With the best result of his career, top French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave topped a world-class field headed by World Champion Magnus Carlsen to sensationally win the 5th Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis in August. In September, MVL – as he’s affectionately nicknamed by all – then followed this up by losing a gripping FIDE World Cup semifinal showdown to Levon Aronian, in a match that went to the wire and could have gone either way.
It was a shame both these two good friends and rivals had to meet in the semifinals, as everyone wanted to see these big in-form players getting to the final, as it would have guaranteed both Candidates’ qualifying spots. But in this sort of form, who would bet against the Frenchman now going on to win next month’s final FIDE Grand Prix leg in Las Palmas to grab one of the two remaining qualification spots for the tournament that will determine Carlsen next title-challenger?
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.
Like Carlsen, MVL was born in 1990, regarded as the vintage year for elite grandmasters. And on Saturday, he celebrated his 27th birthday – and he did so in style, with an impressive top-board win for his team, OSG Baden-Baden, in the opening round of the new German Bundesliga – one of the world’s strongest professional team tournaments – season, by beating the Russian GM Ernesto Inarkiev.
OSG Baden-Baden have their own video crew posting short clips of their team’s performances on the GRENKE Chess YouTube channel – and opposite, the first fittingly came from the birthday boy himself, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave!
By all standards, 27 is seen as the peak age for an elite grandmaster – so could we see MVL becoming the MVP for the year by winning the Grand Prix and then going on to capture the last major of the year in December, the London Chess Classic? If so, then the Frenchman would prove a formidable force for the Berlin Candidates in March 2018.
GM Ernesto Inarkiev – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Bundesliga 2017/18, (1)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 Ng4!? Time was that 6…e5 (or 6…e6 and going into a Sicilian Scheveningen) was almost the universal reply here – but this is an interesting way to combat the popular English Attack. The idea is to hassle White’s bishop, so either it is 7.Bg5 and the double-edged complexity of 7…h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Bg3 Bg7 10.h3 Ne5, or the bishop retreats with 7.Bc1, and Black has nothing better than the mutual retreat with 7…Nf6 and we’re back to square one. 7.Bc1 Nf6 8.f3 White could “lose” another move by repeating with 8.Be3 forcing Black to decide whether he wants to take an early “GM draw” with a repetition, or revert to normal Sicilian options with 6…e5 or 6…e6. 8…e5 9.Nb3 Be6 10.Be3 h5 Black just want to prevent an early kingside expansion from White by stopping g4. 11.Qd2 Nbd7 12.Nd5 White takes the d5 square before Black can stop this with …b5/…Nb6 etc. 12…Bxd5 13.exd5 g6 14.0-0-0 Nb6 15.Kb1 Nbxd5 White hasn’t lost a pawn, as pressure on d6 will forces Black to return the material. 16.Bg5 Be7 17.c4 Nf4 Retreating with 17…Nb6 is bad, as White has the strong option of 18.Na5! with a big initiative – so best to return the pawn, though keep the dark-squared bishop on the board. 18.Bxf4 exf4 19.Qxf4 0-0 20.h4 d5!? MVL thrives in the complexity of the Sicilian Najdorf! This is certainly risky – but does it work? 21.g4 Bd6 22.Qc1?!? This retreat looks very strange and, if anything, squanders what advantage White has. Inarkiev should have kept his queen more central with 22.Qd4 – but maybe he thought he could get more from the position with the retreat, as now the very precise 22…Qc7!? seems to offer Black a safe way out of the complications, as after 23.g5 (If 23.Qxf6 Black has the simple repetition by attacking the queen with 23…Be5 24.Qg5 Bf4 25.Qf6 (There’s no simple escape. If 25.Qxd5 Rad8! 26.gxh5 Rxd5 27.Rxd5 Rd8 also gives Black equality.) 25…Be5 etc.) 23…Be5 24.Qc5 dxc4 25.Qxc7 Bxc7 26.Bxc4 b5 27.Be2 Nh7 28.Nc5 White has a little advantage – but with the queens off the board and the pawns on h4 and g5 being an endgame liability, the game will likely soon be a draw. 22…Rc8 23.Qc3?! More accurate was 23.gxh5!? but after 23…Nxh5 (Not 23…dxc4? 24.Bh3! and suddenly Black is in dire straits.) 24.Rxd5 Qf6! Black’s control of the dark-squares ensures the prospect of an equal game. 23…dxc4 It only takes a couple of slight inaccuracies in the Sicilian Najdorf, and the game can take a huge swing one way or the other – and here, it’s beginning to slip away from Inarkiev, as MVL begins to consolidates his position and emerge with the better long-term prospects. 24.Na5 Qe7! 25.Nxc4 White can also try 25.Bxc4!? Bb4 26.Qd3! with the big threat of Qxg6+ – but after the simple 26…Kg7! 27.Nxb7 (There’s no time for 27.Nb3? as 27…b5 wins the bishop!) 27…Rxc4! 28.Qxc4 Qxb7 the minor pieces offer Black the better chances. 25…Bb4 26.Qb3 hxg4 27.h5 Rfd8 The alternative 27…gxh5 looks a dangerous step into the unknown for Black. 28.hxg6 Rxd1+ 29.Qxd1 fxg6 30.a3 b5! One very accurate and precise move from MVL, and suddenly, as the dust settles, he emerges with the advantage. 31.Nb6? Inarkiev commits one mistake too many – he simply had to play 31.axb4 bxc4 32.fxg4 Qe4+ 33.Qc2 Qxc2+ 34.Kxc2 Nxg4 where, despite Black being a pawn ahead, with there now being so little material left on the board, it is hard to see anything other than a draw. 31…Rd8 32.Qb3+ Kg7 33.axb4 White is simply bust – but Inarkiev rightly opts to keep the queens on the board during the mad-dash to the time-control, as after 33.Qxb4 Qxb4 34.axb4 gxf3 the White knight on b6 is trapped, and there’s no way to stop the kingside pawns rapidly rolling down the board with …g5 and …g4 etc. 33…Qe1+ 34.Ka2 Rd1 35.Qc2 Ra1+ 36.Kb3 Qe6+ 37.Nc4 gxf3 38.Qh2 bxc4+ 39.Bxc4 Qe3+ 40.Kc2 Rxh1 Time control made…and with it, the rooks come off the board, so MVL can relax as his opponent now has no mating threats left. 41.Qxh1 Qf4 42.Kb3 If 42.Bxa6 Nd5! 43.b5 Qc4+ is mating. 42…Ne4 43.Bxa6 Qd6 44.Qa1 g5 [see diagram] MVL’s kingside pawns are unstoppable as they march up the board. 45.Qa5 g4 46.Kc2 g3 47.Bd3 Qe7 48.Qb6 g2 49.Qd4+ Nf6 With all the checks covered and Black’s pawns close to queening, the rest of the game is a formality for MVL, who now clinically goes about converting his huge advantage. 50.b5 Qc7+ 51.Kb3 Qf7+ 52.Kc2 Qc7+ 53.Kb3 Qc1 54.Qd6 Qg5 55.Qc7+ Kh6 56.Qh2+ Nh5 57.Qc7 Qg8+ 58.Bc4 Qg6 59.Qe5 g1Q 60.Qh8+ Qh7 61.Qe5 Qd1+ 62.Ka3 Qa7+ 63.Kb4 Qd2+ 0-1