Here we go again!

Skilling open

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

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

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

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

PRELIMINARY STAGE

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

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

Svidler-Mvl, Round 13.

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

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

Mvl-Ding Liren, Round 14.

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

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

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

¼ FINAL: MVL-NAKAMURA

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

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

Mvl-Nakamura, ¼ Final, Set 1, Game 1.

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

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

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

We finally got the following position:

Nakamura-Mvl, ¼ Final, Set 1, Game 2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maxime’s games:

QUEEN’S GAMBIT

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

Back on board!

Bundesliga 2020

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

SAINT-LOUIS SHOWDOWN

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

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

Caruana-Mvl, Round 2.

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

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

Mvl-Dominguez, Round 7.

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

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

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

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

BANTER BLITZ CHESS 24

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

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

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

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

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

Mvl-So, Game 9.

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

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

BUNDESLIGA

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

Aerial view of the Karlsrühe Exhibition Centre.

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

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

MVL – HEIMANN (2617) 1-0

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

Mvl-Heimann, Ronde 1.

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

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

HUSCHENBETH (2612) – MVL 0-1

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

MVL – TARI (2630) 1-0

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

Mvl-Tari, Round 4.

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

Mc SHANE (2680) – MVL ½

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

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

MALAKHOV (2669) – MVL ½

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

Malakhov-Mvl, Round 7.

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

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

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

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

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

Maxime’s game in the Showdown:

Maxime’s games in Bundesliga :

Maxime’s games in Banter :

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

Summer on a gentle slope

Illustration summer 2020

After my elimination in the preliminary phase of the Online Masters on 22 June, my summer horizon had suddenly widened considerably . I was able to alternate rest and training periods during the two months of July and August; of course, always aiming at the resumption of the Candidates Tournament, which has been rumoured to be at the end of October, the end of November or even later.

Apart from the preparation and holidays, this summer time has nevertheless been an opportunity for me to make a few appearances here and there…

A few examples:

On July 10th, with GM Yannick Pelletier for the Swiss Chess Federation, I presented a Masterclass that you can review here:

On August 11th, I won the Speed Chess tournament organised every Tuesday on www.chess.com. As usual, a pleiad of GMs participated, including for instance Caruana, Grischuk, Svidler, or Firoujza (758 players). Read the article here: https://www.chess.com/news/view/vachier-lagrave-wins-11th-speed-chess-championship-grand-prix

This is the end of my very first game against a Serbian FM:

Djokic-Mvl, Round 1.

1.Kb2? (1.Kd2 to protect the weakness on e3 was more logical) 1…Rd7! 2.Rcd2? (although passive, compulsory was 2.Rxd7+ Kxd7 3.Re2, and black still has to convert) 2…Rxd3 3.Rxd3 Re4! and white can’t avoid …Rg4xg3 (0-1 a few moves later).

On 24th August, at the end of a lunch in a restaurant with some colleagues, I played a blindfold bullet game against GM Jules Moussard.

Here is the end of it…

Mvl-Moussard, Blindfold Bullet

21.Rad1! (activity prevails in quick games, I don’t care about the c2 pawn 🙂 ) 21…Bxc2 22.Rd7 Ba4 23.Rxc7 Bc6 24.e6! Rae8 25.Qd4 Qg4 26.Rf7 Rg8 27.e7 Qh3 28.Rf2 1-0.

And for those who wish, here is the video version of this fun moment, which happily mixes French and English.

View this post on Instagram

Blindfold bullets with Caporal @jyeolz

A post shared by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (@mvl_chess) on

On August 29th, I was the guest of Indian GM Surya Ganguly in the Surya Chess talk show on his Youtube channel, which is becoming increasingly popular. A long interview punctuated with analyses of my games, to be found here:

On August 31st, it was my turn to fulfil my obligations as a Candidate with FIDE, by playing several mini-matches online against winning amateurs of the « Checkmate Coronavirus » online tournament circuit.

The event was not filmed but you can replay all these games in the viewer at the bottom of the page.

I was also a commentator of a few tournaments during these two months, such as the final of the Online Masters on July 3rd, the Sogeres Trophy on July 5th, and much more recently, the Blitzstream Invitational on September 3rd and 4th;

While waiting to know more about the resumption of the Candidates, I will get back on the (virtual) chessboard from September 11th to 13th, for the Champions Showdown organised by the Saint-Louis Chess Club, in which 10 players will take part, including Carlsen, Caruana, Nakamura, Firoujza, and a certain… Kasparov!

Les parties de Maxime :


Chilean singer Juga Di Prima is now well known to chess players as she has accumulated artistic creations based on the King’s game. Moreover, she has had the opportunity to sing on stage several times during the closing ceremonies of major international tournaments. At the beginning of the summer, Juga released on her Youtube channel a song played on the guitar that she called «Thinking MVL», which is an adaptation of « Thinking out loud » by Ed Sheeran
A very nice musical tribute to the French champion!

A pretty bad quarter

Chessable Master

Unfortunately, the Chessable Masters, third tournament of the online « Carlsen Tour », didn’t end any better than the first one in which I had participated. Knocked out in the group phase, I had the confirmation that playing online at the same level as on the board was a real challenge for me 🙂 .

However, it all started rather well on the first day, with an unbeaten 3/5 in my group. But things took a disastrous turn in the second leg the following day, despite a rather quiet first draw…

Giri-Mvl, Round 6.
Giri-Mvl, Round 6.

On the previous move, I had taken the time to check the tactical sequence 16.Nxd6!? gxf5 17.Bxe5, and it seemed to me that after 17…Ne4!, the position remained obscure, but not unfavourable for me, after for example 18.Nxc8 Rxc8 19.Bf4, as after the more risky 18.Nxf5!? Qe6. However, Anish preferred the quiet continuation 16.Qg5, and after 16…Nxf3+ 17.Bxf3 Ne4 18.Qxe7 Bxe7, I was able to equalize without too many worries (1/2, 30 moves).

It is against Radjabov that the trouble started, in a key game that went very badly; in general, one is disappointed by the loss of half a point when one does not convert a clearly superior position; but here I even managed to lose 🙂 .

Mvl-Radjabov, Round 7.
Mvl-Radjabov, Round 7.

In this very difficult position for black, the simple 20.Rxd8+ Rxd8 21.Be2 Rd7 (21…Rb8 22.f4 Nc6 transposes into the game with f4 in addition for white, making 23.e5 possible) 22.f4 Neg4 (22…Nc6 23.e5) 23.c6! bxc6 24.Rb8+ Bf8 25.Bc5 h5 would have left white spoilt for choice as for the way to increase the advantage, one of them being the simple 26.Ra8.

But I played too quickly 20.Be2, and after 20…Rxd1+, again too quickly the stupid 21.Rxd1? while 21.Nxd1 would have kept the pressure on b7 and the advantage. A new inaccuracy a few moves later didn’t allow me to maintain the balance and I ended up losing a difficult endgame. (0-1, 52 moves).

I was destabilised by that defeat a few minutes before and I played much, much too fast against Caruana. Even so, I still managed to get an almost even endgame with black.

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

Here, I wasn’t sure what would happen if I stayed passive. Unfortunately, I didn’t give myself the means to know what would have happened either, playing 30…b6?! after only about fifty seconds – almost my longest think in this game 🙂 . This is the kind of nervous move that I can see at rest that it is not based on anything tangible. It’s a responsible decision which seems like nothing but leaves options to White – in particular the c6 square, which will turn out to be very important. I would finally lose a few moves later after a huge blunder, a natural consequence of a game badly approached on the psychological level… (1-0, 43 moves).

After that I was unable to refocus for the last two games and I let go, finishing with four straight defeats, thus equalling my sad record of the 2015 FIDE Grand Prix in Khanty-Mansyisk 🙂 .

The balance sheet of this small quarter of online tournaments is clearly negative. The « responsibility » I gave to the moves played on my computer was clearly far less than in a physical tournament. As a result, I made a lot of bad decisions. Add to this the difficulty of a new opening repertoire, which certainly worked more or less well, but which gave overall positions that I was less comfortable with. It was to be seen in the Slav with black, and a lot more on 1.d4 with white.

Finally, I have to admit a huge tendency to « tilt » as well, in my case clearly enhanced by the fact of playing all alone at home with no surroundings.

Thereupon, I must say that what Magnus did – just leaving home – was not stupid at all. He went to Denmark and approached the competition like a real tournament…

Caruana has also adapted very well to the online competitions, and has clearly been able to raise his level of play. Ding Liren too, which is particularly impressive considering the hours he plays, starting at 10pm local time.

I don’t know if these players had scheduled any specific training sessions. Did they play a lot online? Did they force themselves, in the preceding weeks, to take every game on the Internet as a real training? In any case, their approach proved to be superior…

In spite of this bad pass online, I’m not especially down, though disappointed of course, especially by what I showed in terms of level of play. In my defense anyway, playing on a computer for 4 hours is not necessarily what I like. And normally when I do, it’s with headphones and music. I was a bit confused by that because it wasn’t at all my usual playing conditions and it’s true that it also disturbed me a bit 🙂 .

If online tournaments become more or less the norm in the future, I’ll obviously have to think about how to handle that.

As a result of my bad results, the sports programme for the summer will be very light, and I am obviously still in the starting blocks for the resumption of the Candidates’ Tournament, about which we should have more specific news by the end of July.

So, from there, I’ll step up the pace, try to analyze things carefully and decide on the plan for the second half of the tournament. I’ll also have to bring the opening preps up to date; even if they weren’t so bad in Yekaterinburg, there’s still work to be done…

Because it would sure be a shame to play again at the level I showed during the online tournaments 🙂 .

Maxime’s games:

It’s no longer a mystery that Maxime supports the Olympique Lyonnais fervently. An invitation in a flagship show on OL TV had unfortunately not materialized last year. But a few weeks ago, the website specialized on Lyon football « Le Libero Lyon », which is an independent reference media with a very specific tone, offered him to record a podcast on « My OL – Mvl’s dream 11 ». The result is half an hour of discussion about OL, football in general… and chess! http://www.leliberolyon.fr/podcast-du-libero-lyon-mon-ol-onze-maxime-vachier-lagrave/8381 (in french).

My first steps at « CLUTCH CHESS »

Clutch Chess

The American organizers were kind enough to invite me for their first « Clutch Chess International », an 8-player knockout format in the form of 12 Rapid games (10/5) played over two days. The novelty of the « clutch » is to give an extra value to the last games of each playing session; games 5 and 6 are therefore worth two points each, games 11 and 12 three points each. This formula has the advantage of keeping the suspense until the end and of giving an extra spice to the clashes, all the more so as each of the clutch games is endowed with a financial bonus for the winner!

As seed #2, behind Magnus, I was paired with Wesley So in the ¼ finals. The American had just won the inaugural edition of the formula, the “Clutch Chess Usa”. Generally speaking, I was dominated in this match, which I lost 5-13, the huge gap being explained by my score of 0.5/4 in the clutch games!

Especially on the first day, I clearly played very badly. You could even say that the result of two defeats and four draws was almost flattering, with quite a few games where I narrowly escaped, especially the first and the last one.

The real turning point of the day was undoubtedly game 4. I felt like I had negotiated the opening well and got a good advantage.

Mvl-So, Partie 4.
Mvl-So, game 4.

There was this critical moment when I realized that he was going to have …Rd3!, and unfortunately, I couldn’t find the solution, which was to start with 24.Bc4! Ra4, and only now 25.Be2, although it is true that the position remains rather unclear. How would the story have ended after 25…Rd3 26.Nc7?

In any case, it would have been much better than the game after 24.Be2? immediately, which allows 24…Rd3! 25.Bxd3 (25.Nc7 Tc8! is not possible anymore) 25…exd3 26.Rxa1 Bxb5 and black has a huge endgame advantage (0-1, 45 moves).

Immediately afterwards, in the first clutch game, I found myself much worse very quickly. In fact, it’s because I mixed two lines, obviously 🙂 ; 10…a5? doesn’t work at all. After that, I managed to resist thanks to an exchange sacrifice, until I got what seemed to be a positional draw:

So-Mvl, Partie 5.
So-Mvl, game 5.

Here, the simplest was 25…Bc4 immediately, followed by 26…a4 and it is not clear how white could make progress. But I took a step in the wrong direction with 25…Bd5, and after 26.Re1, it was still not too late for 26…Bc4. But I played the losing 26…Be4? because I completely forgot that after 27.Rea1 a4, white had the break 28.c4! which hurts a lot (1-0, 44 moves).

The last game of the day was a big mess! Still, I thought I got a pretty good position in the opening. But I didn’t handle the game well as I wanted to get back to the scoreline as quickly as possible. It didn’t turn out so badly because I finally drew that game, but it wasn’t very glorious, that’s for sure.

MVL vs Wesley So
MVL vs Wesley So (courtesy uschesschamps.org)

Then, on the second day, my performance happened to be significantly better. Admittedly, there was an ugly moment in the first game…

Mvl-So, Partie 7.
Mvl-So, game 7.

Here I played 40.Rxd7 Rxd7 41.Kd3 Rg6 42.Rg2, anticipating 42…Rc6 43.Rf2! followed by 44.Kc2 and 45.Rf3, winning the c3-pawn. But I forgot the simple 42…Rg4! which forces the draw after 43.Kxc3 Rxe4. So, instead of swapping Rooks, I should have played 40.Rd3! Rdc7 41.Kd1 with the idea to put the King on c2, and white still pushes.

Then, in the third game of the day, I scored my only win of the match. In fact, I really wanted to win so that the next game would count for nothing, that I could play it in free style, and that everything would be decided in the mini clutch match at 3 points a game 🙂 . Again, I negotiated the opening badly, but Wesley allowed me to turn the position around, and I think I played very well from then on.

Mvl-So, Partie 9.
Mvl-So, game 9.

Unfortunately, the Rook endgame remains drawn, even though it is still difficult to defend on the increment. Here, after having already missed a simpler way to the draw, black had no more choice and had to find 53…Kxd5 54.Rxg7 Kd6!, and after 55.Kg6 Re6+ 56.Kh5 Rf6 as well as after 55.Rg6+ Ke7 56.Rxh6 Ra2, white has exhausted his resources. In the game, black played the most natural 53…Te7?, but even if it seems strange at first sight, this move straightly loses after 54.Kg6 Kxd5 55.Rd1+ Kc4 56.f5 Ra7 57.f4 Kc5 58.Rd8 h5 59.Kxh5 Rf7 60.Kg6 Rf6+ 61.Kg5 Rf7 62.f6! 1-0.

In the fourth game, which was therefore not relevant for the match, I played at full speed with black, and got the following position:

So-Mvl, Partie 10.
So-Mvl, game 10.

With more time than I had at the beginning of the game 🙂 , I blitzedout 28…Rxe4?, forgetting that after 29.Rc8+ Bf8, white had the saving resource 30.Rb8!. The « unstoppable mate » after 30…Rea4? not working anymore because of 31.Rxb3, I had to resolve myself to perpetual check after the forced line 30…a4 31. Bxd2 Re2 32.Bh6 Raxb2+.

However, instead of 28…Rxe4?, I had the simple 28…Bxc3 29.Rxc3 a4 which should have led to a win after 30.Rxd2 (30.f3 Rd8) 30…Rxe4 31.Rc1 a3 32.Rcd1 Ra4 33.bxa3 R4xa3.

Thus, the decisive moment happened to be the first 3-point clutch game…

I had been back on 1.e4 for this great occasion 🙂 , and the opening went rather well.

Mvl-So, Partie 11.
Mvl-So, game 11.

Here, for sure I wanted to play 19.g3!, since if 19…Nxh3+ 20.Kg2 Ng5 21.Nxg5 hxg5 22.Rh1, the black King should not survive. But I realized that there was the intermediate 19…Rd8, so I gave up the line; yet after 20.Qb1!, white would have kept a very clear advantage, after both 20…Ne6 21.Nh2! and 20…Nxh3+ 21.Kg2 Ng5 22.Nxg5 hxg5 23.Rh1 followed by 24.Rh5.

After that missed opportunity, I made a few more inaccuracies, and I must say that Wesley showed himself quite convincing in realizing the advantage. Except though for the final episode, where he left a pawn en prise, before realizing that he still had a winning combination on the next move!

Black is about to conclude the game and win the match, and I must say that I had my finger stuck over the « Resign » button for a little while now 🙂 . And then, while any move would have won – especially 51…c2 – he unleashed 51… b2(??), forgetting about 52.Rxb2. Luckily for him, he kept enough composure to realize that the position was still winning after the unique – but very aesthetic – 52…Ra1! 53.Rbc2 (53.Rxa1 cxb2 and the pawn will cost the Rook) 53…Rxc1 54.Rxc1 Bxf2 (0-1, 59 moves).

And in the very last game of the match, I couldn’t get back into it and I lost in a mere 15 moves without playing…

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the winner of the tournament, Magnus Carlsen, who prevailed after a particularly intense and spectacular final against Fabiano Caruana!

All in all, I have to say that I rather like this idea of having specific games that are « worth more », but I think there is a miscalculation that needs to be rectified. In fact, you shouldn’t have clutch victories as a tie-break, because it’s too much in fact; these games already give enough bonus points. Above all, it generates situations where, as in game 4 on the second day, the result doesn’t matter anymore. This leads to a game with absolutely no sporting stakes, which is not normal. So, I recommend that – at the very least – clutch games should not count as the first tiebreaker in the future.

The day after this premature elimination, I reconciled myself a little with online chess by winning the June 9th Speed Chess Championship on chess.com, https://www.chess.com/news/view/vachier-lagrave-wins-speed-chess-championship-grand-prix

Winning the Open section alone at 9/10, I then went on to beat the Uzbek Abdusattorov in ¼, the Vietnamese Tuan Minh Le in ½, and Firouzja in the final.

Next competition is scheduled from June 20th, with the third stage of the « Carlsen Tour », called the « Chessable Masters »…

Maxime’s Clutch Chess games:

Maxime’s Speedchess games:

MY BEST-GAMES BOOK AT THINKERS PUBLISHING!

Thinkers Publishing has been editing high-quality chess books for several years. The company is managed by my French colleague and friend GM Romain Edouard and the Belgian expert Daniël Vanheirzeele. The pandemic that hit at the beginning of 2020 has gradually stopped all tournaments in the world. Although I still had commitments looming on the horizon in online chess events, I felt it was the right moment to do something I had in mind, but never found the time to implement; write a book on the most interesting and important games of my career so far. So, what could be more natural than launching the project with Thinkers Publishing?
Guys, I’m getting started on it right now, and the book should be out in the fall of 2020!

MVL