"MVL" on the Candidates, Chennai and Carlsen

by Dhananjay Khadilkar
7/1/2022 – It has been more than a year since Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (MVL) finished second in the Candidates tournament. Ideally, the French Grandmaster should have been playing in this year’s edition too. However, he missed out following disappointing performances in the Fide Grand Prix events. With the 2021 Candidates tournament relatively fresh in mind, Dhananjay Khadilkar spoke to MVL on a range of issues including his pick for the 2022 Candidates, skipping this year’s Olympiad and the possibility of Magnus Carlsen not defending the world championship title.

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Having played against the Candidates participants numerous times, what is your educated guess on the outcome of this tournament?

Before the tournament began, I considered Ian Nepomniachtchi, Fabiano Caruana, Ding Liren and Alireza Firouza as the top contenders. Since Caruana has been playing great chess for some time, I thought he would eventually win. However, after his loss in the eighth round (to Hikaru Nakamura), Nepomniachtchi seems to be the heavy favourite.

Are you surprised by the manner in which Nepomniachtchi has bounced back following his loss to Carlsen?

I am not surprised at all. It was clear things went wrong for him against Carlsen. However, it was not about his level of chess but instead it was his mind set. The loss in the long, gruelling sixth game affected him tremendously. However, we saw in every tournament since then, he managed to perform well. He finished second overall in the world rapid championship, held just a week after his world championship match against Carlsen. He was one of the best-prepared players in the last Candidates in Yekaterinburg. Clearly, he has done a lot of work in the past few years and it is paying off.

How do you think the remaining part of the Candidates tournament will unfold?

I feel Nepomniachtchi is going for the same strategy he did in the last Candidates. For example, he settled for a quick draw with white pieces against Ding Liren in the eighth round. He mostly wants to conserve energy and is very confident in his ability to hold with black and sometimes even counterattack like he did so well against Richard (Rapport). However, it almost proved costly for him against Caruana (in round nine).

Now that he is in the lead, I think Nepomniachtchi will proceed with caution. In the last Candidates, some players who were not in the reckoning for winning the tournament, were also fighting the hardest. Kirill Alekseenko won his last game, and so did Ding. Similarly this time, no one is going to just drop everything and stop caring about the results. Having said that, I see it now as a two-horse between Nepomniachtchi and Caruana.

What do you make of Firouza’s performance so far?

It would be an understatement to say he is not playing at his best. His time management has not been great, which isn’t the first time. He definitely has to work on that aspect. At the same time, you can see his potential. He is fighting hard in every game. Perhaps, a bit too hard. But it’s a matter of experience on how to save energy for the next games. Overall, it will be a great experience for him to build upon, to look where he committed mistakes and improve. He definitely has the potential to win the Candidates one day.

Why have you and Firouza decided to skip this year’s Olympiad which will be held in Chennai?

The main reason is the weather. India is a great chess country. I would have loved to play in the Olympiad there. But it would have been wise to move the event to October. I don’t think I will be able to adapt to the July weather which can be drastically hot as far as I am concerned. I knew it would affect me. I asked Firouza what he wanted to do. I told him if he went, I would go too. If we had chances to win, I would definitely have made the effort. However, Firouza said he didn’t want to go more or less for the same reasons. It’s a pity as when the Olympiad was moved from Moscow to Chennai, it would have been wise to change the dates. Had it been held in October, I would have surely played. I also spoke about this with Vishy (Viswanathan Anand) who said he understood my reasons. 

What do you think of Carlsen’s statement that he may not defend the world championship title?

Magnus is quite honest with what he says. He was definitely speaking his mind. That doesn’t mean he won’t defend the title. He still has to decide depending on his thoughts and  depending on who wins the Candidates. I do think he is tired of the idea of yet another match for which he has to spend six months preparing. It can be quite gruelling. It has been 10 years Since Carlsen has been defending his title. To do that every two years can cause mental exhaustion. At the same time, I find it a bit weird he doesn’t offer an idea or another way to find a world champion or create a different cycle that suits him better so that he can take part in it.

You had decent results in 2022 Norway Chess where you finished fourth. The final standings could have looked different had you won the thrilling eighth round game against Magnus. What’s your take on the encounter?

Things went well for me at the start. Magnus surprised me but I reacted well. I was playing fast and confidently. I managed to get him out of his comfort zone. At some point, he was taking a lot of time for his decisions. That gave me even more confidence and I started playing for a win. Initially, he made some mistakes but then he started defending brilliantly. I did miss a couple of winning chances which were not obvious. However, I should have definitely found the first one. It was a very nice game, a tough fight. However, I feel a bit incomplete for not managing to win the game.

 

MVLChess


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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