Vachier-Lagrave has a brilliant day, wins Superbet Chess Classic

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
5/15/2022 – Maxime Vachier-Lagrave won the Superbet Chess Classic after outscoring Wesley So and Levon Aronian in rapid playoffs. MVL had caught up with the co-leaders after beating Alireza Firouzja with black in their classical, round-9 encounter. The Frenchman beat both US grandmasters in the rapid-chess single round-robin that followed to claim the title. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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3 out of 3 for MVL

Four games finished decisively on Saturday at the Superbet Chess Classic in Bucharest, and three of them were won by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The Frenchman first beat top seed Alireza Firouzja in their classical encounter to catch Wesley So and Levon Aronian in the lead of the standings table; and then defeated both So and Aronian in playoffs to claim the title at the Grand Chess Tour’s inaugural event of 2022.

Thanks to his victory over Firouzja, MVL climbed to tenth place in the live ratings list, shortly after failing to qualify to the Candidates Tournament via the FIDE Grand Prix — he had also fallen short at the Grand Swiss and at the World Cup (barely in the latter). In the last semester or so, however, the Frenchman recovered from a slump in form in early 2021, winning both the Sinquefield Cup and the World Blitz Championship.

The humble and humorous 31-year-old has proven to be capable of beating anyone in the elite circuit, but has lacked stability compared to the likes of Magnus Carlsen, Ding Liren and Fabiano Caruana. Talking to Dhananjay Khadilkar after winning the Sinquefield Cup last year, MVL asserted confidently:

I have absolutely no doubt that I am part of the chess elite. I want to prove it tournament after tournament.

It is unfortunate that we will not get to see Vachier-Lagrave’s principled, fighting style in this year’s edition of the Candidates, but after seeing his performance in Bucharest we can rest assured that he will continue to fight neck and neck with the very best in the world in the coming months and years.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Back in the top 10 — Maxime Vachier-Lagrave | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Facing the highest-rated in the field, MVL remained loyal to the Grünfeld Defence and demonstrated his willingness to get a fighting game early on, as he played a sharp novelty on move 12.

 

12...Rc8 or 12...c5 are natural continuations in this position, which might certainly lead to interesting skirmishes, but 12...b5 immediately goes for the throat. The fact that Firouzja spent almost half an hour to respond with 13.Nd2 (he was probably considering 13.Ne5 or even 13.Ne3) demonstrate the potential complications that might arise after Black’s pawn push.

The strategy worked well for Vachier-Lagrave, who succeeded in creating a double-edged fight with the black pieces. The queens were swapped on move 21, but the ensuing position was not without complications, with four rooks, two knights and an asymmetrical pawn structure left on the board.

 

Firouzja’s 33.e5 was a costly imprecision — the youngster calculated that he could grab the pawn on f7 by tactical means, but failed to foresee that Black’s passer on the b-file was more dangerous than his initiative on the kingside.

There followed 33...Ng4 34.Rc7 Nxe5 35.f4 Rd3 (a key move for Black) 36.Rxd3 Nxd3 37.Rxf7+ Kg8 38.Rd7 b3

 

Four moves later, Firouzja was forced to give up his knight to stop the b-pawn. The youngster kept fighting until move 74, despite there being little to no chances to save a half point. Commentator Peter Svidler, who has famously resigned what were considered to be salvable positions in the past, quipped:

I’ve resigned in better positions. 

The fighting spirit shown by the contenders bodes well for the French team, as the Europeans are likely to have Firouzja and MVL on top boards in the upcoming Chennai Olympiad. 

 

Alireza Firouzja, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Alireza Firouzja vs Maxime Vachier-Lagrave | Photo: Lennart Ootes

All four remaining games finished drawn in round 9, which meant So, Aronian and MVL had tied for first place on 5½ points. A single round-robin between the three would decide the winner of the event. The time control was 10 minutes for the game with 5-second increments from the get go.

In the first encounter, So beat Aronian with the white pieces. The Filipino-born star struggled to convert a clearly superior position into a win, and then failed to find a tactical shot which would have gained him the title in the next game — he had the black pieces against MVL.

 

So played 32...Qg4 and the position is balanced. Instead, he had 32...Qe2+ 33.Kg2 Re5, when White’s queen is overloaded — she cannot defend both the bishop and the rook from d6, as that square is covered by the f5-knight.

This was only the first major chance missed in the game. The 10-minute encounter lasted 52 moves and saw both players failing to find tactical shots while short on time. So was the one making the last mistake, though, which meant he and MVL were tied on 1 point with one game to go. (You can replay all games from the playoff at the end of the article).

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Wesley So

Wesley So showed incredible resourcefulness in defence against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave | Photo: Lennart Ootes

MVL only needed a draw with black against Aronian to clinch the title. The Frenchman’s prowess in fast-paced games came to the fore in the deciding game, as he first got a strong initiative and then a material advantage.

Perhaps because he only needed a half point, MVL often chose safe continuations instead of tactical, winning manoeuvres. Nonetheless, a blunder by Aronian on move 60 granted the man from Nogent-sur-Marne his third full point of the day.

 

The only move that keeps the balance is 60.Be4 as, for example, 60...Rxe4 61.Qg1+ allows White to save a draw by perpetual check. On the other hand, Aronian’s 60.Qc8+ loses immediately to 60...Kh7, when White has run out of threats. 

Levon Aronian, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

The final game of the 2022 Superbet Chess Classic | Photo: Lennart Ootes

All games - Playoff

 

Round 9 results

 

Final standings

 

All games

 

Links


Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.
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