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

Online, it’s also ok!

With the pandemic’s installation in the long term, the world of chess has gone online. Tournaments abound and the activity is more and more intense, for top players as well as for amateurs all over the world.
In the last few weeks, I have had the opportunity to play two online
competitions in a row, the Magnus Carlsen Invitational and the Nations Cup.

CARLSEN INVITATIONAL

At the initiative of the world champion and his platform www.chess24.com, eight players met for a group phase qualifying the first four for the knockout rounds.

I think the system can be improved a little bit in the sense that, for example in the last round, there were a lot of games with absolutely zero at stakes. That’s the only downside, with the fact that the tournament was spread over a few too many days (16).

The next tournaments have just been announced, as part of an online « Carlsen Chess Tour », which takes over from the aborted 2020 Grand Chess Tour. The formula will be improved, including a much shorter group phase.

Concerning the rhythm of play, it seems to me rather ok, even if for me, 15’+10”, it’s still quite long 🙂 .

Four games in a row is pretty tough, though it might not seem so, but it’s still a manageable effort for the players. Moreover, the result over four games is obviously more significant when it comes to determining who was the best player of the day. So I have nothing against it.

I’m also sure that the show is rather pleasant for the audience as well, who was able to follow two games at the same time.

In fact, I can understand the idea of broadcasting two games at a time, not four, even if it makes the tournament longer. Four at a time would always be more complicated to manage technically, especially if there are Armageddon games, in which case it could quickly become very problematic.

All in all, it’s pretty nice to see online chess growing, though it’s a new experience. Of course, it’s not so easy to settle, but it’s been a bit of a challenge for (almost 🙂 ) all players. For me, it’s not easy to stay focused online, because the physical contact with the pieces is a bit lacking. And then there’s also the fact that we’re too used to playing on the Internet in one or three minutes. So 15+10 can seem like an eternity! I tried to manage all these parameters as best as I could…

For me, there was also the apprehension of « new openings », 1.d4 with white, the Slav and the Caro-Kann with black, which required a lot of energy. It caused some mistakes at times, because of a lack of experience in these positions.

The turning point of my tournament came in the second match, against Nepo, where I managed to lose a match that was almos won, that’s for sure 🙂 (2-2, loss at Armageddon). Then, there was the very complicated sequence Ding (2-2, loss at Armageddon) and then Carlsen, who happened to be stronger than me on this match (1.5-2.5).

It’s also true that if we add the third Armageddon game lost against Nakamura, these three defeats weigh heavily; in the end, it’s a last place instead of a mid-table ranking… But Armageddon is a rather special format for which I’ve never done any specific training. As a result, I don’t necessarily have the right calibration in terms of pace, between haste and loss of time. Also, my blitz style isn’t very well suited to Armageddon either; with black, I’m not used to playing for a draw with a minute less, and with white, I really try to put pressure on time, even if sometimes I have to go through some borderline positions.

It’s true that Armageddon doesn’t happen that often, but it’s a bit worrying to have a weakness like this one 🙂 . Yet I don’t think it’s a mental collapse or anything like that, but then again, I might be wrong… It’s hard to get answers on an exercise I’m not used to. But maybe that’s the answer; I’m not used to it!

Now let’s take a look at some of my performances in this tournament:

MVL-NEPOMNIACHTCHI (game 4)

After a very bad game with white when a draw was enough, I managed somehow to save the day and reach the following position:

The position is far from simple to defend, even if it is objectively a draw. Unfortunately for me, I would have had to avoid 68.Nd3? f4! (but not 68…h3? 69.Ne5+! Kh4 70.Nf3+ and draw) 69.Ne5+ Kf5 70.Nd3 Be4, breaking the defensive coordination of my Knight and my King (0-1, 75 moves).

Instead, I could play 68.Nd7! and the fork threat on f6 prevents black from pushing …f4 as in the game. And after 68…Kf4 69.Nc5! (only move) 69…h3 (69…Bc4 70.Nd7 h3 71.Nc5! and black does not progress either) 70.Nd3+ Ke4 71.Ne1 or 70…Kg4 71.Ne5+!, the King-Knight duo is coordinated for a fortress! Needless to say that this kind of subtleties is impossible to understand when one plays on the increment 🙂 .

In the next two games, I experienced the horrors of the “mouse slip” and “misclick“: these are well-known dangers of online chess!

DING-MVL (Armageddon)

Here, I was so much expecting 4.e3, as in the first game of our match, that I mechanically made the premove 4…Bf5?!. But after 4.Nc3, …Bf5?! is considered inferior because of 5.cxd5 Nxd5 (5…cxd5 6.Qb3 almost loses a pawn) 6.Qb3. I never could recover, and lost this game without really fighting (1-0, 16 moves).

Second mouse accident…

MVL-CARLSEN (game 2)

Here, my first intention was to play 16.0-0-0, so I clicked the King on e1. Then I saw the variation 16…c5 17.Bg5 Re8 18.Nd5 Nxd5, and 19.exd5 is impossible because of the Be2 hanging. So I decided to play 16.Rd1 to make this variation work… But without unclicking the King 🙂 ; then, when my Rook landed on d1, I saw to my great surprise that my King had also moved to c1 against my will! (draw, 61 moves).

CARLSEN-MVL (game 3)

Here, I quickly played 19…Qd7?, which is a big mistake based on a tactical oversight. After 20.Qc2 Na7, I thought he wanted 21.Qe4, but I completely missed the possibility 21.Qxc8+! Nxc8 (21…Qxc8 22.Rxc8+ Nxc8 doesn’t offer any hope either) 22.Bc6, and I don’t have enough play for the exchange (1-0, 32 moves).

So I should have played the only move 19…Qb6, even if white would still be better after 20.exd4! (but not 20.Qc2 anymore, because 20…0-0! and the piece can’t be taken: 21.Bxc6? dxe3 22.Be1 Rc7! followed by 23…Rfc8).

CARUANA-MVL (game 3)

An instructive Queen endgame, with all the pawns on the same side, which one often tends to declare a draw without looking at the nuances of the position. Here, if we move back the f5-pawn to f7, it would indeed be an easy draw. As it is, I don’t know if the position is objectively winning or drawn, but intuitively I would rather say it is winning.

Indeed, with the pawn on f5, black’s King remains weak. It is very hard to avoid exchanging Queens. And when white will play g4, one will hardly escape from taking twice, after which white’s e-pawn will be passed.

But in practice in this kind of ending, it’s almost impossible to play without mistakes, especially in rapid games. And again, it’s always harder to defend because white can turn the position in any direction – which Fabiano did not hesitate to do! –

We had already played nearly 45 moves of the Queen ending, and I finally lost after the natural 88…Kg7? 89.Qc7+! Kh6 90.e7 Dd4+ 91.Ke2 Qe4+ 92.Kd2 Qd4+ 93.Kc2, for the simple reason that there is no perpetual, white’s King sneaking through the whole Queenside. (1-0, 103 moves).

To reach the draw, I would have had to find 88…g5! 89.Qf8+ (89.e7+ Kg7 90.fxg5 is a version which allows black to give perpetual according to the tablebases…) 89…Kh7 90.e7 Qd4+ and perpetual; just put white’s Queen on c7 in this position – as in the follow-up of the game – and there would be no more perpetual!

Chess is a complicated game 🙂 .

Maxime’s games:

NATIONS CUP

A few days later, I held the first board of Team Europe in this competition, which gathered six teams and which saw the final victory of the Chinese favourites.

My play was definitely better in this Nations Cup, but there were also worse moments. Admittedly, the final result is rather satisfactory (+1, =9). But there were a lot of missed chances, against Radjabov for example:

RADJABOV-MVL (round 5)

Black’s position is won, but there are lots of calculations to do, and three real candidate moves, 27…Rgd8, 27…Bxe5 and 27…Rxf7. I believe that, in fact, it was 27…Bxe5 the simplest in practice: I calculated 28.Bxg8 Nxh7 29.Bxe6 Nf6 30.Bxd7+ Kc7 31.Rxf6 Bxf6 and I said to myself that it was not the clearest – with always the problem of the Bishop on b7 – and that 27…Rgd8 was certainly cleaner. At this stage, I had already dismissed the third possibility 27…Rxf7, because of 28.Rfxf7 Bxe5 29.Rxb7; however I should have pushed further, because after 29…Nxh7! 30.Qxg8+ (30.Rxb6 Rxg4) 30…Kxb7 31.Qxh7+ Bc7 or even 31…Ka6, white will not survive.

In short, I rejected the simple continuation, then the effective one, and I finally made the least good choice, 27… Rgd8 🙂 . After this error, the game became extremely messy and ended in a perpetual (draw, 36 moves).

Second missed opportunity against Nakamura:

NAKAMURA-MVL (round 9)

It was also a weak game on the whole, which was especially noticed for the easy win that I missed, 32…h3!. Yes, it is easy, but this oversight is also explained by the fact that for the previous eight moves, I was calculating the consequences of …hxg3 at each move; therefore, …hxg3 was like « anchored » in me, and to some degree prevented me to consider …h3 (draw, 36 moves).

Here’s my only win of the tournament, after a good opening and a good middlegame:

NEPOMNIACHTCHI-MVL (round 6)

Only the realization of the advantage has not been convincing, but there is still an explanation. In practice, the conversion of this type of winning position is more difficult than defence. Because of the mating net around black’s King stuck on b8, it is very easy to go wrong.

Then, when the position becomes objectively drawn, it is the opposite!

The position is very easy for me to play. Sure I can also make mistakes, but white has to watch out for every fork, every check, every pawn and it’s a real nightmare to defend (0-1, 111 moves).

It was therefore mainly for practical reasons that mistakes were made by both sides.

We will also note in passing the following very ridiculous game from both players…

DING-MVL (round 7)

Here, I spent more than six minutes out of 14…Qe7?.

14…Ne4 was the normal move; this is what I had planned to play originally, but I didn’t want to defend the pawn down endgame after 15.Nxe4 dxe4 (15…Bxb2 16.Qxb2 dxe4 17.Be2 appealed to me even less) 16.Qxd8 Rfxd8 17.Bxe5 exf3 18.gxf3. So I preferred 14…Qe7 but I completely forgot that after 15.Nxd5 Nxd5, white doesn’t have to play 16.Bxd5? Rfd8 17.Rad1 Be4, but rather 16.Bxe5! and he’s a good pawn up.

Then, Ding wasn’t precise and allowed too much counterplay, until I had a forced perpetual forced with 31…Nf3+! 32.gxf3 Qe2+ 33.Kg3 Qe1+ 34.Kg4 Qg1+ 35.Kf4 Qh2+ 36.Ke4 Qc2+ since if 37.Kd5?? Dc6 mate!

But I played 31…Qe1?! instantly because it was the move I had planned… After 32.Qd5+ Kh7 33.Bd4, I managed not to play the obvious 33…b6 – which would have more or less kept the dynamic balance of the position – to prefer the stupid 33…h5?, which throws away the game after 34.Bxa7 h4 35.Bb8!. Luckily, Ding was in the same shape as me that day, and he finally let me get the half point! (draw, 42 moves).

But there’s one game where luck wasn’t on my side…

MVL-ANAND (round 8)

In fact, here the normal move was 38.g5! fxg5 39.fxg5 and Black continues to suffer. Instead, I played 38.Nh6, which is objectively less good, but with the original idea to trap black’s rook on h6 🙂 . By the way, Vishy also feared this variation since he did not play 38…Rg6 39.f5!? Rxh6 40.h5. During the game, we both considered that this strange position was favourable to white, while the machine seems to prefer black. The reality is probably that this endgame is a draw!

Even if the Rook is useless on h6, white will not be able to use their Rook vs Bischop advantage on the a-e columns if Black actively plays 40…c5, instead of waiting for white to himself open the position with d5! in favorable circumstances; for example 40…c5 41.dxc5 Bxc5 42.Kc4 Kc6 43.Re8 b5+ 44.Kd3 Bd6 and mainly because of the weakness on b2, it is white who must be careful – when black’s Bishop arrives on e5 – not to play Kc2 and allow the passage Kc6-d5-e4-f4-xg4 which would free the Rook from its prison!

In the game, Vishy thus avoided all that with 38…Rg7, on which I played 39.g5, leading to a draw after the very precise defence 39…fxg5 40.fxg5 f6!.

Too bad, it was a case of « too much brilliancy » with this 38.Nh6 🙂 .

In general, in both tournaments I didn’t cause enough problems with white, even if I got several good positions, ruined in only two or three sub-par moves. That’s also the 1.d4 effect!

A last word on the rhythm of the online games; 15 + 10, as for the Magnus Invitational, is the right cadence, even if the ideal in my opinion would be 15 + 5 🙂 .

However, the 25 +10 used at the Nations Cup is just not working. I think it’s much too long for online games. Even on the wooden board, it is already half-baked, either too long or too short. That is to say that it’s too short for you to be able to have really deep ideas, but it’s too long to be able to pose problems and set traps.

Maxime’s games:

Antonio Radic is a Croatian chess player. Amateur away from competition since his youth years, he has the particularity to be the most followed YouTubers in the chess world! With more than 630.000 subscribers, Agadmator (it is his stage name 🙂 ) leads a community twice as important as Magnus Carlsen for example. Prolific author of educational videos, Agadmator has just decided to launch regular podcasts with personalities from the chess world. His first guest was MVL, with whom he spoke for more than two hours! It is to be reviewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZ_EWAwZYmw
Finally, the session ended with a blitz, commented by Agadmator:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88N3UNeNoWM

Confined but active!

Like much of the world’s population, I found myself contained to my home due to the coronavirus directly after the Candidates’ tournament ended prematurely. The only world-class sports competition to resist the epidemic, the Candidates’ Tournament was the subject of a two-page report in the sports daily L’Equipe (with well-documented content since it was written by my manager, Laurent Vérat 🙂 ).

L'équipe 26 mars 2020
L’Equipe 26/04/2020

Like other sports events, the great chess tournaments are one by one cancelled or postponed (Grenke, Grand Chess Tour, Norway Chess, Olympiads…). This upsetting situation forces new practices.

One of the advantages of chess is that you can play it from a distance. In the last century, games were thus played by mail, telephone, fax… and even carrier pigeon! And now, thanks to the internet, you can also play live.

So my beginning of containment was the opportunity for me to participate in several online events, including a simultaneous, fundraising exhibition and the tournament organized by World Champion Magnus Carlsen on chess24.

Simultaneous

The schedule of a top-level player leaves little room for meetings with fans. In order to bring a little distraction to everyone, I organized a simultaneous on Lichess on April 10th.

More than 470 people tried to win one of the 20 places available. I would like to thank all the participants, and sorry for those who were not selected. In addition to these 20 players, I had invited 6 people, including Ivan Ljubicic; the Croatian tennis player, after a brilliant career that culminated with a place as No. 3 in the world in 2006, is now the coach of my idol, Roger Federer.

L'équipe 19/04/2020
L’Equipe 19/04/2020

He is also an excellent chess player, who has been playing for a long time, as reported in the article in L’Equipe published on April 19. He demonstrated this in the simultaneous, drawing after pushing me up the ropes. The simultaneous ended in a final result of 22 wins, 3 draws and one defeat. I ended up exhausted, but thrilled by the experience.

Maxime’s games:

Blitzstream Cup

Bitzstream Cup - Banner : Ludwig de large
Bitzstream Cup – Banner : Ludwig de large

Kévin Bordi also took advantage of this period to organize a mini charity tournament on 11-12 April in aid of Médecins sans Frontières. The 1st semi-final saw Etienne Bacrot beat Matthieu Cornette. I played in the other semi-final, against Kévin Bordi in the 1st set, and Fabien Libiszewki in the 2nd. In the final the next day against Etienne, the latter got good positions but the time management was fatal to him; “too weak, too slow” 🙂 .

However, the best achievement of this weekend will remain to have collected the tidy sum of 11.250 €, more than double the initial goal!

You can watch this event again :

Semi final: https://www.twitch.tv/videos/589249017

Final: https://www.twitch.tv/videos/589249017

Regardez Blitzstream Cup demi finales – Bacrot VS. Cornette suivi de MVL VS. Libi + Blitzstream !MSF de BlitzStream sur www.twitch.tv

Maxime’s games :

Magnus Carlsen Invitational

Magnus Carlsen Invitational
Magnus Carlsen Invitational

At the moment I am participating in the tournament organized by Magnus on chess24.com. With a very strong field (the top 5 players in the world as well as Giri, Nakamura and the rising star Firouzja), and an original format (pools and a play-off), the competition promises to be exciting!

Broadcast on https://chess24.com.

Nations Cup

Coupe des nations FIDE - chess.com
Nations Cup FIDE – chess.com

In the wake of the Magnus Invitational, the International Chess Federation and Chess.com will organize the Nations Cup Online, a team competition that will take place from May 5 to 10. Six teams will take part in this tournament, which in a way will replace this summer’s postponed Olympics: Russia, USA, Europe, China, India, and a selection representing the rest of the world. I will be the 1st board of the European team, in a competition which will gather most of the best players in the world.

Official announcement: https://www.chess.com/article/view/fide-chess-com-online-nations-cup

Article on lequipe.fr : https://www.lequipe.fr/Tous-sports/Actualites/Echecs-garry-kasparov-se-prend-au-jeu-en-ligne/1128874

Leading the Candidates!

When I came back from a few days vacation in the U.S. early March, the world was still going around pretty much normally. The Charles de Gaulle airport I had just left was usually crowded. Of course, we knew that there was a significant risk of the coronavirus pandemic spreading, but nothing like the magnitude of the pandemic that has taken place since then. I hadn’t yet arrived in my apartment when a private Facebook message from FIDE told me that there might be a spot available for the Candidate Tournament and if so, would I be willing to participate? I had to make up my mind very quickly, as the confirmation should come one or two days later.

Of course, I didn’t hesitate for long and said yes. Immediately, there was a whole organization to set up. I called my manager Laurent Vérat; how do you get there with the limited time? How to manage the visa to be recovered, with the restrictions that were already beginning to be put in place by Russia concerning foreign visitors? And I called my coach Etienne Bacrot, to see with him how to set up in such a short time an operational team, the computers that are needed etc… After that, it was a race against time to get ready, to pick up the visa at the Russian Consulate in Marseille, and then to arrive well in advance in Ekaterinburg, in order to anticipate the last minute problems. As a result, I passed through Istanbul to avoid Moscow, with a « short » 9-hour stopover anyway, but it went rather well! I finally arrived at 7am – local time – at Ekaterinburg airport, where I was welcomed by the organization, without being quarantined 🙂 .

The tournament’s hotel, which the players have hardly left.
The tournament’s hotel, which the players have hardly left.

Once I got into the Hyatt Regency, I hardly left it for two weeks. This is both related to the quality of the line-up, since clearly, during a chess tournament of this level, you don’t get out much, but also to avoid being stupidly contaminated. For example, I didn’t go jogging outside or anything like that. That would have been foolish, especially since there was a gym in the hotel. Among my rare outings, I went out to eat twice with Mr. Coffinier, France Consul General in Ekaterinburg. Otherwise, I alternated between the hotel restaurant and room service.

The negative aspect of this forced rush is that with so little time, I could not have anyone to accompany me there. There was no second, so I was on my own for the duration of the tournament. That said, I’m used to it and I can obviously work with my seconds from a distance.

From the chess point of view, there was obviously quite a lot of additional work to be done, but on the spot, it was the usual routine; review the opening files accurately and arrive at the game as well armed as possible. What was good for me was that the games started at 4pm. That allowed me to go to the gym often at lunchtime, and try to stay fit. And then, despite everything, I still had a few moments of relaxation, even though there was a serious lack of sport on TV 🙂 . In the end, it was mainly Netflix that was running, apart from the chess preps of course.

Let’s go! (Photo: Ootes/Fide).

Eventually, the tournament got off to a flying start on 17 March.

Round 1: Mvl – Caruana (2842) 1/2

Even if we suspected that there would be change, we weren’t sure what to expect in terms of opening. Arkhangelsk was one of the possibilities we had considered. But Fabiano was really well prepared for that game and although white, I was the one who had a bit of a problem. I reacted pretty well afterwards and, despite a couple of inaccuracies on both sides, the draw was a logical result.
A game with quite a lot of content, quite a lot of things to calculate. A good warm-up to get into the tournament.

Round 2: Mvl – Ding Liren (2805) 1-0

The sequence of two straight white games to start the tournament was obviously critical. It will be the same when the tournament starts again, I will have two successive black games which will be crucial as well. Of course, with 2 whites, it’s clear that 1.5/2 was the score I was aiming for, as much when it is 2 blacks, it will be rather 1 out of 2 I guess 🙂 . But then, we will also see the circumstances of the tournament. We can’t predict that for the moment.

Anyway, it was clear to me that I had to put pressure on Ding. And so the opening went very, very well.
We had looked at this 12.Bd2 idea before the tournament. It leads to positions not very easy to play for Black, in particular in the line chosen with …Nd8, and this Knight which remains badly placed for a long time. So I win more or less the game in the opening, especially after 18.c4! which grabs a pawn.

Mvl-Ding Liren, round 2.
Mvl-Ding Liren, round 2.

If 18…. Bf6 19.cxb5 Qf7, then 20.Bg5! is very strong. I suspect Ding missed this when he played 15…f5?. Then, the technical conversion was made easier by the fact that the Ba8 and Nd8 remained completely out of play. All that was needed were a few precise moves, notably 20.Nh2!.

It’s true that the start of the tournament was rather encouraging in terms of content, especially the fact that I was able to give Ding problems in the opening, despite my short preparation.

The playing hall (Photo: Ootes/Fide).
The playing hall (Photo: Ootes/Fide).

Round 3: Giri (2763) – Mvl 1/2

Giri is really sharp on his preps, and I was a little bit in trouble in the opening. He came up with a good idea and the position was slightly unpleasant for me to play. Afterwards, I think I defended well, even though he might have had more ambitious options at some point, but they weren’t necessarily easy to find. I’m thinking of 17.Bb5, to provoke …a6, which has been mentioned by commentators; that, for example, I hadn’t thought of.

As a result, I was rather happy with my transition to an endgame. I knew I was a bit worse, but with the pawn in d4 and the possibility to activate my Knight, I felt I wasn’t going to lose it. Even though Anish wasn’t necessarily very precise at the beginning of this ending.

Round 4: Mvl – Grischuk (2777) 1/2

Frankly, I didn’t understand his time management at all! Why 52 minutes out of 18…Ne7, in a position that we both knew about? On the other hand, in the complications, he reacted very well. He apprehended with class all the difficulties, and in particular found all the only moves, 21…Na4 then 22…Bd5, 24…Rg6 and 25…Bc4; a succession of really not easy decisions…

And then, when the situation became really ultra tactical after 29.a4,

Mvl-Grischuk, round 4.
Mvl-Grischuk, round 4.

he made the mistake 29…Nxa4?. I had anticipated he would take and saw quite a few options but what happened was that I obviously looked at the skewer with 30.Re4 or 30.Rf4, but I was rather on 30.Rf4, after which there are no winning ideas like after 30.Re4! b5 31.Rxc4! followed by 32.Rxf7+.

So, when I played 29.a4, for me black’s only move was to take a4 and I had anticipated the game’s continuation with 30.Ba3+ ; I remember that I thought 2’30” to decide if I was going to play 30.Ba3+ directly, or first 30.e6. Anyway, I have a little regret that I missed 30.Re4!.

Did I miss something ? (Photo: Emelianova / Fide).
Did I miss something ? (Photo: Emelianova / Fide).

Also, I must say I underestimated his option with 35…a5! at the end of the sequence.

Mvl-Grischuk.
Mvl-Grischuk.

The four-Rook endgame is clearly superior if he doesn’t have 35…a5!. After that, 36.Rd4+ was the natural move. But I found it really easy to handle for Black. Whereas on 36.Rd1+ Kxe6 37.Re4+ Kf7 38.Rd7+ Kf6 39.Rd5 Kf7 40.Rf5+ Kg8 41.Re7, I thought I still had some small chances of winning; which is not the case, simply 41…Rh7! should draw.

And then, after 36…Ke7 37.Re4, as he played in the game, I thought I really had real chances. But he found all the correct follow-ups, despite his heavy time trouble. The moves are not easy, he must give pawns, he must concede squares… For example, understanding that he has to play 35…a5 is already huge. Certainly, it is natural to push the passed pawn, but on the other hand, it gives so many squares to white that one could imagine that it is necessary to put a Rook in play first. Maybe some other moves would have drawn as well, but 35…a5 is much more clinical. Anyway, Grischuk’s defence was really impressive on the whole.

It was a warning that in a tournament like the Candidates, the opportunities you have, you shouldn’t let them pass you by too often!

Round 5: Alekseenko (2698) – Mvl 1/2

After doubling white at the beginning, I now doubled black against Alekseenko and then Wang Hao. It’s true that I would have liked to win one of these two games… Alekseenko didn’t chicken out at all, and he got head into the complications of a Najdorf line that Carlsen had played against me last December. Certainly, he made an incredible mistake in his preparation since he thought 50 minutes after 16…g6 (instead of 16…Bf8? against Carlsen):

Alekseenko-Mvl, round 5.
Alekseenko-Mvl, round 5.

17.Rxg6 Rxc3. I didn’t understand what was going on since it was unthinkable that he didn’t look 17.Rxg6 Rxc3 at home. In fact, as he explained later, he just knew that 16…g6 was « impossible » because of 17.Rxg6!. So, in his defense, these are things that can happen. Maybe at the very beginning, the computer didn’t like 16…g6 at all, so he concentrated on 16…Rh7 or 16…Kf8.

As for me, I just had to remember about the lines, and then see on the board if an opportunity arose in case he deviated… That said, I didn’t have too much reason to be that optimistic, because there are a lot of possibilities that are a forced draw. For example 18.Qxc3 Na4 19.Qb3 fxg6 20.Nxe6 and perpetual. The line he has chosen, in fact, is the one that asks the most questions, with 18.Nxe6 Qc8 19.Ng7+ Kf8 20.Rh6. After some other correct decisions on his part, and since he had done everything well, I was obliged to sacrifice a Rook on b2 to impose a perpetual myself.

A very neat access (Photo: Ootes/Fide).
A very neat access (Photo: Ootes/Fide).

Round 6: Wang Hao (2762) – Mvl 1/2

That’s my bad game of the first half of the tournament.

Wang Hao-Mvl, round 6.
Wang Hao-Mvl, round 6.

First of all, I didn’t play the obvious 22… Qh4+. I don’t know at all what I was afraid of after 23.Ng3 Qf6, but I was clearly afraid of something. Yet White has nothing better than 24.Ne2, repeating moves. So I opted for 22…Rh8 instead, and after 23.Rh1, I spent quite a lot of time calculating 23…e5 24.d5 Nd4 25.Nxd4 exd4 26.Qd3; and there I was considering 26…Rh4 and I thought it was not so bad. Black more or less threatens 27…. b5, I imagined that it would not be so trivial for White. And then, when he actually played 23.Rh1, I realized that after 26…Rh4 27.Rcd1, the d4-pawn would be lost without compensation since the White King is rather safe on f2 or e2. Certainly I can still play 27…b5, but simply 28.Bxb5 Rc3 29.Qd2! and it is over. From then on, I had to fall back on the backup variation, and exchange the four Rooks by 23…Rxh1 24.Rxh1 Rh8 25.Rxh8 Kxh8. I still thought it was OK, but I missed 26.Qc3! and it gets complicated. And after 26…Kg8 27.d5, I missed the nice pattern 27…Qh4+ 28.g3 Qh2+ 29.Ke3 exd5 30.Bxd5 because I didn’t see 30…Ba6! from afar. It was so much better than the game that I probably would have played it anyway, even though it sounds highly acrobatic.

In the game, after 26…Qxc3 27.Nxc3, the problem is that against the move I want to play, 27…Ne5, there is obviously 28.d6 which is a problem now. It may be tenable, but in fact the difference for me was that on 27…Na5 28.d6 Kf8, then I had 29…e5 which allowed me to isolate the d6-pawn. But after 27…Na5 28.Fd3! played by Wang Hao, it is objectively game over.

Then a small miracle happened.

Wang Hao-Mvl.
Wang Hao-Mvl.

If he had played 34.Nc3! instead of going for the a6-pawn with 34.Nc7?!, I would have had no chance of surviving. Indeed, he would have quickly forced …b5, in particular to give the c5 square for his King; and if I move the Bb7 to give a6, my Na5 still doesn’t move anywhere, which changes everything compared to the game, where he could pass to d6 via b7! After 34…Kd6 35.Nxa6 Nb7, I didn’t understand 36.g4? atall, which facilitated my defense. By the way, it seems that there is a forced draw after 36…Nc5!, but in the heat of the moment, I did not understand it; it must be said that it was not at all obvious! Indeed, it seemed to me that the Bishop ending is lost after 37.Nxc5 bxc5+ 38.Kc3 f5 39.gxf5 gxf5 40.Bc4 f4 41.a4 Bh3 42.a5 Bg2 43.a6 Kc7; there are several ways to win here, but the most aesthetic one is 44.d6 Kxd6 45.Bd5!. On the board, the natural 38…Kxd5 (instead of 38…f5) 39.Bc4+ Ke5 40.Bxf7 g5 looked highly suspicious to me; however, it seems that it draws according to the computer!

So I gave up 36…Nc5! for 36…g5?. As the game unfolded, all I could hope for was a kind of fortress with the Knight on d6. But I had nevertheless slight doubts; if, for example, he managed to put the King on b4, then the Bishop on c6, and play Nb5, I was not sure that the fortress would hold on. For example, a4, Nc7-a8 and the b6-pawn is still not completely serene. So I decided to take a little more active steps by bringing the King to c5.

Later on, after 56.gxf5,

Wang Hao-Mvl.
Wang Hao-Mvl.

I discarded the natural 56…Nxf5 57.Nxf5 Bxf5 58.f4 g4 because of 59.Kf2, but in fact, as Wang Hao told me after the game, here 59…b5! 60.Kg3 (60.a3 b4! 61.axb4+ Kxb4 and White doesn’t have enough pawns anymore) 60…b4 forces the draw. But as on the other side, I had felt that 56…Bxf5 57.Nxf5 Nxf5+ 58.Ke4 Nh4! would be a fortress, I chose this option. I also envisioned scenarios where my fortress could scrumble. So, I was very careful and I calculated carefully each of my moves!

All in all, still a very bad performance on my part, but it’s crucial to be able to save those games!

Highly focused (Photo: Emelianova/Fide).
Highly focused (Photo: Emelianova/Fide).

Round 7: Mvl – Nepomniachtchi (2774) 1-0

I wasn’t necessarily expecting the French, but even so, as Ian had already played it earlier in the tournament (against Alekseenko), we had to take it into account. So we looked at how to pose problems, which is not the most complicated against the Winawer 🙂 . However, you have to be ready to take a minimum of risks, of course…

Mvl-Nepomniachtchi, round 7.
Mvl-Nepomniachtchi, round 7.

Round 7: Mvl – Nepomniachtchi (2774) 1-0

I wasn’t necessarily expecting the French, but even so, as Ian had already played it earlier in the tournament (against Alekseenko), we had to take it into account. So we looked at how to pose problems, which is not the most complicated against the Winawer 🙂 . However, you have to be ready to take a minimum of risks, of course…

Mvl-Nepomniachtchi.
Mvl-Nepomniachtchi.

Later, after 22…Nc6, I anticipated sacrificing the exchange on b4. I knew there were probably other ways to play of course, but I liked the concept. And my original idea was to do it with 23.Rfb1… But when I saw that I could also play 23.f4 directly, I didn’t hesitate for a second! But the path was narrow for the concept to work, after Black tried to close the position with 23…Ne7 24.Rfb1 f5. But the fact that in the structure, there is now this idea of breaking with g4! was finally crucial. And this is indeed what happened a few moves later. There is still an important point to mention though, to show it was all but smooth.

Mvl-Nepomniachtchi.
Mvl-Nepomniachtchi.

Here, instead of 32…exf5, Ian could try 32…Qb6. I think it must lose too, but it was a much better practical chance. For me, at the board, the move was 33.f6+. But in fact, after 33…gxf6 34.Qh7+ Kd8 35.Qxh6, Black has 35…fxe5 36.fxe5 Qb1+ and it is already perpetual. And if I try to anticipate with 35.Kf2, then Black has the miracle resource 35…fxe5 36.fxe5 Ke8! 37.Qxh6 Nf8 and everything holds, for example 38.Qg7 Qb1! and the h-pawn will not go far. A posteriori, the machine shows that the correct move against 32…Qb6 was 33.Qa1!, but it is clear that Ian and I both considered that it was 33.f6+ which would have refuted 32…Qb6.

In the game, after 33.Ng3 followed by 34.Nxf5+, I still had to be concentrated and precise not to let the whole point escape.

Nepo resigns and the tournament ends with the two players in the lead (Photo: Emelianova/Fide).
Nepo resigns and the tournament ends with the two players in the lead (Photo: Emelianova/Fide).

In terms of both results and content, this first half of the Candidates’ Tournament is obviously very positive for me. This is the case from the point of view of the preps, but also in my play itself. But obviously, absolutely nothing has been achieved yet, and there are a lot of things that are going to happen in the second half. In fact, when the tournament resumes, I’m going to start with black against Caruana and Ding Liren; it’s going to be a complicated and very important passage. There will also be the penultimate game with black against Nepo, the current co-leader. As things stand now, that game has the potential to be decisive for the tournament’s victory. But generally speaking, all the games are going to be very important, and every half point will count. If I play at the level I’ve shown so far in Ekaterinburg, I’m obviously one of the big favourites to win. But it’s up to me to prove it…

The tournament has been suspended following the Russian government’s announcement of the imminent closure of its airspace. We were able to leave the country in the dead of night, thanks to the chartering of a private jet that dropped Caruana and I – and a few others – at Amsterdam airport 🙂 .

Crosstable

So halfway through, I’m sharing the lead with Ian Nepomniachtchi. With 4.5/7, we are one point ahead of the chasing group. Until the tournament resumes, I’m going to stay quietly at home for as long as it takes. I’m still going to keep up my physical fitness and my game though. In fact, I’ll be taking part in the Carlsen Invitational online tournament, which starts on April 18 and will bring together the best players in the world. Then the time will come when I’ll have to step up the pace, obviously; when things will be clearer and a bit better in the world.

Personally, I have the feeling that the activity in general, and the chess activity in particular, will not resume before at least the beginning of September…

In this period of containment, the chess on the Internet has the wind in its sails, and there are lots of initiatives. Unable to cope with the (very) numerous requests from French chess clubs to participate in one of their online tournaments, Maxime has decided to propose a simultaneous display. He will thus play on Friday, April 10th at 6 pm, against 20 opponents previously drawn among the interested persons who will have registered. Modalities to be discovered very soon on the MVL’s social networks 🙂 .

GAMES

Maxime’s games