Fans of the French national team are sure to scream and chant “Allez les Bleus!” whenever they celebrate their squad in sporting events. The French saying is pretty straightforward and very common sports talk as it simply means “Go Blue!” But in the novel coronavirus pandemic-induced mass cull of sporting events, at least Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is giving the fans back home reason to cheer, as the Frenchman dramatically made his move in the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Ekaterinburg.
Affectionately known to all as “MVL”, the Parisian emerged as the new favourite to become Magnus Carlsen’s next title challenger after the only decisive game of round 7, as he outplayed Russia’s Ian Nepomniactchi in the big battle between the leaders as the tournament reaches its mid-point – and with it, the second Covid-19 testing day now looms large for all eight players. Ironically, MVL is the player who has benefited the most from the pandemic. When Teimour Radjabov pulled out with two weeks notice after his – very reasonable, in the circumstances – request for a postponement was denied, MVL stepped in, making a mad dash from New York back home to Paris, and then on to Ekaterinburg.
And with little or no time to make any preparations whatsoever, he’s turned out to be the star turn. In round 7, Nepomniachtchi unwisely once again deployed the French defence he used against Kirill Alekseenko in round 3 – but this time, his opening surprise for the tournament turned more into a French farce as the Frenchman totally refuted his risky opening strategy to turn in what could well prove to be a very crucial victory.
Now undefeated on +2, and in the joint lead with early front-runner Nepomniachtchi, MVL has taken a big advantage going into the second half of the tournament as, in the event of a tie at the end, head-to-head results will be a deciding tiebreaker factor, and he’s now beaten one of his main rivals.
What more can you wish for, after the initially disappointment of narrowly missing out on a qualifying spot for the Candidates, then unexpectedly invited to play at short notice, and now leading it at the mid-point?
1-2. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 4½/7; 3-6. F. Caruana (USA), A. Giri (Netherlands), Wang Hao (China), A. Grischuk (Russia) 3½; 7-8. Ding Liren (China), K. Alekseenko (Russia) 2½.
GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
FIDE Candidates Tournament, (7)
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Ne7 7.h4 Qc7 8.h5 Against the Winawer, this is always the most logical plan as it immediately gains space on the kingside and threatens to push h6 forcing …g6, with Black having a chronic dark-square weakness on the kingside that White’s bishop will exploit. And it is a more aggressive plan than Alekseenko’s choice of 8.Nf3 against Nepo in Round 3 that continued 8…b6 9.Bb5+ Bd7 10.Be2 Ba4! with an easy game that ended with Nepo having the better side of a draw. 8…h6 9.Rb1 b6 10.Qg4 Rg8 11.Bb5+ Kf8 12.Bd3 Ba6 13.dxc5 Bxd3 Alternatively, there’s 13…bxc5 14.Nf3 c4 15.Be2 Nbc6 16.Qf4 and Black faces a difficult defence in the long-term: he still has to find a way to get his king to safety and his kingside rook into the game, while White has the relatively straight-forward plan of a4 and Ba3 and any number of ways to continue the attack, such as g4 or perhaps even something slower with 0-0 and trading a set of rooks on the open b-file. 14.cxd3 Nd7 15.d4 bxc5 16.Qd1 A good strategic retreat, as with …Kf8 and …Rg8, there’s no way to crash the kingside – but lasting damage has been done with those ugly moves, as Black now struggles to find a way to connect his rooks. 16…Qa5 17.Bd2 Rb8 It’s easy to steal a pawn with 17…Qxa3 but after 18.Ne2 Qa6 19.0-0 White is in no hurry to regain the pawn, as Black faces a difficult task of facing long-term problems about how he unravels on the kingside to get his rook into the game. 18.Ne2 c4? Bad timing, as MVL explained in his post-game presser (see below) – and from here, he thought he stood better. The reason is that releasing the tension only makes Black’s position worse than it perhaps looks. It was better to keep things ‘fluid’ for now with 18…Rxb1 19.Qxb1 Qa6! with equal chances as both sides have a little untangling to do for king safety and completing development – certainly this was a decisive moment in the game that Nepo missed, and from here in, his position just gets more and more complicated. 19.0-0 Rb6 If 19…Rxb1 20.Qxb1 Qxa3 21.Qb7 Nb6 22.Rb1! and White has the co-ordinate pieces, the attack and all the space – more than enough compensation for the pawn. 20.Qc2 Rh8 This is more or less an admission from Nepo that his position is in a really bad way. 21.a4 Ke8 22.Rb4 Nc6 23.f4! A wonderfully aggressive move from MVL, who signals that’s he’s going to go ‘all-in’ with the attack. 23…Ne7 The rook is immune. After 23…Nxb4 24.cxb4 Qa6 25.b5 Qb7 26.f5! the White attack is now coming in like a tsunami, and there’s nothing Black can do with his king and rook still unable to unravel. I suppose Black could try 23…Ra6 but after 24.Rb2! Black is still living in ‘Akwardsville’ with Ra1 coming and a major squeeze coming on the queenside, and if 24…Qxa4 25.Qb1! and next is pushing on regardless with f5! with mounting pressure on both wings – and with it, Black still hasn’t resolved how to untangle his king and rook, a likely scenario playing out now being 25…Rb6 26.Rxb6 Nxb6 27.f5! Nd8 28.fxe6 Nxe6 29.Ng3 and White has all his pieces poised to strike. 24.Rfb1 f5 25.Rb5 Qa6 It’s just agony having to defend this horrible position, but this is just another little error that makes Nepo perhaps regret his surprise opening choice of the French Defence. A slightly better way to continue was with 25…Rxb5 26.Rxb5 Qa6 but even here, again 27.Bc1! and Black is basically just waiting around for White to declare his hand for whatever winning attacking route he wants to take. 26.Bc1! With Ba3 coming, Black’s king is in danger. 26…Kf7 27.Ba3 Finally, Nepo gets his rook into the game – but it is too late now, as MVL has his pieces strategically well-placed to strike decsively at his opponent’s king. 27…Rhb8 28.Bxe7 Kxe7 29.g4! This is the breakthrough MVL had patiently planned for – and with it, Nepo is doomed to a sore loss. 29…Rxb5 If 29…fxg4 30.Qh7 is very strong. 30.axb5 Rxb5 31.gxf5 Rxb1+ 32.Qxb1 exf5 33.Ng3 MVL was still winning the ending after 33.Qxf5 Qe6 34.Ng3 Qxf5 35.Nxf5+ Kf8 36.Kf2 Nb6 37.Ke2 a5 38.Ne3 a4 39.Nc2 etc (see note below), but with Nepo’s king effectively still wandering aimlessly in no man’s land, the Frenchman rightly opts to keep the queens on the board. 33…Qb6 34.Nxf5+ Kf8 35.Qa1! [see diagram] Again, White is likely winning the ending with the trade of queens after 35.Qxb6 Nxb6 36.Ne3 a5 37.Kh2 a4 38.Nc2 with the plan of f5 and Kg3-g4-f4 – but keeping the queens on the board is the more clinical way to win, as the Black king is very vulnerable, and this leads to Nepo having to make ever more survival concessions. 35…Qe6 36.Ng3 Qg4 37.Kg2 Qxf4 38.Qxa7 The shortage of squares for the knight puts Black in an even more awkward position to try to hang on, as he’s now reduced to sitting patiently in Death’s waiting room. 38…Ke7 Black is doomed, with the alternative being 38…Qf7 39.Qa8+ Ke7 40.Qa3+ and a similar ending as now in the game. 39.Qa3+ Kd8 40.Qd6 g5 Pure desperation. The slimmest of slimmest hope for Nepo is trying to engineer a perpetual check with his queen – but it is a move or so too late. 41.hxg6 h5 42.g7 1-0 Nepo resigns, as 42…Qd2+ (If 42…Qf7 43.Nf5 easily wins) 43.Kh3 Qg5 White easily converts for the full point with 44.Qf8+! Nxf8 45.gxf8Q+ Kc7 46.Qf7+ Kb8 47.e6 Qg4+ 48.Kh2 h4 49.Nh1 Qe2+ 50.Nf2 Qe3 51.e7 Qg3+ 52.Kh1 and with all the bases covered, Black has run out checks, hope and moves.