There was much ‘joie de vivre’ at the end of a dramatic final round of the 5th Sinquefield Cup held at the Chess Club and Scholastic Centre of Saint Louis (CCSCSL), as Maxime Vachier-Lagrave scored the biggest victory of his career, with the Frenchman – better known to all by his initials of ‘MVL’ – going on to take the title and clear first ahead of the current World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, and the five-time ex-world champion, Vishy Anand.
MVL was simply ‘Magnifique’, as the French would say, turning in a positional masterclass to squeeze the very life out Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi, as he top-scored with an unbeaten 6/9 (and a 2913 rating performance) to take the title and first prize of $75,000. Not only that, but MVL also took a maximum 13 Grand Chess Tour points, and is now just 3 points behind tour leader Carlsen – and in the process, MVL has seen a seismic hike in his rating as he rises six places in the unofficial live ratings to become the new world #2.
Carlsen also turned in an equally impressive final round performance, as he rallied to beat Levon Aronian in a classy game, in the hopes of possibly forcing a playoff for the title. But it all proved too little too late for the world #1, who had to be kicking himself for losing to MVL from a won position earlier in the cup competition at the CCSCSL, as that dramatic table-turner proved to be the difference between the two in the end.
Although MVL has been World Junior Champion, won Biel four-times, won Dortmund and shared a three-way tie at the London Chess Classic, winning the Sinquefield Cup is by far his greatest-ever achievement and, in a stroke, it gives France once again a genuine world-class player for the first time in nearly two centuries.
Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, France was the major chess superpower of the era. Two of the greatest players back then, Francois-Andre Danican Philidor and Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais, were French, and the Café de la Régence in Paris – regarded by historians as being the world’s first chess club – was a gathering place for anyone who liked to play the game, including luminaries of the ilk of Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon.
But bizarrely French chess then went into a long decline and failed to produce a native-born grandmaster for nearly 150 years. They’ve had many grandmasters since, but the word on the rue now is that MVL – spurred on by his Sinquefield Cup victory ahead of Carlsen et al – could well become the first Frenchman of the new age to emerge from the shadows and become a genuine world championship challenger.
1. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 6/9; 2-3. M. Carlsen (Norway), V. Anand (India) 5½; 4-5. S. Karjakin (Russia), L. Aronian (Armenia) 5; 6. P. Svidler (Russia) 4½; 7. F. Caruana (USA) 4; 8. H. Nakamura (USA) 3½; 9-10. I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia), W. So (USA) 3.
Grand Chess Tour Standings & Prizemoney
1. Magnus Carlsen ($113,750) 34-points; 2. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave ($126,250) 31; 3. Wesley So ($47,500) 15½; 4-5. Levon Aronian ($38,750), Vishy Anand ($52,500) 12; 6. Sergey Karjakin ($37,500) 11½; 7. Hikaru Nakamura ($35,000) 11; 8. Fabiano Caruana ($22,500); 9. Ian Nepomniatchi ($22,500) 5½.
GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
5th Sinquefield Cup, (9)
Sicilian Najdorf, Opocensky variation
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2 This quiet, positional way of taking on the Najdorf was all the rage through the 1970’s and early 1980’s due to the influence of then World Champion Anatoly Karpov – but in Karpov’s day, the follow up would be Nb3 followed by a4, 0-0, Be3 and f4. Nowadays, there’s a different strategy. 6…e5 7.Nf3 Be7 8.Bg5 Nbd7 9.a4 O-O 10.Nd2! The whole key to MVL’s strategy is for his knights to take control of d5 and b6 – if he can take a stranglehold on those squares, then he has a positionally won game. 10…Nc5 11.Bxf6 Bxf6 12.Nc4 Be7 13.a5 MVL has total control of b6 and d5 – and from here, Nepo faces a tough challenge trying to generate any kind of counter-play that would activate his pieces. 13…Rb8 14.Nb6 Nd7 15.Ncd5 Nxb6 16.Nxb6 Be6 17.Bc4! Exchanging off the white-squared bishops under the right circumstances is MVL game-plan here – and if he can successfully do that, then his knight will become the lynchpin of his attack from its outpost on d5 where it will dominate the bishop. 17…Qc7 18.Qd3 Bd8 Not so good is 18…Bxc4 19.Nxc4 Rbc8 20.b3 and White will simply torture Black down the half-open d-file – and long-term, d6 will fall with a won endgame. 19.c3 Qc6 20.Bd5 MVL is goading Nepo into exchanging the white-squared bishops. 20…Qe8 21.Bxe6 Qxe6 If d6 were protected, Black would have opted for …fxe6 as it would have taken back control of the d5 square. But as d6 is not defended, Nepo has to go into an ending he’s tried his best to avoid, as MVL’s knight on d5 simply dominates the Black bishop. 22.Nd5 f5 23.O-O Rc8 24.Rfd1 fxe4 25.Qxe4 Qf5 26.Qe2 Also an option was the safety-first line with 26.Qxf5 Rxf5 27.Ne3 Rf6 28.Rd2 where White has by far the better of it – but with the queens off the board, it’s not clear if White has enough to win, as Black can huddle his forces together to defend d6. 26…Kh8 27.c4 Bh4 28.g3 Bg5 29.Ra3 The rook lift is heading to d3 to put pressure on d6 – and to defend a5, MVL will simply further expand his queenside forces with b4 and a total grip on the game. 29…Rce8 30.h4 Bd8 31.b4 Qg6 32.h5 Qf5 33.Ne3 Qe6 34.Rad3 MVL has given Nepo nothing in this game – and the Frenchman’s stranglehold on the position is getting tighter and tighter now. 34…Be7 35.Nd5 Bd8 36.Rf3 Rxf3 37.Qxf3 Kg8 38.Kg2 Although MVL goes on to comfortably win from here, I’m not completely convinced with 38.Kg2, as it gave Nepo ‘chances’ in the game that he never had. Instead, 38.Qe4!? looked good and strong as it keeps Black in a bind by preventing ‘possibilities’ with …e4 and threats of pushing on with …e3. But then again, who am I to question MVL’s judgement as he goes on to win comfortably? 38…e4 It’s the first little sign of life Nepo has seen in the whole game – but can he generate anything from it? 39.Qe2 Qe5 40.Ne3 Bg5 To make ‘something’ happen, Nepo has to find a way to get …e3 in – but MVL makes sure his opponent doesn’t even get close to achieving that. 41.Rd5 Qf6 42.Nf5! Re6 There’s nothing in 42…e3 as White has 43.Nxd6 Re7 44.fxe3! Rxe3 45.Qg4 h6 46.Ne4 winning. 43.c5! (See diagram) Black’s vulnerable back-rank and the pin on the rook and king are tempting targets. 43…dxc5 44.Qc4 Qf7 45.Rxc5 h6 46.Rc8+ Kh7 47.g4 The knight is such a commanding and controlling piece on f5. 47…Re7 48.Qd4 Re6 49.Qd5! MVL is closing in now for the kill, with every move further tightening his stranglehold on Nepo’s hapless position. 49…g6 50.hxg6+ Kxg6 51.Rf8! Qxf8 52.Qxe6+ 1-0 Nepo resigns, as after 52…Bf6 53.Qxe4 the discovered check will allow MVL to capture on b7 and then a6 will soon fall with a trivial endgame win.