The postponed Candidates: an interview with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

by Dhananjay Khadilkar
3/30/2020 – French Grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who jointly leads the now suspended 2020 Candidates is back in Paris. After an eventful fortnight, that included a surprise call to the event, the consequent last-minute scramble for a visa, an impressive performance at the tournament and returning home after passing through an empty airport. In an exclusive interview with Dhananjay Khadilkar, MVL, as he is popularly known, speaks about his surreal experience. | Photos: Lennart Ootes/FIDE

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"It was weird to play a chess tournament at this period of time"

DK: You must be pleased with your tournament performance, particularly the win against Ian Nepomniachtchi in the seventh round...

MVL: It has been my best performance in a tournament since the beginning of 2019. I was very happy with my play in general and how things went during the games. It was also reflected in the moves on the board and the ideas in the opening. It showed in the result at half time. Throughout the tournament, whenever I got any initiative I put serious problems to my opponents.

Before the seventh round, Nepomniachtchi was leading by a full point. The game was therefore crucial. I got the initiative in the opening and transformed the advantage into  a win. I was happy with the idea I found on the board.

 

Vachier-Lagrave vs Nepomniachtchi

Vachier-Lagrave vs Nepomniachtchi | Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE

How was the atmosphere during the tournament, which was perhaps the only big sporting event that wasn’t cancelled completely?

The atmosphere was tense. But once the tournament commenced, I was completely focused on the games. The authorities were conducting medical check-ups. There was also social distancing and the frequent use of hand sanitizers, something we were not used to earlier, but were bound to learn later as I am learning right now after returning to France. In a way, all these measures were a preparation for what was awaiting us. I started to experience it on my return journey at the Amsterdam airport which was completely empty.

How unsettling was it to play in the tournament given what was going on in the world?

The mood surely wasn’t great. I was constantly keeping myself updated with the news around the world and from France in particular. I was trying to keep in touch with family and friends. But since it was a very important tournament, I tried to keep my preparation at the highest level. Of course, you cannot exclude the thoughts of the situation in the world completely but I tried to avoid disturbing my chess.

Wasn't it strange that when the world of sports had come to a standstill, this tournament still went ahead for whatever length it did?

Yes, but at the same time when other sports events started getting cancelled, some of us had either arrived or were in the process of arriving in Yekaterinburg. Also, it’s a bit different when you have only eight players, a few seconds, arbiters and journalists at an event. This environment is much easier to control. Moreover, at the time when the tournament started, there were very few Covid-19 cases in Yekaterinburg. It wasn’t a hotspot. The organizers took a lot of effort to get the tournament work smoothly apart from the opening ceremony which was bizarre.

What was more adventurous: going to the tournament or returning home, as both involved last minute travel planning and bureaucratic formalities?

The main difficulty to go to Yekaterinburg was that none of my seconds could accompany me. It wasn’t possible because of the little time they had to prepare. I wanted some of my team members to join me at a later date but that was impossible as the lockdown in France had been fully implemented by then. So I had to go alone. I avoided going through Moscow as the authorities there had announced quarantine for every arrival to the city. I wasn’t sure if it was for people in transit. I didn’t take a chance and took the option of taking a flight to Yekaterinburg from Istanbul.

The return trip was comparatively much easier. When we learned about Russia closing borders, we packed and started arranging for flights. Some players managed to get on commercial flights while Fabi, I and a few members of the media rented a chartered flight to Rotterdam. There were some bureaucratic delays. But I made it to my home in Paris and by now, from what I have been told, all the other players have made it to their homes too.

Were you a bit disappointed that the tournament was halted at a point when you had clearly gained momentum?

Not really. Because my general attitude towards the tournament was that it could stop any moment. So I took it game by game. Maybe, given my form, it would have been better for me to keep playing but it’s not something I am complaining about. The general situation in the world is more important than not being able to complete a chess tournament. It’s debatable if at some point the tournament should have been cancelled. But the organizers tried to make it run smoothly. And it did run smoothly.

Of course, we knew that either an order by the Russian authorities or other countries announcing a flight ban or if one of the players had tested positive, the tournament would have been stopped. The good thing was no one fell sick at the tournament. It was definitely weird to play a chess tournament at this period of time. But I managed to focus on chess and blocked all negative thoughts.

Could you have imagined your first Candidates tournament would be so adventurous?

My qualification process for the Candidates has been adventurous too. The first time I got a real chance to qualify was way back in 2013. To say that I had been pretty unlucky so far is an understatement. I guess my eventual qualification was bound to happen in an out of ordinary way.

How do you plan to spend your time during the lockdown period?

I just had a virtual reunion with my high school friends. I have to figure out what to do in order to maintain my chess form and my daily exercise routine. It’s going to be complicated to do sports these days. But before everything else, I am going to relax for a couple of days.

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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.