a short format of 7 games, it is clear that every half point will be worth a lot. Of course, I also noticed the game of the 13th and penultimate round against co-leader Nepo…

Anyway, the ball is now in my court. I know that if I manage to be in the best possible shape, then I will have every chance of winning…

Maxime’s games (Opera Rapid):

Maxime’s games (Magnus Invitational):

In early March, Maxime chose STAKRN Agency to accompany him in his long-term development strategy. The agency, specialised in the worlds of gaming and esports, will be in charge of developing sponsoring opportunities, partnerships and activations. It will also explore the appetite of professional teams who are beginning to invest in the game of chess, for a « pure player » of the world’s elite like MVL.
It seems obvious today that a strong link is being forged between the esport and chess worlds. Maxime’s manager, Laurent Vérat, will work with STAKRN Agency’s teams to study collaboration opportunities in the sector, using the agency’s network and know-how.

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)