MVL: The 2020 Candidates is "extremely crucial for me"

by Dhananjay Khadilkar
5/6/2019 – Maxime Vachier-Lagrave would have remained undefeated in the recently concluded Grenke Chess Classic tournament had it not been for the final round loss against Magnus Carlsen. One of the most talked about points of their encounter was the French grandmaster's move 10...b5, a move that left many puzzled. In an exclusive interview with DHANANJAY KHADILKAR for ChessBase, the 28-year-old speaks on a variety of subjects from playing against Carlsen to his hopes of qualifying for next year's Candidates tournament. And, he also explains why he made that particular move.

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How do you analyse your performance of the Grenke Chess Classic?

I didn’t play well... at least not to the best of my abilities. It was frustrating from the start. Even in the fun game against Arkadij Naiditsch, I should have done better.

I also felt I didn’t properly handle the game against Georg Meier which I won [in round four]. Against Peter Svidler I didn’t realize how good my position was. I settled for a drawish position when I should have carried on for more.

Of course, I wasn’t in big danger in most of the games except against Fabiano Caruana at the start of the tournament, but my level of play was worrying me.

All in all, I didn’t have a standout game. Perhaps, I had some standout moments. In a sense, it was fully deserved that I got punished in the last round [against Carlsen].

MVL results

All Vachier-Lagrave's games may be replayed below

Many following your game against Carlsen wondered why you played the move 10...b5. Could you tell us the reasoning behind the move that handed Carlsen an advantage?


The game continued 9...a6 10.d2 b5?!

I didn’t expect the move ♗e3 from Carlsen. After this move, I realized I couldn't be too passive. So my plan with a6-b5 was the correct one — to prevent d4. I thought that after a6 - ♕d2 and b5, if he took the pawn, I would have very serious compensation.

MVLOn hindsight, I should have prepared the b5 move with ♜b8. After my move b5, he took the pawn very quickly. The more I looked at it, the more I realized that i didn’t have even small compensation — one way or another he was going to consolidate on the queenside and then execute some plans for the king side or in the centre.

My position was just worse. I tried to fight but it was too difficult. However, there were some moments when I thought I was somewhat back on track, and he could have had done some things smoother earlier. But Carlsen found this forcing line where he ended up in a pawn up queen endgame which I thought was winning for him.

Photo: Georgios Souleidis

But I might have underestimated my defensive chances and collapsed right away instead of staying passive. I felt in the long run I couldn't afford to do so. But I should have stayed passive and then gone active. But not active, in the way I did it in the game.

Do players feel intimidated while facing Carlsen, who is currently playing some of his best chess ever?

It’s not because players feel intimidated but because they get positions which they don’t necessarily play well. In general, you play your best chess until you have been set problems and you are out of the comfort zone. That’s what Carlsen excels at… putting people out of their comfort zones. Also, for me, my level of play in the tournament wasn’t good enough to rival Carlsen.

" level of play in the tournament wasn’t good enough to rival Carlsen."

This year’s Grand Chess Tour kicks off with a tournament in Ivory Coast. How are you looking at this tournament and the other upcoming events?

MVLIt’s exciting for people in Africa. It’s the first tournament of this kind in Africa in a while. Maybe the closest was the [FIDE] world championship in Tripoli (in 2004) but even in that, a lot of top players were absent. Plus the world championship was a knockout event. So it was a different format.

I hope the tournament is a great success. I know a lot of effort has been put in organizing it. I am a bit lucky as it’s a French-speaking territory, so I might feel a bit more at home than other players.

Starting May until the end of the year, I have a really packed schedule. You can never complain that you have too many important events. It’s going to be very exciting. But on the other hand it’s a bit worrying in terms of my health and being able to manage the schedule.

Photo: Eric van Reem

Recently, the qualifying events for the 2020 Candidates have been announced. Has your preparation started?

Preparation for the Candidates qualifying tournaments have already started. This year’s format suits me well. 

There are a lot of knockout events, a format I have done well in. Even though I have never managed to make it to the final of the World Cup, I have always gone deep in the tournaments in recent years.

I hope to keep the trend going and be able to qualify either through the World Cup or the FIDE Grand Prix. Those are my most likely spots.

How important is it for you to qualify in next year’s Candidates?

It is extremely crucial. If I don’t qualify this year, I will be 32 before I can even think of playing a Candidates event.

In order to achieve my objectives, I need to improve my play and try to qualify for next year's event.

Vachier-Lagrave's games from the Grenke Chess Classic 2019



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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