Back on track?

Winner !

After the disappointment of the Fide Grand Prix, I had taken the time to decompress, in order to have a break and recharge my batteries. So, I was a bit in the unknown when I arrived in Bucharest, in the sense that I didn’t know what it would be like without specific preparation. Important parameter also, the Fide had just announced that the Grand Chess Tour 2023 would qualify two players for the 2024 Candidates, giving to the 2022 edition an additional interest; to keep one’s place in the circuit for the following year!

On this subject, I will say two words. On the one hand, it’s a good thing in that it gives the Tour an extra stake; that was a bit of a problem in previous seasons, this disconnection of the Pro Tour from the World Championship cycle.

However, if we kept the current format of 9 Full Tour players in 2023, I think we would have too few candidates for the first two places; moreover, if Carlsen and his challenger were included, this number would then drop to 7! So clearly for me, we should introduce qualifying tournaments in 2023, and obviously increase the number of Full Tour players.

However, if we keep the current format of 9 players – or even 7 if Carlsen and his challenger don’t participate – we have too few players fighting for the two places. So clearly for me, in 2023, we should introduce qualifying tournaments, and obviously increase the number of full Tour players involved.

Round 1: MVL-DOMINGUEZ 1/2

It was a pretty good start because I think I maneuvered pretty well and got a small advantage against his Petrov. Maybe I didn’t believe enough in my chances, especially in the final position; but I thought I had let some of my advantage slip away and I was even afraid I could become worse if I pushed too hard.

Round 2: SO-MVL 1/2

A game that marks the arrival of the Queen’s Gambit Accepted in my repertoire, even though I had already used it in Rapid. I figured it was the right time; obviously, this option had been in the air for several months… I didn’t have much trouble getting out of the opening. But you can still feel my lack of experience with this type of position, which is symmetrical and almost equal, but which you have to play very precisely to completely equalize; there are often two or three quite subtle moves to find.

So-Mvl, Round 2.
So-Mvl, Round 2.

For example, one of the subtle moves here would have been to avoid playing 21…Rg5?! which could have caused me some problems had Wesley not opted for the repetition after 22.Qf3 Rd5, but chosen 22.Qf4 (threatening 23.Ra5 or 23.Rxa6) 22…Nd5 23.Qf3, and the Rook is not at ease on g5. Instead, I should have returned to d8 with the Rook (21…Rdd8), which is not necessarily trivial, is it?

The Sheraton Hotel in Bucharest, where the tournament was held and where the players stayed (Photo: www.hrs.com).
The Sheraton Hotel in Bucharest, where the tournament was held and where the players stayed (Photo: www.hrs.com).

Round 3: MVL-MAMEDYAROV 1/2

A rather quick draw due to the fact that at the end of the opening – a Caro-Kann that I had hardly anticipated – I opted for a plan with a Nd2-c4 maneuver that I interrupted halfway, as I did not like the resulting position.

Round 4: MVL-CARUANA

The Open Spanish, and in particular the Dillworth Attack (11…Nxf2) was one of the options I had prepared against.

Mvl-Caruana, Round 4.
Mvl-Caruana, Round 4.

Here I was mostly expecting 15…Qd6 or 15…Bg4, the main moves of the position, but he surprised me with 15…Qd7.

Obviously, I understood his idea on the board; with the Queen on d6, white plays 16.Be3 and prevents 16…Bg4? because of 17.Bxh7+! Kh8 (17…Kxh7 18.Ng5+) 18.Qe1 Bxf3 19.Qh4. On the other hand after 15…Qd7, if white plays the normal 16.Be3 (as he does on 15…Qd6), then 16…Bg4 is possible, since the Qd7 protects the Bishop.

So I reacted differently with 16.Bg5, knowing that I was taking the risk that he was still in his prep, even though I hoped that 16.Bg5 would not be the main move. Unfortunately, he continued to blitz out his moves: 16…Rae8 17.Qd2 d4!; a reply played a tempo, which hurts even more because it was not a move I expected; I thought he would rather not touch his center…

Finally, after 18.Ng3, he started to think, and played 18…h6 19.Bh4 (but not 19.Qd3? Bf5 20.Nxf5 e4!) 19…dxc3.

Mvl-Caruana, Round 4.
Mvl-Caruana, Round 4.

Here my initial idea was 20.Qxd7 Bxd7 21.bxc3 g5 22.Nxg5 hxg5 23.Bxg5 letting me an exchange down but with a fine compensation, certainly enough for equality. In the end I still opted for 20.Qxc3, even if both answers 20…b4 and 20…Nd4 were worrying me. 20…Nd4 21.Nxe5 Qd5 22.Ng6 Nxc2 23.Qxc2 Qd4+ 24.Kh1 Rf7! (better than 24…Rf2 25.Ne2!) was a line I had trouble evaluating. As for the other option 20…b4, it brought different problems. First 21.Qc5 Nd4 22.Nxe5? Qd5! and b

lack wins material. The immediate exchanges on d4, 21.Nxd4 Qxd4+ 22.Qxd4 exd4 seemed to me also favorable to black. There remained 21.Qe3, which I originally thought to play, but which was based on a miscalculation: 21…Nd4 22.Bg6? Rxf3! (a key move I saw while he was thinking, but which I hadn’t anticipated before playing 20.Qxc3) 23.gxf3 Rf8! and b

lack has too many threats. So I would certainly have chosen my « back up » variation, i.e. the endgame an exchange down after 21.Qd3 Qxd3 22.Bxd3 g5 23.Nxg5 hxg5 24.Bxg5, with the burden of proving that the compensation is sufficient.

Anyway, what is sure is that his 20…Rxf3? really took me by surprise. Obviously, my very first reaction was to wonder if I hadn’t blundered something! After 21.gxf3 Nd4 22.Bd1! (forced and perhaps missed by Fabiano), I still had no clue what could be his idea. 22…Rf8 23.Ne4 Bc4 24.Kg2?! (24.Bf2! was much simpler) 24…Rf4! 25.Be1 (I had seen his traps based on a diabolical Queen sacrifice on h3; 25.Bg3? Qh3+! 26.Kxh3 Bf1# or 25.Bf2? Qh3+! 26.Kxh3 Bf1+ 27.Kg3 Nf5#). Obviously, the position is a bit scary visually, but what reassured me was that I saw no way to strengthen the attack for him. If 25…Bd5 I can come back with 26.Bg3, while after 25…Qf5, which he finally played after a long thought, I was able to definitely repel the attack with 26.Nd2 e4 27.Bg3 exf3+ 28.Kf2! and it’s curtains.

Mvl in full reflection (Photo: Grand Chess Tour).
Mvl in full reflection (Photo: Grand Chess Tour).

Round 5: NEPOMNIACHTCHI-MVL 1/2

Ian tried to surprise me in the opening with a very original move order, but after thinking about it, I realized that it would transpose into Sicilian 3.Bb5+ positions that I already knew.

After I comfortably equalized, Ian began to look for ways to continue the game. But that wasn’t what the position required, and he ended up being worse.

Nepomniachtchi-Mvl, Round 5.
Nepomniachtchi-Mvl, Round 5.

The d5 pawn is more vulnerable than its d6 counterpart and my heavy pieces are more active. But here I made the mistake of playing a little too easy. I know that this is something that is quite recurrent with me; often when I have the advantage, I don’t take the ten minutes necessary to ask myself what is the most accurate follow-up.

Here in particular, instead of 27…a4 28.g3 a3, which I could have postponed, I had the opportunity to start with 27…h5! before he could prevent me from putting my pawn on h4; with one pawn on h4, then the other on a3, I think black’s defense would have been much more difficult, and it’s quite possible that this detail could have made the difference.

Something similar happened in the final position:

Nepomniachtchi-Mvl, Round 5.
Nepomniachtchi-Mvl, Round 5.

Without thinking too much, I accepted the draw by perpetual check after 41…Rh1+?! 42.Kg1 Rg1+, totally missing the possibility 41…Re1!, which would have already forced white to find the only move 42.Rd2; indeed if 42.Rxe1? Qxe1, the threat …Qe2 winning the a2-pawn can be parried only by giving up f2. And if 42.Qe3? Rxe2 43.Qxe2 Qb2! again black takes a2 or f2 and wins easily. After 42.Rd2, the Rook has been forced into total passivity, and even if white’s position remains solid, it is black who would have had every opportunity to continue causing problems.

Round 6: MVL-ARONIAN 0-1

I made the decision to play 1.d4 on the rest day before this game. So I had a lot of time to look at the lines on Levon’s favorite openings. But the problem with playing against a specialist is that he knows his patterns inside out. And it just so happens that I didn’t anticipate the move order he chose in the Queen’s Gambit, Vienna variation.

Mvl-Aronian, Round 6.
Mvl-Aronian, Round 6.

So, after thinking about it, I decided to avoid the big move 12.Kf1 in this position, which is one of the tabiya of the variation. Indeed, I had not reviewed the line for too long… After the rare 12.Ke2 Qb2+, my first intention was to play 13.Ke3 and settle for the draw after 13…Qc3+ 14.Ke2. But I saw the possibility 13.Qd2 Qxd2+ 14.Kxd2 gxf6 15.Rac1 0-0 16.Rc7? (both 16.Ke3 or 16.Rhd1 kept sufficient compensation for the pawn) and I thought I would never be worse there. But this was without the continuation 16…Rd8 17.Ke3 Nb6 with the idea …f5! and black takes a clear edge, taking advantage of the fact that white can never give up control of d5.

After 17…Nb6, I understood the problem and it was a bit of a panic. I didn’t defend this difficult position well and quickly lost…

Round 7: RAPPORT-MVL 0-1

An interesting game with a rather surprising, even improbable, transposition in the opening, from a Queen’s Gambit Accepted to one of the most popular line of the Meran in the 90s! Having had the opportunity to play this variation with white in the distant past, I at least knew that it was supposed to be ok for black, even if I couldn’t remember all the details.

Anyway, this is a type of position that requires a lot of calculation, and little by little I solved all the problems posed.

Rapport-Mvl, Round 7.
Rapport-Mvl, Round 7.

Here I found 27…Nd7! and thought I might be a little better, especially since I saw 28.Ree1 Nf8, challenging his only trump in the position.

This is the moment Richard chose to make what will probably remain as the blunder of the year: 28.Nd5?? Nxe5, forgetting that after 29.Nxe7+ Rxe7, white does not checkmate with 30.Rd8+ because the Bishop in a5 happens to control this square!

On stage (Photo: Grand Chess Tour).
On stage (Photo: Grand Chess Tour).

Round 8: MVL-DEAC 1/2

I chose a slightly marginal line against the Petrov’s 6…Bd6 variation.

Mvl-Deac, Round 8.
Mvl-Deac, Round 8.

Here I knew his new move 12…Na6, and I recalled it was better for white, but I couldn’t remember how – a great high-level classic 🙂 . After 13.Ne5 Qc7, I chose 14.Nc3 which gave me a tiny edge. Black has to be very precise but he really played well and found ways to neutralize me.

By the way, Deac was particularly solid during the whole tournament, finishing at a very honorable 50%. Note a rather singular characteristic of the young Romanian: his propensity to be in zeitnot, and to systematically get up after each move, even with only 30 seconds on the clock, and whatever the complexity of the position!

Round 9: FIROUZJA-MVL 0-1

I knew I didn’t need to play for the win at all costs because he was going to do it anyway 🙂 . That’s why I didn’t expect 4.g3 against the Grunfeld at all.

After that, it became a bit of a cat-and-mouse game; I wasn’t willing to take too many risks but I wanted to give him options, even more so since I could see that he was taking a lot of time on his moves.

Firouzja-Mvl, Round 9.
Firouzja-Mvl, Round 9.

The first illustration of this approach can be found here, at the end of the opening. I knew I could play 13…Db6 followed by …c5, with probably a symmetrical structure and a comfortable equalization for black. But I chose the other break 13…e5!? which leaves more tension in the position.

Firouzja-Mvl, Round 9.
Firouzja-Mvl, Round 9.

The second crucial moment is when I made the choice of 27…Re3!? in this position. Obviously, 27…Nc3 was normal, the position remaining roughly equal. But I felt that my move 27…Re3!? could send him into a tailspin as he started to run out of time. He reacted with the very natural and human 28.Rxc6, even though the machines prefer the timid 28.Rb2, forcing the exchange sacrifice 28…Rc3 (28…Ree8 29.Nc4 is not really what you want!) 29.Ne4 c5 30.Nxc3 Nxc3 with the idea …c4, and the position is not so clear in practice.

From the frustration I could see on his face, I think that after 28.Rxc6 Rc3 29.Nc4 Rxb3 30.e4 Re8, he calculated the continuation 31.Nd6 Re6 32.Rd1 Nf6 with the intention to play 33.Rc7?, before realizing that it was losing after 33…Rxd6! 34.Rxd6 Ne8. This explains in my opinion the other mistake 33.e5? and the fact that he didn’t find the moves that more or less kept the balance, 33.Rd4 or 33.Rc5.

Firouzja-Mvl, Round 9.
Firouzja-Mvl, Round 9.

Finally my passed b-pawn cost him a piece and I got an endgame that I believe objectively winning. On the other hand, it poses big conversion problems for black, and thus offered real practical chances of a draw to the defending side. It would take a more precise analysis to determine if my conversion was clean and if Alireza missed better options…

The end of the game between the two Frenchmen (Photo: Grand Chess Tour).
The end of the game between the two Frenchmen (Photo: Grand Chess Tour).

Having joined in extremis So and Aronian at 5.5/9, all three of us played a tie-break to determine the winner.

Tie-break 1: SO-ARONIAN 1-0

Tie-Break 2: MVL-SO 1-0

Tie-break 3 : ARONIAN-MVL 0-1

Fifteen minutes after the end of my game against Alireza, we were back to work, for my part without having had any time to prepare anything at all; and barely enough time to decompress, going back to my room for only a few minutes. I didn’t feel too much pressure though, as I knew that the Tour points would be shared (10 each); the extra $10,000 was not a priority for me, and honestly, my goal was mainly to add another line to my sporting achievements.

My two tiebreaker games were very high intensity tactical battles, there were a lot of incredible moments, I’ll just pick one per game.

Mvl-So, Tie-break 2.
Mvl-So, Tie-break 2.

Here, I found the difficult (and brave 🙂 ) idea to run the King to the Queenside via e1 and d2. 35.Ke1! Re6+ 36.Kd2 and after many other adventures, I ended up converting my extra pawn.

Aronian-Mvl, Tie-break 3.
Aronian-Mvl, Tie-break 3.

I sacrificed the Knight without hesitation with 25…Ne4! because I intuitively perceived that I would get a huge compensation. After many ups and downs there again, I ended up flagging Levon in a position that was winning again at that moment (exactly as against So by the way!).

In these two tie-breaks, despite the happy outcome, I felt that the fatigue of a long classical game could be felt. In particular, and this is a very clear sign for me, I had lost control of the time; usually, I have a clock in my head and in 10+5, I never find myself playing moves with only 1 second left; here it happened to me two moves in a row!

Grand Chess Tour rankings after the first tournament (Image GCT).
Grand Chess Tour rankings after the first tournament (Image GCT).

Finally, things turned in my favor and I am very happy to have started this Grand Chess Tour 2022 as I ended it in 2021, namely with a win in Classical chess!

I will resume the circuit on July 20th with the Rapid/Blitz tournament in Zagreb. In the meantime, the Norway Chess tournament starts on May 30th with its usual attractions, notably the Armaggedon game in case of a draw; but also its 2022 novelties, i.e. the return of the semi-retired Anand, Topalov and Wang Hao!

Maxime’s games

Rey Enigma is a Spanish youtuber whose identity is unknown. He always appears dressed in a black and white checkered jumpsuit that simulates a chessboard and completely hides his face. He uses a voice modifier in his public appearances. Only 6 people in the world know his true identity and he uses strict protocols to maintain his anonymity. At the beginning, he challenged onlookers in the parks of Madrid, but soon he was able to challenge some of the best players in the world, even getting to play Karpov in the Spanish version of the famous TV show « Spain’s got talent »; an opportunity for him to break the record for the most watched chess game in history!

Rey Enigma was present at the Grand Chess Tour in Bucharest to meet Kasparov. The day before the opening of the tournament, he challenged the world blitz champion MVL to a 1’-1’ blitz game. It took place on the terrace of a bar in the Romanian capital, and you can replay it here:

MVL’s game vs Rey Enigma

Life goes on

Berlin

The FIDE Grand Prix, with its two qualifying places for the Candidates Tournament in June, was my major objective for the year 2022. I had therefore set up a specific preparation to tackle the two tournaments in Belgrade and Berlin in the best conditions. Even if I felt particularly sharp, especially in Belgrade, I have to admit that the result was not up to my ambitions…

A look back at the key moments of this competition:

BELGRADE

Round 1: MVL-PREDKE 1/2

A very important game to begin with, since I faced the theoretically weakest player of the group with white. I got tangled up at the end of the opening and quickly found myself in pretty bad shape because of a big miscalculation.

Mvl-Predke, Round 1.
Mvl-Predke, Round 1.

Round 1: MVL-PREDKE 1/2

Here I played 19.dxe5? (19.exd5 was necessary), got up and immediately realized that there was 19…dxe4! which I had not considered at all, focusing only on 19…Nxe4 and 19…Nxe5. A disastrous start, but also a warning without cost since Predke failed to increase his advantage.

Round 2: MVL-MAMEDYAROV 1/2

Second white game, and second muddle in the opening, this time a very tense Open Spanish.

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

The game drifted in favor of Black, but the Azeri let me off the hook by opting for 24…d2? 25.Rxe2 d1=Q+ 26.Rxd1 Qxd1+ 27.Nf1 Qxe2 28.Qxg5+ Kf7 29.Qf5+ Kg8 and draw, because Black’s King can certainly cross the chessboard, but not escape the perpetual! Indeed, if 29…Ke7 30.Qe5+ Kd7 31.Qd5+ Kc7 32.Qxc5+ Kb7 33.Qd5+ Kb6 34.Qd6+. Instead, he could keep his two passed pawns as they are and begin with 24…gxh4 25.Nxe2 Ra7!; during the game I had not imagined that this move could be so strong. If 26.Rad1 c4; if 26.Nf4 Rf7! ditto 26.Qxc5 Rf7, and in any case, the potential threat of the two passed pawns on the 6th rank is stronger than its immediate use!

After a solid draw with black against Yu Yangyi, I had the opportunity to renew with the Najdorf against Predke.

Maxime relaxed after a game (photo: World Chess).
Maxime relaxed after a game (photo: World Chess).

Round 4: PREDKE-MVL 0-1

Predke-Mvl, Round 4.
Predke-Mvl, Round 4.

In this sub-variation with Bg5/Qf3 without f4, I knew the normal pattern was to play …Qc7 and …Nbd7. But I chose to improvise with 8…Qa5!? 9.h4 (9.Bd2 Qc7 would be to my advantage) 9…Bd7. Here I spent a lot of time evaluating the consequences of 10.e5 dxe5 11.Nxe6!? which seemed to me to be the critical continuation for white. Here is for example a variation I saw on the board; 11…fxe6 12.Bxf6 gxf6 (obligatory, we shall see later why) 13.Qxb7 0-0 14.Rxd7 (but not 14.Qxa8? Bc6 15.Qa7 Bc5! – a move that would not exist if we had taken with the bishop on f6 on move 12!) 14…Nxd7 15.Qxd7 Fc5 with a very uncertain game. I was rather relieved to see Predke opt for 10.Bc4 Nc6 11.Bb3 because I was aware that I had gotten a very healthy Najdorf after 11…h6 12.Be3?! (it was better to first exchange on c6) 12…Ne5!

Predke-Mvl, Round 4.
Predke-Mvl, Round 4.

Later in the game, he surprised me again by not opting for the continuation which once again seemed critical and which involved another sacrifice on e6: 24.Bxe6!? fxe6 25.Rxe6. Here I had planned 25…Nd5!? (25…Ng8 is possible too) 26.Nxd5 Rxe6 27.Nc7+ Kf7 28.Ne5+ Rexe5 29.Qxg4 Be4 and despite the material deficit, black seems to have a very strong attack, even if the machine remains stoic and shows a forced draw for white after 30.Rf1+!.

I finished this game nicely and I was quite happy with it. In terms of calculation, I was feeling pretty sharp in Belgrade…

I then had to concede a draw to Yu Yangyi’s Petroff – despite a small but persistent advantage – before entering the last round of the pools, where I had to hold with black against Mamedyarov.

Round 6: MAMEDYAROV-MVL 1/2

I decided to give up the Grünfeld and switch to the Queen’s Gambit, a line I had already played at the European Team Championships against the Turkish GM Dastan.

True to himself and in keeping with the stakes, Mamedyarov chose a very sharp line with opposite castling, forcing us to play move by move.

After a few twists and turns, we reached the following position:

Mamedyarov-Mvl, Round 6.
Mamedyarov-Mvl, Round 6.

Here I could have gone for the natural 28…Qd4 29.Qxd4 Bxd4, but white would have kept a slight plus in the ending. And I found something more forcing and elegant 🙂 .

28…Rac8 29.h4 Qe3! 30.Re2 Rc1+! 31.Rxc1 Qxd3+ 32.Ka1 Qa6! – the point ; white has a tempo at his disposal, but he has no choice but to repeat: 33.Kb1 Qd3+ and draw.

Détermined!! (Photo: Fide).
Determined!! (Photo: Fide).

1/2 Final first leg: RAPPORT-MVL 1-0

A game where I totally fell through, especially after I hugely underestimated white’s position in the opening. Not much to say…

1/2 Final return game: MVL-RAPPORT 1/2

I expected Richard to repeat the solid Petrov defense, which he had already played in the tournament. And the fact is that he really surprised me in the opening with this choice of the deferred Steinitz, quite daring in a situation where a draw is enough! Nevertheless, his choice paid off as he managed to equalize. Afterwards, he gave me some chances though, by playing the beginning of the endgame in an imprecise way, until we finally arrived in the following position after the time control:

Mvl-Rapport, ½ Final Return game.
Mvl-Rapport, ½ Final Return game.

Here I found the right move 43.Rd3! and I was pretty sure I was winning. Unfortunately after 43…R2h6, I took my first step in the wrong direction with 44.Ra7, even though this move still wins. 44.b3! right away was a more practical choice, forcing 44…Nd6 (44…Na5? 45.Rb6+ Ka3 46.b4+) and now 45.Ra7, taking advantage of the fact that the knight can’t be activated via b5 because of 46.Ra4 mate; and if 45…c4 46.bxc4 Kxc4 47.Rd7! Nb5 48.Ng4 wins. After 44.Ra7, Richard found the most resilient defense 44…Rb8! 45.b3 Na5 46.Ng4 Nxb3.

Mvl-Rapport, ½ Final Return game.
Mvl-Rapport, ½ Final Return game.

Here I thought that the two candidate moves 47.Rxg7 and 47.Nxh6 were both winning. Even if it is extremely difficult to calculate everything in this kind of position, I should have understood that 47.Nxh6! reduced considerably black’s options: 47…gxh6 (I had seen that the intermezzo 47…c4 48.Rd6! did not work) 48.Rdd7 and there I imagined that after 48…Kc3, there could be scenarios where black’s Rook sacrifices itself on the two kingside pawns, while the c-pawn would cost me a Rook; certainly not a very realistic scenario! So I chose 47.Rxg7? but I did not anticipate the excellent repositioning of black’s Rook after 47…c4 48.Rd1 Rhh8 49.Nxe5 Rhc8! after which everything holds by a thread, but I believe that white has no more win at his disposal!

Semi-finalists in Belgrade (photo: World Chess).
Semi-finalists in Belgrade (photo: World Chess).

With 7 points in the Grand Prix, I knew that I would have to win the last leg in Berlin to qualify for the Candidates.

BERLIN

Round 1: PREDKE-MVL 1-0

Predke-Mvl, Round 1.
Predke-Mvl, Round 1.

A bad start again with this horrible move 14…0-0?. My opponent replied instantly 15.g4!, the refutation he knew.

White simply wants to open the h-file by h4 without Black being able to close it by …g4. The plan is almost unstoppable, my position became spontaneously disastrous, and besides, I offered only a meager resistance.

Round 2: MVL-SHANKLAND 1/2

Sam surprised me by playing a sub-variation of the Berlin endgame that I thought was strategically risky. But he had really prepared well and was very precise until the end; it was a daring gamble and it worked out well for him.

Round 3: SO-MVL 1/2

Thanks to a good preparation, I was able to neutralize Wesley’s ambitions in the Bg5 Grunfeld. White kept until the endgame a very slight advantage, but more symbolic than anything else.

Post-match interview with the futur winner in Berlin (Photo: World Chess).
Post-match interview with the futur winner in Berlin (Photo: World Chess).

Round 4: MVL-PREDKE 1-0

Predke proved to be incredibly prepared on his Spanish Zaïtsev: and not on long tactical variations, but on a general idea of the organization of his pieces.

Mvl-Predke, Round 4.
Mvl-Predke, Round 4.

Here, instead of the mechanical and standard 12…Bf8, he played 12…Qd7 13.d5 Na7. Black will continue with …c6, then …Bd8 and …Nc8-e7, and finally …Bc8 followed by …Qb7 and the highlight, …Bb6; instead of moping around on f8, the Bishop comes to exchange itself for its fellow on e3!

Mvl-Predke, Round 4.
Mvl-Predke, Round 4.

The whole maneuver is actually splendid, and Predke has recited his concept to the end without any hesitation! It’s true that it seems strange to choose a really unforcing line and to just play on the regrouping of pieces in a type of position where the space advantage is supposed to favor White…

So I had to take a lot of risks, and that’s what I did! 21.Qd2 Kh7 (I suspected that he would not allow 21…Bb6 22.Bxh6!?, even though this sacrifice is probably objectively dubious: 22…gxh6 23.Qxh6 Nh7 [23…Ng6? 24.Nf5] 24.Ne2 [24.Qxd6 f6!] 24…Kh8! and Black should gradually push back the attack) 22.f4!?, again allowing 22…exf4 (Predke preferred to play the solid 22…Ng6) 23.Bxf4 g5. My idea was 24.e5 initiating massive tactical complications, but I wasn’t 100% sure of myself; still, I thought, « ok, let him have fun calculating that! »

After many other twists and turns, we arrived at the following position:

Mvl-Predke, Round 4.
Mvl-Predke, Round 4.

Short of time, Predke panicked with 37…Rb2? fearing that the breakthrough on e5 would allow the Bb1 to wreak havoc. On my side, I had already anticipated the continuation 37…Rxf1 38.Rxf1 Nf6 39.e5 dxe5 40.Bf5 and the game goes on, even if objectively Black risks nothing after 40…Qc7!. In the game, after 37…Rb2? 38.Nf8+ Kg8 39.Ne6, Black’s position becomes difficult, but Predke shortened his suffering with 39…Rxb1? 40.Rxb1 Qe7 41.Kh3 Qa7 42.Rf3! 1-0, black’s Queen is totally helpless…

The stage in Berlin (Photo: World Chess).
The stage in Berlin (Photo: World Chess).

Round 5: MVL-SO 0-1

For this decisive game, I decided during the rest day beforehand to play 1.d4. I figured that Wesley would spend the day refining his Berlin Defense, so this would be the best practical choice 🙂 . Without the rest day, I would have stayed on 1.e4.

I chose to counter the Nimzo-Indian with the 4.f3 variation, even though I knew that Wesley would have a precise line planned, if only because he had played the Nimzo against Shankland in the first round… But my hope was that he would have stuffed himself with Berlin endgames and that I would bring him a completely different position than expected 🙂 .

The surprise effect worked rather well, especially with my move 10.g4, which provoked a very long think from him.

Mvl-So, Round 5.
Mvl-So, Round 5.

Unfortunately, after 10…h5 11.Ng3 g6, I did not take enough time to play 12.Bxc4?. Instead, the machine suggests 12.h4, which I did not consider at all, but I immediately regretted not choosing 12.Be2, to play for the attack, with for example the 0-0 plan, followed by g5 and f4. It was obviously a better practical choice, one which does not leave him a concrete and easy plan as in the game.

Indeed, after 12.Bxc4? Bxc3+ 13.bxc3 Qa5, I thought I’d have some play, and I was quite willing to sacrifice the g4-pawn if I had to. But the continuation of the game 14.Qd3 Nb6 15.Bb5+ Bd7 16.Bxd7+ Nbxd7 17.g5 h4! (a very important move that I had missed from afar) shows that black has in fact already and largely solved all his problems.

Wesley then played very well and there is nothing to say. I can’t regret this choice in the opening, I took it knowing the risks, but also knowing that a draw would certainly not be favorable to me.

Round 6: SHANKLAND-MVL 1/2

Only a miracle could have left me in the running for qualification at the end of this last round. I was able to uncork a new idea in the Hungarian variation of the Grunfeld, but the American, despite some big sweats, found how to clear all the traps and to find the denouement in the form of perpetual check. For once, I was the one who recited it from beginning to end!

The very last Grand Prix game against Shankland (Photo: World Chess).
The very last Grand Prix game against Shankland (Photo: World Chess).

In general, I made too many mistakes in these Grand Prix tournaments. For the record, with Nakamura’s finalist place in Berlin, even a final win in Germany would not have qualified me for the Candidates!

In spite of the disappointment, life goes on, and the serious things will start again for me on May 5th, with the beginning of the Grand Chess Tour 2022 in Bucharest…

MAXIME’S GAMES

Maxime’s games at Belgrad:

Maxime’s games at Berlin:

In January, Maxime became ambassador of the Immortal Game project, (https://immortal.game) a chess platform in gestation which surfs on the technical evolutions of these last times.
Based on blockchain, this platform will offer a chess game with strictly unchanged rules, but « enriched » with some NFT pieces that will allow to accomplish parallel « quests » (« don’t castle », « keep such pawn alive », « make a prise en passant » etc…) yielding additional points. Thus, the incentives for players to complete their quests will slightly change the way the game strategy is designed.
Immortal Game is currently in the testing phase of its Alpha version, while the public one should be launched later this year.

Quiz!

Quiz

Since his world Blitz title in Warsaw on December 30, Maxime has not been back on track yet. His return is scheduled for March 1st, when the second FIDE Grand Prix tournament in Belgrade will begin.

Maxime is dedicating the first two months of 2022 to his preparation, leaving the mvlchess.com website orphaned for a few weeks.

While waiting for his competition analysis, here is a little quiz about Maxime. 10 questions to discover if you know him well; some are easy, others a little less.

Your move!

1. 
In what year did he become a GM ?
2. 
Before becoming a professional, Maxime studied 3 years:
3. 
How many moves did his longest classical game last ?
4. 
How many world championship titles has Maxime won?
5. 
Which of these champions has he never played against in an official game?
6. 
Maxime's favorite opening against 1.e4 is :
7. 
Following his title of World Blitz Champion, Maxime had to dye his hair in:
8. 
Which French soccer club does he support?
9. 
Which chess club has he never been a member of?
10. 
With a peak Elo of 2819.3, what is his "all-time best" ranking?

World Champion!

World Champion !

I prepared myself quite seriously for the Rapid & Blitz World Championship, which is one of my favorite tournaments; preparation of openings and training games of course, but also physical and mental preparation. The departure for Poland – instead of Kazakhstan initially planned, which allowed me to go to -5° instead of -25° 🙂 – was scheduled early in the morning on December 25th. So, no family Christmas…

At the airport, I bumped into Samy Shoker, the Franco-Egyptian Grand Master whom I had not seen for a long time, and who is now based in New Caledonia, after having spent some time in Uzbekistan! I also met other Frenchmen in Warsaw, notably the Franco-Algerian GM Bilel Bellahcène and WGM Nino Maisuradze.

The organization did pretty well at the beginning, it’s only later that things went wrong – see my tweets 🙂 . I quickly got into the swing of things by reviewing the openings I had planned to play, especially the French and the Queen’s Gambit accepted, which gave half-hearted results.

RAPID TOURNAMENT

The competition was held in the PGE Narodowy stadium, which hosts the matches of the Polish national football team.

The first day started very badly, with a big miscalculation against Durarbayli (2615), which forced me to take a draw after 15 moves with white. Even if I finally scored 3.5/5 that day, my play was still quite messy.

A hard-fought victory against the young Ukrainian prodigy Samunenkov, 12 years old (photo: Fide).
A hard-fought victory against the young Ukrainian prodigy Samunenkov, 12 years old (photo: Fide).

On the second day, I lost from the opening to Volokitine (2677), a game that shows things weren’t going well:

Mvl-Volokitin, Rapid Round 6.
Mvl-Volokitin, Rapid Round 6.

Because losing this position, with ten minutes against one, by forgetting that black threatens to take on d4 (18.Rb1? Nxd4!), that will take some beating!

I still finished this second day at 2/4, missing a nice win against Ponkratov (2641):

Ponkratov-Mvl, Rapid Round 9.
Ponkratov-Mvl, Rapid Round 9.

Instead of taking back on g2, the Russian played the intermediate move 36.f6? which should have been refuted by the aesthetic 36…g5! 37.Rxg5 (37.Qxg5 Rg6) 37…Bd5! and white is a piece down with no more attack.

On the third and last day of the Rapid tournament, it was already much better. I scored 3/4, with two good wins against Puranik (2604) and Petrossian (2573), and showed a stubborn defense in the last round against Fedoseev (2704).

Mvl-Fedoseev, Rapid Round 13.
Mvl-Fedoseev, Rapid Round 13.

Here I played 16.Rd1? and after 16…Ba4! black took the advantage. Instead, the machine instantly shows that White had a move at his disposal, admittedly a counter-intuitive one: 16.Qg5! with the idea 17.Nc4, even after 16…f6. The kind of move not to be found in Rapid chess, and that I could only imagine working out in an exercise, or in a classical game possibly.

Clearly, the end of the Rapid tournament made me believe I could gain momentum, despite the rather mediocre final result (17th with 8.5/13).

So I decided to play a few training games, in order to prepare myself for the two days of blitz to come. Deep inside, I knew that I was capable of winning it, based on my previous results, and especially my silver medal in 2015, after I had a 1.5 point lead with 4 rounds to go !-) .

Before moving on to the Blitz tournament, a quick word of congratulations for Uzbekistan’s Abdusattorov, surprise winner of the World Rapid championship at only 17 years old. Uzbekistan is going to become a chess power to be considered, because Sindarov – who is just 16 years old – will also prove his skills by finishing 8th of the blitz tournament…

Narodowy Stadium in Warsaw.
Narodowy Stadium in Warsaw.

BLITZ TOURNAMENT

After a first win against Krasenkov (2576), I had to content myself with a half-point against Vastrukhin (2376):

Vastrukhin-Mvl, Blitz Round 2.
Vastrukhin-Mvl, Blitz Round 2.

An instructive type of position, I got the same kind against Kravtsiv a few rounds later. Even though it is objectively very advantageous, perhaps even winning, this position one pawn down is much easier to play in defense. Sure in a classical game I could have pressed, but in blitz I couldn’t find the resources. White has no weakness other than his missing pawn, and his plan is clear; do nothing 🙂 and let black tear his hair out to make progress. On my side, I have to find something concrete, while always watching my b7 and e4 pawns, and also preventing the exchange of the queenside pawns: it’s just very difficult.

Then, a victory against Cheparinov (2664), but not without having experienced quite a scare:

Mvl-Cheparinov, Blitz Round 3.
Mvl-Cheparinov, Blitz Round 3.

Here, I had to content myself with 28.Bd2. Instead, I played the natural 28.Bxc7? which loses in an incredible way: 28…Qa1+ 29.Ke2 Kh6! (and not 29…Qxb2? as played by the Bulgarian, because after 30.Bxd6, the d-pawn will be decisive while the Bishop comes back to defend the black squares around the King) 30.f3 (from a distance, I had seen 30.Bxd6 Bh5 31.Bf4+, completely forgetting 31…g5!) 30…Qg1! and the attack on the black squares is decisive.

In round 4, I had my first setback against Vidit (2727).

Vidit-Mvl, Blitz Round 4.
Vidit-Mvl, Blitz Round 4.

Here, instead of the normal 18…Rc8 with equality, I thought I was being clever by opting for the sequence 18…Bxf3? 19.Qxf3 Ne5 20.Bxe5 Qxe5. I believed that by attacking the Bd3, and threatening …Qb2, or even …Bd6, my position would be sound. In reality, after the simple 21.Nd4!,black’s position becomes very difficult, even almost losing in practice: the c-file, the weakness of the c6-square and the a6-pawn are terrible.

This sequence still shows some shortcomings in my handling of new openings like the Queen’s Gambit Accepted 🙂 . It is certain that I do not have the same level of knowledge and understanding in this type of position as in those resulting from the Grunfeld…

Against Antipov (2615), I was hit by blindness in the ending, after a technical game that I had mastered well.

Mvl-Antipov, Blitz Round 5.
Mvl-Antipov, Blitz Round 5.

Here, instead of 64.Bd2, I could directly play 64.Be2! Be6 65.Ba6+ Kd8 66.Kb7 and black’s position collapses. A simple win that I managed to totally overlook several times, obsessed as I was with the pin on the Nd7.

After a win against Dudin (2474), I had a long theoretical debate on the Najdorf against Sychev (2550), who ended up losing on time in a tough endgame.

Which brings me to a general comment about the overall level. Clearly, the players, including those in the pack, have made a lot of progress in blitz. You can feel that there had been a lot of practice online and that almost everyone was ready to play theoretical lines, without any complexes! And in addition, there were far less blunders committed overall; for me it is obvious if you compare to the 2019 or 2018 editions for instance.

After a win against Timofeev (2572) who was too willing to trade pieces to a draw in an even position, then came the first big turning point for me, with this incredible loss against Amin Bassem (2680).

Mvl-Amin Bassem, Blitz Round 9.
Mvl-Amin Bassem, Blitz Round 9.

I was happy with the game. I thought it was pretty well under control since the beginning. And I felt that this endgame should be a complete win. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the forced line 64.Bf6! Kf5 65.Be5 Kg4 66.Kxe4 Kxh4 which gains a clear tempo over the line in the game: 67.f5 gxf5+ 68.Kxf5 Kh3 69.Kg5 h4 70.f4 Kg3 71.f5+ and curtains.

Instead, I played 64.Kxe4? directly, and after 64…Kxh4 65.f5 gxf5+ 66.Kxf5 Kh3 67.Kg5 h4 68.f4 Kg3 69.f5 (without check!) 69…h3 70.Be5+ Kg2 71.f6 h2 72.f7 h1=Q 73.f8=Q Qc1 I decided to try my luck a little bit more: 74.Bf4 Qc2 75.Qa8+ Kf2 76.Qa7+ Ke2 77.Qe3+ Kf1 until the incomprehensible hara-kiri 78.Bg3?? b2 79.Qf3 Kg1 80.Bf4 Qg2+ 0-1. A very bitter pill to swallow…

Still reeling from this defeat, I lost again, and this time in 26 moves, to Maghsoodloo (2701). However, I was much better after the opening with black!

Fortunately, there were still two rounds left in this first day, and I had the opportunity to double white and win both games, allowing me to stay alive in the tournament; first against Matlakov (2674), then against Zvjaginsev (2599).

Aerial view of the first boards (Photo: Fide).
Aerial view of the first boards (Photo: Fide).

When we arrived for the second day of blitz, we learned that several players had tested positive for Covid, including Nakamura. I really thought the tournament was going to be stopped, but many players were convinced that the organizers and Fide would do everything to make this last day go through. That’s what happened in the end, just one hour behind schedule.

Clearly, the Covid protocol in FIDE competitions will have to be reworked in the direction of a greater firmness because there was a lot of uncertainty and unsuitable situations, for example – but not only – in the buses put at the disposal of the players…

So, I started with a bad game against Gelfand (2663), after having done a bit of a mess in the opening. I still got a Queen’s endgame with 3 pawns against 4 on the same side, and just when I had a tough choice to make, I checked my clock and found that his was at 0:00 🙂 . « Thanks for the gift, Boris, I’ll try to enjoy it! ».

After a quick draw against Giri (2772) where we took 20 pieces in a mere 21 moves 🙂 , I faced the Uzbek Sindarov. An ultra-complex game from a fashionable variation of the Open Spanish finally led to the following position:

Mvl-Sindarov, Blitz Round 15.
Mvl-Sindarov, Blitz Round 15.

Here, black had to play 38…Qh1+ 39.Kg3 Qe1+ and the position remains very complicated to play. Instead, Sindarov chose 38…Qd3+? 39.Kh2 e3, which doesn’t work because of 40.Qe5! e2 41.Bf8, forcing 41…Qg6 42.Qxe2 and white wins.

After a draw against Kravtsiv (2604) where I couldn’t win a Rook ending a pawn up, I played my first really decisive game against Aronian (2772), who was leading the tournament at that time, two points ahead of me.

And this game did not fall short, with the advantage going back and forth from one side to the other, from start to finish!

Mvl-Aronian, Blitz Round 17.
Mvl-Aronian, Blitz Round 17.

It was Levon who made the last mistake here, but he had been playing on the two-second per move increment for a while. Necessary was the counterplay created by 54…d4 55.a6 (55.Ra3 Rg2+) 55…d3! and the fight continues in the endgame. But Levon opted for 54…Ra1? after which White has a trivial technical win with 55.Ra3 Rf1 56.a6 Rf8 57.a7 Ra8 58.Kc3 Kf7 59.Kd4 and black’s King is too far away.

Generally speaking, in this blitz tournament, I recovered my main quality of being able to put a lot of pressure on the clock; this is for example what happened in the next game against the Maroczy Bind of the new Indian prodigy Erigaisi (2629), which was a clean performance by me:

We then arrived in the money time, and with three rounds to go, I was paired with white against Dubov (2749) who was the new leader of the tournament, half a point ahead of Aronian and me.

The opening went badly and to my surprise, Dubov offered me a draw in the following position:

Mvl-Dubov, Blitz Round 19.
Mvl-Dubov, Blitz Round 19.

Of course, I didn’t want to accept and almost played 18.Rb4, but considering the position again, I finally thought it would be much more reasonable to comply 🙂 .

After all, there were still two rounds left, and anyway, I think you have to accept it when things don’t go as planned…

I then made a solid draw against Artemiev (2700) at the penultimate round, allowing a large regrouping in the lead, with the return of Duda, and an exceptional remontada of Alireza!

With 6 players at 14 points going into the final round, I had the honor of being underpaired against Carlsen (2856), who was all alone at 13.5. Obviously, we were both in a must-win situation.

The opening didn’t go too well because I missed a strong move for black. Nevertheless, the type of position that resulted, while certainly objectively favorable for black, was actually perfectly suited to my situation!

Mvl-Carlsen, Blitz Round 21.
Mvl-Carlsen, Blitz Round 21.

Here, Magnus thought for a really long time, 1’17” or an eternity at this rhythm; the proof that he was probably not comfortable… For me, the obvious move was 21…bxa4! which had the advantage of deflecting one of my pieces. 22.Rgxa4, you really don’t want! 22.Raxa4 Qb1 neither… That leaves 22.Bxa4, which I would have played reluctantly.

Instead, the world champion finally opted for 21…Qxh3?, a move which leaves me too many options, one of which wins immediately – to everyone’s surprise! Indeed, if 22.Qd5! had been chosen, Black could no longer have protected f7 without losing the Ra8; and he could have done absolutely nothing with his Queen and two Knights around my King! Unfortunately, I didn’t see this retreat move either, and I played 22.Rg3? instantly, letting black taking over. Under great time pressure though, Magnus finally went down and let me organize a mating attack with Queen and Bishop!

First 20 ranked players in the World Blitz championship (Image: chess-results.com)
First 20 ranked players in the World Blitz championship (Image: chess-results.com)

TIE-BREAK

Second game in the tie-break… (photo: Fide).
Second game in the tie-break… (photo: Fide).

Duda and Firouzja also won their games, so all three of us finished at 15 points. I had the best Buchholz, but the rules called for a tie-break on the board between the first two players, which unfortunately eliminated Alireza from the title race. After a stormy end to the tournament, which he is now famous for, he still finished in an excellent 3rd place.

So I faced the Polish Duda, who was playing at home, for the world title. The first series of two games was played in a very serious way on both sides, and ended in two logical draws. No Armaggedon in Warsaw, the rules specifying it would be sudden death instead! The title would now go to the first winner, the one who was ahead in the Buchholz having the advantage of starting with white. So I had the opportunity to strike first!

Mvl-Duda, Blitz Tie-break 3.
Mvl-Duda, Blitz Tie-break 3.

I repeated the same anti-Marshall line as in our first blitz game, up to the diagrammed position; mainly because I liked the position I had gotten. In the first blitz, I played 17.d4 exd4 18.Nxd4 Bd7 19.Qc2, but after 19…Qe8!, black had solved all his problems. In the short break of a few minutes before the game, I mulled over the position and found out that 17.Qc2!? would be very interesting: I’m threatening 18.Bxe5; on the natural 17…Bg4?! as in the game, I had anticipated 18.d4! exd4 (18…Bxf3 19.dxc5! might be what Duda forgot) 19.Nxd4 Bd7, and I’m a tempo up compared to the previous game, a privilege that allowed me to get a nice edge after 20.Nb5 Bxb5 (20…Ra6 is better, but hardly « human ») 21.axb5 Bxc3 22.Qxc3.

From a practical point of view, 17.Qc2!? was therefore an excellent choice, even if I saw afterwards that the machine still prefers 17.d4 over it, because it considers that black is ok after 17.Qc2!? Ne6! (the anti-d4 remedy); I had seen this Knight move, but I was not convinced that black wanted to have his Knight on e6 and block the Bc8.

It's not the right cup, but the title is there! (Photo Fide).
It’s not the right cup (guess why!), but the title is there (Photo Fide).

This World title comes at the right time to close a year 2021 in half-tone, with notably a very difficult first semester (nightmarish Tata Steel, the disappointment of the Candidates, failure in Bucharest, and very dubious online tournaments). Fortunately, I was able to recover from the summer, mainly by winning Zagreb and the Sinquefield Cup, and finally this World title in blitz!

January and February will be very light for me, the priority now being the preparation of the Fide Grand Prix tournaments, which will offer the last two qualifying spots for the Candidates Tournament in June.

As for me, I will play the 2nd tournament (in Belgrade from March 1st) and the 3rd (in Berlin from March 22nd).

Maxime’s games at the Rapid world championship:

Maxime’s games at the Blitz world championship:

Kool & the Gang – Celebration

The first days of 2022 saw Maxime being widely solicited by the media, the ransom of glory for a newly crowned world champion! The official reactions were also up to the task, especially with another Frenchman on the World podium… Maxime and Alireza were invited the next day by the French Ambassador in Warsaw, while the ministers Jean-Michel Blanquer and Roxana Maracineanu sent their public congratulations, before the Prime Minister Jean Castex followed suit.


We will also note that the President of the Republic Emmanuel Macron was not to be outdone, as he opted for a private message sent to the new World champion 🙂 .

Small disappointment at the Grand Swiss

Grand Swiss logo.

I prepared for about two weeks for the Grand Swiss in Riga and the European Championships which followed it, even if this preparation was interrupted by a few games played in the Bundesliga in mid-October with my club Baden-Baden. I was holding board 1 at this gathering in Berlin which came to close the aborted 2019-2020 season 🙂 , and my score of +2 =3 helped to give the team a new national title.

German champion! (photo : schachbundesliga).
German champion! (photo : schachbundesliga).

Grand Swiss Riga

I arrived in Latvia on October 25, a few days after the implementation of a lockdown in the country, due to the high number of cases of Coronavirus in the population. This inconvenience, as well as travel difficulties for some, caused a few forfeits among the announced participants of the Grand Swiss. Because of this strict confinement, I could not leave the hotel after 8pm. Since the games were played during the day, I rarely went outside. Basically, I walked to and from the playing hall, and that was about it! Even when I finished early, I would go back to the hotel and head to the gym until 7:30. In this situation, the ability to work out was a must. You couldn’t walk around the city centre, you missed the warmth of mingling with people and having a minimum of contact with the local population.
Fortunately, this obvious lack was counterbalanced by the opening of a lounge in the hotel for the players. This quickly became an essential part of the daily life of the tournament. It was open 24 hours a day 🙂 , which gave rise to convivial scenes, with lively discussions, but also friendly challenges, chess puzzles, blitzs etc. I stayed there until midnight to relax. Of course, I also took the necessary breaks to prepare myself against my opponent of the next day.

Round 1: Niemann-MVL: 0,5-0,5

I started the tournament with a clean draw against the young American GM and world puzzle rush specialist!

Round 2 : MVL-Tabatabaei 1-0

n game 2, against Amin Tabatabaei, we found ourselves playing the Berlin endgame. As against Xiong in the Sinquefield Cup, I took my time to decide which line I would finally play. By the way, it led to almost exactly the same game 🙂 , with a pawn on f6, the knight going to g5, and taking control of the h file.

Mvl-Tabatabaei, Round 2.
Mvl-Tabatabaei, Round 2.

Here, my opponent absolutely had to play 16…g6 (instead of 16…Be7? 17.Kg3, and it’s already lost because Black doesn’t have time to play 17…g6 because of 18.f6 Bb4 19.Ne4 with an overwhelming position), but he must have been afraid of 17.g5 and that the h4 Bishop would be trapped; which never works since if Rd4, Black will always have …Be1.

Round 3: Donchenko-MVL : 0,5-0,5

I had a similar game against Mamedyarov. I made the mistake of not repeating that game which was quickly drawn. Indeed, I wanted to keep some chances. This did not turn out to be a good idea and my opponent took the draw a pawn up, although there was probably a way for him to cause me some more problems.

Round 4: MVL-Demchenko 1-0

I knew that my opponent of the day played a lot of sidelines against the Spanish, and I had looked at them before the game. 13.Bf4 would have been more accurate than the game move (13.Bg5). Nevertheless I got a nice initiative until 18.e6 fxe6 19.dxe6.

Mvl-Demchenko, Round 4.
Mvl-Demchenko, Round 4.

Here, the critical move was 19…Nxe6 20.Ne5 Bxe5 21.Rxe5 and now 21…c5! which we both missed and which would allow a further …Nd4. And then it would not have been clear, contrary to the game, where I took a decisive edge after 19…Qc6? 20.Re4 Ned5 (20…g5 21.Rxf4! gxf4 22.Qd3) 21.Nxd5 Nxd5 22.Rg4!.

Round 5: Firouzja-MVL 0,5-0,5

I was not in trouble in this game against my new compatriot.

Firouzja-Mvl, Ronde 5.

I even tried to take the advantage, but in the wrong way, so that I found myself a little bit worse after 21…Rfd8 22.Ne4 Nf4 23.Ra2 d5 24.cxd5 Rxd5 25.Rd2. I could have played 21…d5! right away, which was better after 22.cxd5 Rfd8 23.Ne4 (23.Nc4 Nf4 24.d6 b5) 23…Rxd5, because my knight remains on d3.

After that, I was very careful in defence, and the position flattened out. Maybe I could have gone on a bit at the end, but I didn’t see a realistic chance of winning. So I decided to leave it at that and concentrate on the rest of the tournament.

Round 6: MVL-Ponkratov 1-0

I played an Advance French variation involving a pawn sacrifice. Despite a low number of total moves, it was a very complicated game, with a lot of content. At the beginning, Black played all the good moves, especially 12…g5!.

Mvl-Ponkratov, Round 6.
Mvl-Ponkratov, Round 6.

But at move 15, in a position where we were already running low on time, Black made the mistake 15…h5?. I guess my opponent looked at the critical 15…Nxd4, but he must have felt something wrong with it. Pressed by the clock, he finally played this mistake 15…h5? after 20 minutes of thought. 16.Nf6+ Bxf6 16.exf6 Ng8 17.Qf3 Rh6 18.Qxd5 Nxf6 19.Qg5 Ng4 followed.

I was quite clinical afterwards with 21. Nc3! Qd8 (if 21…Qxd4, there is 22.Nd5! Qxf2+ 23.Kh1 and mate to follow) 22.Qxd8+ Kxd8 (Black might have resisted a bit with 22…Rxd8, but the result would probably not have been altered) 23.Ne4 e5 24.f3 Nxd4 25.fxg4 hxg4 26.Ng5 1-0.

So after this first half of the tournament and before the rest day, I had done the job with white, and I had never been in danger with black. I was in the lead ex-aequo.

Masked and wearing the MVL shirt! (Photo: Fide).
Masked and wearing the MVL shirt! (Photo: Fide).

Round 7: Sasikiran-MVL 0,5-0,5

A complicated and theoretical Najdorf! I was forced to repeat the moves at the end. I know that some people reproached me for it, but I don’t regret this decision. I preferred to take the draw because his position was too solid and I couldn’t see how I could create chances for myself; on the other hand, I could see very well how I could create chances for him 🙂 .

Round 8: MVL-Shirov 0,5-0,5

Definitely the turning point of the tournament. I thought a lot before the game to decide what I was going to play against this specific Arkhangelsk line that Shirov likes, but my choice turned out to be a failure. I had in mind that the type of position I got was good for white, but in fact it was not. I could see that after black’s 26th move.

Mvl-Shirov, Round 8.
Mvl-Shirov, Round 8.

Here, if I play 27.Qc3 or 27.Qa7 to attack the c7-pawn, black has 27…Re8! which is strong, because 28.Qxc7? is met by 28…Re1+.

After 27.Qg3, I expected my opponent to play 27…Rc8 and a draw to be quickly agreed, but he preferred to exchange Queens with 27…Qxg3. This was certainly not the best practical choice ? After some precise play on my part, I managed to create some chances in a pawn ending.

Mvl-Shirov, Round 8.
Mvl-Shirov, Round 8.

Unfortunately, I made a very big mistake (47.h4?) because, like Shirov, I didn’t realize the potential of this endgame. I feel bad I didn’t just start with 47.Kb4 Kb6 48.Kc4, because Black would have had some incredibly difficult decisions to make to save this endgame, which it would be difficult to analyze here because its apparent simplicity actually conceals a lot of finesses.

Round 9: Anton-MVL 0,5-0,5

A game where my opponent had decided to take his chances, which allowed both of us to have a shot at the initiative. The game had a very rich content: I sacrificed two pawns, but white took risks by returning them to create a long-term attack on my King.

A very interesting game that ended abruptly because I was forced to take the draw by repetition.

Round 10 : MVL-Caruana 0,5-0,5

A decisive game. The threat of a Marshall gambit was unexpected, but I was still able to cause him problems with the anti-Marshall 8.a4. But I made some small miscalculations in this game; even if they turned out to be inconsequential, they proved to be a bit destabilizing for me. For example, before playing 23.Ba5 afew moves earlier, I had forgotten that 26…Qb4! was possible here.

Mvl-Caruana, Round 10.
Mvl-Caruana, Round 10.

still kept a small advantage afterwards, but Fabiano played very well. 27.Rd1 Rb7 28.Nc4 Rxa7 29.Qxa7 Qb3 30.Re1 Qxd3 31.Qxe7 Qxc4 32.Qxd6 Qd4. My second strategic mistake was obviously 33.Qxe5? as I simply forgot 33…Qxe5 34.Rxe5 f6! which forces a quick draw, as he defended well to prevent the small chances I still had.

That said, if I had played 33.Rxe5, he would probably have replied with 33…Ra8!. With black’s Queen on d4 stronger than her counterpart on d6, I didn’t imagine I had any real chances either in this variation.

Round 11: Yu Yangyi-MVL 0,5-0,5

An all-in game. Besides my opponent, a usual 1.d4 player, chose to play against the Najdorf with 6.h3.

A mutual evaluation error led to the ultimate draw.

Yu Yangyi-Mvl, Round 11.
Yu Yangyi-Mvl, Round 11.

During the game, we didn’t realize that 27.Rf2 (instead of 27.Bxe5?) was strong. After 27…Nc4, I look like I have threats and it doesn’t feel like it’s so nice to play for white. But in reality, after 28.g5 Nh5 (28…Nd5? 29.Bd3 +-) 29.Bc1! the nuisance potential of the Bishop pair should be a problem for black.

The game continued with 27…Qxe5 28.Re2 Ne4 29.Qd5 Qf4. I thought before playing 29…Qf4 and so my opponent had time to see that after the natural 30.Rde1? Nc3+! 31.bxc3 Rb8+ 32.Ka1 Rxe2 33.Bxe2 Qg3 34.Qd2 Qc7! 35.Bc4 (forced) 35…Qxc4 36.Qd4 Qc6, he would have been on the wrong side of the draw! Unfortunately, he preferred the solid 30.Ka1 and there was not much left to do.

Congratulations to Firouzja and Caruana, who won their ticket to the Candidates. As for me, I will have to get one of the two remaining places at the FIDE Grand Prix tournaments which will take place in February-March 2022.

Note that the Grand Swiss in Riga ended with a blitz tournament in memory of Tal in his hometown. In spite of my status of favorite as top seed in blitz, I had to be satisfied with a modest 13th place…

Top seed at the blitz Tal Memorial (Photo: Fide).
Top seed at the blitz Tal Memorial (Photo: Fide).

European Team Championship

It was a pleasure to be back in the French team, with a new-look line-up. In addition to Alireza Firouzja and the evergreen Etienne Bacrot, I was teamed up with two players I know very well, Maxime Lagarde and Jules Moussard, although this was my first time with them in the national team. Even though Maxime had already been selected in 2019, he and Jules were in a new situation, in a team destined to play the first roles. This may explain some of the poor decisions they made at the start of the tournament. In their defence, it is never easy to get into this new role.

The atmosphere within the team was good, everything went really well. We were permanently followed by a cameraman. He filmed us discreetly, and every day the French Federation would broadcast a video on the life of the group: http://echecs.asso.fr/Actu.aspx?Ref=13656

Alireza and I were both ready to play first or second board, no matter which order. Our captain, Sébastien Mazé, finally decided that Alireza would play on board 1. Alireza and I finally played all nine rounds.

Round 1: Austria-France 1-3

A quiet debut, where I won my white game against Dragnev (2548), and a match victory without too much trepidation.

Round 2: France-Croatia 2.5-1.5

A match against a dangerous team. My black game against Brkic (2599) followed a huge theoretical Najdorf line, where I made the questionable decision to give away the d6-pawn, which was not necessary. Fortunately, after much thought, my opponent decided to avoid any complications and return the d-pawn to ensure a draw.

Thanks to Etienne Bacrot’s victory, the team won its second match, making a good start to the tournament.

Round 3: Hungary-France 2.5-1.5

That’s where the problems started… Alireza did the job on the first board by beating Erdos after a very nice game. But on boards 3 and 4, there were some turnarounds: when I signed the draw because I had nothing left with white against Berkes (2676), the team was not in danger: Alireza and Maxime were pressing a bit, Etienne looked to have the draw in hand.

The situation turned around in ten minutes while I was on my way back to the hotel. When I saw the faces of Sébastien Mazé and Jules Moussard and quickly looked at the positions, I understood…

Concerning my game, I missed some luck. 17.c4 seems to give me a good advantage because after 17…Nc6 immediately, there is 18.Nd5!.

Mvl-Berkes, Round 3.
Mvl-Berkes, Round 3.

Berkes opted for 17…c5, with the idea that if black’s Knight gets to d4, it’s a draw right away. I could have played the Nh4-f5 manoeuvre, but it seemed a bit light, and I wanted to get a sharper position. After 18.Rad1, Black had to come up with a few more odd moves, including 18…h6 19.Nd5 Rac8 but everything seemed to fit. I continued with 20.Nxf6+ Qxf6 21.Rd7 and I had in mind the position that occurred after 21…b6 22.Red1 Nc6 23.R1d6 Re6 24.Qd3 (24.Rd5 doesn’t bring much) 24…Nd4 25.Rxe6 Qxe6 26.Rd5.If 26…f6, I had considered 27.Nh4 followed by Nf5 which could be strong, but after 26…Re8!,I had no other choice than 27.Nxe5 f6 28.Ng4 Qxe4 29.Qxe4 Rxe4 30.Ne3. Of course, I remained a little bit better, but it’s actually quite easy to hold. After a series of precise moves, my opponent managed to earn the half point.

This first team loss was obviously a big disappointment.

Round 4 : France-Turkey 2.5-1.5

We had to get back immediately, and we di dit by winning on the first two boards. Unfortunately, Etienne lost from a very good position.

As for my game, I took advantage of the fact that my opponent (Dastan, 2572) had not played for a year and a half. I think he must be a student and not a professional player. It showed because he took a lot of time to make his decisions. He was playing good moves, and then he started to take risks by grabbing a pawn on the Queenside without logically following it up with castling Queenside. In his defense, he had only 2 minutes left at that time!

Round 5: Armenia-France 2.5-1.5

Unfortunately, Maxime and Jules lost their footing on the last two boards, although their positions were ok. The difficulties started for me with this white game against Martyrosian (2624).

Mvl-Martyrosian, Ronud 5.
Mvl-Martyrosian, Ronud 5.


n the final position, I repeated moves because I had not seen the strength of 26.h4!. After 26…Be6 27.Rxd8+ Kxd8, simply 28.a3. Black doesn’t have 28…Ke7 because of 29.Nf5+ Bxf5 30.Rxf5 which promises a nightmarish Rook endgame. And above all, black doesn’t have 28…Rg6 29.Nxf7+ Ke7 either since there is 30.Ng5 available now. And after a neutral move, e.g. 28…b6, the plan would have been 29.Rf4 (but not 29.Nf5? right away because of 29…Rg4) followed by 30.Nf5, with a tangible advantage.

Last round against Azerbaidjan: the whole French team (Photo: Ecu).
Last round against Azerbaidjan: the whole French team (Photo: Ecu).

Round 6: France-Greece 3-1

A match that came after the rest day, when we already had two defeats on our record. Clearly, we were now in all-in mode 🙂 .

White brought the two points of the victory. On my side, I managed to get some small chances with black against Banikas (2592), which I unfortunately wasted with an inaccurate move at the end.

Round 7: France-Georgia 2.5-1.5

We knew it would be a complicated and tricky encounter against largely underrated players. As often, the match was won on the first board by Alireza 🙂 . The others made three draws without too much relief, of which mine with black against Sanikidze (2458).

Round 8: Russia-France 1.5-2.5

A decisive match and a prestige victory, brought by Maxime Lagarde. He had been assigned to play solidly with white against Esipenko, but he finally got a little something and created problems that his opponent did not solve in reciprocal zeitnot. Etienne and Alireza, who were flanking me, were both under pressure with black, and my glances to the right and left were not exactly reassuring. For my part, I had gotten a slight pressure typical of the Italian against Dubov (2714), though it probably wasn’t much in the end. I still continued the game in case things didn’t go well for Maxime. And when he finally won, I immediately offered a draw. But it’s true that it was quite intense mentally to follow the other games carefully while playing his own.

Round 9: France-Azerbaijan 2.5-1.5

Against Azerbaijan, it was again Alireza who was decisive, overcoming Mamedyarov who first did too much to avoid a draw, then managed to get out of a very dangerous position to transpose in a Rook endgame that I was sure would be a draw. At that moment, I was quietly in my room resting, and I saw that …Rf3 was the only move to draw. So I went down the hall to force Mamed into error 🙂 . And it worked!

On my board, I had long since drawn my black game against Radjabov (2763) with ease. I should even have continued in the final position, in which I was probably already slightly better.

A wonderful final victory to conclude the tournament, even if we missed the gold for a few points of a rather improbable tie-breaking system. We will be satisfied with this nice silver medal behind Ukraine.

Silver medal (Photo : Ecu).
Silver medal (Photo : Ecu).

In the end, the French team showed that it was hyper competitive on the international level, obviously boosted by the arrival of Alireza. We have to congratulate him for his major contribution to our result, and for his new #2 spot in the World rankings that he occupies after a fearful run of results the last couple of months.

On my side, I lacked a little bit of energy, and if I could have put more intensity, I could have caused more problems to my opponents, especially in the second half of the tournament. My performance was still very solid, and I am now on a 29-game unbeaten streak.

Next up for me is the Rapid & Blitz World Championship, which is back on after a cancelled 2020 edition because of Covid. As usual, it will take place between Christmas and New Year’s Day, this time in Nursultan, the capital of distant Kazhakstan.

Maxime’s games in bundesliga:

Maxime’s games in Riga:

Maxime’s games in blitz:

Maxime’s games in the European team Championship:

Maxime often answers in interviews that he likes and follows many sports, but that it is probably tennis that holds the number one place for him. Before heading to Berlin for the Bundesliga, it was therefore with pleasure that he went to La Roche-sur-Yon on October 8, at the invitation of the organizers of the Open de Vendée de Tennis / ATP Challenger. On this occasion, Maxime was able to spend some time with the future winner of the event, the Czech Jiri Vesely. A time of sharing which also saw them exchange a few balls on the court, then play a couple of chess games in front of the cameras. Here is a quick interview with the two players:

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