MVL: I aim to get back into the top 10 very soon

by Dhananjay Khadilkar
7/3/2021 – Maxime Vachier-Lagrave has had a roller coaster 2021. A faltering start after resumption in the Candidates Tournament meant Maxime could never catch up with the eventual winner Ian Nepomniachtchi. The disappointment of the Candidates was compounded by a drop in rating points. In an exclusive interview, the French Grandmaster touched upon these topics and much more. | Photo: Nadja Wittmann

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“Things didn’t click for me”

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave has had a roller coaster 2021. Going into the second half of the Candidates tournament held this April, he was a strong favourite to win the event, which had been suspended mid-way in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, a faltering start after resumption meant Maxime could never catch up with the eventual winner Ian Nepomniachtchi.

The disappointment of the Candidates was compounded by a drop in rating points. Since February 2021, he lost 36 ELO points (2784 to 2749) that has seen him go out of the world’s top 10 for the first time since January 2016. In an exclusive interview, the French Grandmaster, who is currently playing in the ‘Top 12’ tournament in Chalons-en-Champagne, touched upon these topics and much more. 

Maxime Vachier-Lagrav

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (left) representing Le Grand Echiquier Asnieres in action against Laurent Fressinet of Cercle d’Echecs Bischwiller at the ‘Top 12’ tournament in Chalons-en Champagne, France

You make it a point to play in the ‘Top 12’ tournament every year. What does French club championship event mean to you?

Playing in ‘Top 12’ means a lot to me. Since I play a lot of international tournaments, it feels good to be here, as it gives me the chance to see a lot of friendly faces that I don’t see often nowadays. Moreover, I always enjoy the competition and the team spirit this tournament creates. This year has been particularly special, as it wasn’t easy to organize the tournament against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. Given how drastic the Covid-19 related sanitary protocols are in France, it was a great effort on the part of the Chalons-en-Champagne club to make this event happen.

It seems the over-the-board tournaments are up and running again. Given that you played a lot of top online tournaments since the outbreak of the pandemic, which format do you prefer?

Though playing online was a fun experience, I don’t feel the same level of responsibility and pressure as playing over the board. Playing online, I tend to play much faster and therefore commit blunders. Moreover, it doesn’t allow me to see my opponents, which is an important aspect for me.

How do you see your performance in the second half of the Candidates tournament?

It wasn’t just good enough. I made a lot of critical errors at critical moments, especially in the first four games that cost me a lot of ‘half points’ that I lacked at the end. Though I played better afterwards, it was already too late to catch Ian (Neopmniachtchi) by then. Ian played better than everyone and therefore deserved to win.

At the end of the first half of the Candidates in March 2020, you had built a strong momentum, especially after defeating Nepomniachtchi in the seventh round. Do you think the year-long gap between the two halves of the tournament impacted you negatively?

It’s hard to say if the gap made a big difference. It doesn’t really matter. I was ready to play in the tournament in the circumstances it was going to be held. Of course, based on the momentum at the end of the first half, perhaps the gap didn’t work well for me. But you never know how it may have turned out. I don’t like to delve into the past and think of what might have been. It might not have been at all.

You lost a significant number of rating points from the start of the year that saw you exit the world’s Top 10 list for the first time in more than five years. What do you attribute it to? 

It’s true, things didn’t click for me at the beginning of the year. I can’t say how much it contributed to the drop, but with the Candidates at the back of my mind, I found it hard to play in other tournaments. It’s good that we finished this edition of Candidates once and for all and move on to another cycle of tournaments. One of my aims is to get back in the top 10 very soon. The other is to qualify for the next Candidates which is not going to be easy. But it’s going to be an exciting challenge.

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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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