Diminutive in stature but towering in influence – few figures in history stood taller than the French military leader and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). Loved by his men and feared by his foes, his nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, claimed he was worth 40,000 men on the battlefield.
Napoleon also thought of himself as being something of a chess expert, and famously described chess to be “too difficult to be a game and not serious enough to be a science or an art.”
Back then when he ruled, France was the dominant chess superpower to match its military might. Napoleon was reputed to have been a “gifted player” – but over the years, many leading academics and historians have debunked this to be nothing more than a myth used to merely hype his strategic genius, with very strong evidence that many of his games were simply “invented”.
Fake news as we call it today, but one fact we do know to be true is that Napoleon was born in 1769 in Corsica, and this year marks a landmark with it being the 250th anniversary of his birth. France is holding many events throughout the anniversary year to mark the celebrations, so it is natural enough that there would also be a solo chess event to mark the occasion.
The French emperor founded the city of La Roche-sur-Yon, and as part of the Jubilee year celebrations, the city organised a blitz chess match with a Napoleon theme to it, featuring France’s leading player and world #6, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave challenging the rapidly rising young Dutch star Jorden van Foreest for the “Trophée Napoléon” that took place on Saturday, 16 February.
The match consisted of seven blitz games but played over various formats, that also included two Chess960 games, and even two thematic games, where both players had to start with the highly unusual beginners-like opening of 1.e4 e5 2.Qf3?!?, which is known in France as “Ouverture Napoléon”, Napoleon’s Opening.
The match was played in a very competitive spirit throughout by both players. In the end, though, there was plenty of “joie de vivre” for the local chess fraternity with MVL winning the match – and not unsurprisingly, both Napoleon Openings met its Waterloo with Black winning both games!
All four hours of the event was also uploaded on YouTube for everyone to replay through the live games, by clicking here.
Photo: Not tonight, Jorden, as MVL beats van Foreest to win the “Trophée Napoléon” | © Ville de La Roche-sur-Yon
GM Jorden Van Foreest – GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Trophee Napoleon, (6)
1.e4 e5 2.Qf3 The so-called “Napoleon’s Opening” plays on a well-known theme of Scholar’s Mate with the checkmate on f7 delivered by queen and bishop. Deadly perhaps for beginners – but easily thwarted by a grandmaster! 2…Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ne2 Bc5 5.0-0 d6 6.h3 0-0 7.d3 Nd7 It’s an easy plan for MVL – he simply want to engineer f5 opening the game up. 8.c3 a5 9.Be3 Nb6 10.Bb5 Black would be in cruise-control after 10.Bb3 a4 11.Bc2 f5! 10…Bxe3 11.Qxe3 f5 12.exf5 Bxf5 13.Nd2 Na7 MVL wants to expand in the centre with d5. 14.Bc4+ d5 15.Bb3 a4 16.Bc2 Nc6 Black has a nice grip of the position, controlling the centre, the better-placed knights, and superior bishop. 17.Nf3 Qf6 18.Qg5 Van Foreest recognises the dangers, and he doesn’t want to wait around and be rolled over with ideas like …Rad8 and …Bxh3 so looks to trade queens to try to mitigate the looming attack. 18…Qxg5 19.Nxg5 h6 20.Nf3 Bxh3! [see diagram] At the end of the day, MVL is simply winning a pawn – but his expertise in showing how to convert this material advantage into a win is very instructive. 21.Nxe5 Bxg2 22.Kxg2 Nxe5 23.d4 Nf3 This is the key to MVL winning – the knight is like a bone stuck in White’s throat, stopping Van Foreest’s rooks from having any influence in the game. 24.Rad1 On reflection, it may well have been better trying to shift the knight right away with 24.Ng1 but even then, after 24…Nh4+ 25.Kh3 Nf5 26.Nf3 Nc4 27.b3 Nfd6! 28.Kg2 Rxf3! 29.Kxf3 Nd2+ 30.Ke3 Nxf1+ 31.Rxf1 Re8+ 32.Kd2 axb3 33.axb3 g5 Black still retains a winning endgame advantage – but one that might be more difficult to convert. 24…Rae8 25.Bd3 Nc4 26.Bxc4 More or less forced – but with the trade of minor pieces, White’s bishop comes off the board, and White’s queenside pawns become a target. 26…dxc4 27.Ng3 Re6 The rook lift to b6 is going to shatter White’s queenside pawns. 28.Rh1 Rb6 29.Rb1 Nd2 Once the b-pawn falls, the queenside pawns are crippled and weak, and MVL only needs to find a way to trade more pieces to reach a technically won endgame. 30.Rbe1 Rxb2 31.Re2 a3 32.Rd1 Nf3 33.Rxb2 axb2 34.Rb1 Van Foreest may well get one of the pawns back, but the long-term damage has been done, with no way to save the game. 34…b5 35.Rxb2 Ne1+ 36.Kg1 c6 37.Ne4 Nd3 38.Re2 Ra8 39.Nc5 The only way to stop …Nc1 picking off the a-pawn – and also going into a rook and pawn ending, the only slim hope Van Foreest has to try to save the game now. 39…Nxc5 40.dxc5 Ra3 41.Re6 It’s a hopelessly lost cause, but in any rook and pawn ending, an activate rook is the only try for survival. 41…Rxc3 42.Rxc6 Rc1+ 43.Kg2 c3 Unfortunately for Van Foreest, his own c-pawn helps MVL to win now. 44.Rd6 Rg1+! The simple way to win – White can’t stop the c-pawn from queening. 45.Kxg1 c2 46.c6 c1Q+ 47.Kg2 Kh7 48.Kf3 Qc4 49.a3 h5 0-1 Van Foreest resigns, as the h-pawn pushing quickly up the board can’t be stopped.