Hopefully, breaking into the top five is a beginning

by Dhananjay Khadilkar
4/13/2016 – French Grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave achieved a personal milestone in March by breaking into the top five of world rankings for the first time. He continues to maintain his high ranking in the April Fide ratings. In an exclusive interview the 25-year-old speaks about his breakthrough to the top five, his prospects at Norway Chess and the Candidates tournament. | Photo: Pascal Simon

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‘Hopefully, breaking into the top five is a beginning’

An Interview with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

How do you feel breaking into the top five and inching towards the Elo 2800 mark?

Being in the top five is a nice feeling. But it’s not the end of the story. Hopefully, it’s only a beginning. Rating is not a decisive factor as Sergey (Karjakin) showed by winning the Candidates tournament.

The next tournament I will play in, the Norway Chess tournament, will show whether I can come closer to 2800 or whether I can stay among the top five. My results in the last few months have been good. They definitely show that I am top five material if I keep that level.

Since June 2015, you have gained 65 Elo points. What do you attribute this rise to?

In February 2015 I was on 2775 but then lost 50 points. Regaining 65 points in less than a year was part of coming back to shape after six tough months – and coming back to the level I was before. I changed some things… I got a better grip on my schedule, improved my opening preparation and got the right people to help me. After that things just went my way.

Having fun while playing blitz in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris | Photo: Dhananjay Khadilkar

When you start to lose, you lose confidence and you start playing worse. But once you break that vicious circle, you stop losing. In about six months I haven’t lost a classical game. It helps to boost confidence. As an additional benefit others tend to get a bit scared playing against you.

Did you also change your playing style? For example, did you reign in your attacking instincts?

In general, you must have a universal style of play when you are playing at the top level. This means you really have to be ready for any kind of game. But, whenever I can attack in sharp positions, where calculating skills matter a lot, it’s basically welcome.

I also built my opening repertoire on my strengths. It is easier to get sharp tactical positions when you Najdorf or Grünfeld with black. Against all players, I aim for complicated games. But at this level, against certain players and against certain openings this is not always easy and you have to be able to adjust and play any kind of position.

But I am looking for attacking possibilities and I look forward to playing attacking games. I always try to put pressure on my opponents. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always more fun.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Is it just a coincidence that since June your blitz and rapid ratings have improved as well?

The rise in my blitz rating is just a coincidence. I have always had a very good blitz rating. During the World Blitz Championships in October 2015 in Berlin it even got better and I won a lot of points.

Even when I was in bad shape and had bad results in classical chess, I wasn’t doing badly in blitz and I knew that I was one of the best blitz players in the world. My skills in rapid chess are not as good and it does not come as natural to me as blitz but I am still part of the  top 10 which is fine.

On 18th April the Norway Chess tournament starts, one of the strongest and most important tournaments of the year. How do you prepare for this tournament?

In the past year, I have played a lot against most of the players who take part in the Norway Chess tournament. But of course, things will be different. I will have to refresh my opening knowledge and the knowledge of the way my competitors play. But I will try to use my experience to do even better this time.

How do you rate your chances at the tournament?

Magnus (Carlsen) is always the favorite, no matter in which tournament he participates. But I feel that I am closing in on the top players and probably on Magnus as well. There is still a significant gap in overall strength. Among the others there’s no one in particular you can consider to be a favorite.

Compared to some of the other competitors you had a decent break and you have not played serious tournament chess recently. Will that work in your favor?

It might be of some help as compared to those who participated in the Candidates tournament, and I did not have to reveal my preparation. However, I am unsure of what will happen in the first few games in Norway as I might be a bit rusty. Generally speaking, it’s a relatively new situation for me. It’s basically the opposite of last year when I was playing non-stop. I am looking forward to the tournament and ensure to maintain my focus right from the start.

What do you think about the recently concluded Candidates tournament?

It was quite exciting, tense, and really close. After more than two thirds of the tournament, even Anish Giri, who hadn’t won a single game, was among the pack of players who had a reasonable chance to win. That shows how close it was.

Anish Giri played interesting chess at the Candidates but still made 14 draws | Photo: Amruta Mokal

All players were giving their best (though they did not necessarily play their best chess) to have a shot at winning the event. Perhaps, the only exception to this was Topalov, but that was his decision. I liked the way most of them played. I thought Anish had a pretty good tournament. His problem was that he didn't manage to finish off some opponents.

But Anish played a number of very interesting games. Vishy Anand’s play was also remarkable: With White he won four games quite convincingly. That is not the kind of thing you expect to happen in such a tournament.

Were you surprised that Sergey Karjakin emerged as the winner of the tournament?

This is the kind of tournament in which Sergey produces his best chess. I wasn’t so surprised though I didn’t see him as a favorite at the start of the tournament.

Sergey Karjakin | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Thank you very much for the interview!

Dhananjay is a Paris based journalist and a chess enthusiast. While he enjoys playing the game, he is more fascinated by the drama and history associated with it.


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vladivaclav vladivaclav 4/15/2016 09:46
If Burgermura could reach 2800 mark at one point why nice guy and great chess talent MVL couldn't too? Go Maxime!
Nostalgiac1972 Nostalgiac1972 4/14/2016 12:54
Sergey is going to make history, toppling down MC in an educative fashion!! ;)
scoobeedo scoobeedo 4/14/2016 08:44
MVL said some very good words:

"But I am looking for attacking possibilities and I look forward to playing attacking games. I always try to put pressure on my opponents. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always more fun."

it is always more fun ...

Great advertising for chess at the highest level.

Because he talk about the fun factor.
Alf23 Alf23 4/14/2016 04:55
Go ahead MVL make it to top, sure you can, I like your playing.
Best regards.
thlai80 thlai80 4/14/2016 03:37
@Anonymo, but quite frankly, unlike top players, no one will want to know what and how you feel apart from your family and close friends.
Anonymo Anonymo 4/14/2016 03:26
I myself can produce such an interview. Why need a chess enthusiast to do that? All the how you feel, what you think... Boring. Please focus on playing chess. I mean Mr Shsh, mr kadilkar
yesenadam yesenadam 4/14/2016 01:01
Go MVL! Hmm I really like that openings-as-verbs thing : "when you Najdorf or Grünfeld with black" - is that new? Guess I've seen "He Berlined him" or something hehe.
firestorm firestorm 4/13/2016 08:22
"Steven E DuCharm 4 hours ago
Apparently Sergey will face Magnus in Bilboa "

- thanks for the info, but can't find anything on a brief search, do you have a URL/website reference?
Denix Denix 4/13/2016 07:12
Happy Birthday Garry K!
Steven E DuCharm Steven E DuCharm 4/13/2016 04:21
Apparently Sergey will face Magnus in Bilboa