In sports, when you don’t have your “A” game, you sometimes have to dig deep just to get the job done as best you can. Commentators call it “winning ugly”, a concept coined from the title of a 1993 tennis/psychology book by the Olympic gold medalist, coach and ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert. It has become an often-turned phrase in every sphere of sport today, and it perfectly describes Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave just managing to hold on to claim victory in the Paris Chess Grand Tour leg on Thursday.
With Tour leader Magnus Carlsen – who won the opening legs in Côte d’Ivoire and Croatia – opting to skip the Paris leg, the local hero, more commonly known by his initials nickname of “MVL”, was the firm favourite to win in front of his home crowd – but his victory was never going to be a foregone conclusion in a field where he was perceived to being just first among equals with the World Champion missing.
MVL scored 13 points (with wins counting “double” points) to duly win the Rapid event, and carried a crucial one-point lead over nearest rival Alexander Grischuk to the all-deciding Blitz event. And after recently supplanting Carlsen as the new World #1 in Blitz, he became the even bigger favourite to dominate in that event also to win the tournament outright. But that’s when all his troubles started.
Stuttering and misfiring, there were no typical flashes of élan from the Frenchman: he struggled from start to finish with a series of bad beats, though he just did enough to hold on to claim victory with 21-points, a half-point ahead of veteran Vishy Anand, who not only defied the generation gap but also all those persistent calls for his retirement, as he impressed everyone with a late run to score 20.5 points and claim second place at the age of 49!
Yet despite not playing in Paris, it was Carlsen who looks to have had the last laugh on his French rating rival. Such was the bad beat that MVL took in the blitz, that he sensationally haemorrhaged 102 points on the unofficial live rating list, to now plummet to World #4 behind Carlsen, Hikaru Nakamura and Levon Aronian respectively.
But no matter how you do it, ugly or otherwise, a win is still a win in anyone’s book, and MVL held his nerve at the end to take the $37,500 first prize and 13 GCT points for his efforts, and now moves into second place behind Carlsen in the Tour standings, 33 to 25 points, though with the World Champion also having the added advantage of only playing two events to the Frenchman’s three.
And Carlsen returns to action later this month as the GCT circus now moves to the USA, with the back-to-back legs of the Saint Louis Rapid and Blitz (starting on Saturday, August 10) followed by the Sinquefield Cup (starting on Saturday, August 17) both staged at the world-famous Saint Louis Chess Club in Missouri.
1. Maxime Vachier Lagrave (France), 21-points; 2. Vishy Anand (India), 20.5; 3-4. Alexander Grischuk (Russia), Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), 20; 5. Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland), 19.5; 6. Fabiano Caruana (USA), 19; 7. Hikaru Nakamura (USA), 18.5; 8. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), 15; 9. Daniil Dubov (Russia), 14; 10. Anish Giri (Netherlands), 12.5.
Photo: It may well be seen as winning ugly for MVL, but it is still winning! | © Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Maxime Vachier Lagrave
Paris GCT Blitz, (12)
Sicilian Najdorf, Opocensky Variation
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2 The Opocensky variation – named after Karl Opocensky (1892-1975), the Czech master and theoretician – is the more positional way to battle the Najdorf. 6…e5 7.Nb3 Be7 8.0-0 0-0 9.Bf3 Back in the day, World Champion Anatoly Karpov would python-like squeeze the life out Najdorf players with moves like a4, f4-f5 and Be3. But 9.Bf3 is the more 21st-century approach, the idea being to defend e4 whilst clamping down on the d5-square, as control of d5 will mean the backward d6-pawn could become a long-term weakness. 9…Be6 10.a4 Nbd7 11.Be3 Nb6 12.Nd2 Rc8 13.a5 Nc4 14.Nxc4 Rxc4 A little more nuanced than 14…Bxc4 as after 15.Re1 the bishop will soon be forced back to e6 anyway. But with 14…Rxc4, MVL gains a little time to dominate the c-file. 15.Qd2 Qc7 16.h3 Rc8 17.Rfd1 h6 18.Qe1 Qc6 19.Nd5 Fabi wants to “make things happen”, and he does so by gaining the bishop-pair – and this leads to an intriguing middlegame tussle. 19…Bxd5 20.exd5 Qd7 21.c3 Ra4 22.Qd2 Bd8 23.b4 Rxa1 24.Rxa1 Superficially, the position looks good for White, what with the bishop-pair and threatening to mobilise his queenside pawns – but Black is not without resources to prevent this. 24…Qb5! 25.Rc1 Qc4 Stopping the queenside pawns from moving and also making a target of the d5-pawn. 26.Qd1 e4!? Taking the d5-pawn comes with an element of risk attached to it, as it will not be easy to deal with White’s bishop-pair and the queenside pawn becoming mobile. 27.Be2 Qxd5 28.c4! Despite being a pawn down, White has a lot going for himself in this position. It’s not enough to win, but for Black, the position becomes a little uncomfortable, and it is easy to see how MVL’s position rapidly goes downhill. 28…Qe5 MVL is the sort of player that likes to keep his position dynamic, hence avoiding the exchange of queens with 28…Qxd1+ 29.Rxd1 Be7 30.b5 Ra8 31.Bb6 Nd7! 32.bxa6 bxa6 33.Bc7 Nc5 34.Bxd6 Bxd6 35.Rxd6 Rc8 36.Bg4 Rc7 which probably only leads to a draw, as the …Nc5 will hold Black’s position together. 29.c5 dxc5?! Too risky. MVL should have played 29…Nd5! 30.cxd6 (There’s no danger with 30.Bd4 as after 30…Qg5 and the threat of …Nf4 gives Black a dangerous attack.) 30…Rxc1 31.Qxc1 Qxd6 32.Qc8 Nxe3 33.fxe3 g6 34.Bc4 b5! 35.axb6 Qxb6 and with the rooks exchanged and the danger of the queenside pawns now gone, Black looks to have the better of what should be a drawn position – even more drawn by the fact we now also have opposite-coloured bishops on the board. 30.Rxc5 Qb8 31.Bf4 Bc7? [Ultimately this proves to be the fatal mistake. As ugly as it looks, MVL had to play 31…Qa8! where, despite his queen being temporarily locked out of the game, he has excellent survival chances after 32.Qc2 Rxc5 33.Qxc5 Nd7 34.Qd4 Nf6 35.Be5 Qc8! 36.Bc4 Kf8 White has a little more space, but with so few pieces left on the board – and the likelihood of an endgame with bishops of opposite colours – a draw is a likely result. 32.Qc2 Nd5 MVL was hoping – perhaps even praying? – that this move would help save the game…but Caruana has seen a little deeper than the Frenchman. 33.Bg4! [see diagram] The key to MVL’s demise is the overworked Rc8, and Caruana takes full advantage of the situation. 33…Nxb4 The alternative is no better. After 33…Nxf4 34.Bxc8 Bd6 35.Rc4 Nd5 36.Bf5! Nc7 37.Bxe4 and Black can think about resigning now. 34.Qxe4 Nc6 35.Bxc8 Bxf4 And no better was 35…Qxc8 36.Rxc6! bxc6 37.Qxc6 and Black can resign. 36.Rxc6 In the time constraints of blitz, Caruana’s train of thought spots how to win – but you don’t have the time to find the quick kill which is very similar as in the game, but the clinical win was 36.Qe8+! Kh7 37.Bf5+ g6 38.Qxf7+ Kh8 39.Qf6+ Kg8 40.Bxg6 Nd8 (40…Qf8 41.Bh7+) 41.Qe7 and mate is inevitable. 36…bxc6 37.Qe8+ Kh7 38.Bf5+ g6 39.Qxf7+ The rest of the game is just a technical mop-up of Black’s pawns that also forces a mate. 39…Kh8 40.Qf6+ Kg8 41.Qxg6+ Kf8 42.Qf6+ Kg8 43.g3 Be5 44.Qxh6 Bg7 45.Qxc6 Qb4 46.Qe8+ Bf8 47.Qg6+ Bg7 48.Be6+ 1-0