The “Frenchman with Two Names” Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (MVL) is on a mission — he wants to be the next world champion. He thinks he can beat Magnus Carlsen.
As our readers know there have been only two people who have defeated Carlsen in three consecutive games — Wesley So accomplished that feat in the recent World Fischer Random Chess Championship. MVL beat Magnus twice in the Abidjan (Ivory Coast) Grand Chess Tour event earlier this year, and then got the third straight victory in the Norway opening blitz tournament in Stavanger. This Stavanger event must have been especially bitter for Carlsen, as up to then (June this year) he had won all five tournaments he participated in for the year. MVL not only broke his streak, he also snatched first place in the 9-round single round robin and did it by upending Carlsen in the final round.
But to play a world championship match means that he has to go through the Candidates’ tournament, and as strong a player as he is GM Vachier-Lagrave has never been able to qualify.
Back in the previous world championship cycle MVL already made a determined bid to qualify but just missed out by a whisker.
The World Cup 2017, a 128-player KO tournament held in Tbilisi, Georgia (Sept. 2–27, 2017) qualified the two finalists for the 2018 Candidates. After five very tough rounds the four semifinalists were MVL, Aronian, Wesley So and Ding Liren. Maxime actually had the toughest matches. He faced Grischuk in Round 4 and then Peter Svidler in five and managed to win both matches. He was looking quite invincible but fell to Aronian in a very tense and tight battle which reached all the way to the Armageddon phase. MVL only needed to draw in the last game to go through to the finals but, despite getting the advantage at one point finally lost. Aronian was to go on to win the World Cup after defeating the other finalist Ding Liren.
For the upcoming 2020 Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg, Russia, the qualifiers as defined by FIDE regulations are:
Runner-up 2018 title match — this is Fabiano Caruana
Two finalists from 2019 World Cup — Teimour Radjabov and Ding Liren (his second straight runner-up finish)
FIDE Grand Swiss tournament in the Isle of Man — Wang Hao
Two top placers in the FIDE Grand Prix — as of now Alexander Grischuk and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave are the top contenders but there is a final grand prix event to be held in Jerusalem starting Dec. 11 and both Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Ian Nepomniachtchi can still qualify assuming they do well and MVL succumbs to the pressure.
The highest average rating (who does not qualify by one of the above methods, and is not Carlsen) — as of now this is Anish Giri with an average rating of 2782. He is being chased by MVL with 2777. Unfortunately for Vachier-Lagrave in the previous cycle the top two highest average rating qualified for the Candidates (this was how Wesley So qualified previously). This time, with the introduction of the FIDE Grand Swiss tournament, the two slots here was reduced to one.
One wild card chosen by organizer, subject to eligibility criteria — As per eligibility criteria MVL can be a wild card but the organizer has already indicated that they will nominate a Russian player as a wild card. This will probably be either Kirill Alekseenko (the highest non-qualifier in the Grand Swiss), Alexander Grischuk (assuming he does not qualify through the Grand Prix) or Ian Nepomniachtchi. I find it hard to believe though that Nepom will be nominated as wild card for he had verbally clashed with the organizer of the Hamburg Grand Prix after being eliminated in the 1st round. Nobody likes poor sports.
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is a contender in the last three categories but realistically he needs to do well in Jerusalem in order to earn a ticket to Yekaterinburg.
Is it obvious to you, my dear readers, that I want him to qualify? This is because he deserves to be in the world championship cycle! Born 1990, he is part of the generation of chessplayers born in 1990 — this is a particularly strong class which includes Magnus Carlsen, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Sergey Karjakin, and Dmitry Andreikin. He became a grandmaster at the age of 14 and his peak ELO rating of 2819 makes him the 7th-highest rated player of all time (ok, I know what you are thinking — how about Wesley So? Well, he is the 5th highest rated player with a peak of 2822).
MVL has been competing since the age of six, has won numerous local and international tournaments and in addition to his strength in classical time controls is also highly skilled at rapid and blitz chess. You will recall that Caruana held Magnus Carlsen to 12 straight draws in their 2020 world championship match but then got completely taken apart in the rapid tie-breaks. This is not going to happen with MVL.
He is a very aggressive attacking player. He never shies away from complications. On the contrary, he revels in them. The wilder the position, the better for him. He’s so fond of imbalanced play that he struggles to play safe in situations when he only needs a draw. He just can’t help himself. He’s always a dangerous opponent for anyone, because he usually finds a way to steer the game into messy tactical play.
MVL knows his strengths and weaknesses, and he always plays to his strengths. He has a narrower opening repertoire than any of his competitors in the world elite. As black, he plays his beloved Sicilian Najdorf against 1.e4 and the Gruenfeld against pretty much anything else. As white, he plays 1.e4 and the Giuoco Piano. Ironically, his black games are often more aggressive than his white games. Many top players come prepared with novelties against his narrow black repertoire, and they often fail spectacularly. It’s telling that most of MVL’s exciting games come with the Black pieces.
I will show you how he eliminated former world champion Veselin Topalov in the Quarterfinals of the recently-concluded Hamburg Grand Prix, but first here is one of my favorite games — this is “The Magician from Riga” with one of his devastating attacks on his way to the World Championship in 1960.
Gurgenidze, Bukhuti — Tal, Mikhail [A78]
Ch URS Moscow (Russia), 18.01.1957
[Let me show you one of my favorite games]
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.Nf3 g6 7.e4 Bg7 8.Be2 0–0 9.0–0 Re8 10.Nd2
As you know Black has two major ways to lay out his knights. He could go 10…Nb8-d7-e5 or 10…Nb8-a6-c7. The former is more popular but this game is a powerful demonstration of the ideas behind the latter formation.
10…Na6 11.Re1 Nc7 12.a4 b6 13.Qc2 Ng4!? 14.h3?
Completely overlooking Black’s threat.
14…Nxf2! 15.Kxf2 Qh4+ 16.Kf1
[16.g3 Bd4+ 17.Kf3 Qh5+ 18.g4 (18.Kf4 g5#; 18.Kg2 Bxh3+ 19.Kh2 Bg4+ 20.Kg2 Qh3#) 18…Qxh3+ 19.Kf4 Qe3#]
16…Bd4 17.Nd1 Qxh3! 18.Bf3
18…Qh2 19.Ne3 f5! 20.Ndc4 fxe4 21.Bxe4 Ba6
With the idea of 22… Rxe4 23.Qxe4 Re8, winning.
22.Bf3 Re5 23.Ra3 Rae8 24.Bd2 Nxd5!
The way by which all the Black pieces jumped into action is almost magical.
25.Bxd5+ Rxd5 26.Ke2 Bxe3 27.Rxe3 Bxc4+ 0–1
White resigns because of 27…Bxc4+ 28.Qxc4 Qxg2+ 29.Kd1 Qxd2#; 27…Bxc4+ 28.Kd1 Rxe3 29.Rxe3 Qg1+ 30.Re1 Qf2 and now Black’s …Bb3 is murderous.
Now it is time for the Vachier-Lagrave game.
Topalov, Veselin (2736) — Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime (2777) [E61]
Hamburg FIDE Grand Prix (10.1), 08.11.2019
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nf3 Bg7 4.e3 0–0 5.Be2 c5 6.d5 d6 7.Nc3 e6 8.Nd2 Na6 9.0–0 Re8 10.e4 Nc7 11.a4 b6 12.Re1 Na6 13.h3 Nb4 14.Ra3 exd5 15.cxd5
We have transposed to a variation of the Benoni Opening. In fact, the position is almost identical to Gurgenidze-Tal except that Black’s knight is on b4 instead of c7, and white’s rook on a3 instead of a1.
15…a6 16.Bf1 Nd7 17.Na2 Ra7!
In essence provoking White to exchange knights on b4, after which Black’s knight would get an outpost on c5.
18.Nc4 Ne5 19.Nxe5 Bxe5 20.Nxb4 cxb4 21.Rf3 Bd7 22.b3 b5 23.Be3 Ra8 24.axb5 axb5 25.Bd4 Ra2 26.Re2 Rxe2 27.Bxe2 Qe7 28.Re3
Topalov is known for his exchange sacrifices and here he provokes Black into going after his rook. The former world champion is banking on the idea that the black-squared bishop is stronger than a rook.
28…Bf4 29.Bf3 Bxe3 30.Bxe3 Rc8 31.Qd4 Qe5 32.Qa7
Topalov didn’t want any back-rank problems after 32.Qxb4 Ra8! 33.g3 Bxh3 although even then 34.Bd4 Qe7 35.Qxb5 Rc8 White is at least equal.
32…Be8 33.g3 Rc3
You will notice one thing about MVL’s play — he likes to sharpen up the game as the clocks wind down, trusting in his superior quick play skills.
34.Bd4 Qg5 35.Be2
[35.Bxc3? bxc3 Black is suddenly winning as the passed c-pawn cannot be stopped]
35…Qd2 36.Bf1 Rxb3 37.Kg2 Ra3! 38.Qb6 <D>
MVL gives back the exchange but his passed pawn on the b-file wins the day.
39.Qxa6 Qxd4 40.Qc8
40.Qxd6 Qxe4+ 41.f3 Qe1;
or 40.Bxb5 Qxe4+ 41.Kg1 b3 42.Bd3 Qxd5 change anything.
40…Qxe4+ 41.f3 Qe3 42.Bxb5 b3 43.Bxe8 Qe2+ 44.Kg1 Qd1+! 0–1
Topalov resigned because of 44…Qd1+ 45.Kf2 Qc2+ forcing the exchange of queens and queening his pawn.
Bobby Ang is a founding member of the National Chess Federation of the Philippines (NCFP) and its first Executive Director. A Certified Public Accountant (CPA), he taught accounting in the University of Santo Tomas (UST) for 25 years and is currently Chief Audit Executive of the Equicom Group of Companies.