Maxime Vachier-Lagrave at the Sinquefield Cup 2017 - a look at his games

by Venkatachalam Saravanan
8/22/2017 – Maxime Vachier-Lagrave won the Sinquefield 2017 convincingly. In a very strong field he won three games, drew six and became sole winner with 6.0/9, half a point ahead of Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian. But what distinguished his play, why was he so successful? Venkatachalam Saravanan took a close at his games and tries an answer. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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If we try to define Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s play at Sinquefield Cup 2017 with one word, we should pick ‘clarity’ as the most suitable. Just as the champion opined in an interview after the event, his games ‘were following a normal rhythm’. Going through his games, understanding his play, and most importantly, analyzing the reasoning behind his decisions, it becomes clear that MVL prefers simple positions over complications.

Of course, there are more dimensions to his play, namely:

  1. With Black he sticks to a narrow, principled repertoire.
  2. Most of the time, he surprises his opponents in the openings and is the first to come up with a new move or idea.
  3. He sometimes gets into trouble in equal positions, or fails to equalize because he continues to follow simple schemes, although the position requires dynamic play.
  4. He simply loves positions where he has a slight edge and can maneuver patiently and strangulate his opponents.

Now, let us take a look at the games:

Round 1: MVL - Wesley So

The opening was a Guioco Piano, which is NOT MVL's frontline opening. He almost always played the Ruy Lopez till last year, but nowadays many at the top have started meddling with the Guioco to look for positions to play, tired of facing the Berlin (what else?)


 Position after 14...c6

15.dxe5 White can continue to playing actively with 15.Nf1, but MVL prefers to exchange in the center to fix the pawn structure. It is remarkable how often such a clarification occurred in his games in this tournament.


Position after 16...Qe7

An important decision - MVL exchanges queens to squeeze Black.


Position after 32...f5

33.f4! Showing tactical alertness, and taking over the initiative, proof that MVL was in excellent form. This move also shows that MVL was not always looking for simple decisions but is also capable of playing sharp chess when he wants to. He just seems to prefer simplicity over complications.

MVL won the game when So blundered on move 40, but White had a slight advantage anyway.

Round 2: Nakamura -  MVL

This game was a relatively quiet affair, as MVL’s preparation neutralized White’s first-move advantage. But there was one moment that supports our theories:


Position after 21.Nd1

Here, instead of 21...Rfc8 which looks perfectly logical, MVL preferred to exchange queens and to clarify the position with 21...Qd4. Nakamura didn’t oblige but the game ended in a draw after 33 moves anyway.

Round 3: MVL - Svidler

Once again, following mainline theory, MVL was the first to come up with a new idea which brought him a slightly better middlegame position. And here’s the moment of ‘clarity’:


Position after 17...axb5

18.c4!? This was one of the most surprising moves by MVL in the entire event. Weakening the d4 square forever is a high price for clarity. Instead, White could have simply improved his position with 18.Bd2. 18...bxc4 19.dxc4 and here, Black could have equalized with 19...Nd4, and it is difficult to believe that White has any advantage while Black has such a strong knight on d4.

After Black gave up a pawn, the following tense position was reached:


Position after 24...Qf6

Here White had a tactical win: 25.Bg6! and Black has nothing better than a dubious sacrifice with 25...Nc2 26.Rac1 Nxe3 27.Rf3 when White wins the black knight. But MVL instead chose 25.Ra6 Ne2+ 26.Qxe2 Rxf7 27.Rxf7 Qxf7 White enjoys an extra pawn but this game was one of those rare examples in which MVL could not convert a straight-forward advantage.

Round 4: Carlsen - MVL

A very messy affair. Carlsen played an irregular setup in the opening, and MVL gained equality by playing simple and sensible moves when the opening turned into a middlegame. Here’s a characteristic moment:


Position after 36.Ka2

36...f5. Nothing wrong with that, but it fixes the pawn structure. Just saying.


Position after 39.Re2

Black should have switched gears, initiating complications with 39...Bxh4!? In the resulting positions, Black is fine. Instead, he preferred 39...Bf3 40.Rh2 Bf6 41.Nd2 and got into trouble.

Of course, what happened later is history - Carlsen blundered twice and lost a game which he should have won. MVL later admitted that if this game ‘had ended in a hard-fought draw, which probably was the logical outcome, then Magnus would have won the event’. This shows that no matter how well you play, you always need a little bit of luck to win the tournament, and winners are always a little lucky!

Round 5: MVL - Aronian

Once again, MVL managed to get in his improvement first which gave him a comfortable position out of the opening. Here’s a characteristic moment:


MVL - Aronian, position after 15...Nxd5

16.Bd2? One of the rare mistakes of MVL in the Sinquefield Cup. Now Black can equalize with 16...Qd6. Instead, White could have complicated 16.d4!? and after 16...exd4 17.Qd3 Nf6 18.Qxa6! the complications seem to favor White. After the text-move the game was more or less balanced and drawn in an equal endgame.

Round 6: Caruana - MVL

Fabiano Caruana vs MVL | Photo: Lennart Ootes

A game where MVL’s ability to keep it simple helped him immensely. Facing a BIG novelty from Caruana on move 10, MVL treated the position with characteristic clarity by fixing the pawn structure:


Caruana - MVL, position after 11.0-0-0

11...g5!? This push on the kingside looks adventurous – but it actually follows the pattern we know: MVL strives to clarify the pawn structure.


Position after 24.Bg4

24...Qg5 A very important decision - Black correctly concludes that he can equalize by exchanging the queens even though he is a pawn down. Impressive play by MVL - he drew the ending effortlessly.

Round 7: MVL - Karjakin

Sergey Karjakin | Photo: Lennart Ootes

A game that defies generalization. MVL allowed the Berlin and went into a well prepared endgame which he played very fast. Karjakin had to find the right moves while his clock was ticking but he managed to hold the dangerous endgame. Probably one of the games where you have to succumb to that modern evil of having to play a forced theoretical variation even though you know that your opponent can draw with correct play?

Round 8: Anand - MVL

The only game of the event in which MVL was in trouble in the opening. Probably he got caught in a variation he hadn’t expected? Anand played the opening phase quite fast, obviously being well-prepared for a minor line of the symmetrical English.

After finding himself in a slightly passive position, MVL made a characteristic decision that should not surprise us any more:


Position after 18.Bf1

Here, MVL accepted a slightly passive position with a straight-forward solution clarifying matters: 18...Bxb5 19.Bxb5 f6 accepting passivity. If Anand had continued correctly, MVL would have been in trouble in the endgame. However, in the diagram position MVL had a complicated path to equality: 18...f6! 19.Nxa7 Ra8 20.Nb5 Nb3 21.Bc4+ Bf7 22.Bxb3 Bxb3 23.a3 Rfd8 and Black has good compensation for the pawn.

Round 9: MVL - Nepomniachtchi

The last and decisive round | Photo: Lennart Ootes

A game where everything went well good for MVL. The first surprise came already in the opening with 6.Be2 – a move MVL has only played twice in his entire career. As he says, "it was a decent try for the last round". White’s improvement came with 13.a5 and after 22.Nd5 White had a good grip on the position:


Position after 22.Nd5

Clarity! White’s dominating knight secures him a solid edge and Black’s position steadily went downhill. It seems as if these are the positions MVL prefers and in which he excels.

Asked about his preferences in regard to complications and simplicity, MVL said that he feels he can “do both”. “Of course, it’s satisfying to be a squeezer, to give your opponent as little counter-play as possible. As a professional, it’s always preferable and pleasant”. At the Sinquefield Cup 2017 in St. Louis he definitely seemed to be a squeezer.

All Sinquefield Cup games by MVL



Saravanan is an IM from Chennai, the southern-most state of Tamil Nadu, India. He has been an active chess player in the Indian circuit, turning complete chess professional in 2012, actively playing and being a second to strong Indian players. He has been consistently writing on chess since late 1980s and is a correspondent to national newspapers and news channels.


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